The Technical Revolution In Military Affairs

Richard Wood

On the battlefield of the future enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data-links, computer assisted intelligence evaluation and automated fire con trol. With first-round kill probabilities approaching certainty, and with surveillance devices that can continuously track the enemy, the need for large forces to fix the opposition physically will be less important.

General William Westmoreland, 14 Oct. 1969

War is Cruelty, and you cannot refine it.

William Tecumseh Sherman


The foregoing quotations illustrate the confusion and drama that is emerging as the world witnesses the changes modern technology is allowing and forcing in the ancient practice of war. Throughout the world people observed the mismatch of forces in the Gulf War and drew the conclusion that the sophisticated weapon systems of the United States and its coalition allies were responsible for the overwhelming triumph. Although there is no denying the astonishing success of the coalition, many observers question whether the role of the latest gen eration of high-technology weapons had a dominant effect. Naturally coupled with this question is a debate about what a techwar would truly look like and what type of outcomes could be expected given differing goals and capabilities of the combatants.

Studies both serious and casual have reached widely varying conclusions. One group follows General Westmoreland's prognostica tion in predicting 'robo-war'war effectively by remote control. 1 In this view, it is even hopeful that combatants will fight in cyberspace without bloodshedto resolve disputes. To coerce less civilized opponents, these cyber-warriors could disrupt the enemy's economy and war-making ability via electronic manipulation and sabotage. The middle ground is favored by most, with predictions that battlefields will change only gradually. The Economist predicted that the United States would be strongly favored by the moderately new conditions they saw exemplified by the Gulf War.2

The pessimistic view is that technology creates problems and dependencies that will hinder more than help.3 Those who wish to challenge the status quo are increasingly forced into other types of warfare, where the odds are not stacked against them. Martin van Creveld makes this point with regard to social factors as well as technology.4 This article will show that technology, perhaps acting with other factors, will progressively reduce the incidence of what we consider 'war,' while increasing the more ancient, primitive and bloody variety of combat we know as 'civil disorder.' Before delving into the evidence for this dismaying conclusion, the foundations of the hypo thetical technical revolution will be examined, followed by the observed and expected changes in the actual operations of the military. Trends identified during this exploration will be summarized, and projections illustrating near-future conflict will be drawn based on these trends.

Definitions of Key Concepts

It has become commonplace to note that technological change has been both rapid and continually accelerating during this century and that this trend shows no signs of abating. It is not surprising that these transformations can also be seen on the stage of war, which has always been extremely tool-oriented. However, while the pace of innovation is rapid in civilian life, it is gradual: new products are replaced by marginally better competitors, and both new and old technology can be used productively. In contrast, 'products' for battle remain hidden as much as possible, since surprise and uncertainty are competitive ad vantages once combat has begun. Indeed, despite the fact that most of the tools used in the Gulf War were not new, even professional soldiers were surprised at the effectiveness of the modern doctrines, which use new and old weapons integrated into new systems, tied together with modern technology.5

That only battle can provide hard evidence of a weapon's utility forces a chaotic discourse as stakeholders attempt to predict the out come of their various strategies and options. Not only can the outcome of hypothetical conflicts be guessed, it is in the nature of war that strategists must attempt to make such predictions. One result of this is the ongoing debate on the technical Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

Weapons have historically emerged from some form of military -industrial complex, but during the past thirty years a dynamic consumer marketplace has evolved which pushes the boundaries of technology faster and more effectively. Advantages of scale in the computer and consumer electronics industry have created production and develop ment efficiencies that a purely military-oriented marketplace could never have achieved. Ironically, this impending upheaval was first observed by Soviet strategists in the 1970s.6 They recognized the threat of being outpaced by technology years before the West became gener ally aware of a growing advantage.

Roots of the Revolution

Innovation in weapons design is driven by the absolute need for survival and, thus, will always advance aggressively. Yet the pace is uneven, with stretches of relative stability interrupted by periods of radical change. The study of innovation is crucial since the technology of war interacts with the actual practice of fighting.


The idea of a technical revolution is nothing new to students of war. The stirrup, the crossbow and longbow, gunpowder, barrel riflingthe list of innovations that forced radical changes in combat is long. The development of trench warfare and the obsolescence of cavalry due to the accuracy of the new rifles became evident during the American Civil War, although it took World War I to force the lesson upon nostalgic generals. The newly available wireless radio was used with the first tanks at the Battle of Cambrai in November of 1917, later to emerge supreme with the blitzkrieg doctrine two decades later. The air superiority so dramatic in the Gulf War was noted as a critical develop ment in the latter stages of World War II. Changes in combat technology can also have gradual, cumulative effects that are equally radical. Research into the lethality of antipersonnel weapons have permitted the evolution of conventional munitions in ways inconceivable decades ago.7 These changing tools of war impel a change in the behavior of armed forces, and predictions of tactical effects give rise to predictions about the resulting strategic impact.

Organized warfare is often examined as a combination of opposing abstract forces. Generally, in any skirmish one side will be recognizably defensive while the other is offensive. Each uses a combination of maneuver and attrition in the fight. The former relies on using flexibility and initiative to 'go around' the opposition, while the latter attempts to create obstacles that cannot be overwhelmed or bypassed. There is a natural linkage between a defensive posture and attrition tactics (and its corollary), but these features are often mixed in actual combat. Whether the current mix of technology favors the offensive or defensive is a key focus of debate in the prediction of future fighting patterns.

World War I was a protracted war of battlefield attrition, while World War II was tactically dominated by highly maneuverable armor and aircraft.8 A central point of the current RMA debate is whether the balance is shifting further towards favoring flexibility and maneuver or is tilting back to the domain of attrition, usually expected to be pro longed and thus more murderous.

Components of the Revolution

A workable delineation of the current RMA divides it into two distinct but intrinsically related domains. Many analysts focus on the computer as central to the new paradigm, perhaps because it is a wholly new feature. However, modern telecommunications is not simply a faster replacement for old equivalents and has effects not completely subsumed by the computer revolu tion. They deserve both separate and combined study.


