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Desert Warfare

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The Desert is everyone's enemy.

"Our supremacy on Caladan depended on sea and air power. Here, we must develop something I choose to call desert power."
Duke Leto Atreides, Dune

So you have a Thirsty Desert. The heat, blinding glare, and lack of water are in and of themselves an inconvenience for anyone going through it, but soldiers trekking through one in the middle of a war, now have an additional threat, in this case an enemy force that they must fight. But that isn't the end of their problems. Any warring faction now has to deal with shortages of water and fuel, two things that are a matter of life and death for a desert army.

There are no civilians or buildings for miles on end, and so tanks are now given a free rein to advance wherever they please. There are downsides, though; moving tanks produce dust clouds that the enemy can spot. As well, unlike in European woodlands or Urban Warfare, there's little cover and concealment for tanks, either from ground observers or aerial reconnaissance. note If there are civilians, expect a Hidden Elf Village of tents and mud brick buildings near an oasis, or as 21st century works depict, in major cities or towns surrounded by desert.

Desert Warfare is Exactly What It Says on the Tin, a trope that involves fighting that takes place in a desert. In contrast to Jungle Warfare and Urban Warfare, where fighting takes place mostly in close-quarters, Desert Warfare is a new story altogether. In this kind of scenario, expect elite soldiers trained in fighting in the desert performing long range patrols, usually on specialized tracked or half-tracked vehicles, but also on foot on certain occasions.note  Given the vast area that soldiers are patrolling and the lack of landmarks, a clichéd scene is an officer peering through binoculars and puzzling over a map.

These same soldiers also have to deal with constant supply issues in the absence of Easy Logistics, namely with ammunition, fuel, food, and most importantly, water. As mentioned above, tanks are now able to move freely and advance quickly, and this can usually end up with a massive tank battle taking place. Because of this, defending forces will usually set up Anti-Armor defenses such as anti-tank artillery, ditches or land mines, usually with tanks concealed with camouflage netting. While it is easy to lay land mines in the desert, the shifting sand dunes can cover the mines over time. Tank gunners may have trouble sighting their targets due to heat shimmer and mirages.

Commanders may have more soldiers out of the action due to desert conditions than due to bullet wounds. The sun causes heat exhaustion, sunburn, and fatigue. The wind and the sand it carries blister and burn skin and eyes. The glare strains the eyes and the howling wind tires the ears. The heat and lack of water cause dehydration. With the heat and dust, along with the lack of access to bathing, even a tiny cut can lead to a serious infection. Local fauna include scorpions, snakes, feral dogs (carrying rabies and fleas) and rats (spreading disease). In addition to heat stroke and dehydration, soldiers face malaria, typhus, dysentery and other diseases.

While the desert environment is brutal on soldiers, it is also hard on vehicles, weapons and equipment. Tank and half-track engines and hydraulics get overheated. The soft, shifting sand can bog down heavy vehicles. Sand and dust work their way into mechanisms, damaging tracked vehicle sprockets, gun actions, computer equipment and radios. The heat reduces the lifespan of rubber tires, gaskets and seals. Sand sticks to helicopters and the underside of armored vehicles, adding weight if its not removed regularly. Missile guide rails on launchers can get clogged by sand. note 

Nineteenth and early 20th century settings may depict isolated forts in the desert. Don't let the mud brick walls of the fort lull you into thinking the heroes are safe. Resupplying the fort with water, food and ammunition will be hard. In ancient settings, or settings that don't involve tanks, cavalry charges, usually on horse or camel, but occasionally on chariot, are also common.

Fictional stories that depict desert fighters in loose, long clothing, headscarves, and sunglasses or goggles are Truth in Television. These items protect against blistering heat, blowing sand, and blinding sun.

Compare and contrast with the aforementioned Urban Warfare, Jungle Warfare, Winter Warfare, and Mountain Warfare, where fighting takes place in cities, lush tropical rainforests and jungles, in the snow, and in alpine environments, respectively. A lot of 2000s examples of Desert Warfare also overlap with Urban Warfare, especially if the work is set during The War on Terror.


