Technological Change and the Future of Warfare

By Fitzsimonds, James R. | Naval War College Review, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Technological Change and the Future of Warfare


Fitzsimonds, James R., Naval War College Review


O'Hanlon, Michael. Technological Change and the Future of Warfare. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000. 208pp. $42.95

Over the past several years, the U.S. military has officially embraced the idea that rapidly evolving technologies soon will lead to a profound change in the conduct of warfare. The need to innovate in response to a prospective revolution in military affairs is the central theme of Joint Vision 2010 and similar force-planning documents. Some studies, such as the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel, have concluded that only immediate and radical transformation to new systems, new operational concepts, and new organizations will enable the U.S. military to retain its battlefield dominance.

Michael O'Hanlon, however, is not convinced. In his view, most calls for transformation lack any systematic or rigorous analysis of how emerging technologies might specifically change the character of combat in the coming decades. Thus the goal of this book is to provide realistic projections of technological possibilities that offer a better idea of how the U.S. military might best proceed in future research and acquisition.

O'Hanlon examines a wide range of militarily relevant technologies, in two broad categories: those primarily electronic (sensors, computers, and communications), and those primarily mechanical (vehicles, ships, aircraft, and weapons). From this survey he offers an evaluation of where evolving technologies are likely to provide new capabilities over the next two decades, and where significant force limitations are likely to remain.

In the realm of electronics, O'Hanlon expects continued advances in computers and communications but foresees no imminent breakthrough in sensors that will significantly improve one's ability to detect and track the adversary's activity. He specifically rejects the idea that the battlefield can be rendered "transparent." On the mechanical side, he sees no near-term developments that will allow maneuver and strike forces to become sufficiently light, fast, fuel efficient, or stealthy to allow profound improvements in speed of movement or lethality. Thus he concludes that proponents of transformation provide neither a compelling case for a near-term revolution in warfare nor any adequate idea of what the military should be transforming itself into.

O'Hanlon's general projections of future technologies appear reasonable. Yet the reader would be more assured of the author's conclusions if his technical evaluations did not rely so heavily upon articles in newspapers and popular periodicals. One can be justifiably skeptical that information drawn from Army Times, Defense News, or even Aviation Week & Space Technology fully reflects the broad range of scientific research and development throughout government, industry, and academia, both in the United States and abroad. …

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