Computers have innumerable applications in the military. But within combat, they can be divided into two roles: adjunct and replace ment. In the former, the computer is used to 'empower' the soldier. In the latter, the soldier is at least partially removed from the picture.

The need for speed is a partial motivation for both of these. Reaction times of humans in combat are glacial compared with the needs of survival. Whether the problem is designing a plane that can fly a terrain-hugging path or the immediate relay of data from radar to fire -control system, the answer is usually to automate ever increasing portions of the task. Precision is another weakness of mere humans: until recently a tank had to be motionless to have any chance of hitting a target with its cannon. The most modern tanks can now fire on the move with the assistance of computerized targeting.

As human participation is steadily eroded, eventually the entire job is handed over to the software running the computers. Those functions are still fairly circumscribed; the limit today is the missile capable of reaching a carefully defined target after being given only rough coordi nates. Still, the objectives amenable to computer control will continue to expand. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that can patrol an assigned area without supervision are quickly approaching reality, even if the fully autonomous 'robo-soldier' is still a science-fiction fantasy.


Although computers lie at the center of most sophisticated telecom munications systems, their presence is incidental. The significance of a satellite or battlefield communications system is not the manipulation of data, but its distribution. The radio was central to the operation of the blitzkrieg, and the expansion of effective communication throughout the military results in similar leverage. One instance is 'telepresence': an interim step toward the autonomous battlefield robot is remote control. Operators many miles away might operate weapon systems as if they were actually present. A high-level study for the Army pointed out that unmanned systems may well replace the tank as the next century's core weapon system.9

Another example is comprehensive linkage of battlefield intelli gence. Providing near-instantaneous data from a Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) theater observatory to the tanks or even infantry in the midst of combat would provide a tremendous edge over uninformed opponents. This would be an application of 'information dominance' as discussed below.

Systems Integration

Telecommunications and computers each provide substantial ad vantages and, as mentioned, are intimately related. However, systems integration requires further explanation. Simply acquiring and distrib uting data is insufficient; any office worker can provide testimony to the overwhelming quantity of irrelevant e-mail the computer has enabled. Turning data into intelligenceand distributing it wiselyis a much tougher problem. This is just one example of the need to harmonize the multiple pieces of the electronic puzzle. It is also one very commonly missed, creating the impression that simply having access to technol ogy is sufficient to the creation of useful systems.

Researchers at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory are working on a Un manned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) about the size of a cigarette pack that will take pictures.10 The expertise of so many different disciplines contribut ing to the physical package alone is astounding, while the software required is unique and exemplifies the term 'bleeding edge.' It is not simply for the sake of obtuse jargon that tanks, fighters and ships are referred to as 'systems'the tight coupling of scores of individually sophisticated subsystems into a coherent whole requires engineering skills that few countries possess. The complexity of research and devel opment of a modern weapon is such that it can only be created by countries equipped with the most modern technologies and educational systems. This can also entail political problems, as ever-increas ing costs force the sharing of these weapons not only between services but among allies which may have divergent requirements. Further more, sales to marginally allied governments become more attractive despite the concern that the competitive edge of the developing nation could erode.

Additions and Subtractions

There are other technologies that are also critical, but not central, to the RMA. The laminated composites going into the airframes of the newest fighters allow both light weight and high performance. Other laminates are required in the armor of tanks, where sufficient steel to afford protection would require far too much mass. Ceramics have also emerged as a key component of high temperature engines and again in energy-absorbing armor.

At the same time, all this technology is by no means mature. The difference between workable systems that are still under development and boondoggles that are poorly conceived or too ambitious is often impossible to discern. The state-of-the-art US M1A1 main battle tank had tremendous birthing problems, especially regarding its unprec edented turbine engine. But in the Gulf War the machine performed admirably, even if its appetite for fuel was expectedly voracious. 11 The anecdote of the anti-helicopter weapon that destroyed a field latrine after being distracted by its ventilator fan is repeated often, but failures are an expected part of research and development. After all, the original tanks used in the WWI were clumsy, loud and broke with dismaying frequency, but the concept was pivotal.

Technology Summary

Broadly speaking, the same technological trends that are driving the civilian revolution are providing the impelling force for the military revolution. There are additional factors, such as still-secret composites or vision systems, but most of these will be co-opted by the civilian economy if and when a sufficient market evolves.

On the other hand, the military-industrial complex continually turns cheap-and-simple civilian components into incredibly costly and complex systems. Individual Air Force planes cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, and submarines and capital ships cost billions. The cost -multiplying effect is dismaying to RMA advocates, which continually dream of cheap and disposable weapons akin to their consumer -electronic cousins, only to discover procuring actual products remains inordinately expensive.

Operational Specifics

The next step in analyzing the RMA is to examine the role of important technologies in each of the operational fields of the military. This requires some projection of future developments as well as inves tigation into the progress of systems already verging on the new paradigm. The inquiry should reveal at least a hint of the strengths and weaknesses of existing or proposed doctrines. The difficulty is in critiquing the evolution of the hypothetical part within the whole. The 'whole' may be a battle system or society at large; nuclear arms, as an example, had repercussions in untold areas of civilization that reflect back upon its role as a weapon.

C3I Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence

The factors that direct the conduct of the military apparatus are collectively known as C3I.12 While the television footage from the Gulf War probably convinced many that the most revolutionary change in warfare is the 'smart bomb,' or more precisely, Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), the C3I infrastructure has evolved even more radically.

Information Dominance

The importance in war of good information has been apparent for thousands of years. Karl von Clausewitz defined fog as the confusion and poor data reliability that is inherent in a complex arena where secrecy and misdirection are necessary to survival. This represents a fundamental obstacle to straightforward destruction: since the mind of the enemy can never be knowable in any absolute sense, there is always a limit to precise intelligence.

Yet which knowledge is taken for granted and which is decisive changes as war itself evolves. Today's technology permitsalthough by no means guaranteesa level of information dominance seldom before achievable. This is primarily the result of the telecommunica tions revolution mentioned above, with satellites and computer-to-computer communications taking a lead role.

