Iran and the Lessons of Dunkirk

In early May 1940, less than a year after the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, Germany turned its attention to Western Europe with a vengeance. German armed forces -- utilizing their newly-perfected Blitzkrieg tactics of tank attacks coordinated with tactical air support -- smashed through the "Low Countries" of Holland and Belgium, and completed an end-run into the heart of France around its defensive Maginot Line. The heavily-fortified Line had been constructed after World War I and was supposed to keep France safe from any future German attack.

However, the Line failed miserably and the Germans advanced rapidly. Holland and Belgium fell quickly and France -- despite having numerical superiority in both tanks and aircraft over Germany -- offered only token resistance. England deployed their British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of both land and air units to assist with France's defense. The British proved themselves prescient when they sent only second-line Hurricane fighters to fight against the Germans in France. In spite of vehement French protests, Air Marshal Lord Dowding (head of Britain's Fighter Command) refused to allow any of Britain's valuable front-line Spitfire fighter planes to be "wasted" in what he knew would be a losing effort in France. Better to husband them for England's solitary fight to come against the Germans after France's capitulation.

By the end of May, the German forces had cornered the remnants of the allied armies into a small, vulnerable pocket in Dunkirk, near the coast of France.  It appeared that the European war would soon be over, as the German army was poised to finish the job. Exactly what happened next is the subject of some controversy, but the lessons for military planners reverberate as clearly today as they did then, some 68 years ago.

Rather than sending in their armored, tank-equipped Panzer divisions to destroy the virtually defenseless allied forces, the Germans held them back. Instead, the finishing task was given to Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe. Military historians have posited that perhaps Germany's Panzer divisions were stretched too thin and had outrun their supply lines, and thus needed a few weeks' rest and recuperation. Another popular theory has it that the head of the Luftwaffe -- Hermann Goering -- was envious of the glory that his Army counterparts were getting from their numerous overwhelming victories, and he wanted to prove that his air force was worthy of similar accolades.

But regardless of the reason, the German air force was given the responsibility, and it failed. That decision remains one of the greatest military blunders of all time. The Luftwaffe flew sortie after sortie, attacking the Allied armies, but couldn't finish the job. Instead, the British organized an amazing sea-borne rescue effort and sent hundreds of ships and boats of all kinds across the Channel to rescue the beleaguered soldiers. Everything from Royal Navy transport ships to private fishing boats participated in the effort. The RAF flew cover and fought off the German air attacks. Although their losses were high and virtually all their equipment was left on the beaches of Dunkirk, almost 400,000 Allied soldiers were rescued, and survived to fight another day.

Military history is rife with examples of air power alone not being able to achieve the ultimate victory. Several factors need to be in place before air power can be utilized to its greatest effect:

  1. Complete mastery of the airspace by the attacking force. This can be accomplished by achieving complete surprise or with tactical measures/equipment that negate the opponent's defenses.
  2. Specific, identifiable targets. Singular installations such as nuclear reactors, bridges, individual factories, etc. can be hit with more precision and verifiability than more generalized, diffuse targets.
  3. Equipment that is appropriate to the task. The aircraft have to possess the requisite performance (range, speed, payload, etc.) and be able to deliver the types of munitions necessary to destroy the intended target.
The Israeli strike against the Iraqi nuclear installation at Osirak in 1981 is an excellent example of an air attack that completely satisfies all three of the foregoing requirements. The U.S destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 -- despite their brutality and the grotesque scale of destruction -- also fits that successful pattern.

The situation gets quite a bit more complicated when one or more of these three factors comes up short. For the Germans at Dunkirk, they were clearly lacking both 1 and 3. They did not have air superiority (the RAF battled them ferociously every step of the way, exacting severe losses), and the Germans' aircraft were inadequate in terms of bomb load, precision targeting and delivery, time-over-target (range), and overall force strength (too few).

Later in World War II, the Germans turned the tables somewhat on the Allies, and did an exceedingly good job of dispersing and decentralizing their military/industrial centers. Despite the Allies' complete mastery of the air and the ability to mount repeated, overwhelming 500-to-1000 bomber attacks, they were unable to defeat Germany by air alone. Final victory in Europe was not gained until the Allies initiated an intensive ground campaign beginning with the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

Israel's recent experience in Lebanon with Hezbollah in 2006 further demonstrates what happens when factor no. 2 (specific, identifiable targets) is a problem. Despite their mastery of the air and superb equipment, repeated Israeli air attacks proved ineffective at either stopping Hezbollah's rocket attacks or dislodging the terror group from their hiding places near Israel's border.

Such is the enormity of the problem facing US and Israeli military planners as they contemplate a possible airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities. All three of the previously-mentioned success factors are in question:

  • There is no guarantee that either complete surprise will be achieved by the attacking force, or that Iran's air defenses won't prove considerably thornier than currently thought.
  • There is no hard, complete data on the exact location, number, and reachability of all of Iran's nuclear installations. It's difficult for Western planners to know exactly which locations to target and what degree of destruction constitutes "success."
  • Although American and Israeli pilots and equipment are state-of-the-art, without knowing the exact nature of the targets' location and vulnerabilities, it's difficult to know for certain if the munitions and targeting systems are adequate for the mission's requirements.

