Small Wars Journal

The Failure to Adapt and Innovate after a Drawdown: The U.S. Army in the Interwar Years 1919-1939

Fri, 06/14/2013 - 3:30am

The most apt historical parallel to the current period in the development of robotics may well turn out to be World War I. Back then, strange, exciting new technologies that had been science fiction just years earlier were introduced and used in increasing numbers on the battlefield.

Indeed, it was H.G. Wells’ 1903 short story “Land Ironclads” that inspired Winston Churchill to champion the development of the tank.[1]

When most leaders think about the locales of war, their eyes are drawn to the burning places on the map…But those who step back from the map will notice something even more: there are even greater shifts occurring that will shape the where of war in new ways in the coming century.[2]

P.W. Singer

Since the Revolutionary War the Army has drawn down after each conflict’s end. Also after every conflict the Army is on a quest to see what future technology impacts will be the next ‘big things’ in warfare.  One similar historical period and technological parallels facing the Army today are the interwar years between WWI and WWII. This article is envisioned to be followed with additional articles on the key technologies (nanotechnology, genetics & robotics) facing the Army today which may dramatically change land warfare in the future. So what were the Army drawdown experience and technology challenges after WWI?

Army Drawdown after WWI

During WWI the Army grew to 3,757,624 men.[3]  With victory came the inevitable draw down. With the conclusion of WWI, “the War Department, in 1919, argued for a force of 500,000. Instead, Congress steadily reduced the Army from 175,000 to 125,000, and by 1924 to 111,000 --only 11,000 more than the Treaty of Versailles allowed a conquered and disarmed Germany.”[4] So shortly after WWI the Army faced a future short on money and manpower, but the challenges of new technologies would dramatically change future land warfare.

WWI Innovations as Land Warfare Game Changers in World War II

The problem after WWI: the next war is coming and technology is shaping in new ways how it will be fought. Newly developed technologies that saw their introduction in WWI would revolutionize land warfare within the next twenty years.

WWI saw many fledgling innovations: tank offensives, airpower (fighter and bomber), and submarine warfare. It even had the first aircraft carrier[5] and the first naval air strike on enemy ships launched from a ship.[6] Each of these technologies would dramatically change how war was fought in WWII.

However, the pressing needs of the Army after WWI clouded the future vision for innovation. The Army became consumed with day to day survival and mission justification. The physical products of innovation such as tanks were slow in coming as a result.

Interwar Funding

Interwar funding can be categorized into these statements and facts.

  • Appropriations for the military expenses of the War Department stabilized after the early 1920s at roughly $300 million per year. This was about half the estimated cost of fully implementing the force structure authorized in the National Defense Act.
  • During the interwar era the Army focused its limited resources on maintaining personnel strength rather than on procuring new equipment. Army arsenals and laboratories were consequently handicapped by small budgets.
  • For a number of years only about a quarter of the officers and half of the enlisted men of the Regular Army were available for assignment to tactical units in the continental United States. Many units existed only on paper; almost all had only skeleton strength. The Regular Army’s nine infantry divisions possessed the combined strength of only three full divisions.
  • Cuts in appropriations and pay in the early 1930s as a result of the Great Depression made travel and training all the more difficult, further reducing the readiness of Army units.[7]

A case can be made for not having the most innovative weapon systems due to budget impacts, but the Army did not foresee the changes in technology, concepts and change their war fighting doctrine. Future war may not offer the time to correct deficient weapon system technologies and doctrine.

Army Innovation Problems, 1919-1939, Limited Intellectual Success – Minimal Land Warfare Concepts & Capabilities 

The Army (and Army Air Corps) also placed considerable emphasis on professional military education, but there was a less coherent focus on transformation, innovation, and the development of new capabilities. One exception was the infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, during the five years that George Marshall served as assistant commander.