High-tech weapons depend on two features to out-perform their mundane equivalents. The easier of the two requirements is explicit in the term "Precision Guided Munitions"that is, being able to hit a small target with exactitude. The more difficult assignment is choosing and finding the target. As Robert Pape points out in Bombing to Win, poor intelligence results in the precise destruction of irrelevant tar gets.13 The technical RMA has provided leading industrial states with new tools for acquiring, processing and distributing this information. Some specifics include:

The consequences of the coalition's absolute air superiority was not appreciated by the Iraqis when they attempted to provoke a ground war on 29 January 1991. Their approach on the Saudi Arabian town of Al-Khafji was easily discov ered, and after a massive attack by air and ground forces they were forced to retreat in disarray.14 Control of the skies provided easy information dominance; although theater observatories such as JSTARS provide decisive information even from outside combat airspace.

Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and JSTARS use radar and target control systems to manage an inventory of objects in the theater. These should be identifi able as friends, foes or neutrals, ideally with precise identifying information. Used for the first time in the Gulf War, JSTARS seemed to have a difficult time discerning the difference between pickup trucks and heavy tanks; although the technology to make the distinction apparently exists.15

Aids to visual sight are used in both tanks and aircraft to identify targets that were not capable of responding in kind. The M1A1 tank has infrared sights that allowed fighting even in sand storms against the Iraqi T-72, which is not so equipped. 16 Pilots hunting camouflaged Iraqi tanks discovered that sand cools slower than armor after dusk, presenting an infrared target where visible evidence was scant. 17 Flying in the dark provides additional stealth, but would be impossible in hostile and alien territory without substantial technical assistance.

Automated satellite mapping provides the military of high-technology states with precise and timely, if not intimate, terrain and weather information. This can sometimes surpass what might be available to the forces of the nation controlling the territory. The information can be used not only in battle, but in combat training long before battle takes place, as well as in programming the terrain-recognition programs of cruise missiles. 18

The Global Positioning System (GPS) used by the coalition forces was nominated by one general as the most important invention in warfare since the atom bomb.19 Guided by satellite maps and GPS systems, one untried tank regiment was able to "roar out of an Iraqi desert that the Iraqis themselves could not navigate," in the middle of a sand storm and annihilate a battle-hardened regiment of Iraqi tanks. 20

Microelectronics could provide yet more sources of information. Various civilian and government labs are working on semi-autonomous UAVs that could provide data more intimate than satellites or air-borne observatories. These are touted as being cheap enough to be disposable and small and stealthy enough to be undetect able.21

Relying on computer-mediated intelligence can have negative consequences as well. To permit quick reaction times, programmers may design their systems to present information as if it were unambiguous when no such certainty exists. Without any way of verifying this data in the minuscule time-frames required for action, both false positives and false negatives will create 'collateral damage' or even fratricide. An example of a false positive was the downing of a Iranian civilian airliner by the USS Vincennes in 1988. 22

Even correct intelligence must be handled with caution. After detecting military personnel and vehicles as well as intense radio activity at Amiriya in Baghdad, an air strike by an F117A Stealth Fighter-Bomber was ordered. Tragically, in the hours before the attack, the bunker had been converted into a bomb shelter for women and children. 23

It seems obvious that advanced technology can provide tools for information dominance that cripples the unsophisticated combatant. While there are still risks to the incautious use of intelligence, these have always existed. The corollary is that good use of intelligence does not require high technology. In World War II, US Naval forces targeted and killed Japanese Admiral Yamamoto with the use of intercepted radio messages.24

It is also possible that new risks regarding the use of information accompany the high-technology revolution. Being dependent on a mediated source of data without knowing what assumptions or ap proximations that software is imposing can create dangerous conditions. And with any extremely successful instrument, simple dependence could turn catastrophic if the enemy discovers a way of disabling the tool.25

The Role of Command

Information, however acquired, must be distributed to the appro priate users to be effective, and this must be done quickly enough to allow action. Traditional military hierarchies requiring multiple levels of approval were cited as crippling combat effectiveness in the Vietnam War.26 This was carefully addressed in the Gulf War; however, the evolution of communication systems might require further reorganiza tion. Automating the lines-of-command has been suggested as a way of flattening the command hierarchy and increasing flexibility and re sponsiveness.27

In order for 'empowered' fighting units to respond more effec tively, it might be necessary to give them direct access to supporting functions, such as fire-control systems of distant artillery. This creates the possibility of competition for scarce resources; after all, there can only be a finite number of missile tubes and artillery barrels, and soldiers even potentially under fire are unlikely to consider their needs as non-urgent. In this context the role of commanders might well be to arbitrate and allocate among the various demands; the software re quired to manage the entire operation would be a crucial competitive advantage.28

Sophisticated combat information systems have already provided proof of the concept. In the Gulf War, surviving Iraqi artillery was a major fear at the beginning of the ground war. The coalition's artillery suppression systems won acclaim for their fast and effective work. Q -37 and Q-39 counterbattery radar systems tracked enemy artillery and instantaneously delivered disabling counter fire. One participant re ported that never did artillery attacks emerge from the same location twice.29

Automatic response to an event as detectable and unambiguous as artillery fire is a simple programming problem compared to that which military visionaries desire. The Army dreams of linking every soldier with microphones, earphones, night-vision and thermal-imaging equip ment, and 'heads-up' displays within a helmet providing maps, threat updates and support information.30 Information overload and technical dependence could be the outcome without adequate training, but that arena is also being radically updated.

High-Tech Training

High-tech warfare permits high-tech training that is, ironically, more effective and realistic in many ways than has ever been previously possible. Many combat functions are already mediated by computer ized imaging and control systems. The electronic systems used in training and in actual fighting are compatible enough that recordings of real events can be fed to training systems and those of simulated events can sometimes be 'run' on real systems. The Battle of 73 Easting, a skirmish in the Gulf War, was carefully recorded and digitized for future analysis and training and is 'playable' by Pentagon war-gamers on CD-ROM.31

This allows an increasing number of warriors to be trained in environments more like real battlefield conditions than previously possible. For example, the Combined Arms and Tactical Training Center (CATTC) at Fort Knox trains tank crews in a multi-unit simula tor that mimics as carefully as possible the full sensory environment of tank warfare. Despite the fact that the soldiers are enclosed not in armor but in fiberglass, they emerge from the exercise sweating and flushed, having felt the psychological pressures of a life-and-death struggle. Today the CATTC's Simnet can link up only a few tanks; however, in the works is a "Distributed Simulation Internet" that would permit cross-service training of some 10,000 soldiers.32

The ultimate goal is to turn soldiers into the combat-ready equiva lent of hardened veterans before they ever enter battle. Lecturing a recruit about the chaos and stress of warfare has always been something of a futile exercisethe experience has been unteachable at a funda mental level until now. In addition, discovering which recruits responded poorly or well to the strain of being under fire previously had to wait until the moment of battle.

