On Technology and War (3)

Two weeks ago I tried to answer the question, how to use military-technological superiority when one has attained it. A week ago, to point out the things that technology does not change and will not change and cannot change. Today’s post is the last in the mini-series. I want to use it in order to ask: How is a new military technology received, and what happens to it once it is received?

Many of you will be familiar with the name of Giulio Douhet (1869-30). The Italian general who in 1921, published Il dominio dell’aereo, probably the most famous volume on the topic ever written. His portrait graced this column last week. But it is not this book I want to discuss here. In 1913 Douhet was a major on the general staff. In that capacity he produced an article on the above question, which I have used as my guide.

Stage A. A new technology is introduced. Normally this is done by the inventors and manufacturers who hope to make a profit and turn to the military as a potentially very large client. The idea meets with skepticism on the part of the officers who are sent to examine it. Though ingenious it is a mere toy, or so they declare. Good examples for this argument can be found in the Zeppelin; heavier than air aircraft; the submarine; and the tank. All of which were invented before 1914, and all of which initially met this fate. There is even a story about a British regimental commander, who receiving a couple of machine guns, told his men to take the “bloody things” to the wing and hide them.

Stage B. The manufacturers do not give up. They continue to push, sometimes by offering their invention to an enemy of the country they first approached. Sir Basil Zaharoff, though not an inventor but a merchant, was the undisputed master in this game, selling warships to both Turkey and Greece. Slowly and gradually, the military undergo a limited shift. They are now ready to see whether there is any way in which they can incorporate the new weapon or weapon system into the existing organizations without, however, acknowledging the need to change that organization in any fundamental way. At times indeed, they start adopting a new invention in order to prevent change; as the German Luftwaffe did when it developed the V-1 as a counter to the early ballistic missiles favored by the land army. Other good examples of the attempt to pour new weapons into old organizations are, once again, the heavier-than-air aircraft, and the submarine. And the aircraft carrier, of course.  

Stage C. Quite suddenly, the wind changes. As older officers die or retire, younger ones—those in charge of the new technologies and in favor of them—start shouting their virtues from the rooftops. Military history is making a fresh start! They (the new technologies) are about to take over! Everything else is ripe for the dustbin! And so on and so on. Douhet himself set the example. By the time he wrote his book he had convinced himself that armies and navies were about to disappear and that aviation, like the Jewish God in one of the prayers addressed to him, “all alone would rule in awe.” Similar claims on behalf of aircraft were made in the US by General Billy Mitchel; whereas in Britain another officer, Colonel John Fuller, was doing the same on behalf of tanks. Nowadays they are being made on behalf of artificial intelligence and autonomous killing machines among other things,

Stage D. It becomes evident that, useful as the new technologies are, they do not provide answers to all problems. As the defense becomes stronger, pilots find that their aircraft cannot simply bomb the hell out of whomever they want at any time they want. Submariners discover that, without support from the air (later, satellites), their ability to find their targets is very limited. Tanks are threatened by anti-tank guns and are, moreover, only useful in certain, well-defined, kinds of terrain. Carriers have to be escorted by entire fleets of anti-missile destroyers, anti-submarine destroyers, and supply ships. And autonomous killing machines kill indiscriminately. Briefly, the new technologies must be integrated with everything else: strategy, tactics, command and control, logistics, intelligence, doctrine, training and what not.

Stage E. Following the usual logistic curve, shown above, the process of reorganization has been driven as far as it will ever be and is now flattening out. Advanced, even revolutionary, weapons and weapon systems have become an integral part of the forces. Perhaps, as in the case of carriers from 1941 on, their lynchpin. By this time most of those who initially opposed the changes are gone. A new generation officers has risen and takes things as they now are for granted. And they start asking themselves: What has really changed?

Which, of course, itself is both cause and consequence why, as we have seen, so much does not change.

On Technology and War (2)

In last week’s post I addressed the following question: In view of rapid military-technological development that affects every aspect of war, how to best use military-technological superiority in order to win? Today, while remaining in the same general field, I want to look at the relationship between technology and war from a different point of view. In view of the speed and comprehensiveness of change, are there any aspects of war that remain essentially the same?