Although small groups of officers in the armed services did much to transform the services, too much of the peacetime military was devoted to maintaining the status quo. The difficulties of transformation and innovation in the 1920s and 1930s suggest the difficulties of the paths ahead. There are no silver bullets, no simple solutions.[8]

Against whom will they fight? Under what political and strategic conditions? Where will that struggle take place? What technological, doctrinal, and tactical changes will have the greatest impact on the battlefield?[9]

Williamson Murray

For the Navy and the Marine Corps the next apparent opponent seemed to be Imperial Japan. From the early 1920s on, they began thinking, wargaming, and develop plans on the tactical, operational, strategic, and logistic problems that might arise in a conflict in the Pacific. For the Army the vision and innovation of armored divisions in combat in Europe came much later.

Not deterred by the limited budgets, one leader had the intellectual vision for future mechanized warfare. LTC George C. Marshall, as the assistant commandant of the Infantry school 1927-1933, instilled the leadership and intellectual vision required for the next war. 

The real intellectual engine of the Army’s efforts at transformation came at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, during the five years that George Marshall served as assistant commandant. One hundred and fifty future generals in World War II attended the school during this period, while an astonishing fifty future generals worked for Marshall on the faculty.[10]

  • “Marshall advocated a major shift of hours to tactics, including an increasing emphasis on mechanized warfare.”
  • In every exercise he routinely threw unexpected scenarios - His approach was to teach the students “how to respond to adversity and learn from their mistakes.”
  • “One of Marshall’s most fundamental changes to the program was to reduce the emphasis on what was called the school solution.”
  • He encouraged the officers to generate original and even unorthodox ideas. To reinforce this, he made it a policy that “any student’s solution of a problem that ran radically counter to the approved school solution, and yet showed independent creative thinking, would be published to the class.”
  • Equally important, officers in the course found that they were free to “disagree at times on questions of military education, regardless of rank,” in an atmosphere “of tolerance of ideas which encourages open and free discussion.”[11]

In spite of all his efforts the Army did not embrace the tank, tactical air power and mechanized infantry combined arms breakthrough theory. Additionally, the Army did not adopt lessons learned from actual German Condor Legion combat experiences during the Spanish Civil War.

Condor Legion and the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939  – Pre WWII Lessons Ignored

Colonel Stephen O. Fuqua, the [Army military] attaché, wrote in the spring of 1937 that "It is generally accepted that the civil war in Spain had not only been a laboratory for testing equipment -particularly of German and Russian designs, but a 'dress rehearsal' for the next war."[12]  

The attaches and their sources insisted that tanks had to be employed in mass and in combination with infantry, aviation and artillery support to be effective. Spain also demonstrated that the advantages of heavy armor and armament outweighed the corresponding loss of speed.[13]

U.S. Army Attaches and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939

The German Condor Legion consisted of Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht volunteers who fought alongside the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, July 1936 to March 1939. The Germans used this war effort as a testing ground for their land warfare concepts and doctrine.

From the outbreak of the war in July 1936 through to the defeat of the Spanish Government in 1939, the United States Army attachés in Europe gathered tactical and technical information about the combatants, weapons and equipment used in Spain. The body of information that the attaches collected provided the United States Army with clear indications of the development of German, Soviet and Italian weapons, and pointed toward the possible tactical employment of those weapons in future wars.[14]

German Concepts & Doctrine Tested and Refined with the Condor Legion:

  • First use of German 88mm in anti-armor and direct fire role
  • First combat employing combined arms operations - German panzer, infantry, artillery and Stuka
  • First airlift of troops – Germany to Spain
  • First use of close air support for ground attack coordinated via radio
  • First air ambulance service for evacuation of German wounded combatants

The three years of war in Spain did not spur new interest in the changing nature of land warfare.  Army doctrine remained status quo – the next war like the previous would be dominated by infantry attacks. 

Army Came Late to the Reality of Panzer Innovation and Land Warfare Impact

The Army did not quickly embrace the land warfare revolution with the tank, tactical air power and mechanized infantry that the German Wehrmacht had developed with their panzers in the 1930s.

The “first genuine corps and Army maneuvers in the history of the United States”[15] occurred in May 1940. In contrast, as early as 1935 the Germans were conducting corps-size exercises for the purpose of developing armor doctrine.[16] The Germans, with fewer opportunities for experimentation, secretly trained with the Russians in the 1920s and organized armored divisions on a permanent basis by 1935.