While electronically mediated environments such as tanks, aircraft and ships can be simulated naturally, the world of the infantry soldier remains much more complex and indeterminate. A 'walk-in' video game-type simulator is conceptually possible, but much less feasible in the near term. Yet the world of simulation and reality also shows signs of converging in a more basic way: when and if crewed weapon systems are replaced by remote-controlled counterparts, the training simulators may actually also be the operating devices for 'telepresence.'

Air Operations and the Air Force

Combat aircraft has essentially evolved into a 'delivery platform' for technological warfare. The 1960s vintage F-8U Crusader was the last 'gun-fighter,' primarily designed for visual-contact dog-fighting with cannons instead of missiles. Today's craft use computers to intercede for the pilot in keeping the plane in the air and terrain-following control systems force the pilot out of the control loop completely. And although the speeds at which today's jets can maneuver far surpass those of decades ago, the fragility of the human body prevents the full use of a modern fighter aircraft's flexibility. Reducing exposure to attack means missiles and bombs are increasingly designed to be 'fire-and-forget,' reducing the time a pilot is forced to 'linger' around the target.

Air combat operations can be divided into two basic functions. One is tactical, where the goal is to destroy enemy units that are fighting back. The other is strategic, where the targets themselves are not a direct threat, but are protected by defensive activities. The latter is behind the enemy's combat forces, normally in their home territory. In some ways the two environments are converging from the perspective of aircraft designers, although there are still niches where specialized functions urge specific forms.

Tactical Operations

According to Robert Pape, the revolution in Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs) has had its largest effect in battlefield air opera tions.33 This is because tactical fighters have targets that overwhelmingly require direct hits: other aircraft, tanks, artillery, bunkers, bridges, etc. Before fire-and-forget PGMs were available, these targets could be excessively expensive to kill.

The success of the forty day air campaign in the Gulf War belies the fate of the fighter. The advantage wielded by the coalition Air Forces was so overwhelming that it was "comparable to that exercised in 1898 by the soldiers of Lord Kitchener against the sword-wielding dervishes of the Sudan."34 If and when the United States faces a technological peer, like Lord Kitchener in the Boer War, it will face a devastatingly deadly airspace.

Combat aircraft today use stealth technologies and terrain-follow ing flight control systems to reduce their visibility to the enemy and fire-and-forget PGMs to reduce their Time Over Target (TOT). All of these expensive measures are intended to reduce the targetability of the planes. It has long been axiomatic that "what you can see, you can kill." The element of vision has been superseded by electronic sensors such as radar and infrared targeting, dramatically increasing the deadliness of contested airspace. The fixes mentioned are a rear-guard action in the eyes of many, simply delaying the inevitable abandonment of the field by manned aircraft.

One obvious remedy is that espoused above by the army: operate the craft by remote control. "In the next century, we will definitely rely more on pilotless aircraft to place people out of harms way," states Major General Ken Israel, champion of one research program into UAVs.35 Removing the pilot to reduce risk is only one rationale, others are to increase the performance of the craft itself. Years ago the legend ary founder of the Lockheed Skunkworks, Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson, recognized that unmanned aircraft could tolerate higher G-forces, as well as potentially cost less since there is no need for pilot life-support functions.36 The elimination of a cockpit also eliminates a major con straint faced by airframe designers.

The impetus towards high-tech solutions to airspace lethality has some opponents that urge lower technology aircraft. Supporters of this approach point to the A-10 'Warthog' as an ideal ground-support fighter: relatively slow, allowing longer time for target recognition before firing (TOT), and very survivable, with redundant control systems, robust engines, and a 'titanium bathtub' surrounding the pilot.37 The plane performed admirably in the Gulf War; however since opposition to coalition Air Forces was so effectively suppressed, the A10's survival against future opponents cannot be realistically as sured.

The usefulness of any future Air Force faces some doubt. The United States' military reputation has long been synonymous with 'air dominance,' yet it took the Gulf War to show how extreme this domi nance had become. "The United States Air Force demonstrated that capability so overwhelmingly in the Gulf War that most countries see the futility of investing heavily in Air Forces if they intend to fly against the United States."38 Because of this overwhelming superiority, antago nists are likely to invest in anti-aircraft technology to deny airspace usage as absolutely as possible.

This trend toward battlespace lethality has been referred to as a fight between "hiders and finders."39 In the open air, hiding is increas ingly difficult and expensive. The arguments for UAVs is reinforced by the stealth opportunities inherent in small size. The miniature UAVs being researched for intelligence gathering at MIT and Sandia National Labs also have a posited combat role. One idea proposes small-scale sabotage of enemy systems by large numbers of tiny autonomous UAVs.40 Regardless of how they might be replaced, tactical fighters will be increasingly limited to situations where they face only obsolete technology.

Strategic Operations

Strategic operations are the raison d'être of the Air Force. Both Army and Navy argue that, for reasons of synergy, they must retain control of the air support roles over their assets. This has always been absolute with regard to the Navy, while ground support operations for the Army have been a sometimes awkward mix of Army and Air Force responsibility. Taking conventional destruction beyond the theater of war into the cities and factories of the enemy is the province of strategic bombers, now complemented by cruise missiles.

