View Full Version : Technology vs. Tradition in Military Thinking

Thursday, December 2nd, 2004, 04:27 PM
Perun: Interesting thoughts on this question.

In recent years, most of the new ideas concerning warfare, as discussed in the professional military literature, have focused on the growing role of advanced military technology. In fact, the study of military technology seems to have largely replaced the study of the political, social, and strategic dimensions of war. For many, the advantages of a long-awaited panacea for the complex political and strategic problems of waging war.

The current military literature abounds with discussions of ‘the Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA), ‘information warfare’, ‘information superiority’, ‘information dominance’, ‘cyber-war’, ‘true battlespace transparency’, ‘post-heroic war’, ‘dominant battle awareness’, and so on. Given the actual and perceived success of the high-tech wars against Iraq and, more recently, against the Serbs in Kosovo, this is not surprising. Precision bombing and the extensive use of cruise missiles in these instances produced spectacular victories at an incredibly cheap cost in terms of human casualties. As a result, all seem to point to new forms of war dominated by the successful exploitation of high-tech military technologies.

Indeed, modern military technology boasts astounding new possibilities that were not even dreamed of a few decades ago and appears to confer a great and unilateral material advantage upon those who dominate research and production in the area (i.e., the United States, NATO, and perhaps Russia in some dimensions). While such technological advances should of course be fully exploited whenever possible, past and more recent experiences also point to the limits of what can be achieved by technological superiority alone. There are, however, at least four points that must be considered before the role played by the latest military technologies in the Gulf War and in Kosovo is accepted as a model for future wars. After all, the particular political social, and military/technological environment that provided optimum conditions for the successes of state-of-the-art technology will not necessarily be present in future conflicts.

First we must remember that the great military success enjoyed by the United States and its allies in the Gulf War as well as in Kosovo was not equally matched by political success. Ultimately, war is about ‘compelling the enemy to do our will’, that is, achieving our political objectives in order to translate a military victory into a political environment better than that which existed before the resort to force. From this point of view, both the Gulf War and the war in Kosovo produced only mixed success in the long run and in some ways even proved counter-productive. The fact that peace and stability on the victor’s terms were never achieved clearly illustrates the meaning of Clausewitz’s subtle observation that ‘in war the result is never final’. In other words, success and finality in war depend more on political wisdom than on military success. This point, like those that follow, is not intended to suggest that technology is unimportant. It is simply there to remind us that technology, while of greatest importance, is still only the means; as such, it is always secondary to the political and strategic non-material dimensions of war. Thus, technological and material victories are inseparable from the political and ‘strategic’ dimensions, but in the final analysis they are at best only a necessary but rarely sufficient condition for a final and complete victory. For the victors in most recent wars, the preponderance of attention paid to technological and material success, with its concomitant neglect of strategic and policy failures, has indeed prevented the achievement of their ultimate long-range objectives.

Second, the resounding military victories over Iraq and Serbia were achieved against nations that, for political and social(as well as technological) reasons, were not able to fight back on equal terms….Military technologies undoubtedly made a decisive contribution to the victories achieved and actually performed better than expected. It is of course easier to fight against an opponent whose ‘trinity’ is in disarray and out of equilibrium. How much of these victories can be attributed to the fact that the United States and its allies were fighting against isolated regimes run by incompetent leaders, whose populations lacked the will to fight or support their own governments? Could such quick and cheap victories have been achieved against dedicated, resolute opponents such as the North Vietnamese, the Afghanis, or the Chechens? Being exceptional, ideal conditions for the uncompromised application of military power will not always be present in the future. Even the most advanced military technologies need considerable time, which is seldom allowed by the political environment, to achieve their full impact. Political counter-pressure typically limits the time available to launch a unilateral attack before other powers begin to interfere….A fourth point is that other states (for example, Russia and China) which closely follow the success of U.S. ‘high-tech’ weapons in action will gradually develop equally effective state-of-the-art weapons and counter-measures. At that point, and in all cases where both sides have comparable advanced technologies, no state will have an advantage over its opponent(as is often assumed in the literature); may become prolonged and costly. Once a conventional high-tech war is fought between technologically equal opponents, the pace and accuracy of the destructive power wielded will increase, but their advanced technological capabilities will not give either side any particular advantage.

Many of the latest military theories and doctrines assume tacitly or explicitly that the wars of the future will be waged with perfect or nearly perfect information and intelligence(‘information dominance’). These theories envision a scenario in which the technologically advance side, with flawless command, control, and communications, will always identify and hit targets with precision. Yet this vision is a chimera, because it implies that friction in war will be greatly reduced if not eliminated. By definition, friction cannot be eliminated when two(or more) forces clash, for movement alone creates friction. Those who labor under the illusion that information can be monopolized by one side needs to re-examine the complexities of war as described so long ago by Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Clausewitz, and many other classical theorists. There is no better remedy for the plethora of these recent theoretical works on war than a careful reading of the classics. While the outward shape and material dimensions of war may shift continuously, the essence of war remains unchanged. War thus remain a dynamic and reciprocal activity to which various advantages are gained and lost as both sides adapt to successive challenges. War simply cannot be reduced to algebra or to an exact science….As Clausewitz says, ‘…action is no mathematical construction, but has to operate in the dark, or at best in the twilight’(Clausewitz, [I]On War, pg. 545). Perhaps some of the darkness has been lifted, which means that war is now fought in more twilight than in darkness, but war is still not fought in ‘broad daylight’. As soon as one side endeavors to lift the darkness, his opponent works just as hard to increase it through secrecy, deception, or any other available counter-measures. As a result, darkness and twilight, with an occasional ray of sunshine, will perpetually constitute the environment of war…..Technology is only a means in war, which cannot produce complete victory and success by itself. In an age of staggering material and technological progress and change, when we instinctively search for technological and scientific ‘rational’ solutions, it has become more important than ever to identify those dimensions that have remained constant. Paradoxically, therefore, it is now more, not less, critical to study the classical works on war.

-- Michael I Handel Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought pg.xx-xxiv