Nothing has changed the face of modern warfare more than technological, military and other innovation. Martin Van Creveld, a brilliant Israeli historian, tells us that “technology affects war like the waves of a stone thrown into a pond. The disturbance is strongest at the point of impact; the further the ripples spread, the weaker and less noticeable they become. And the further they go, the more likely they are to lose their identity by blending in with the ripples projected by other stones.
The most revolutionary technologies for affecting warfare emerged between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the end of World War II in 1945, according to prominent military historians. The rifled musket of the 1830s marked the beginning of the end for tight tactical formations, such as the Roman wedge and the Napoleonic column, as well as the brightly colored uniforms that had defined Western warfare since the rise of nation states. By the 1860s, the repeating rifle was making bayonet charges obsolete, but American Civil War generals failed to recognize this fact, and the result was catastrophic combat casualties.
The widespread use of high-explosive artillery shells in the 1850s resulted in the demise of two ancient and venerable military institutions, the masonry fort and the wooden-hulled sailing ship. Yet it took more than 20 years and several other non-military technological innovations before modern steel-hulled navies could emerge. These are all products of the English Industrial Revolution: the steam engine, the screw propeller and large-scale steel production.
Two other innovations of the Industrial Revolution greatly expanded both the scale and scope of warfare. The railroad and telegraph enabled commanders to move large amounts of troops and materiel across the battlefield and to track widely dispersed regiments and divisions for the first time. At Gettysburg, Generals Meade and Lee led some 200,000 fighters. In the Somme, on the Western front in 1916, more than 3 million soldiers clashed. One million people became casualties during the 140 days of the battle, and the result was a draw.
According to a fascinating new history of weapons technology, Firepower by Paul D. Lockhart, in the half-century between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the end of World War I in 1918, “weapons technology has advanced further and faster than it had ever done before… It was a time of profound, rapid, even violent changes in the lethal potential of weapons, made possible by the confluence of brilliant engineers, great leaps forward in the disciplines of chemistry and physics, and – perhaps most importantly – an arms race propelled by governments aggressively seeking every possible advantage they could steal from their enemies, neighbors and rivals.
By the end of the “War to End All Wars”, three new transformative weapons had appeared: the tank, the warplane, and the torpedo-carrying submarine. Senior strategists and commanders now had to manage land, sea, and air campaigns simultaneously. But the military capabilities of the tank and the aircraft were not at all clear when the guns fell silent in 1918. General Heinz Guderian of the Wehrmacht in World War II was the driving force behind the emergence of combined arms mobile warfare, integrating panzer tank divisions with motorized infantry and concentrated air cover. It was called Blitzkrieg. The Germans were able to crush most of the Western European armies in just nine months. The campaign against its powerful adversary, France, lasted only six weeks, despite the presence in France of nearly 400,000 British troops.
In the Allies’ struggle to defeat the Axis powers, the United States quickly became “the arsenal of democracy”, producing by far more ships, planes and tanks than any other Allied nation, and the war ended through the use of atomic weapons, which possessed unimaginable destructive potential. The United States had spent billions to develop “the bomb”. Shortly after the war, an international consensus emerged: atomic weapons should no longer be used, for the simple reason that an atomic swap could end the whole story fairly quickly.
As the Cold War began to take shape in the mid-1940s, the United States military was widely recognized as the most powerful and technologically sophisticated force in the world. This remains true today, even admitting China’s remarkable military rise. The Pentagon spends billions each year on technological research and development to defeat adversaries while suffering as few friendly casualties as possible. The American military establishment and the policymakers who have presided over it since the start of the Cold War have demonstrated a strong and consistent propensity to seek technological solutions to new battlefield challenges, rather than tactical innovations. or strategic with existing technology, or by in-depth study of the culture and mode of warfare of its potential adversaries.
Ironically, Washington’s penchant for finding technological solutions to military problems is a big reason why the United States has had such a poor record in wars since the searing disaster in Vietnam. Our failures there, in Lebanon (1983), Somalia (1993), Afghanistan and Iraq stem in large part from ignorance on the part of policy makers and generals of political dynamics, cultures and fashions. combat of our adversaries.
“The history of US military deployments to foreign shores from Vietnam, more often than not, is largely a story of wishful thinking.”
In civil wars, insurgencies, and failed anarchic nation states, raw firepower and a technology-driven approach to warfare have often proven to be more of a problem than a solution, as these wars are primarily about obtaining and to maintain control of the local population, not destroy the adversary’s armed forces. What distinguishes these conflicts from conventional battles between national armies, wisely observes Professor Carnes Lord of the US Naval War College, “is not the extent of the violence as such but the fact that the violence is ‘inscribed in a political context which shapes and constrains it directly’. …Low-intensity warfare is distinguished from other warfare by the extent to which politics not only dictates strategy, but also military operations and even tactics.
Senior American political and military officials have entered these conflicts convinced that superior technology and firepower will prevail. This is not the case. Indeed, a frank and realistic reflection on the nature of these conflicts, both before the engagement of the forces, then during the fights themselves, has been a rare commodity. All of this lends credence to historian Max Boot’s assertion in The renewed war that “technology alone rarely confers an insurmountable military advantage. Even if a country figures out how to harness military might, it still needs the wisdom to know the capabilities and limits of its war machine.
The history of US military deployments to foreign shores from Vietnam, more often than not, is largely a story of wishful thinking, in which the extraordinary capabilities of our technology have blinded presidents, national security advisers and overconfident generals about the limits of military force. in bringing about political change in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
In short, over the past half century, the extraordinary military might of the United States has been badly wasted fighting the wrong wars in the wrong place at the wrong time.