Academic journal article McNair Papers

From Gettysburg to the Gulf and Beyond: Coping with Revolutionary Technological Change in Land Warfare

Academic journal article McNair Papers

From Gettysburg to the Gulf and Beyond: Coping with Revolutionary Technological Change in Land Warfare

Article excerpt


TODAY, AT THE CLOSE OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, technology is changing at a pace without precedence in human history. One day's marvel becomes a necessity of ordinary life the next. Rapid technological change permeates the whole of human existence, exhausting our mental ability to comprehend and cope.

In the military realm, we have won the most technologically sophisticated war ever fought. With lightning speed, high-tech weaponry annihilated a massive Iraqi force while the world watched minute-by-minute from its living rooms, leading to a fundamental question of critical importance to the armed services and the nation: How does our military--as an institution--deal with technological change? How well have we done it in the past, and how well are we prepared to do it in the future? What approach should we use? How do we even frame the issues?

Herein lies the subject of this paper. Readers who seek exciting acronym-spiced accounts of futuristic battles fought with their favorite high-tech weaponry are encouraged to look elsewhere. The issue here is much more mundane--and much more important--than specific applications of technology: it is, rather, our basic ability to comprehend the total impact of technology on warfare. If, however, you suspect this issue is dull and uninspiring stuff, let me conjure up a few mental images for you.

--Pickett's Brigade, arrayed as if on parade in ordered gray and butternut ranks behind their tattered but proud colors, mown down in their thousands on a warm July day at Gettysburg.

--The youth of the British Empire, dying by entire regiments in front of barbed wire and machine guns along the Somme.

--The British Expeditionary Force, standing stoically shoulder deep in the sea like human piers at Dunkirk.

--Crazily tilted masts of the sunken US Battleship Arizona emerging from the roiling masses of black smoke at Pearl Harbor.

--Lines of twisted and burnt Iraqi tank hulks stretching from horizon to horizon across the sands of Kuwait.

These examples are the consequences of failing to understand the impact of technological change. This stuff is not dry, suited only to academicians in ivory towers, but the stuff that seals the fates of armies and empires, the ink of military history, something that soldiers ignore only at great peril. Therefore, I have made this effort with three overriding goals in mind:

--To lay out an approach to understanding the impact of technological change on warfare.

--To apply this approach to today's circumstances.

--To propose a strategy for seizing the advantages and avoiding the dangers that technological change presents today. Technological change of the order and magnitude of interest here affects all the armed services and all modes of warfare. To keep the study within meaningful and manageable bounds, I've focused the investigation in the area of my own expertise, the Army and land warfare. But the effects of changing technology are so far-reaching that few other issues will weigh so heavily on the Army--and the military as a whole--as we move into the twenty-first century.

Let me begin by introducing some basic concepts: the distinction between evolutionary and revolutionary change and the power of the military paradigm.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1940, GERMANY UNLEASHED a powerful new model of warfare on the world. Its blitzkrieg shattered both the supposedly preeminent Allied armies and conventional ideas of warfare. In December 1941, Japanese naval aviation turned the battle line of the US Pacific Fleet into a collection of smoldering hulks, ending forever the centuries-long dominance of the battleship. Military history is punctuated by similar instances during which the military giant of the day has had its legs kicked out from under it by some second-ranked (or even unranked) power using a "new" form of warfare that catches the giant by surprise. …

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