Throughout history, technology has been central to warfare, often giving qualitative advantages to numerically inferior forces. Typically, the rate of technology development has been relatively slow and the introduction of new weapons systems even slower, which has allowed evolutionary development of operational concepts. Today's accelerated pace of technology development no longer allows sequential development of operational concepts. In addition, the current global political environment has placed demands upon the military that range from engaging in major regional conflicts to stabilization, reconstruction and peacekeeping, all creating a continuous need for flexible, adaptive systems and new concepts of operation.
The first purpose of this paper is to describe principal new developments in technology in the framework of how they can improve operational effectiveness in the uncertain world of the 21st century. The technologies are presented generically rather than by system, because a broader and more generic technology base is required to meet evolving opportunities. A second purpose is to examine the related issue of technology development and acquisition. Expectations for the rapid introduction of technologies that promote transformation must be tempered by the military requirement for continuous capability, even as new systems and operational concepts are introduced. Finally, although the United States leads the world in the development of military systems, the foundational military science and technology base shows signs of erosion. This erosion must be arrested if American military superiority is to be maintained.
The Role of Technology in Transformation
The military that was developed to fight the Cold War in a bipolar world must transform to meet current and future challenges. Retired Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, head of the Office of Force Transformation, has discussed transformation in the context of three new strategic elements: globalization of information, ideologies, and economic opportunities; transition from the familiar Cold War threat to one that is non-nodal, more pervasive, and often nonstate, nondeterable, and nondetectable; and reduced cost of information technology, which has lowered the barriers to competition and tended to level the technology playing field--that is, technology alone will be insufficient to ensure American military superiority. More important is how technology shapes and is employed by the military--how it promotes transformation. Transformation is important because the resources of the U.S. military, while the greatest in the world, are still limited both in materiel and personnel. Limits mean choices, and in the turbulent global environment, choices mean changes.
Developers of technology are inclined to claim that their products are "transformational." However, even such emerging technologies as information systems, hypersonic weapons, and unmanned vehicles are not intrinsically transformational. Their military relevance must be demonstrated in the context of their contribution to the creation of a truly joint force that can create decisive military effects in support of a global strategy to defend and promote American national interests globally.
Technology can be evolutionary, that is, contribute systems that fit within existing operational concepts and organization, or revolutionary or disruptive, that is, require new operational and organizational structures to realize an enhanced military capability. In general, technologies that are disruptive promote broad transformation by requiring military organizations to adapt to radically new capabilities.
Typically 15 to 20 years pass while a weapons system moves from concept development through engineering development, prototyping, manufacturing, and operational evaluation to initial operational capability. Therefore, to anticipate the impact of new technologies on transformation in the next decade, it is not necessary to predict the future of new technology, but rather to look at currently emerging technologies, such as the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) and the airborne laser boost-phase missile defense system, and relate them to the emerging military tasks or missions expected of the armed forces in the future, as well as to the military attributes assigned to a transformational force. …