Examples:

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     Anime & Manga 
  • The third story arc of Armored Trooper VOTOMS takes place on the desert planet of Sunsa, as Chirico has to care for a debilitated Fyana while dealing with his own traumatic past while they are hunted by Ypsilon and the Secret Society.
  • The Ishval Civil War in Fullmetal Alchemist was fought in the Ishval region, a harsh desert region that is the setting's equivalent of the Middle East. Overlaps with Urban Warfare as well, with much fighting taking place in densely populated towns in the area.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, the Archangel makes landfall in the Sahara Desert upon reaching Earth, way off-course from their intended landing zone of Alaska. The local ZAFT forces in the region are led by Andrew Waldfeld, the "Desert Tiger," who immediately begins operations to destroy the Archangel. Kira, who has only been fighting in space up to this point, has to adjust to fighting in both atmospheric and desert conditions, taking into account things like heat throwing off his beam rifle's trajectory and the soft sandy environment hindering the Strike Gundam's mobility.
  • Jormungand briefly spends time in this territory when the HCLI team does a job in the Iraqi desert and comes into conflict with the British PMC Excalibur. That same story arc also shows a full-on flashback of Lehm and Wiley's pasts with the 1991 Gulf War.

     Comic Books 
  • Fury: Peacemaker: Fury is captured by Germans in the African theater and released, getting rescued by British fighters with a guerilla approach to warfare. This influences Fury's later approach to special-ops warfare, though by the end of Fury: My War Gone By he realizes Elites Are More Glamorous was a very bad mindset that ignored the crucial necessity of having foot soldiers do most of the work.
  • Commando stories set in North Africa during World War II will often have desert fighting between British forces and Rommel's Afrika Korps as a staple.
  • Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman: "Rescue Angel" takes place during The War on Terror and is mostly set in the desert. The small town being visited is dry and hot with sparse vegetation.

     Film 
  • Adieu Bonaparte is about NapolĂ©on Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt in 1798.
  • El Alamein: The Line of Fire features the Italian Army and German Afrika Korps fighting in Egypt during the titular battle against the British 8th Army.
  • The first battles of The Big Red One take place in Algeria and Tunisia, showing the initial combat deployments of the American forces there.
  • The Hurt Locker has several battle scenes take part in the scorching middle eastern deserts of Iraq. At one point, a Sniper Duel lasts several hours in the scorching heat.
  • Patton has the first part of the film set in North Africa, showing just how ideal the desert was for Rommel, and later, Patton himself, in pulling off tactics involving tanks.
  • Sahara (1943), starring Humphrey Bogart. It has all the tropes related to this and Thirsty Desert, with the main characters initially focusing on Crossing the Desert and looking for water. It later becomes this once the Germans start advancing towards the well that they hold.
  • The Desert Fox has the first third of the film set in North Africa, showing through Stock Footage the losing situation for the Axis forces in North Africa.
  • The 2018 Chinese war movie Operation Red Sea takes place in Yewaire, an obvious Expy of the Yemen civilian evacuation that occurred in March 2015. A major action setpiece involves a tank battle in the desert as an enormous sandstorm descends upon the region.
  • Kingdom of Heaven depicting the Battle of Hattin and the beginning of the Third Crusade.
  • Tobruk takes place during the North African campaign in 1942. As such, among the hazards the commandoes face include getting lost in the desert as well as enemy minefields and patrols.
  • Star Wars: Attack of the Clones: The desert planet of Geonosis becomes the site of the first battle between the newly-formed Republic Clone Army and Separatist droid forces.
  • Referenced in, of all things, The Big Lebowski; Walther compares his experiences from Vietnam with the upcoming Operation Desert Storm.
    We're going to see a lot of tank battles, but fighting in the desert's a lot different from fighting in the jungle....
  • Border: This 1997 Bollywood movie is about the Battle of Longewalla fought during the 1971 Indo-Pak war in the Thar desert in Rajasthan. A heavy weapons company defends a remote forward desert outpost close to the Pakistan border, against an onslaught by an entire Pakistani tank battalion.

