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[Max Boot (guest-blogging), October 30, 2006 at 8:10am] Trackbacks
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.

The NJ Annuitant (mail):
I would hope that our society, which encourages, and sometimes generously rewards, outside-the-box thinking, and which , more or less, welcomes people from other parts of the world, would be open to using new technologies of war.
10.30.2006 9:25am
CaDan (mail):
A nitpick:


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.


Hewlett-Packard did, as Prof. Volokh could expound upon in great detail. ;-)
10.30.2006 9:35am
Kevin P. (mail):
Welcome, Mr. Boot!

I have a candidate for a military used fairly successfully by our enemies: Their co opting of our naive and pliant media into their war propaganda effort, to misinform, demoralize and reduce the support of the population back home for any war that the US might fight. In some ways, I do not believe that the US can fight, ever again, any war that lasts for more than a few months or costs more than a few thousand soldier's lives.
10.30.2006 9:42am
AnonPerson (mail):
I think Max overemphasizes the "key idea" theory of military advantage, and underemphasizes the infrastructural factors. For example, take laser-guided weapons. The idea in itself is not so novel or innovative. But at the time that they were invented, neither Russia nor China had the wherewithal to bring the idea to fruition. They lacked the people, the technology, the organizations.

Technology today is highly interdependent. Everything depends on everything else.

So, it's not so much a matter of figuring out how to utilize an available tool. It's more a matter of having the people (with the right incentives), the technology, the infrastructure, the organizational structures, etc.

In other words, the US is on top today not due to the random, unpredictable innovations of a few key people. Rather, it is on top because it has the economy, the culture, the people, the incentives, and the governance to foster the innovations and the infrastructure required to deploy the innovations.
10.30.2006 9:49am
JB:
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.

This gets at a very important point which you hint at throughout: France, 4 years after Koniggratz, was crushed by Prussia not because of technology, but because of superior strategy. Germany, 7 years after matching the Dreadnought, lost the battle of Jutland and the naval war because of...superior strategy. The USSR, despite having nuclear weapons for 4 decades of the Cold War, lost, because the USA managed, eventually, to force the USSR to fight the Cold War on terrain the USA had the unquestionable advantage on (economic strength and political will).

Because technology spreads so rapidly, it's less important in war-winning than is the ability to make the enemy fight on your terms.
10.30.2006 9:53am
Mho (mail):
I agree with Anon and JB that the technological argument is way overstated. This looks like a "silver bullet" theory for gaining advantage. But history's lesson is pretty clear regarding military advantage--economic power trumps everything, including new technology. To be certain, new technology can allow, for a time, weak players to badger the strong, but technological advantage fades in direct proportion to the relative economic weakness of the innovator relative to their rival. It wasn't by accident that Fulton's, Maxim's, and Marconi's genius came to the service of America.
10.30.2006 10:26am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
I've been wondering about this for awhile.

Do you think we will soon see genetically engineered viruses used for targeted assassination? The idea being we would sequence some targets DNA and then create a virus that acted just like the common cold until it was triggered by their particular mutations at which point it would become deadly?

The future scares me more b/c biotech will go to sub-national groups rather that some military dominance concern.
10.30.2006 11:00am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Also I disagree that economic power has always trumped everything else. I seem to remember there were plenty of prehistoric examples of technology being the deciding factor.

However, I think the difference in the modern world is the institutionalization of research. Unlike any time till at least the 1800s we aren't just waiting for new technologies to fall in our lap we have things like DARPA and an institutional program of incorporating new technologies.

In other words we aren't doing what the Ottoman's did because we view standing still as requiring incorporating new technology.
10.30.2006 11:04am
SeaLawyer:
This article misses the most important thing and that is the individual in the armed services. Also the fact that America will be the leader for the rest of our lifetimes is the fact that we have not had a numerical superiority on the battlefield since WWII, that is what drives American innovation.
10.30.2006 11:27am
Peter Wimsey:
I tend to agree with Anon and JB that claims of great power decline based on the military's failure to innovate seem to be overstated. What we really see is a great power's decline based on the great power's failure to modernize.

It's not the case that, say, the ottoman empire had access to the industrial revolution but failed to apply it militarily; it is that the OE never underwent industrialization in the first place. Its decline, then, was due to its failure to modernize its entire empire; it wasn't just a military failure. The same is true wrt the british empire - it is, after all, important to keep in mind that the dominance of the royal navy from, say 1700-1915 corresponds largely with Britain being the richest country in the world. (And, IIRC, some French ship designs during the age of sail were actually better.) It's significant that a lot of the tensions between Germany and Britain pre-WWI had to do with a wealthier Germany presenting a naval challenge to Britain simply because Germany had become a prosperous country.

