Another day brings another doomsday prophecy about the future of the military. This time it was in The New York Times where columnist Bret Stephens argued that the military is primed for a Pearl Harbor-like attack and the age of the super-carrier is over. He quotes an article that describes a series of new and low-cost weapons that make the U.S. military’s old and expensive assets obsolete or like Blockbuster compared to Netflix. I’ve already discussed and dismissed the piece as ridiculous for numerous reasons, but Stephens introduces several more points that, like the Whack-A-Mole, need to be hit as well.
First, he compares the American army to the French at Agincourt. It’s an imperfect analogy and perhaps relies on American public perception of the French as weak (though Napoleon would beg to differ). The French at Agincourt had strong but overconfident knights who got stuck in mud, and were then slaughtered by lightly armored and inexpensively equipped British longbow men. This was a stunning defeat for the larger and better armed French that changed the face of the war for decades. But Stephen’s analogy misses the more important technology in gunpowder.
It was gunpowder weapons that made the fortifications of the English (and forts across the continent, actually) obsolete. This was the start of the gunpowder revolution, and French forces in Italy, Turks at Constantinople, and the French against the English castles at Calais all succumbed to the new and truly revolutionary firepower. These gunpowder cannons made medieval forts and their vertical walls and square designs with blind spots obsolete but only for a short time. The Europeans developed new counter-technologies such as trace Italienne that offered sloping angles and star-like fortifications that did a great deal to counter the new technology and produce a new equilibrium.
The point is that even revolutionary technologies like gunpowder are not as groundbreaking as they appear and counter-technologies and adaptations quickly form to negate them. In the case of modern, low-cost technology negating expensive U.S. technology, on the same page I read that the American forces are Blockbuster in a Netflix world I also read that they successfully tested what the American military calls the “virtual twin system.” The article is a bit technical, but the bottom line is that this test can make the AEGIS systems in the American military much easier and less expensive to upgrade, and make the ships much lighter and easier to manage. AEGIS systems are at the forefront of America’s missile defense (and a central piece of my argument against doomsdayers like Stephens). They have continually been upgraded in the face of Chinese and Russian hypersonic and carrier-killing missiles or drone swarms, and the new breakthrough makes that process cheaper and easier.
The United States is adapting its technology, their best defenses against missiles and the supposed end of the carrier. These updates, like the new forts against gunpowder weapons, shows that new and inexpensive technology still has a long way to go before signaling the end of the carrier, the U.S. being the French at Agincourt, or even the English at Calais. Only time will tell what happens, but history says that American analysts should take a few deep breaths.