On 10 May 1940, four German Panzer Corps attacked and defeated France and the lowland countries in six weeks. The German Panzer Corps first demonstrated their effectiveness in Poland in September 1939, the start of WWII. The creation of the U.S. Army’s armored force happened on 10 July 1940.[17]

Primary lesson from this interwar historical period: be on watch for the next big things. However, the next war may not provide the time to recover from not learning, leading, and innovating.

Army Late on Airborne Warfare Concept

In 1936, German Major F. W. Immans opened the German airborne school on 3 May 1936.

German Airborne (Fallschirmjäger) forces made the first combat drop in WWII.  On 9 April 1940 during the invasion of Denmark, 96 Fallschirmjägers jumped from nine Junkers Ju-52 transports and captured the Storstrøm Bridge and the coastal fortress on Masnedø Island.[18]

The first US airborne unit began as a test platoon formed from the 29th Infantry Regiment, in July 1940.  Again, like the panzers, the Army realized their value only after they were used in combat successfully.

Doctrine Failed to Keep Pace with Technology and Combined Arms Warfare

In 1923, five years after the [world] war, a comprehensive Field Service Regulations (FSR) was published which addressed the complexities of modern warfare. Regrettably this was the last doctrinal manual to be published for 16 years. Because of the changes in military technology that occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, the Office of the Chief of Staff published a tentative manual in 1939 [FSR 1939], titled FM 100-5, Operations.[19]

FSR 1939 reflected the army’s incomplete understanding of the new operational and tactical mobility…Advances in mobility and communication technology enabled commanders to pursue farther, faster and with greater control than ever before. The manual failed to grasp fully the effect of motorization and mechanization on tactics and operations despite frequent mention of modern organizations and technologies.[20]

Similar to concepts and capabilities, Army doctrine did not have the correct vision for future warfare. The Army did not recognize the technological impacts of the interwar years.

Rapid changes in the methods of war during the interwar years changed military doctrine from one "built on infantry-artillery coordination to one based on a highly mobile combined arms team." Army doctrine failed to address these innovations.[21]

The Army Field Service Regulations (FSR) for 1923 incorporated the lessons the Army learned in WWI and accurately measured the state of military technology after the war. The 1923 FSR remained Army Doctrine, without change, for the next sixteen years. The revised FSR issued in 1939, made very few concessions to the military technological innovations occurring between 1923 and 1939.   


"Would you tell me which way I ought to go from here?" asked Alice.

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get," said the Cat.

"I really don't care where" replied Alice.

"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go," said the Cat.

 Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

In the twenty years after WWI the U.S. Army did not have the vision to see the effect of emerging technologies on land warfare. The failure to grasp the new concepts and update doctrine resulted in a late and frantic rush to embrace the new technologies after WWII began. Today, like after WWI, many new technologies have emerged from the last decade of combat operations and a drawdown is fact. Technologies such as nanotechnology, genetics (soldier enhancements) and robotics have the potential to again dramatically change land warfare. However, in the near future the Army many not have the time, industrial base and intellectual speed to frantically catch up again.


[1] P.W. Singer, Wired for War author, Abu Muqawama interview, 16 May 2009 (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[2] P.W. Singer, Battlefields of the Future, Brookings Institute, 4 Feb 2011 (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[4] Donald Smythe, Pershing, General of the Armies (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 27.

[5] In September 1914, the Imperial Japanese Navy sea plane carrier Wakamiya conducted the world's first naval-launched air strike. On 6 Sep 1914 a Farman aircraft launched by Wakamiya attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth and the German gunboat Jaguar in Qiaozhou Bay off Tsingtao; neither was hit. Source: Donko, Wilhelm M.: „Österreichs Kriegsmarine in Fernost: Alle Fahrten von Schiffen der k.(u.)k. Kriegsmarine nach Ostasien, Australien und Ozeanien von 1820 bis 1914“,  (Berlin, 2013),  4, 156-162, 427. (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[6] In 1918, HMS Argus became the world's first carrier capable of launching and landing naval aircraft. Geoffrey Till, "Adopting the Aircraft Carrier: The British, Japanese, and American Case Studies" in Murray, Williamson; Millet, Allan R, eds. (1996). Military Innovation in the Interwar Period. (New York: Cambridge University Press), 194. (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[7]Richard Stewart, Editor, American Military History Volume II, The United States Army in a Global Ear, 1917-2003, , (Washington, D.C., Center of Military History, 2005), page 59. (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[8] Williamson Murray, Transformation and Innovation: the Lessons of the 1920s and 1930s, Dec 2002, ES-1. (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[9] Murray, 2.