Robert Pape identifies several types of bombing strategies in Bombing to Win.41 Denial is the use of air power to deny the enemy productive use of the battlefield: the coalition strategy of making the Kuwait theater too deadly for the Iraqis to retain was a clear example. Punishment advocates believe that targeting the society supporting the opponents' operations will reduce public support for war-fighting, leading to a change of policy or even a change of government. The air campaign against the civilian populations of Germany and Japan are examples. Decapitation is more tightly focused on destroying the enemy's civilian leadership, removing the source of antagonistic policy. The Baghdad bombing in the Gulf War was the first test of decapitation, since the use of PGMs is required to prevent collateral damage (other wise there would be little distinction from punishment). While Pape argues that denial can be successful, he presents evidence that the strategic bombing strategies of punishment or decapitation have al ways beenand remainuntenable.

This article will not repeat the entire argument made against strategic bombing; the key conclusion is that the strategic use of PGMs does not create a 'painless' strategy for destroying an opponent's ability to wage war. Normal wartime security precludes the kind of intelli gence needed to assassinate leadership, and paralyzing the enemy's C3I by targeting the country's infrastructure founders on the inherent flexibility of any society in responding to the disruption of war. How ever, the targeting ability of PGMs can reduce the excess destructiveness of strategic bombing designed to disrupt the enemy's industrial capac ity or ability to fight; although this simply streamlines the results of the various strategies without radically redefining them.

Meanwhile, the same airspace lethality that is redefining the nature of tactical fighters also applies to strategic bombers. Baghdad's air defenses were inadequate to the threat Iraq faced. While the United States and its allies have no technological peers today, their risks in entering hostile airspace can only increase as global sophistication in computers and related fields increases. Since the airplane as we know it today faces technological oblivion, replacements must be discovered if the missions of these strategic bombers are considered crucial.

Sea Operations and the Navy

The Navy operates in two very different realms. The surface of the ocean provides few ambiguities to mislead targeting systems, leaving warships exposed to enemy attack with few barriers. For this reason, they are increasingly seen as anachronistic death traps in any serious engagement. On the other hand, submarines exist in the most confusing surroundings. In information processing terms, the depths of the ocean are a very 'noisy' and confusing environment, providing a natural stealth that saves submarines from the fate of surface ships.

Both categories suffer a lack of mission clarity in the post-Cold War world. "The threats that carrier battle groups and a large attack subma rine fleet were built to confront no longer exist." 42 No antagonistic peer capable of mounting a transoceanic threat is likely to emerge for decades. Carriers are left to project 'power' off the coasts of regional hot -spots, while the submarine fleet is overkill for any role left to it.

Surface Vessels

The United States has twelve Aircraft Carrier battle groups, each of which commands more firepower than a mid-sized country's entire military, and each of which costs roughly five billion dollars a year to maintain. The mission of a carrier group is to provide a mobile base capable of supporting American forces anywhere the oceans permit. Yet both the Navy's primacy in that role and the survivability of the task force is doubtful.

Advances in engine design and mid-air refueling now allow the Air Force to respond to most threats, anywhere in the world, in a matter of hours. Unless a carrier is already on station it can take days to arrive in the area. General William Odom, writing in Foreign Affairs , argues that the Air Force and Army can respond to any situation with both air coverage and an expeditionary group force faster and with more precision, power and flexibility than the Navy and Marines. 43

Meanwhile, the defensive situation of surface combatants is seri ously threatened by the technical revolution and resulting increase in theater lethality. A classified Pentagon wargame pitting the United States against China set roughly twenty years in the future indicated that large numbers of cheap anti-ship missiles guided by satellite information would keep US Naval forces so far off shore as to make their presence irrelevant.44 The results of such an exercise could be and most certainly werecriticized as one unlikely outcome out of many possibilities, but the lesson was stark nevertheless.

A Naval task force depends on a three-layer zoned defense. The outer two are intended to prevent anti-ship missiles from being launched in the first place. According to Caspar Weinberger, these "missiles can best be countered by detecting and engaging the ships or aircraft carrying them before they reach launch position." 45 With the growing efficiency of small turbofan engines and improvements to long-range guidance systems, this seems like a poor long-term plan. At the least the strategy will gradually increase the minimum distance from hostile shore-based missiles, just as the Pentagon's exercise predicted. The inner zone attempts to deal with missiles that are on terminal approach. These are becoming very hard to detect: sea-skimming flight control systems help the missile's radar signal disappear against the noisy signal of the ocean surface, and more sophisticated target guidance software allows the missile to use active radar less often on terminal approach. The missiles that are detected can be targeted by Phalanx guns or their equivalent, which throw up a wall of depleted-uranium bullets to destroy or disable the target. But the Phalanx's ammunition magazine is emptied after only twenty seconds or so of fire. These terminal defenses are highly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by quantity, even as the relative costs of missiles are declining.

An early example of the combat fate of a warship was presented in the Falklands War, when on May 4th, 1982, the HMS Sheffield was sunk by a French-made Exocet missile. The British frigate had cost $50 million when constructed in 1972 and had Sea Dart ship-to-air defenses. The missile was purchased for $250,000 and was fired from 35 kilome ters away by an Argentine Etendard fighter. Four of the six missiles launched by the Argentines hit targets. The more sophisticated Tomahawk cruise missile can be used on targets up to 500 kilometers away, illustrating how the problem will continue to grow.

Proliferation of this anti-ship technology is already a problem: it was another Exocet missile, launched by a "confused Iraqi pilot" during the Iran-Iraq War, that crippled the USS Stark.46 Reaction time is also problematic: in order to be effective, humans, to a great extent, must be excised from the control-loop in defensive operations. This can lead to false-positive recognition of targets, such as the USS Vincennes attack on an Iranian civilian airliner.47 Low-cost and fast patrol boats can now be equipped with anti-ship missiles and have already made near-shore operations in trouble spots excessively vulnerable to surprise attacks.

Subsurface Operations

Given the foregoing, it seems reasonable that the Navy is consider ing the advantages in the design of future vessels of presenting a smaller target on the ocean's surface. One concept receiving increasing attention is the "arsenal ship," a stealthy semi-submersed missile carrier. The ship would depend on external sources of information for targeting, such as satellites or stand-off aerial observatories, reducing its electronic emissions to a minimum. In combination with a low -profile, radar defeating surface, this ship could evade or survive missile attacks that would decimate a surface fleet. Of course, there would be no place for manned aircraft in such a design.48

This reinforces the trends already apparent. Any combat environ ment that readily permits automated target recognition and tracking will become so lethal as to demand a switch to remote-control or autonomous weapons operated by stealthy or stand-off platforms. Since airspace and the surface of the sea are ideal for such information processing, motivation for automation is already apparent.