     Literature 
  • The Arts of Dark and Light: Cassianus Vopiscus' expedition into the Western Desert. Vopiscus, a logistics expert, is well suited for the command and makes careful preparations to weather the strained supply situation, at first enjoying great success. However, his enemies have access to magic that he could hardly have anticipated...
  • Discworld
    • Pyramids: When the kingdom of Djelibeybi (Ancient Egypt) is removed from time, the warring states of Tsort and Ephebia (equivalents to Troy and Ancient Greece) resume their war, which involves building giant wooden horses and waiting for the other side to drag them into their own city.
    • Small Gods has Vorbis (the unofficial leader of Omnia) plan his retaliatory counterattack against Ephebia before the actual attack (an Omnian speaker getting booed off stage, later retold as his getting murdered by the Ephebians) by having the army cross part of the desert and leave supply caches that the next group can use to cross a little further, and so on, taking the Ephebians by surprise.
    • Jingo has Ankh-Morpork at war with Klatch (the Middle-Eastern cultures counterpart). Being led by Ankh-Morpork's finest military minds, the army of course left without adequate supplies, water or siege equipment and is attacking the single strongest fortified point in Klatch. Only Carrot, Vimes and Vetinari's presence prevents a total slaughter by getting the D'regs to not attack everyone, arresting both armies and agreeing to surrender rights to an island that sinks a few days later respectively.
  • Dune: As shown in the page quote, House Atreides, and later the Fremen, make use of this, as the desert planet of Arrakis is utterly devoid of any water, and air power is risky due to the huge, deadly sandstorms. Desert power is achieved because the Fremen can ride on the great sand-worms instead, and are able to go anywhere they want because they know the desert, unlike the Harkonnen forces.
  • Generation Kill and its tv adaptation depict the story of a Marine Force Recon unit during the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Dorne adopted this strategy during the invasion of Aegon Targaryen. Knowing that their fortresses couldn't stand against the Conquerer's dragons, and that large invading armies couldn't keep themselves easily provisioned in the desert, the Dornish abandoned their strongholds and repeatedly used fierce hit-and-run tactics against the Targaryen forces. The initial invasion and subsequent wars took a heavy toll on the Dornish, but this strategy allowed them to remain independent of Targaryen rule for almost 200 years, before they willingly joined the Seven Kingdoms on their own terms.

     Live-Action TV 
  • The 1960s show The Rat Patrol depicts the adventures of the title Allied combat team against the German Afrika Korps in the Libyan desert during World War Two.
     Music 

     Video Games 
  • The ARMA series:
    • Sahrani in Arma: Armed Assault (a.k.a Arma 1) has a desert in a section of the southern part of the map (as well South Sahrani troops use desert-based camouflage) but it also has parts with Mediterranean climate and coniferous forests.
    • Arma 2's expansion Operation Arrowhead introduces a series of desert maps in the fictional country of "Takistan" inspired in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Medal of Honor
    • Medal of Honor: Underground: "Hunting the Desert Fox" takes place in Morocco, North Africa just before Operation Torch is about to commence. Manon herself is forced to fight the infantry and Panzers of the Afrika Korps, all the while having to signal in the Allied invasion fleet and then make her escape.
    • Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its Breathrough expansion cover Operation Torch and the Tunisia campaign, respectively.
    • Subverted in Medal of Honor: Airborne, where the mission set in North Africa is merely a Justified Tutorial.
  • Call of Duty
  • Spec Ops: The Line is set in Dubai, and in this case overlaps with Urban Warfare.
  • Stronghold Crusader, set in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade.
  • Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is, as the subtitle describes, set in the Great Banded Desert of Kharak, which takes up the vast majority of the planet's surface and is claiming more territory each year. The entire reason the Northern Coalition even mounts the expedition to the Jaraci Object (later revealed to be the first city on the planet and the remains of the transport ship that brought the Kushan people to Kharak) is because they hope the discovery will help boost the Coalition's space program and allow the Kharakians to flee the dying world. They are opposed by the fanatical Gaalsiens, who have used the technology from crashed ships to build a powerful force of advanced vehicles. Both sides are based around a land carrier, which acts similar to the Mothership in the original Homeworld.
  • Desert Strike, being largely based off of Operation Desert Storm.
  • Sniper Elite 3 takes place in the North African theater of World War II.
  • Battlefield 1 has maps in the Arabian desert, and the final War Story campaign occurs there.
  • Desert maps are a recurring element in the Fire Emblem games. The sandy terrain is a major hindrance to almost all units but especially to cavalry and armored soldiers. Flying units and mages are unaffected, which encourages the player to make heavy use of them. In addition, sandstorms can crop up and reduce visibility, which makes bringing thieves a necessity. One more bonus is that these desert maps frequently have buried treasure situated around certain landmarks, and thieves tend to have a higher success rate at acquiring these items.
  • In Metro Exodus, the second major open-world region is the Caspian Desert. Sandstorms are an environmental hazard requiring use of the gas mask and air filters, and guns get dirty faster, requiring more frequent cleaning at workbenches.
  • Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception takes place in the Rub al'Khali desert in the Arabian peninsula as Drake and a local Bedouin tribe race to stop Talbot and Marlowe from reaching the lost city of Ubar.
  • Squad has lot of maps set in the Middle East and "Southern Asia" (the area based on Afghanistan and Pakistan) featuring a desert or arid environment.
  • Total Annihilation sets part of both side's campaigns on the planet of Tergiverse IV. The mission briefing narrator notes that the planet used to be a water world, but after 4,000 years of war, almost every last drop of water on the planet has been sucked dry for supply purposes. The first mission of the Arm campaign on Tergiverse IV is to capture a Hydration Plant that is mining the very last source of water on the entire planet in the form of an underground lake one mile below the surface.
  • Half-Life: Half-Life, Half-Life: Blue Shift, and Half-Life: Opposing Force all take place in the New Mexico desert, of which the Black Mesa Research Facility is built in and around of. During the Xen and subsequent Race X invasions that happen, the HECU, Black Ops, Black Mesa Science Team and Security Force fight against the Alien Invasion as well as each other, with the Xen and Race X aliens themselves also competing. Ultimately, following the Nihilanth's death at Gordon Freeman's hands, the Race X Invasion ends up triumphing, with their main opponents becoming the Black Ops team sent to replace the HECU following their failure to contain the invasion. After the Black Ops themselves end up being overwhelmed as well, they resort to detonating a nuclear warhead in Black Mesa, ending the invasion for good.
  • Black Mesa, being a Fan Remake of Half-Life, features intense combat between the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit of the US Marine Corps fighting against the Xen Invasion and the Black Mesa Science Team simultaneously in both the Black Mesa Research Facility and the surrounding desert. This fighting is most evident in Surface Tension, where the Marines call in air, artillery, and armored support against the now-reinforced Xen invaders who have themselves brought in heavy units in the form of Gargantuas, Alien Grunts, and Manta Ray craft. Much like in the original, the HECU are eventually forced to retreat from Black Mesa after taking heavy casualties, with air and artillery strikes then directed against the facility.
  • Many World of Tanks matches will feel like this, particularly the more desolate desert maps like El Halluf, Sand River, or Ghost Town. Tanks will kick up clouds of sand, concealment is limited to whatever scrub grows in the few green spots on the map, and the lack of cover will generally favor tanks that can either dodge quickly or deflect enemy fire with their armor.