It may have been an important oversight that the Royal Navy didn't focus on aircraft carriers, but that's not why it lost its empire.

For these reasons, postulating that the US might lose its military preponderance due to a new revolution in military affairs seems, well, extremely premature. Not simply because the US leads in military application of what I'll call high-tech; it also leads in general application of high tech in the economy as a whole. Al-Quaeda and other terrorist groups may present threats to the US and other countries, but these threats are not, strictly speaking, military threats; they are the threat of particular attacks against civilian targets. And of course these threats will not be based on a new technology that AQ has developed, but the use of an already existing technology in an unforseen way.

But it is true that changing military paradigms do present an opportunity for rising countries. China, right now, is significantly behind the US in information systems applications wrt military technology. But given China's rapidly modernizing economy, it's not hard to imagine them achieving practical parity in a few decades. But this will be a case of them catching up, not of the US missing the boat.
10.30.2006 11:59am
Davide:
Max, you wrote:


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


I find this statement quite interesting.
Do you think it equally likely that the US and, say, Namibia, are equally likely to make a scientific breakthrough?

If not, why not?
10.30.2006 12:02pm
exfizz:
Max: "...the most radical innovations come from outside of formal military structures. There are some recent exceptions, such as the atomic bomb ..."

Is the nuclear fission bomb an exception to your rule, or support? Sure, a vast military-academic bureaucracy produced it, but it was conceived and "sold" by a lone, eccentric, idealistic genius, Leo Szilard. (And it was the great Rutherford who had dismissed the idea; chalk up another point for the Outsiders.)

Of course control of the Bomb quickly slipped out of Szilard's hands, further supporting the notion that the innovator often does not grasp the path his innovation will take.
10.30.2006 12:22pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
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: [...] Tim Berners-Lee (the World Wide Web); Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina (the Mosaic browser) ...

Although I agree with your general thesis, these examples do not support it. Tim Berners-Lee was at CERN when he developed httpd and the Web. Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina were programmers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; in fact, the official name of the browser is NCSA Mosaic.
10.30.2006 12:36pm
AnonPerson (mail):
I agree with Peter. For example, it wasn't that 10-20 years ago, China and Russia decided that the information revolution was useless. Rather, it was that they simply could not execute on the idea.

I do agree that there might be some examples in history of a particular military conflict being decided by a failure to recognize military innovations. But I do not believe that this provides a satisfactory explanation for the current balance of military power in the world.

Much more important for today's situation is...immigration. I believe that the US is the superpower it is today because for at least a century, it has been the destination of choice for the world's best, brightest, and hardest working. The day that the US stops becoming such a destination for such people is the day that the US begins to decline.
10.30.2006 1:04pm
Jeek:
Germany, 7 years after matching the Dreadnought, lost the battle of Jutland and the naval war because of...superior strategy.

I don't agree that Germany lost the Battle of Jutland, tactically anyway. They lost the naval war not so much because of inferior strategy but because of geography.

The USSR, despite having nuclear weapons for 4 decades of the Cold War, lost, because the USA managed, eventually, to force the USSR to fight the Cold War on terrain the USA had the unquestionable advantage on (economic strength and political will).

Nobody during the Cold War would have argued that the USA had a superior "political will" to the Soviets - especially not after Vietnam.
10.30.2006 1:12pm
MarkW (mail):
It may have been an important oversight that the Royal Navy didn't focus on aircraft carriers, but that's not why it lost its empire.

I think Peter is correct on this point. The Royal Navy's decline was largely due to the fact that Britain simply didn't have the resources to match other naval powers, especially the US.
10.30.2006 1:15pm
Jeek:
The Royal Navy's decline was largely due to the fact that Britain simply didn't have the resources to match other naval powers, especially the US.

Royal Navy failure to innovate in the 1920s and 1930s was not primarily due to lack of resources. Much more important was vision, institutions, and key individuals. Jan van Tol has two good articles on this here and here.

We should note that the Japanese "got it" with respect to carrier innovation between the world wars, while the British didn't, even though the Japanese had an even smaller resource base than the British.
10.30.2006 1:46pm
CrosbyBird:
Do you think we will soon see genetically engineered viruses used for targeted assassination? The idea being we would sequence some targets DNA and then create a virus that acted just like the common cold until it was triggered by their particular mutations at which point it would become deadly?

