Is Military Science "Scientific"?

By Voelz, Glenn | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Is Military Science "Scientific"?


Voelz, Glenn, Joint Force Quarterly


The term military science generally describes the body of theories, concepts, and methods for employing armed forces. However, as an academic discipline it is ill defined, drawing from a patchwork of curricula including history, foreign affairs, security studies, leadership, operations management, and systems engineering, as well as other elements of the physical and social sciences. Notably, the Department of Defense dictionary does not even provide a definition. This vague categorization is somewhat reflective of the term's diminished status from its 19th-century usage when Military Science was frequently capitalized and placed alongside Physics, Philosophy, and other well-established academic disciplines.

An irony of the term's decline is that it occurred over a period when military professionals increasingly conceptualized their discipline in the terminology and metaphors of science. This transformation was driven in part by the institutionalization of officer education programs emphasizing the formalized study of military theory. A second factor, rapid industrialization, firmly established science and technology as the central pillars of American military power and arguably the foundational elements in approaches to doctrine and planning. These trends reinforced the proposition that the practical application of military theory, as expressed through strategy, doctrine, and planning, was becoming more of a science and less of an art. This perspective has reached an apex in recent decades, epitomized by doctrinal methodologies seeking to reduce decision-making to formulaic processes--not unlike the methods used by chemists mixing compounds for desired effect. In particular, there has been a tendency toward instrumental applications of descriptive theory attempting to distill complex social dynamics into bounded problem statements that fit neatly into proscribed planning schemas and process solutions. (1)

Military science certainly shares some basic traits with the physical sciences in the use of observation, description, measurement, and structured analysis supporting causal inferences or explanatory hypotheses. However, military science remains distinct from the physical sciences in significant ways, most notably in the absence of controlled, replicable experimentation as means of validating theory. For this and others reasons, the conceptual foundations of the field reside more appropriately in the realm of the social sciences. While this conclusion may be intuitively obvious to most military professionals, its practical implications are increasingly overlooked and are reflective of a deep and persistent strain of "scientism" within the intellectual foundation of American approaches to military theory, doctrine, and planning. (2)

Origins of American Military Scientism

Observers have long suggested a distinct techno-scientific orientation as the defining characteristic of American approaches to strategy, doctrine, and planning. Early military theory in the United States was based largely on inherited European traditions profoundly influenced by Newtonian logic with emphasis on deterministic relationships and predictable linear interactions between forces. (3) Discovery of laws describing the natural universe led to the search for similar constants governing interactions among armies in the field. Such early examples of "military scientism" reflected a growing belief that warfare, like other natural phenomena, could be analyzed to reveal basic patterns and predictable characteristics.

These precedents deeply influenced early American approaches to military theory requiring that authoritative scientific principles serve as the basis for doctrinal approaches, while technological innovation came to be viewed as the transformational element in the history of warfare. The founding of West Point in the early 19th century reflected these influences, particularly under the early leadership of superintendent Sylvanus Thayer, who firmly entrenched a technical and engineering-based curriculum as the preferred intellectual foundation for military leaders. …

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