Academic journal article McNair Papers

1. the Rising Tidal Wave

Academic journal article McNair Papers

1. the Rising Tidal Wave

Article excerpt

      Despite the waning of military technology competition,
   information technology, driven by burgeoning commercial
   markets, is likely to continue its rapid pace of development for
   a decade or two. Such advances are most logically deployed
   in distributed rather than concentrated form.

The influence of technology on conflict over the next several decades will be the result of a great irony. Just as the political motivation for developing military technology has declined, the information technology fungible to conflict is about to accelerate.

Military Competition Quiescent

The years 1939 to 1989, which included World War II and the Cold War, saw intense technological competition between the United States and its adversaries--first Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union. During both Hot and Cold Wars our national security was perceived as directly threatened--any slackening on our part could put us on the wrong side of a deep strategic abyss, with our survival at risk. Our adversaries felt the same hot breath of competition.

Such fears put a premium on developing military technology rapidly lest one side develop an advantage the other could not trump. The strategic arena hosted the nuclear contests, bomber gaps, missile gaps, windows of opportunity, and Star Wars. The conventional arena saw submarines vie with ships, tanks with antitank missiles, stealth aircraft with radar-based air defenses, chemical weapons with antidotes and the entire panoply of electronic warfare including counter, and counter-counter. Our advances sparked theirs; theirs sparked ours. Military technology evolved under hothouse conditions, and military equipment became ever more differentiated from its commercial counterparts.

The end of the Cold War has retarded military technology competition. Although the United States (and others) may respond with new technology to emergent means of war (e.g., SCUDs used as instruments of terror), no country can respond to our innovations as the Soviets did. Other motivations are also muted. Tomorrow's improved jet fighter may trespass Third World airspace with less loss of life. Yet its successful development would be less likely to influence the global balance of power as preceding developments may have done.

The same trends have, if anything, heightened commercial competition from both former Warsaw Pact technologists, and the growing electronics manufacturing base of a more market-oriented China. Thus commercial information technology will continue to advance at a rapid clip. With every year, more and more technology comes from the commercial side. Even before the Cold War ended, the leading role of defense acquisition had begun to fade. Military electronics started lagging behind commercial electronics and could only hope to stay current through spin-ons of commercial technologies.

It is precisely as the motivation for conducting revolutions in national security technology slows down that the means of doing so accelerates. The latter may yet overcome the inertia of the former. At that point, the world of conflict will be radically transformed. Although most elements of the new battlefield will arrive by 2010, exactly when every aspect appears and is demonstrated will depend on who is fighting whom and where. Yet once someone exhibits such capabilities, others will try to follow close behind. Military competition, though usually latent, does not tolerate fudging when it emerges.

The impact of the information revolution in civil affairs is likely to follow a smoother but not less radical pace. Personal computers, networks, facsimile machines, and cellular telephones have rendered large chunks of the West's workspace unrecognizable. Their spread to the "South" (the Third World)--with its far different societies--is likely to promote even greater discontinuity. In some ways, present conditions in underdeveloped nations resemble past conditions in developed ones: Korea circa 1988 equals Japan circa 1964. …

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