I'm surprised we haven't seen it already.

In my teenage years, I used to play a game called Top Secret with my friends. It was like Dungeons and Dragons, but instead of medieval heroes in a fantasy setting, the players were all secret agents. One of the sourcebooks listed a whole bunch of technologies that could be potentially used as plot hooks. Most of them don't seem so outrageous today.

The one that has stood out in my mind is the anti-rice (or, its foil, the anti-wheat) biological agent. I can't imagine that such a thing would be particularly difficult to craft today; the problem is likely the delivery system.

The question will probably come down to who is willing to cross the ethical line and use the new, brutal technology. I think the pieces are already there, and it's only a matter of time before they get cheap and accessible enough where it's not just stable governments that have access.
10.30.2006 2:18pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Oh come on, the key to winning wars has always been, and will always be, economic power. Even where the apparent disparity of economies seems vast and the apparently stronger economy loses, it is usually because the stronger nation decides the fight is no longer worth the expense. Look at both world wars last century. Germany in both wars had better tactics, generally better weapons, better Generals, was willing to accept higher losses throughout most of the war, yet lost both wars in the end because they were overwhelmed by logistics and industrial capacity.

The great strategic weapons of the last 150 years have really been nothing but a huge waste of money. Strategic bombing has never lived up to the promise of its proponents. The promised clash of the Dreadnoughts happened exactly once and ended in a draw. For all the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on nuclear weapons, only two have ever been used in war. During World War II, only the U.S. and Japan seriously pursued Aircraft Carriers, and after the war, only the U.S. bothered to keep a fleet (the feeble French, British and Soviet ships barely count).
10.30.2006 3:39pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Jeek wrote:

"Nobody during the Cold War would have argued that the USA had a superior "political will" to the Soviets - especially not after Vietnam."

That was true until 1980.

Then there was Reagan.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
10.30.2006 3:56pm
TDPerkins (mail):
J. F. Thomas wrote:


The promised clash of the Dreadnoughts happened exactly once and ended in a draw.


I think you might be overlooking the battles of the Tshushima and Surigao Straits.

Each quite decisive in its own way.

Each was primarily all big gun monolithic armor fightings other nominally of the same type.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
10.30.2006 4:02pm
MarkW (mail):
We should note that the Japanese "got it" with respect to carrier innovation between the world wars, while the British didn't, even though the Japanese had an even smaller resource base than the British.

But neither the Japanese nor the British had the capacity to match the US's ability to fill the oceans with Essex-class fleet carriers. The Japanese edge in carrier warfare at the start of the Pacific War was transient and not decisive.
10.30.2006 4:30pm
David W Drake (mail):
I second Kevin P's point: The jihadis, while not creating modern media, have learned to use the media against us. An illustration of the last paragraph of the post.
10.30.2006 4:35pm
MarkW (mail):
I think you might be overlooking the battles of the Tshushima and Surigao Straits.

Each quite decisive in its own way.

Each was primarily all big gun monolithic armor fightings other nominally of the same type.


Well, not to turn this into a nitpicky discussion of naval history, but Tsushima was fought by pre-dreadnought, mixed battery battleships. And at Surigao Strait, a lot of the damage was done by American destroyers, and only one of Nishimura's battleships survived to be blasted out of the water by Oldendorf's battleline.

So calling Jutland the only "clash of the Dreadnoughts" seems pretty reasonable to me.
10.30.2006 4:38pm
Jiminy (mail):
The jihadis learned to use media manipulation from our own politicians - I remember the Bin Laden election tape that was aired where he parrots a lot of the Bush terms and appeals to the Americans to keep him in office (could he have asked for a better recruiter than GW?). And now that Republican senate race ad uses the Bin Laden and Zawahiri video feeds to manipulate our political will back in the other direction for military purposes. It reminds me of the Animal Farm epilogue, where the pigs turn into men and vice-versa...
10.30.2006 4:48pm
markm (mail):
'So calling Jutland the only "clash of the Dreadnoughts" seems pretty reasonable to me.' Except it wasn't a clash of the dreadnoughts. At Jutland, the main battle lines never closed to effective range, so the only shootout was between the lighter, faster ships of the scouting forces (battle cruisers to light cruisers). The British used their scouting forces as bait to lure the German battleships out. The Germans first sent out their own scouting forces, followed by the battleships. There was a big shootout between the scouting forces, but not the battleships. When the German commander realized that, rather than a raiding squadron, he was facing the entire British home fleet, and was therefore outnumbered 2-1 in battleships, he promptly ordered the destroyers to make torpedo attacks and lay smoke to cover his withdrawal. The British battleships turned back in the face of those torpedo attacks, so the battleship battle didn't happen.