Land Operations and the Army

Ground forces face a more varied threat. As the Economist stated, "America's Navy and Air Force tend to see a battlespace as a big open space containing either friends, to be protected, or enemies, to be destroyed. To the Army, things look different: the terrain is full of trees, houses, hospitals and civilians who could be friends, foes or neutrals." 49 Yet this glosses over an important point: the empty desert of the Gulf War that was so ideal for tank warfare is radically different from the complexities faced in Somalia or Bosnia. The Army must respond to both extremes, but its success in Kuwait lends support to those that would focus on the easier problem. Presenting the battle of the future as similar to the Iraqi threat urges a conservative approach. Since the foe is technologically unsophisticated, an appropriate force structure would resemble the traditional Cold War-style army, yet one with more technological tricks in order to stay ahead. The resulting policy recom mendations range from strengthening the current tank design to using remote operations.

The tank is the centerpiece of the current Army and has already changed in all but concept from the machines of WWII. The many subsystems in the current M1A1 are each so complex as to require specialists for maintenance or repair, increasing the size of the vulner able 'tail' required to support the 'teeth.'50 The turbine engine that allows it to travel quickly and quietly consumes fuel at such a prodi gious rate that, during the Gulf War, the Army was limited in the speed of its advance by the need for refueling.51 Clausewitz described friction as gradually increasing chaos due to an unpredictable and hostile environment, an example of how this concept operates against techno logical warfare.

The lethality of combat has already been felt, and contributed to, by tank designers. The modern tank cannon fires a missile capable of penetrating roughly a meter of steel armor, resulting in the need for increasingly sophisticated tank defenses. Chobham armor is the passive answer: laminated composites using steel, aluminum, ceramics and fabrics to absorb the immense energy of an anti-tank round. Active defenses are even more bizarre: explosive bricks mounted outside the tank detect approaching projectiles and detonate to deflect or destroy them.52

Further increasing the defenses and capability of the manned tank could become "chrome plating"neither necessary in the face of a weak opponent, nor sufficient in the face of the new types of threats. According to some controversial Pentagon planners, these anticipated threats could make tanks no more than obsolete deathtraps. 53

In response to this trend, STAR 21, an Army study of twenty-first century needs, concluded that the unmanned system will become prevalent.54 Removing the human occupants could allow a redesign with stealth and small size taking the place of armor, increasing mobility and flexibility.55 But just as the overwhelming success in the Gulf War of technologically superior Air Forces can be expected to deter future antagonists from using similar tactics, the triumph of coalition tanks will undoubtedly prevent similar tactical conditions from arising.

The notion of a battlefield, where front lines face each other across a no-man's land, is becoming increasingly dubious. The same deadly technology that operates against aircraft and ships works too well within the clearly defined expanse of a traditional combat theater. Mass armies, familiar now for hundreds of years, are on the way out. 56 Organized warfare of the future is likely to be the province of missiles, possibly launched by the off-shore 'arsenal ships' mentioned above or other stand-off sources, and guided to their destination by forward 'spotters,' carefully equipped with stealth to avoid becoming a target. 57 Alternatively, the role of spotters may devolve to UAVs: one Pentagon official supported the use of reconnaissance UAVs in the Gulf War saying "the battlefield is no place for human beings." 58

It is questionable whether any opponent would brave such efficient killing fields. Thus the Army may be forced to constitute 'Deep Strike Brigades,' capable of ignoring any irrelevant front-lines and directly engaging the strategic targets those lines are intended to protect. 59 It is no coincidence that this sounds increasingly like the province of 'special forces.' The best protection against the automated targeting capability of technology is not to hide behind stealth or terrain, but to hide in plain sight, with the cloak of ambiguity of a guerrilla or terrorist. While the Air Force and Navy need not deal with such missions, the Army cannot beg off, but must evolve to meet these growing threats.

Observable Trends

The technological revolution imposes costs along with the creation of opportunities. Some of these are merely details to be worked out in a gradually emerging mix of weapon, tactics and doctrines. Others require such a reorganization of combat as to force reconsideration of the role of war in global affairs.

F3 Fog, Friction and Flexibility

As we have seen, computers and telecommunications redefine the composition of military intelligence. Clausewitz's image of fog describes the limits to knowledge imposed by the battlefield. Modern tools reconstitute this notion in a way that permits overwhelming information dominance over technologically inferior opponents. 60 But strategy is eternal: the disadvantage can be coped with by choosing when and where to fight.

Changing information availability also changes, but does not end, the role of friction. Previously the location of one's own troops and allies was difficult to ascertain and control once they were in the field, but Global Positioning Satellites and reconnaissance UAVs promise to permit real-time positioning of forces. The downside of such technol ogy is equally important: depending on complex devices that are extraneous to the actual job of destroying one's target increases points of failure.

This vulnerability is also expressed as a loss of flexibility. A unit that has lost its satellite-provided intelligence may suddenly be less useful than one that never possessed such information. Further flexibility can be lost in response to the need for survivability. While a semi-submers ible arsenal ship may survive where an aircraft carrier would perish, it is undeniably a one-dimensional simplification of the versatile system it replaces.

On the other hand, technologywhen it workscan also create increases in flexibility and effectiveness. Infantry trained in the use of night-vision or thermal-imaging equipment and continuously linked with a combat communications systems could indeed exploit synergy to become a more effective fighting organism.61

Battlefield Lethality

One of the undeniable effects of technology is the increasing range and precision of destruction. "What you can see, you can hit" became true with the advent of rifling in the nineteenth century. Satellites and theater observatories such as AWACS and JSTARS have increased the range of vision, while PGMs have increased the distance at which destruction can be accurately delivered. The axiom now holds true at essentially a global level: any identifiable target, anywhere in the world, is vulnerable. Andrew Marshall, a Pentagon planner and respected visionary, warns that in the future, "we can't create large, juicy tar gets."62 This edict is implicitly recognized in much of the redesign away from battlefield combat. There are effectively two responses to the problem of near-absolute lethality of traditional war. The approach that must be taken by the United States or its high-technology peers is to prepare to dominate such killing fields. The other approach is to find alternative means to achieving one's objectives.

