The Race for Military Dominance

My new book, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (Gotham Books), tells the story of four Revolutions in Military Affairs over the past 500 years: the Gunpowder Revolution (c.1500-1700), the First Industrial Revolution (c. 1750-1900), the Second Industrial Revolution (c. 1900-1945) and the ongoing Information Revolution (c. 1970 to the present). These are all periods of momentous change when new technologies combined with new tactics and new organizational structures to reshape the face of battle and the global balance of power.

Near the end I examine forthcoming innnovations, such as the spread of nanotechnology, genetically engineered viruses, space war, robotic warfare, and cyberwar, that have the potential to radically change the nature of conflict in the future. While the U.S. has been dominant so far in the Information Age, there is no guarantee that its streak will continue. A challenger, whether a rival state like China or even a non-state group like Al Qaeda, could utilize new ways of war (or, in the case of nuclear weapons, not-so-new) to alter the balance of power. Cheap to produce and easy to disseminate, germs, chemicals, and cyber-viruses are particularly well-suited for the weak to use against the strong. If any of them become common and effective tools of warfare, especially terrorist warfare, the U.S. and its allies could be in deep trouble.

History is full of examples of superpowers failing to take advantage of important Revolutions in Military Affairs: the Mongols missed the Gunpowder Revolution; the Chinese, Turks, and Indians missed the Industrial Revolution; the French and British missed major parts of the Second Industrial Revolution; the Soviets missed the Information Revolution. The warning that appears at the bottom of mutual fund advertisements applies to geopolitics: Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The end can come with shocking suddenness even after a long streak of good fortune.

Perhaps especially after a long streak of good fortune. The longer you are on top, the more natural it seems, and the less thinkable it is that anyone will displace you. Seldom do dominant powers innovate. Typical is the case of the Ottoman Empire, which mastered only one major military revolution—gunpowder—and then only its early years. One of the few exceptions to this rule is Britain, whose Royal Navy stayed No. 1 from the age of sail to the age of steel. But not even the Royal Navy could successfully navigate the next major shift, from battleships to aircraft carriers—a failure that hastened the fall of the British Empire. (Business history is replete with the same story. Not a single maker of minicomputers—not Digital Equipment Corporation, not Data General, not Prime, not Wang: all seen as invincible giants as recently as the 1980s—made a successful transition to personal computers.)

History, alas, does not offer a blueprint of how the process of military innovation occurs. There is no single model that covers all cases, and War Made New book has made no attempt to develop one. As James Q. Wilson noted in his magisterial study of bureaucracies: “Not only do innovations differ so greatly in character that trying to find one theory to explain them all is like trying to find one medical theory to explain all diseases, but innovations are so heavily dependent on executive interests and beliefs as to make the chance appearance of a change-oriented personality enormously important in explaining change. It is not easy to build a useful social science theory out of ‘chance appearances’.”

To the limited extent that we can generalize about 500 years of history, it seems fair to say that the most radical innovations come from outside of formal military structures. There are some recent exceptions, such as the atomic bomb, the satellite, and the stealth airplane, but most of the key inventions that changed the face of battle since the Middle Ages—the cannon, musket, three-masted sailing ship, steam engine, machine gun, rifled breech-loader, telegraph, internal combustion engine, automobile, airplane, radio, microchip, laser, wireless telephone—were the products of individual inventors operating more or less on their own: geniuses such as Robert Fulton, Hiram Maxim, and Guglielmo Marconi. Some had military applications in mind; most did not.

Even where government has played a big role in the development process, as with the Internet and the electronic computer, the key advances were usually made by people not on its payroll: William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain (the transistor); Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce (the microchip); Ted Hoff (the microprocessor); Paul Allen and Bill Gates (MS-DOS and Windows); Tim Berners-Lee (the World Wide Web); Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina (the Mosaic browser); and many others.

While government and corporate R&D programs have grown exponentially since World War II, fundamental technological innovation (as opposed to small-scale, incremental improvement) is simply too erratic and mysterious a process to be at the beck and call of any institution. “We can no more ‘explain’ the breakthroughs inside the minds of a Montgolfier or a Westinghouse,” notes economist Joel Mokyr, “than we can explain what went on inside the head of a Beethoven when he wrote the Eroica.”

Because creativity is so unpredictable, no country can count on making all, or even most, major scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Moreover, few if any technologies, much less scientific concepts, will remain the property of one country for long. France matched the Prussian needle gun less than four years after the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz; Germany matched the British Dreadnought three years after its unveiling in 1906; the USSR matched the U.S. atomic bomb four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly. Today, key American inventions such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike.

The way to gain a military advantage, therefore, is not necessarily to be the first to produce a new tool or weapon. It is to figure out better than anyone else how to utilize a widely available tool or weapon. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.