Making 21st Century Warfare Decisive
Riverside Publishing Solutions, Salisbury, UK, 2020, 554 pages
Book Review published on: December 23, 2022
As the ignominious 2021 departure from Afghanistan and turmoil in Syria and Iraq attest, the West has demonstrated an inability to wage decisive warfare over the last twenty years of irregular warfare. Much ink has been spilled over this issue, mainly from a strategic perspective. For the last several years, Western armies have renewed their emphasis on what the United States Army calls large-scale combat operations. In addition, the ongoing Russo-Ukraine War and tensions in the Taiwan Strait have underscored the likelihood and importance of conventional warfare. Given these contemporary challenges, this is where John Musgrave’s Firepower: Making 21st Century Warfare Decisive contributes. The author argues that Western armies need to improve their firepower capabilities to wage decisive warfare.
Musgrave is a retired colonel of thirty-five years in the British Army’s Royal Regiment of Artillery, and it shows—this book is by a professional for professionals. Firepower is a detailed examination of its namesake’s role over the last hundred years of warfare and how Western militaries employed firepower as an integral part of decisive wars. In contrast, Musgrave explores how Western armies have spent the last quarter century fighting irregular wars that were wildly successful at the tactical level but did not translate to strategic success. Thus, the inability to wage decisive warfare led to what the author called “frozen conflicts.” In sixteen chapters, Musgrave delves deeply into the challenges of fighting and winning contemporary wars.
Musgrave sets the foundation for his argument in chapters 1–4. In the first chapter, Musgrave articulates firepower’s role in the current character of land warfare. The following two chapters are historical, illustrating how the West successfully used firepower as an integral part of decisive warfare in the two world wars and during the Cold War. Chapter 4, however, is where the West began its divergence into the firepower and information-centric warfighting approaches. Overall, Musgrave does an excellent job describing the operational approaches of many militaries over time, naturally emphasizing how they use firepower. As just a few examples, he explores the use of firepower at the beginning of the First World War and in 1918; the Germans, Soviets, and Anglo-Americans during the Second World War; and the Israelis, the Soviets, and NATO during the Cold War. As part of this discussion, he explores direct fire, indirect fire, and aircraft.
After setting his foundation, Musgrave’s next several chapters are more thematic and theoretical. Chapter 5 examines firepower’s grammar and challenges with a real focus on contemporary challenges such as empty battlefields, firepower and maneuver, danger close fires, fires on the urban battlefield, and several others. The next chapter explores joint firepower in military thought, doctrine, and force employment. Musgrave deftly explores different views on doctrine, including airpower’s role and firepower in irregular warfare. The following nine chapters walk through key types or aspects of employing firepower: fixed-wing firepower, rotary-wing firepower, tube artillery, rocket artillery, mortars, munitions, target acquisition, fire support and terminal fire control, and overall command and control of joint fires.
Firepower’s conclusion consists of an initial paragraph advocating the need to view joint land as a system of systems and fifty propositions. Musgrave’s “Fifty Propositions Towards a Land Firepower Theory” are great food for professional thought, discussion, and dialogue. For example, his third proposition holds that “conventional warfare is more likely to be politically decisive when it overwhelms an adversary in battle; especially when this turns most combatants into prisoners” could easily be an entire course. A few synthetic paragraphs after the last proposition would have helped tie together the chapter and the overall work, but this is a minor point.
Overall, this book is essential for readers interested in contemporary wars and warfighting, especially joint fires. Musgrave does an admirable job combining his experience with a thoughtful and critical intellect. Given Russian and Chinese emphasis on missiles and artillery and the specter of conventional warfare on a scale not seen in decades, Firepower is a timely exploration. Armies need to wrestle intellectually with why warfare of late has not been decisive, how it can be again, and the role firepower can play in making it so. From a broader strategic perspective, Western armies improving firepower is essential to help deter future aggression by revisionist powers. Practitioners and professional military educators will greatly benefit from reading and discussing this work.
Book Review written by: Col. Jonathan Klug, U.S. Army, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania