The Small Wars Journal published an interesting article arguing that warfare is entering a new age of hyper-connectivity, relentless innovation and use of prototypes. The author, Peter Layton, points to the increasing use of physical-to-digital processes and how this can make small organizations more specialized. While there are some new and innovative uses of technologies such as the use of 3-D printing, drones, and possible new smart bombs, I found this author’s view of warfare rather fanciful naval gazing that overstates the role of technology.
A cursory knowledge of recent history suggests some caution. The First Gulf War was called by many analysts as the first video game war. The 90s featured many military personnel pushing what was called the Revolution in Military Affairs and the early 2000s included items like so-called 4th generation warfare. This was supposed to be so decisive that American technology would revolutionize the battlefield and get inside of the opposition’s military decision-making process.
Yet the new military with super-dominant “revolutionary” technology found that shock and awe only went so far: basic things like a wooden frame that facilitates the soldiers exit from 5-ton trucks and extra armor for their Humvees often mattered more than the fanciest technology. (Though advanced electronics and jammers have shown promise in preventing IEDs from being detonated remotely.)
The Small Wars articles about the fourth industrial age pointed out that the German army was only about 10-15 percent modernized at the start of the war and yet still conquered vast amounts of Europe. But the author failed to point out that their lack of modernized and motorized supply core was a key flaw in Germany’s war effort. Despite their fancy technology and advanced tanks, historians like Richard Overy have argued that it was the allies’ use of old technology, such as infantry, artillery and sturdy tanks, that actually won the war.
There are many popular models in military history, but they often are dazzled by fancy technology and not based on sound historical knowledge. The Germanic tribes that ambushed the Romans relied on a primitive version of network-centered warfare. The ancient chariot was the tank of its day, and modern helicopter forces were directly positioned on horse-based cavalry units. The technology might make things better and stronger, but there is a school of thought, backed by many examples throughout history, that there is really nothing new under the sun.
The U.S. should discuss and try to implement new technologies. But we can’t be so ready to jump on the bandwagon with fancy new terms for untested technology when the example of history, from World War II and especially modern events, suggest that tried and true principles matter more than technological advancements.