     Web Original 

     Western Animation 

     Real Life 
  • North Africa became the central focus of British involvement in World War II — for three years. Initially thought of as a quiet colonial backwater where major war was least likely to break out, British forces in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean were pared back to the minimum and it was lowest priority on the supply chain for just about everything. Thus, Mussolini's declaration of war on Britain meant approximately forty thousand British personnel were now threatened by one hundred and fifty thousand Italians. The series of battles that ensued — a Curb-Stomp Battle against the Italians — saw British troops facing a largely beaten Italian army but unable to get much further largely because of the fearsome logistics of sustaining an army, with all it needed, in a desert. Even something as basic as water was fiercely rationed: at the height of the fighting, a British soldier in the desert was issued no more than three pints of water per day for all needs. Later on, when Rommel took over leadership on the Italian/German side, the Axis armies were similarly plagued with supply difficulties. The North African War was as much one of logistics as of combat and was only really resolved when Lend-Lease provided sufficient equipment for the British to gain overwhelming superiority, including in supply and replenishment systems, allowing the breakout from El Alamein and the landing of new British and American armies in Tunisia to overwhelm a struggling, under-resourced, Axis army, that by now was being cut off from its sources of supply in Italy.
  • Many of the pivotal battles of the 1965 Indo-Pak war were fought in the Thar desert of South Asia. This included the battle of Assal Uttar where a Pakistani armored thrust into Rajasthan India spectacularly failed, followed by a large tank battle at Phillora where an Indian armored thrust into Pakistan succeeded.
    • The Battle of Longewalla fought in the 1971 Indo-Pak war was also another pivotal battle fought in a desert.
  • The Gulf War is probably the most famous recent example, complete with Epic Tank-on-Tank Action and incredibly rapid advances.
  • Pretty much every wars in and between Middle Eastern states qualifies in one way or another, with notable examples being the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the US Invasion of Iraq, the current Syrian Civil War and the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
  • The War on Terror, particularly if set in the deserts of Iraq, Afghanistan or in some other place in the Middle East and Africa.

 
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Video Example(s):

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Fight in the Sonoran Desert

An illegal immigrant and the coyote smuggler treks in the Sonoran Desert en route to American soil from Mexico. The coyote holds off militiamen, firing their HMGs in technicals, so that the girl can make it to the nearest city.

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