King Tiger and the Naked Emperor

By: - December 2, 2018

Let me tell you a story about the king of the battle called the King Tiger heavy tank. At its introduction in mid-1944 this was one of the newest and most feared tanks fielded by the German army. It combined the thick armor of the Tiger I with the sloping armor of the Panther medium tank. The heavy armor, with sloping design and powerful gun, made it extremely powerful against other tanks on the battlefield. But it wasn’t without flaws. The engine to move this beast required vast amounts of fuel for a nation suffering from shortages. It had numerous technical flaws such as gasket problems with the engine. Notwithstanding these issues, the tank overpowered most of the tanks available on the Western front until late in the war.

Unfortunately for the Germans, their magnificent tanks ran into this defense from American soldiers. Despite having complete strategic and tactical surprise in the Battle of the Bulge, the Americans delayed German General Joachim Pieper and others for 16 hours on the first day by a stubborn defense around Lanzareth. He continued to move forward but, unlike the blitzkriegs that started the war, he faced one delay after another. He did capture some of the much needed fuel, but U.S. forces blew the bridges he needed to cross the Meuse which was halfway to Antwerp and one of the keys for German success. He was trapped by this move and by December 18, three days after the offensive started, the skies cleared and Pieper was under heavy attack from the air.

With no options to move forward and the offensive in his area effectively halted, he finally retreated to Gleize. Under siege for days from counter-attacking allied air and land units, and short on critical fuel and ammunition, he and his men abandoned all of their heavy equipment, including the unbeatable tank, and escaped the siege on foot. His King Tiger tank is now held at the December 44 Museum in La Gleize Belgium.

It stands as a reminder that there is more to battle than fancy gadgets and machines. The Germans had technical prowess and an advantage in tank warfare. Yet they failed to account for the bravery of the American soldier, the difficulty of the terrain in the region they were attacking, and the overall challenges of mounting a major offensive with limited soldiers, equipment, supply, and air cover.

Studying the fate of the King Tiger and the vaunted 6th Panzer army of General Pieper provides a nice parable about Chinese technology. I read an article seemingly every week about some new and scary Chinese technology ranging from killer drone swarms to hyper-sonic carriers and artificial intelligence. But like the Tiger Tank from Germany, the technologies themselves do not win wars. They are used by soldiers with varying degrees of morale and training, in concert with other weapon systems, during the chaos and fog of war, in pursuit of what could be a failed or faulty strategy.

The tanks of the German army along with their advanced technology (like rockets) failed to turn the tide of the war. There is a good chance that the army of the Chinese empire has no clothes, and they will similarly fail to win future wars with their whiz-bang wonder machines. Like the King Tiger, perhaps America will display some of those technologies that failed to win the war outside of their museums for children to curiously look at and play with.