Dunkirk proved that when the attacking force lacks two out of three success factors, the mission fails. The US and Israel proved in 1945 and 1981 that when all three conditions are satisfied, the mission succeeds. The lesson of being "3 for 3" is one that military planners-- and any new American administration-need to understand completely.
In early May 1940, less than a year after the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, Germany turned its attention to Western Europe with a vengeance. German armed forces -- utilizing their newly-perfected Blitzkrieg tactics of tank attacks coordinated with tactical air support -- smashed through the "Low Countries" of Holland and Belgium, and completed an end-run into the heart of France around its defensive Maginot Line. The heavily-fortified Line had been constructed after World War I and was supposed to keep France safe from any future German attack.

However, the Line failed miserably and the Germans advanced rapidly. Holland and Belgium fell quickly and France -- despite having numerical superiority in both tanks and aircraft over Germany -- offered only token resistance. England deployed their British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of both land and air units to assist with France's defense. The British proved themselves prescient when they sent only second-line Hurricane fighters to fight against the Germans in France. In spite of vehement French protests, Air Marshal Lord Dowding (head of Britain's Fighter Command) refused to allow any of Britain's valuable front-line Spitfire fighter planes to be "wasted" in what he knew would be a losing effort in France. Better to husband them for England's solitary fight to come against the Germans after France's capitulation.

By the end of May, the German forces had cornered the remnants of the allied armies into a small, vulnerable pocket in Dunkirk, near the coast of France.  It appeared that the European war would soon be over, as the German army was poised to finish the job. Exactly what happened next is the subject of some controversy, but the lessons for military planners reverberate as clearly today as they did then, some 68 years ago.

Rather than sending in their armored, tank-equipped Panzer divisions to destroy the virtually defenseless allied forces, the Germans held them back. Instead, the finishing task was given to Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe. Military historians have posited that perhaps Germany's Panzer divisions were stretched too thin and had outrun their supply lines, and thus needed a few weeks' rest and recuperation. Another popular theory has it that the head of the Luftwaffe -- Hermann Goering -- was envious of the glory that his Army counterparts were getting from their numerous overwhelming victories, and he wanted to prove that his air force was worthy of similar accolades.

But regardless of the reason, the German air force was given the responsibility, and it failed. That decision remains one of the greatest military blunders of all time. The Luftwaffe flew sortie after sortie, attacking the Allied armies, but couldn't finish the job. Instead, the British organized an amazing sea-borne rescue effort and sent hundreds of ships and boats of all kinds across the Channel to rescue the beleaguered soldiers. Everything from Royal Navy transport ships to private fishing boats participated in the effort. The RAF flew cover and fought off the German air attacks. Although their losses were high and virtually all their equipment was left on the beaches of Dunkirk, almost 400,000 Allied soldiers were rescued, and survived to fight another day.

Military history is rife with examples of air power alone not being able to achieve the ultimate victory. Several factors need to be in place before air power can be utilized to its greatest effect:

  1. Complete mastery of the airspace by the attacking force. This can be accomplished by achieving complete surprise or with tactical measures/equipment that negate the opponent's defenses.
  2. Specific, identifiable targets. Singular installations such as nuclear reactors, bridges, individual factories, etc. can be hit with more precision and verifiability than more generalized, diffuse targets.
  3. Equipment that is appropriate to the task. The aircraft have to possess the requisite performance (range, speed, payload, etc.) and be able to deliver the types of munitions necessary to destroy the intended target.
The Israeli strike against the Iraqi nuclear installation at Osirak in 1981 is an excellent example of an air attack that completely satisfies all three of the foregoing requirements. The U.S destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 -- despite their brutality and the grotesque scale of destruction -- also fits that successful pattern.

The situation gets quite a bit more complicated when one or more of these three factors comes up short. For the Germans at Dunkirk, they were clearly lacking both 1 and 3. They did not have air superiority (the RAF battled them ferociously every step of the way, exacting severe losses), and the Germans' aircraft were inadequate in terms of bomb load, precision targeting and delivery, time-over-target (range), and overall force strength (too few).

Later in World War II, the Germans turned the tables somewhat on the Allies, and did an exceedingly good job of dispersing and decentralizing their military/industrial centers. Despite the Allies' complete mastery of the air and the ability to mount repeated, overwhelming 500-to-1000 bomber attacks, they were unable to defeat Germany by air alone. Final victory in Europe was not gained until the Allies initiated an intensive ground campaign beginning with the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

Israel's recent experience in Lebanon with Hezbollah in 2006 further demonstrates what happens when factor no. 2 (specific, identifiable targets) is a problem. Despite their mastery of the air and superb equipment, repeated Israeli air attacks proved ineffective at either stopping Hezbollah's rocket attacks or dislodging the terror group from their hiding places near Israel's border.

Such is the enormity of the problem facing US and Israeli military planners as they contemplate a possible airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities. All three of the previously-mentioned success factors are in question:

  • There is no guarantee that either complete surprise will be achieved by the attacking force, or that Iran's air defenses won't prove considerably thornier than currently thought.
  • There is no hard, complete data on the exact location, number, and reachability of all of Iran's nuclear installations. It's difficult for Western planners to know exactly which locations to target and what degree of destruction constitutes "success."
  • Although American and Israeli pilots and equipment are state-of-the-art, without knowing the exact nature of the targets' location and vulnerabilities, it's difficult to know for certain if the munitions and targeting systems are adequate for the mission's requirements.

Dunkirk proved that when the attacking force lacks two out of three success factors, the mission fails. The US and Israel proved in 1945 and 1981 that when all three conditions are satisfied, the mission succeeds. The lesson of being "3 for 3" is one that military planners-- and any new American administration-need to understand completely.