  1. The causes of war. Whether war is due to man’s nature (which is inclined towards evil from his youth on, as the Talmud puts it), or to structural problems inside human communities (as Rousseau and Marx, each in his own way, claimed), or to issues that arise between those communities (which seems to be the “realist” position), is moot. Nor is there any shortage of other explanations, including evolutionary ones such as are rooted in our biological nature. Which of them is correct I shall not presume to judge. What I do want to emphasize, though, is that not one of the has anything to do with technology; they are the same now as they were about fifteen thousand years ago when war, to the best of our knowledge, was firs invented.
  2. War requires an enemy. Without an enemy, no war. Many years ago, I had this fact brought home to me by a director general of the Australian ministry of defense with whom I had a conversation. He had succeeded he said, in formulating a strategy for a country that does not, or did not at that time, face any threat. With Papua-New Guinea to the north, Chile to the east, South Africa to the west, and penguins to the south, a difficult feat indeed! War, to put it in a different way, consists of the interaction between two (or more) belligerents. A single blow, delivered without opposition and over before it has even started, is not war.
  3. Strategy. Originating in ancient Greece (stratos means army, or host; strategos means general, strategama means stratagem, and strategia, generalship) strategy has become one of the buzzwords of our age. Definitions vary. The way I understand it, it is the art of waging a conflict between two or more opponents, each of whom has the right and the ability to pursue his objective while actively trying to prevent the other from doing the same. So understood, strategy is the same regardless of the environment in which war is waged (land, sea, air, space, cyberspace); the level at which it is waged, high or low; and the size of the forces that wage it. And also, nota bene, of the kind of technology in use at any particular place and time.
  4. War is the domain of uncertainty, friction, hunger, thirst, fatigue, deprivation, suffering, pain, and death. Also, last not least, sorrow. So it has been, so it is, and so it will remain. Such being the case, the qualities needed for waging war do not change. At the level of the individual they are courage in the face of death, determination, endurance, and perhaps a certain kind of callousness as well; fighting is no business for the soft of heart. At that of the unit or formation they include discipline, cohesion, and sheer fighting power; and at that of the commander, all of these plus the willingness and ability to bear the horrendous responsibility involved. All this was true at the time when Roman legionaries, carrying javelins, swords, helmets, body armor, and greaves conquered the oikoumene (known world). And all this remains true in the face of today’s most advanced and most powerful weapons and weapon systems.
  5. The difficulty of containing escalation. Starting a war may—perhaps—be a rational act. One that those in charge perform with a clear mind on the basis of cool calculation. No sooner does it break out, though, then things change. Whether for hormonal or for psychological reasons, the most elementary and most powerful emotions known to man emerge from deep inside the soul and start playing a major role. Among them are anger, fury, revenge, cruelty, and above all, hatred. Under such conditions making sure that war does not degenerate into a sheer orgy of violence, which is of no use to anyone, but continues to follow the direction of policy is certain to be very difficult, not seldom impossible.


See you next week.

On Technology and War (1)

As anyone who casts even an occasional and superficial view at the media knows, military-technological development, driven by hundreds of billions in R&D funding, is proceeding at a furious pace. Not a day passes without the announcement of some new and revolutionary weapons and weapon systems that have recently transformed the entire face of war or are about to do so in the near future. The objective is always the same: namely, to obtain that elusive and often ill-defined thing, military-technological superiority.

As one who has spent much of his life studying military history, specifically the interaction between technology and war, today I want to address the following question. Suppose you have got this kind of superiority. In that case, how do you go about using it?


  1. On its own, even the most novel and most powerful weapon or weapon system is useless. That is why it is essential to embed it in everything else that waging war involves. Including, at the very least, organization, logistics, training, doctrine, strategy and tactics. The officers responsible for all these fields must learn what the technology they are working with can and, above all, cannot do. Also, which is equally important, how the various factors interact and how to make them work together in a seamless team.
    A good example of what can happen if this is not done is provided by the rise of modern armored divisions. Come 1940, it was the French who had the most and the heaviest tanks. However, it was the Germans who, having learnt how to use them along with other technologies in an armored division, went ahead and won a victory so spectacular as to turn into a legend.
  2. Any weapon (except nuclear ones, against which the only defense is deterrence) can, in principle, be countered by one means or another. The enemy is not stupid. That is why, the longer the war the more likely this is to happen. Such being the case, the side with technological superiority has a strong interest in making sure that the war is as short as possible. And the other way around, of course.
  3. To shorten the war, it is necessary to take the enemy by surprise. To take the enemy by surprise, the new technology must be developed and introduced in secret, as far as possible. A technology whose existence and characteristics are known is a technology half-countered. But pay heed: maintaining secrecy comes at a price. It can lead to a situation where one’s own troops do not know the new technology as well as they should and where the integrated whole mentioned above is not achieved. A well-known example was the mitrailleuse, an early kind of machine gun. Come war in 1870, it was a revolutionary weapon the French alone possessed. Being large and heavy, though, it was misunderstood and misemployed as an artillery weapon. In World War II, the fear lest the Germans would use proximity fuses against the Allied bombers caused Washington to delay their operational use by about one year.
  4. Any new technology should be used en masse. Short of nukes, rarely if ever in war has any weapon been so powerful as to be capable of acting as a silver bullet. That is why new ones must be husbanded until there are enough of them around to make a real difference. The British in 1915-17 violated this principle. As a result, their armored attacks made little impression on the German defenses. Only towards the end of 1917 did things begin to change. As Guderian, the creator of modern armored warfare, used to put it during the 1930s: boot them, don’t tickle them.
  5. Following directly from this premise, the new technology should be used at the decisive point. In other words, at that point where it can do the greatest good to one’s own side and the greatest harm to the other. Again, 1940—the German breakthrough at Sedan—provides as good a case in point as may be had. French armor was so dispersed that entire units never saw any action at all. By contrast, the German armored divisions were concentrated against a single sector of the French front (so much so, in fact, that the queue of vehicles reached back a hundred kilometers all the way across the Rhine). Supposing there is no decisive point, a situation of which Afghanistan provides a particularly good example, not even the greatest military-technological superiority will be of much avail. The outcome is likely to be a long war which will finally be decided by attrition

Is that enough for today? See you next week.