Low-Intensity Conflict

Strategists faced by superiority of a certain nature will naturally choose only to fight when and where such an advantage is irrelevant. As the military historian Martin van Creveld points out, "Modern weapons are steadily pushing contemporary war under the carpet, as it were; that is, into environments where those weapons do not work, and where men can therefore fight to their heart's content." 63 For all intents and purposes, this requires the use of civilian camouflage to defeat easy recognition as combatants. This can express itself as guerrilla or insurgency warfare or as terrorism.

It is ironic that the state-centric Clausewitzian definition of war has relegated such fighting to second-class status. Studies of 'traditional' war implicitly denigrate non-state fighting as mere "disorder." 64 Van Creveld points out that, to the contrary, the idea of war as "politics by other means" represents a modern, post-Westphalian invention that is eroding for technological and political reasons. Even today "Low -Intensity Conflict" (LIC) is the more deadly and wide-spread form of war.65 In Bosnia, Somalia, or Ireland, the difficulty is not so much in killing, as in knowing who to kill, or, more often, how to solve problems without killing at all. Many in the Army already recognize this, "a soldier who can speak the local language and negotiate patiently may be more useful in these circumstances than a stealthy B2 bomber." 66 Martin van Creveld quotes Mao, who spoke of guerrillas as fish swimming in the 'sea' of the surrounding population. From the per spective of technical weapon systems, the sea of humanity is more impossibly opaque than the real ocean.


Although the trend away from organized warfare seems inevitable, it will be neither immediate nor complete. The organizational momen tum of modern militaries will continue to demand tanks, fighters and surface ships and will find ways to use them. How the United States and its allies respond to the conflicting demands of hypothetical conflict scenarios and to bureaucratic inertia will create quite a bit of drama in the coming decades.

Technology Race

Technology can be fought with technology, and this will assume great importance as proliferation of smart missiles and other modern systems begin to encroach on the ability of the United States and other First World countries to coerce desirable behavior in other parts of the world. Smarter missiles will beget more sophisticatedand more expensiveanti-missile defenses. Tank and ship defenses will grow more elaborate until the systems are replaced with even more high-tech unmanned equivalents. It is even conceivable that some future inven tion will create the ability to once again survive the lethality of a techwar battlefield, just as the tank circumvented trench warfare. In the mean time, the race is also compelling the opposite extreme, towards low-tech fighting in battlefields that use civilians and civil society as camouflage.

Force Structure Revisions

The United States, as the sole superpower occasionally attempting to enforce a Pax Americana, must face the need to fight the expensive, but rarer, organized war as well as the more frequent and bloodier Low -Intensity Conflict. The inability to use technology to fight the latter obliges risking the lives of soldiers, often in ways that do not permit a clear path to victory. This painful reality is easy to deny by focusing only on the more solvable problem of how to refight the last war.

American planners examining the future of organized conflict argue over two primary paths to continuing technological domina tion.67 The argument hinges on whether the next wars will be fought with technological inferiors that can be defeated with upgraded ver sions of today's weaponry or whether a technological peer (or near-peer) will emerge that must be attacked with a more sophisticated generation of weapons. This debate remains important if only due to the costs involved: the former approach would urge "force structure recapital ization," requiring evolutionary replacements for today's systems to move into the production pipeline soon. The opposite path depends on the reasoning that inferiors can be defeated using today's technology in "decaying ancillary roles," while the two decades or so before a threat ening peer emerges should be spent in research and development on techwar systems that could defeat such an opponent. 68 The techwar advocates groan that the 'crown jewels' of each service (tanks, fighters, carriers) are sunset systems that impede future innovation and should be gradually retired.69 At the least, they should not absorb continuing R&D budgets with what can only be 'chrome plating,' using high-technology in ways that only refine systems that are fundamentally obsolete.

Types and Examples of Future Conflicts

While only the future will reveal which kind of threats actually emerge to world peace (or to some interpretation of it), many observers misread the evolving situation. The technological mastery shown by the United States in the Gulf War is casually cited as evidence that any problem can be suppressed if it warrants such a large-scale mobiliza tion. The Economist recently stated that "the military revolution will greatly expand American power in the years ahead;" and that while some countries may develop cruise missile technologies to keep the United States at arm's length, "the American's mastery of the new warfare will make it increasingly foolish to take them on in a high -intensity shooting war."70 This perspective misses the point: cruise missiles and similar technology can deter America or any other power from attempting coercion. The basic issue is projection : to affect events in a distant theater, force must be physically present. If technology allows everything proximate to a battlefield to be tracked and targeted and if anything that can be targeted can be destroyed, then the term 'force projection' becomes paradoxical: force can never get close enough to become useful.

Wars that clearly involve territorial aggression such as the invasion of Kuwait will still be fightable since an occupying army must, by definition, project force to subdue the defending forces. Any other form of conflict, such as civil or insurgency warfare, can only be suppressed with garrison forces which then become clearly available targets. American power becomes increasingly context-dependent, increasing in traditional combat but decreasing in Low-Intensity Conflict in spite of its technological prowess.

A quick review of the threats that U.S. military planners typically examine will help illustrate the situation.


Since China could only coerce an independence-minded Taiwan with an invasion and occupation, it would be highly susceptible to technological weapons. Balancing this is the fact that, as an island nation, Taiwan is completely dependent on sea lanes for its prosperity. Without risking invasion, China could blockade Taiwan into poverty with even less technology than it has today. Any conflict over Taiwan would likely become an expensive and wasteful stalematecertainly one of the reasons Taiwan has chosen to retain its ambiguous status for so long.

The Korean Peninsula

Since the distances involved are small, North Korea could probably make tremendous advances across the border in a short time. Occupy ing is another matter, as Iraq found in Kuwait. While the terrain would not be quite as favorable to high technology as the desert, the scale of information dominance over the obsolete forces of North Korea would allow a similarly dramatic reversal. It would be extremely painful to South Korea since the battlefield would not be otherwise empty deserts and oil fields, but farms, villages and cities.