[10]Murray, 11.

[11]Jon T. Hoffman, editor, A History of Innovation, U.S. Army Adaptation in War and Peace, (Washington, D.C., Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1 Oct 2009)  27-35.  (last accessed 29 April  2013).


[12]Captain Kim Juntunen, U.S. Army Attaches and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939: The Gathering of Technical and Tactical Intelligence, Thesis, 4 May 1990, 3. (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[13]Juntunen, 132.

[14] Juntunen, 4.

[15] Roman Jarymowycz, Tank Tactics from Normandy to Lorraine, (Boulder Colorado:  Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 2001), 70.

[16]LTC Kenneth A. Steadman, The Evolution of the Tank in the U.S. Army, Combat Studies Institute (CSI) Paper #1, 21 April 1982, 17. (last accessed 29 April  2013).

  1. Jarymowycz, 71.

[18]German invasion of Denmark (1940)  (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[19] TRADOC History Office, Full title of FSR 1939: Office of the Chief of Staff, FM 100-5, Tentative Field Service Regulations 1939, Operations, Washington, United States Government Printing Office, 1939. (last accessed 29 April  2013).

[20]William O. Odom, After the Trenches – The Transformation of the U.S. Army Doctrine, 1918-1939, (Texas A&M: Texas A&M University Military History Series 64, 1999), 135.

[21] Odom, 237.








About the Author(s)

Colonel (Retired) Dave Shunk, USAF, is a Department of the Army Civilian.  Dave is a former B-52G pilot and Desert Storm combat veteran whose last military assignment saw him as the B-2 Vice Wing Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing, Whitman AFB, MO. He has a Military Art and Science MA from Army Command & General Staff College and a National Security Strategy MS from the National War College.


Bill C.

Fri, 06/14/2013 - 11:30am

Alice, in the conclusion above, does not know where she wants to go and, because of this, the Cat cannot tell her how to get there.

This is not the problem of the United States today.

Today, the United States knows exactly where it wants to go.

The United States wishes for and works toward:

a. Achieving a world in which all states and societies have political, economic and social systems which are generally similar to and, therefore, compatible with our own. And

b. A world -- as noted in "a" above -- in which the United States is also the "Top Dog."

Who might the "natural enemies" of the United States be is such a context? Might these be:

a. Those states and societies who wish to have political, economic and social systems which are decidedly different from that of the United States? And

b. Those states and societies who might also wish to be the "Top Dog?"

Given this understanding, what guidance might the Cat (or the author) now provide Alice (or the United States) re: the role of land warfare and related technology (such as genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, etc)?

Mark Pyruz

Fri, 06/14/2013 - 10:45am

U.S. Army possessed a mistaken impression of armored warfare which was exposed in a wargame that Patton helped pay for out of his own pocket. Still, the "tank destroyer" idea produced open-topped TDs and tanks with multiple guns. To be fair, the Germans also made use of open-topped TDs but did so as an improvisation based on need (improvised tactics employing assault guns proved better for the task).

Actually, most of the weapons of WWI saw use in WWII but were further developed. The U.S. was a latecomer to the previous conflict and so tactical deficiencies were initially to be expected against the Germans. However by late 1944, the USA had the upper hand, tactically as well as possessing a preponderance of war material.

Currently, I would argue the United States has plenty of up-to-date battlefield experience through two land wars. Its tactical weapons systems are well developed, much better than any potential adversary today. And so I don't think the analogy of this piece quite fits.