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Lessons for Lebanon from the Gran Chaco War and Spanish Civil War


The Gran Chaco War and Spanish Civil War were transitional military events of their day, although the former is too often overlooked. Both are useful guides in interpreting Hezbollah's success in Lebanon and offer pointers and cautions for modern forces seeking to keep apace of emerging asymmetric warfare (4GW) opponents:
  • Paraguay implemented decentralized maneuver warfare against vastly larger Bolivia in the Gran Chaco War, 1931-1935, nearly pushing Bolivian forces completely out of the Gran Chaco. The cease-fire of June 12, 1935, was followed by "a full truce in 1938 that granted Paraguay three-quarters of the Chaco Boreal region and denied Bolivia the waterway to the Atlantic Ocean it had hoped to gain."
  • Germany's Condor Legion refined tactical aerial warfare in support of the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, with the resultant unconditional surrender of the Republican army and the recognition of the Franco regime by the UK and France.
Both wars are a study of innovation in wartime; Stephen Rosen writes that wartime innovation:
can proceed from wartime learning, but learning that goes beyond improvements in the application of existing organizational routines involves the development of a new measure of strategic effectiveness. The military has to learn what to learn about, and how to learn. If pursuit of the old performance goals only makes the problem worse, then a new strategic goal has to be defined.

McNerney observes that Isaacson, Layne, and Arquilla propose factors indicative of military innovation ("high external threat, revisionist aims, relative resource constraints, societal cohesion, past failure, product champions, and career paths") and then proceeds to simplify them into external factors ("domestic and global influences that affect the organization") and internal factors ("institutional characteristics within a military organization"):
  • External Factors
    • Existence of a perceived threat (as opposed to the presence of significant external threat)
    • Leaders possessing "thorough understanding of the threat and the boundaries of the battlespace they are operating in"
    • Domestic politics, including quality of leadership, presence or absence of corruption or incompetence
    • International politics
  • Internal Factors
    • Environments promoting decentralization and creative thought
    • Recruitment and promotion of junior officer and NCO grades who possess organizational and developmental skills
    • Education integrates "cutting-edge technical, organizational, and doctrinal training" with analysis of historical cases
    • Education remains dynamic, resisting becoming institutionalized and possibly stagnating
    • Inter-service cooperation
Overall, I believe that a military group's internal, institutional factors outweigh its external factors, but I find them the hardest to create and maintain and that is not at all a good sign for established militaries dealing with constantly changing and adapting asymmetrical opponents.

Gran Chaco War, 1932-1935

Petroleum discoveries in the Andean piedmont led to the belief that the Chaco Boreal would be rich in oil, complicating a longstanding series of Paraguayan settler migrations into disputed land that had been a forgotten backwater of the Bolivian viceroyalty; Standard Oil backed Bolivia while Shell Oil backed Paraguay. Already punished by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay was ready to fight to prevent what it "perceived as its last chance for a viable economy fall victim to Bolivia," even though the
Gran Chaco plains are known as the Green Hell for extreme weather conditions spanning desertic droughts to torrential rainforests. Bolivia was the dominate regional power while Paraguay was immeasurably poorer and had one third the population:

Paraguay being one of the most poor nations on earth could barely afford to equip her self adequately with small arms, aircraft and artillery never mind something as exotic and expensive as tanks or state of the art aircraft. Bolivia on the other hand had considerably better credit ratings abroad and could afford such luxuries. Consequently it was Bolivia that dominated the skies above the Gran Chaco and it was to her that the dubious honor fell of being the first (and to this day only) S-American country to use tanks in battle in a fully declared war against another nation on S-American soil.

Paraguay "was considered almost helpless" by most Western observers but Paraguay had commenced "covert procurement of weapons during the late 1920's, and received military advice from officers of the French Army" as well as some intelligence from Argentina (who had just warred against Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance). While Paraguay, under Lt. Col. Jose Felix Estigarribia, won the first major confrontation with Bolivia at high cost after a lengthy siege:

Estigarribia realized that his smaller forces would be unable to succeed if he continued to wage head-on offensive battles against the larger Bolivian forces… Estigarribia, therefore, decided to abandon the "defense dominance" lessons of World War I, and instead employed small decentralized forces. These forces effectively used 81 millimeter Stokes-Brandt mortars and maneuver warfare while avoiding heavily fortified fortines [bunkered garrison outposts] to destroy key portions of the Bolivian logistical lines… Estigarribia also understood the limitations and advantages of Paraguayan airpower. He worked closely with Paraguay’s air group commander [to] maximize the support that the air forces could provide to the war. In one instance, Estigarribia [mobilizes] the entire air fleet to deliver ammunition onto an improvised airstrip at Nanawa, allowing ground troops to hold their position. In another instance, the naval air forces dropped 800 pounds of bombs on Bolivian fortines during the first night time bombing campaign in the Western Hemisphere.

Seemingly the losing bet in the fight against larger, better equipped Bolivian forces operating under German trained command, Paraguay possessed useful preconditions for innovation:
  • Internal
    • Strong emphasis on education for Paraguayan officer corps, with a majority attending staff colleges abroad in Italy, Belgium, Argentina, and France. (Bolivian officers "rarely pursued any education following their commission")
    • Recruitment of professional and creative soldiers, then "forming them into cohesive units by balancing their strengths and weaknesses." (Bolivia "heavily recruited Indian peasants and miners, and created ad hoc units")
    • Encouragement of innovative ideas from Paraguayan troops
    • Decentralized operations to small unit commanders dispersed across the Chaco, allowing "the Paraguayan army to operate far more effectively than their counterparts." (Bolivian troops "suffered under the strict, centralized management of General Hans Kundt")
    • Overcoming Army and Air Force parochialism in order to create integrated operations. and innovative contributions to Paraguay’s success. (Estigarribia "trusted his air force’s reconnaissance reports" while Bolivians did not, allowing Paraguay to achieve better battlespace awareness.)
  • External
    • Bolivia posed a significant, even terminating, threat to Paraguay such that Chaco was seen as "a fight for Paraguayan survival."
    • Estigarribia "had the complete trust of the political leaders of Paraguay, and was granted autonomous authority, even to the point of ignoring basic army doctrine." (Bolivia's army and government engaged in perpetual squabble)
    • Paraguay "had much better knowledge of the battlespace [as they] had already settled much of the Great Chaco and had excellent intelligence and maps of the area." (Bolivia "did not have a single document on the area until August of 1931")
    • Paraguay "increased their battlespace knowledge through careful study of their adversary, especially the Bolivian transportation network and troop dispositions." (Bolivia didn't make a similar effort)
Part 2, Spanish Civil War
Military Innovation in Times of Conflict--Is It Too Risky?
Major Michael McNerney, USAF
Air & Space Power Journal
15 June 2005

The Chaco War, 1932-35
Andrew Clem

Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military
Stephen P. Rosen
ISBN 0801481961
Cornell University Press, 1991, 1994

The Chaco Dispute
L. H. Woolsey
American Journal of International Law, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 796-801
, doi:10.2307/2189587
October, 1932

Gordon Housworth

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