Byzantine Lessons in Hybrid War Pt 2
This proposal is not an attempt to create a carbon clone of a medieval empire, but I do think that many problems suffered by the ancient Byzantines can be compared to our own challenges for the future. Like the Empire, we see an increasing need for using Means Other Than War, so-called Soft Power but also Espionage, in dealing with foreign adversaries. This has been brought on by dramatic challenges and great changes in the World, especially the decline of European colonial states in the last century, the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of radical Islam, the latter the Byzantines could certainly relate to.
There is also economic troubles, the decline in birthrates, and the subsequent reduction in available manpower, all these point to the end of industrial age warfare, and the need for smart power as well as military force. With that in mind, here are some interesting solutions which the Empire devised over times to deal with its own problems:
Organized Military Districts
Byzantium was a nation under constant siege from numerous foes. In this it was like Israel today and increasingly the West, its borders insecure over the ravages of globalization, climate change, and terrorism. In order to better manage their threatened borders, the Empire was carved into numerous civil/military districts called Themes. Each was commanded by a general dubbed the Strategos who shared powered with a civil Judge. The number of Themes were gradually increased over time by successive Emperors to lessen the chance of rebellion by powerful strategos.
The thematic troops might be likened to our own National Guard. Though each strategos possessed a professional body of retainers, the bucellarii who were the core of the army, the rest would be soldier/farmers given property and settled on the frontiers. They would be called up as needed during times of crisis. In contrast to the Roman strategy of maintaining the frontiers, the Byzantines would actually allow an enemy to invade to pillage and plunder. Meanwhile the themes would rise to arms, slowly wearing down the invaders with guerrilla tactics. Later, with the enemy retreating, loaded down with much booty, they would be easy prey for the mobilized themes.
The implications for the modern military are various. Instead of the powerful yet very expensive standing forces, which guarded the nation in the Cold War, or even the large field armies current engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, something less costly and more flexible might be called for. So you would have a small standing army, but greater dependence on reserve troops, militia, guarding our frontiers. There should be no need for large permanent field forces except in an emergency. The armies then would be smaller, numbered in tens of thousands instead of hundreds of thousands, but there would be many more such armies (i.e. 10 divisions today, but maybe 30-40 tomorrow?).
Provincial or state governors might also have greater control over local troops and militia in their area. This would allow more flexibility than the current centralized system, especially in times of disaster when fast response is a must. Purse strings and officer appointments would still be invested in the central government however, to discourage insurrection.
Powerful Mobile Soldiers
Unlike the West European troopers of the Middle Ages, who normally depended on either cavalry or infantry, the Byzantine Army was a joint force that preached the doctrine of combined arms. Still, the cavalry was all-important and there were three specific types:
- Clibanarii-Heavy cavalry, armed with plate. Often Frankish or Lombard mercenaries. Armed with lance. Might be likened to our modern tank troopers.
- Cataphract-Lighter armed, with scale armor from head to toe. More agile than the clibanarii, armed with the bow, lance, and sword. Made up the bulk of the cavalry and usually recruited from citizens. Compare this to today’s armored cavalry troops.
- Tasinarioi-Light cavalry, especially gained in importance after rise of the Turks around 1000 AD. They were armed with bows javelins and slings, used as scouts and skirmishers. Usually consisted of light Khazar or Avar cavalry.
Then there were the scutatoi or infantry which were among the best in the world. Armed with spears, bows, shield, and sword, they allowed the swifter cavalry to maneuver, acting as base for a field army. They also conducted sieges or held fortresses on the frontier.
It was the cataphract which was the truly effective arm of the Byzantines, and its success for nearly 1000 years proves it. A true hybrid warrior, it could stand up to heavier Barbarian horseman like the Franks with superior maneuver, or defeat lighter Eastern Arab cavalry with firepower. Unique for a Western soldier, was the horse archer, which the fighting Emperors such as Maurice insisted the Army remain proficient in. The archers would control his mount by his knees, then could fire his bow, usually a composite weapon, either forward or backward, the famed Parthian Shot!
As I noted the equivalent today might be the armored infantryman. His mount is a lighter version of the tank, the infantry fighting vehicle, which might not possess the protection of heavier tanks, but thank to modern weapons carried by its loaded infantrymen, has to the reach to take on all foes. With its lighter weight and higher sapped, the IFV has greater mobility than any of the armored giants on tracks.
This might be the reason for the demise of the clibanarii in Byzantine service as well. The heavy cavalry favored by the Franks were of great cost and too heavy for the type of mobile warfare practiced by the Empire. The demise of the tank might also be seen in this example. It’s not that the tank is no longer needed or effective, but that cheaper lighter, more agile vehicles are doing the same function with equal effect.
Instead of infighting for what type of military is needed, as Sec. Gates referred to, such proponents of heavy armored divisions or COIN warfare, there would be ONE ARMY geared to deal with various threats. This would be the medium armored cavalry of the type proving successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some heavy and some light would remain, but the bulk would be this new Hybrid Warrior, geared to respond to a multitude of threats and enemies. Just as the Byzantines devised separate tactics for dealing with their myriad adversaries, so will the Hybrid Warrior contend with conventional armies and irregular insurgencies alike.
Means Other Than War
Typically the American Way of War has been successful, howbeit very expensive, also creating problems of its own. The destruction of the South in the Civil War, the leveling of Germany in the Second World War, and more recently regime change in Iraq all involved the defeat of enemy armies, warmaking capacity, and the replacement of anti-American governments. Militarily this still might be possible, but politically, economically, and morally has become increasingly unacceptable.
The Byzantines for these reasons rejected the previous Roman Way of War, that also involved the conquest and crushing of her foes. Though military power was as important as ever, there was also diplomatic means, and turning former enemies into friends was not considered taboo. This often entailed bribery, assassination, or paying others to fight for them. All means possible were utilized to avoid the costly attritional warfare of Rome. It is this latter in Iraq and Afghanistan which is wreaking havoc on Western economies today, inhibiting also the replacement of vital military equipment.
Even in combat, the Empire avoided frontal attacks, instead preferring maneuver, feigned withdrawals, and ambushes over attritional breakthrough tactics that are costly in manpower and weapon’s stocks. In this we might get an idea how to contend with traditional tanks armies that are so expensive to deploy, and a burden on stretched logistical resources in modern conflict. Like tactics were used by the unconventional Hezbollah forces to defeat superior Israel armor in Lebanon in 2006.
The results of the Byzantine tactics speak for themselves. The Empire outlived Rome some 1000 years and more often than not prospered during this period. Though a shrunken version of itself for most of this time (finally limited to Anatolia and the Balkans), she yet preserved much of the culture, religion, and classical knowledge at a trying time in world history, the Dark Ages.
Some might insist with the decline of Western democracies, at least in influence, the rise of terrorism, unchecked immigration, famine, disease, and climate change, we might be headed for another collapse of civilization, the end of the world, at least as we know it. Still, with changes made now, learning from the lessons of the past, there might yet be a little light saved for future generations.