Eighty year ago, on Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. Code-named Operation Fall Weiss, under the pretext of a staged Polish attack against German troops, five German armies with about 1.5 million soldiers, 2,000 tanks and 1,900 aircraft stormed into Poland without warning or declaration.
By mid-September, the Blitzkrieg had neutralized the much smaller Polish army and its ill-equipped air force. And Britain and France had entered the war against Nazi Germany that would last nearly six more years and see many scores of millions killed, even more wounded and much of Europe and Russia turned into rubble.
For eight months, the "phony" or "sitzkrieg" war settled in. Instead of moving quickly against Germany after the Polish invasion, the Allies wrongly concluded that as in World War I and the immobility of trench warfare, a military stalemate prevailed. With superior tanks, artillery and aircraft behind the seemingly impenetrable Maginot Line that halted short of the Ardennes and the Belgium border and the British Expeditionary Force guarding the northern flank of France, Hitler would not dare move west. Lulled into a sense of false security, the allies would soon swiftly be driven from the continent.
On May 10, 1940, after invading Norway, Adolf Hitler ordered Case Yellow or Gelb against France, Holland and Belgium. Gelb was audacious. Using the "right" hook of the World War I Schlieffen Plan to strike through neutral Belgium, Germany expected the Allied armies to take the bait and deploy to the north. The plan then was to drive through the so-called "impenetrable" Ardennes forest, outflank the Maginot Line and quickly race to the English Channel, trapping Allied forces in France and Holland. Having conducted a war game on that contingency in 1938, the French and the British were still surprised.
Led from the front by Gens. Erwin Rommel and his 7th Panzer Division and Heinz Guderian's armored corps, France would surrender in six weeks. But it was still a close-run thing, as Wellington observed at Waterloo. With good Allied generalship and astute political leadership, the Blitzkrieg could have been closed down and halted. That did not happen.
In just over two weeks, the BEF, along with remnants of the French army would be evacuated in what was the "miracle of Dunkirk" before Rommel's Panzers could destroy those forces. As the French political and military leadership displayed incompetence at virtually every level, barring heroism of individual units and soldiers, Hitler restrained Rommel from attacking Dunkirk. By letting the BEF escape as a sign of German goodwill, Hitler believed Winston Churchill, who became prime minister on May 10, would sue for or agree to a separate peace.
The first year of that conflict is ripe with lessons and examples both of how and how not to wage war, lessons that are relevant today. Surprise as a tactic always works. That does not guarantee victory. Japan and Germany unconditionally surrendered in 1945. But surprise requires commanders of great competence, aggressiveness, courage and a "blind eye." Numerous times both Rommel and Guderian ignored, disobeyed or contested orders.
2019 is not 1939. No Tripartite Pact among fascist Germany, Japan and Italy exists. From an American strategic planning perspective however, "conflict" could occur in Europe, the Middle East and Gulf and Asia, even though Russia and China are not allies. But instead of a military Blitzkrieg, Russia and China are waging an information warfare Blitzkrieg with economic and political components well short of war. In some ways, the sluggishness by the United States and NATO to address this reality suggests an antiquated belief in some form of imaginary Maginot Line that will ward off these actions inimical to our security.
Why is that? No lack of understanding about how Russia and China are cleverly exploiting these actions should exist. NATO has frequently acknowledged the cyberthreat and Russian active measures. Yet, in terms of responses, what concrete and effective counters and strategies have been implemented? The answer is very few.
From the U.S. side, great power competition is the pacing requirement. But of the $733 billion budget approved for defense, the bulk of procurement money pays for large, expensive platforms for land, sea, air and space, with relatively tiny amounts of ways to counter these "gray area" activities.
China and Russia have a Plan Gelb -- a 21st-century, highly sophisticated information-dominated variant. Neither may have a Rommel or Guderian. And the race is not to the Channel but to weaken our alliances and steal, disrupt and defeat our IP and abilities to respond. And we may lack a future Dunkirk to save us.
Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.