That's just the most dramatic example of a basic truth: Battleships made good floating batteries, but they were so costly that the admirals hated to risk them in actual battle. Fights of one or two BBs on a side did happen, but mostly when one side got so desperate they either underestimated the risk of a strategy that seems suicidal in hindsight (the Bismark), or were quite willing to lose battleships (Surigao Strait).

But that a weapon was never used does NOT prove it was useless. The big success story of nuclear missile forces was that they were never used at all; they were a successful deterrent. (Let's hope that continues.) Battleships were the ultimate naval deterrent for 40 years. In WWI, the German surface fleet did not come out and destroy British shipping because the Brits outnumbered them 2-1 in battleships, not even counting those not in home waters. OTOH, the Brits had to cut their fleet in the rest of the world down to a bare skeleton to be sure of containing the German battleships. WWII was almost a repeat of this: the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow kept most German surface forces bottled up, but a single German battleship (the Tirpitz), that wasn't even floating part of the time, kept many British ships pinned to the home islands instead of fighting in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. And even where aircraft carriers reigned supreme, WWII American commanders still carefully tailored their strategies to avoid the risk of their limited number of full-size carriers meeting Japanese battle ships by night or up close. E.g., at Midway Spruance rendered the Japanese fleet defenseless by destroying their carriers, but did not pursue them at night because he didn't know where the battleships were.
10.30.2006 6:11pm
BKriplur (mail) (www):
"Nobody during the Cold War would have argued that the USA had a superior "political will" to the Soviets - especially not after Vietnam."

I agree with Jeek here. If there was any advantage of political will, it was probably more a product of a positive economic situation than just pure "will" based off of ideology. Had our economic situation been as dire as the Soviet's the "political will" of the country would have been much different.

It is easy to forget that a lot of people in the Soviet Union did believe they were building communism. Of course the cliche in the press was that every Soviet citizen was a dissident - but that was not the case.
10.30.2006 11:24pm
Godfrey's Plan (mail):
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.

Application and usage of technology is ultimately more important than its invention, perhaps, but there is still much to be said for rewarding innovation with public prizes (like that private space program) or a smoothly-running patent system. There is also much to be said for attracting intellectual capital from other nations, as we did with German scientists and Soviet defectors. For example, we should be draining brains from China and India, as they represent long-run strategic threats. Is this incorrect?
10.30.2006 11:58pm
ralph:
I think that the lesson to be learned from the IRaq war is that although we have the overwhelming physical capability to wage war, we do not have the mental ability or will to be sufficiently ruthless/vicious to win. The entire culture in the west has transformed itself into one that actually cares about the suffering of our enemies, and is therefore impotent in the face of an enemy that doesn't care about inflicting pain on us.

Asymmetrical warfare - it is happening everywhere, and we do not know how to deal with it.
10.31.2006 8:31am
Jeek:
That was true until 1980. Then there was Reagan.

Reagan restored American confidence, but I don't remember anyone in the early 1980s saying that Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko lacked the political will to continue the Cold War. Precisely the opposite. Most argued that the Soviets had more political willpower than the United States, and thus Reagan needed to "engage them" rather than continuing his "counterproductive" confrontational approach.

neither the Japanese nor the British had the capacity to match the US's ability to fill the oceans with Essex-class fleet carriers. The Japanese edge in carrier warfare at the start of the Pacific War was transient and not decisive.

Essex class carriers did not just spring forth from the brow of Zeus in 1943. The ability to fill the oceans with Essex class CVs in the 1940s, when resources were unconstrained, depended critically on good choices made back in the 1920s and 1930s, when resources were highly constrained.
10.31.2006 8:46am
rmark (mail):
http://www.combinedfleet.com/economic.htm
10.31.2006 1:00pm
Phill Hallam-Baker (mail):
Tim Berners-Lee was on a government payroll when he invented the Web. CERN is an entirely government funded lab. Bina and Andressen were students at NCSA working on a project funded from a DARPA grant.

MSDOS and CP/M were not landmarks in the development of the operating system. MULTICS was the groundbreaker, a government funded research project.
10.31.2006 10:00pm