A desert is a region where rain evaporates as fast as it falls. As a result, there is no runoff to feed rivers and lakes and little ground moisture to support vegetation. Deserts typically receive less than 10 inches (25 cm) of precipitation per year, while steppes receive precipitation of 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50 cm) of precipitation per year. Deserts are often characterized by high temperatures, though cold deserts exist at high altitude or in subarctic regions where temperatures are frigid.

From a military perspective, a desert is characterized by lack of cover, absence of sources of fresh water, and high temperatures.  Terrain could vary from ergs (sand seas) to rugged exposed bedrock, both detrimental to movement, but most desert terrain lay between these extremes and was often no particular hindrance to military movement. On the other hand, movement tended to stir up dust that was uncomfortable for troops, hard on vehicular engines (which usually required special dust filters), and could give away one's position to the enemy. Many deserts had low relief that provided few landmarks for navigation, requiring the use of compass and sextant.

Under the hot, dry conditions characterizing deserts, supplying sufficient water posed a serious logistical challenge. Under very hot conditions, a man could die of dehydration in less than 48 hours. The minimum daily drinking water requirement could easily exceed a gallon per day, and additional water was required for vehicle radiators. Operations in North Africa were often dependent on water companies equipped to drill deep wells to reach groundwater, or on water pipelines laid from reliable water supplies in rear areas. Oases (desert springs) often became important military objectives.

Men engaged in heavy physical activity in desert areas risked heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition in which the brain center that controls body temperature is impaired by overheating and the core body temperature spirals out of control. During the Russian advance into western Manchuria, where temperatures were 95F (35C) during the day, each division lost about 30 to 40 men a day from heat stroke.

Desert operations played only a limited role in the war against Japan. Japanese troops conducted operations in the Mongolian steppes, but this was a backwater theater until the Russian invasion of Manchuria in 1945. Had the Japanese ever invaded Australia, there might have been significant combat operations in the desert regions of that continent's interior.  The most significant combat to take place in a semiarid climate occurred in the Burma campaign: The Burmese Dry Belt is a region of central Burma whose monsoon climate is characterized by a hot, dry winter during which much of the local vegetation loses its foliage to conserve water.


FM 21-10 (1945-7; accessed 2012-8-17)

Glantz (2003)

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