Civil War in Saudi Arabia

A conflict similar to the one that deposed the Shah seems to be simmering across the Gulf and would be equally impossible for the United States to suppress. With any significant level of popular sup port, the ability to distinguish between civilians and combatants removes the advantage of high technology. Any military presence that attempts to occupy the land becomes a target. This is similar to the problem Israel faces in dealing with the Palestinians or the British in dealing with the Irish Republicans.


The United States is increasingly unlikely to get involved in wars that do not have technological solutions, regardless of the 'interests' involved. While the cost of evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was considered money well spent, the price in blood of pursuing him to Baghdad was far too high, even if the coalition had endorsed it. Hussein gambled wisely but not well: he knew that the American unwillingness to risk the lives of its soldiers was a limit to its effectiveness. Even if he foolishly underestimated how technology would tilt the odds against him, his reasoning was sufficient to prevent his own annihilation.

The lethality of combat in organized warfare does not, unfortu nately, lead to the obsolescence of war itself. Only the 'organized' form is nearing an evolutionary dead end. The specter of Low-Intensity Conflict is growing, and tragically contradicts its incongruous name. The term "civil disorder" is also ironically tame, given that the number of innocent lives destroyed in futile bloodshed is necessarily high when civilization itself is used as camouflage for war. And yet this is the fate that awaits the end of 'war' as our modern times have known.


1 See Frank Barnaby, The Automated Battlefield (London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1986), or the Army's STAR 21: Strategic Technologies for the Army of the 21st Century (National Academy Press, 1992).

2 "The Future of Warfare," The Economist , 8 March 1997, Vol.15, pp.12-24.

3 Eric H. Arnett, "Welcome to Hyperwar," The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Vol.48 No.7 (September 1992), pp.14-21. A similar argument is found in William L. Smallwood, Warthog: Flying the A-10 in the Gulf War (Washington: Brassey's, 1993).

4 Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War. (New York: Free Press, 1991).

5 Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., "Keeping Pace with the Military -Technological Revolution." Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 1994), pp.23-29.

6 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Strategic Survey 1995/96 (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), p.36.

7 This is admirably documented in Eric Prokosch, Technology of Killing: A Military and Political History of Antipersonnel Weapons (London: Zed Books, 1995).

8 World War II still required strategic attrition it was not ended until German and Japan were each effectively annihilated as sovereign nations.

9 STAR 21 (op. cit. in note 1) quoted in David Shukman, Tomorrow's War: The Threat of High-Technology Weapons (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), p.185.

10 Washington, "Onward Cyber Soldiers."

11 James Kitfield, Prodigal Soldiers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p.402.

12 Some have suggested expanding this to C4I, adding computers. However, a computer is simply a tool, albeit an extremely flexible one. The expansion represents fuzzy thinking, confusing an analytic rubric with a simplistic listing of important concepts. By similar reason ing, some have suggested that communications be eliminated (leaving C2I), as just a means to an end.

13 Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.252.

14 Pape, p.244.

15 Shukman, p.130.

16 Bruce Sterling, "War is Virtual Hell," Wired 1.1; accessed at http:// /1.1/features/virtual.html.

17 Pape, p. 244. As news of the technique spread among pilots, it came to be known as "tank plinking."

18 Sterling, "War is Virtual Hell." To facilitate these related activities, the U.S. military has created an inter-service data standard, Project 2851, to permit interchange.

19 Shukman, p.162.

20 Sterling, "War is Virtual Hell."

21 Washington, "Onward Cyber Soldiers"; also Shukman, 192 and San Francisco Chronicle, "'Robot Soldiers' To Be Ready for Action by 2001," 29October1996, A4.

22 Arnett, p.20.

23 This incident is reported in Shukman, p.135 as taking place on 13 February, while Pape, pp.227 and 231, reports either this or a similar incident at Al-Firdos on 14 February. This possible discrepancy does not reduce the import of the lesson.

24 Pape, p.81.

25 Eliot A. Cohen, "The Mystique of U.S. Air Power," Foreign Affairs Vol.73 No.1 (January-February 1994), p.115.

26 Kitfield, p.413.

27 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot: How Wars Are Fought Will Change Radically, Pentagon Planner Says." 15 July 1994, A1, A5.

28 Krepinevich, pp.24-26.

29 Kitfield, p.402.

30 Washington, "Onward Cyber Soldiers."

31 Sterling, "War is Virtual Hell."

32 Sterling, "War is Virtual Hell."

33 Pape, p.325.

34 Cohen, p.111.

35 Phil Patton, "Robots with The Right Stuff," Wired 4.03; accessed at /robots.html.

36 Phil Patton, "Robots with The Right Stuff."

37 Smallwood, passim.

38 William Odom, "Transforming the Military," Foreign Affairs 76/4 (July-August 1997), p.62.

39 Krepinevich, p.25.

40 Shukman, p.200.

41 The following discussion is based on Pape, p.55ff.

42 Odom, p.61.

43 Odom, passim.

44 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot."

45 Barnaby, pp.59-60 and 75-79 provided the data on warship defenses presented here.

46 Kitfield, p.336.

47 Arnett, p.20.

48 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot."

49 Economist, "The Future of Warfare," p.22.

50 van Creveld, p.108.

51 Kitfield, p.402.

52 Barnaby, pp.69-70.

53 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot."

54 Shukman, p.185.

55 Krepinevich, p.25.

56 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot."

57 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot."

58 Shukman, p.184.

59 Krepinevich, p.27.

60 Krepinevich, p.24.

61 Washington, "Onward Cyber Soldiers."

62 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot."

63 van Creveld, p.32.

64 For example, see James F. Dunnigan, How to Make War (New York: William & Morrow, 1982), p.411.

65 van Creveld, passim.

66 The Economist, "The Future of Warfare," p.22.

67 The force structure argument is covered in IISS, Strategic Survey, pp.34-39.

68 Krepinevich, p.25.

69 Wall Street Journal, "Warning Shot."

70 The Economist, "The Future of Warfare," pp.24 and 15.