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Part 3: Technology Shapes Warfare

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- This is Part III in a Three Part Series -

This article originally published on our Home Page in July 2012

In this article we continue with the third and final installment in a series of three essays on technology and war. In our first essay we looked at the search for the ultimate weapon and its impact on war, in the next we looked into how technology shaped warfare. This time we bring these two together and look into how Human Agency when added to the mix of technology and warfare determines the outcome of war.

Pace of development of emerging technologyIn our earlier articles we said that in great measure war determines the pace of advancement of technology, while technology determines how warfare is conducted and how warfare determines the final outcome of a war. Our position has been that if a country wants to control the final outcome of a war it needs to aggressively develop emerging technologies that will enable an exponential lift in a country’s ability to conduct warfare, or, as they say in business: create a hockey stick change in a country’s ability to achieve its goals. The question that should be asked is what causes the exponential lift in a country’s ability to conduct warfare? That is, what outside force is it that when added to the emerging technologies that come along allows the creation of a winning form of warfare?

To understand the answer to this it would be worthwhile to review again some of the positions we took in our earlier articles. For one, we said that while we concede that the evolution of weaponry is what changes warfare, what we didn’t concede is that changes in weaponry determine the outcome of war. Specifically, we said that technology (and therefore weaponry) is not deterministic. Clearly, what we were saying was that it’s not the weaponry that is important but what is done with it.

Do you trust this guy?Nuclear weapons by themselves are benign. In the hands of a radical religious leader like Ahmadinejad though they can threaten the world. So is it the nuclear technology that is the culprit here or the mind and intention of the guy nervously holding the trigger mechanism? The reader will quickly agree, it’s the mind of the weapon holder that is the driving force behind the risk that is inherent in technology.

And yet while this is true it is only part of the story. A more interesting part of the story is that it’s not the evolution of weaponry that is important but its distribution. Yes, the distribution of weaponry is more critical than the weapons themselves. Therein the conundrum with Iran and North Korea and their quest for not only nukes but a way to deliver them.  

If this sounds counterintuitive it's because it is. Throughout history most wars have taken place under a state of weapons symmetry. Today that symmetry is disappearing and for America that is good.

Weapons symmetry is dangerousTake the first Gulf War; during it Saddam Hussein tried to defeat America’s conventional mechanized Army with his own conventional mechanized Army. Traditionally speaking, weapons wise the war was one of symmetry. What tipped the balance in our favor was the combination of the quality of our troops (think: Human Agency) and the edge our more advanced technologies gave us. These two factors, which can be thought of as just another form of weaponry, shows that Saddam didn't have the same kind of weapons we did. That is, the distribution of weapons was in fact uneven. And therein a key point to be learned: any country that wants to win the wars it gets into has to pay as much attention to stopping those countries that pose a threat from getting leading edge weapons as it does in getting those weapons itself. It's not enough to simply build new weapon systems, you have to stop the other guy from doing so too.

We can see this in action if we go back again and look at the second Gulf War. In the second Gulf War the enemy learned its lesson and resorted instead to what has come to be known as insurgent based asymmetric warfare. In this new fight America’s high-tech weapon systems proved of diminished value against the enemy’s low-tech instruments of suicide bombers, targeted murders, assassinations, and terror. It was only after the U.S. adjusted its technology by introducing COIN to meet this new form of warfare that the bad guy’s tactics began to lose their edge.

COIN Dynamic InterationCOIN as a technology, you say? Yes. More than just a doctrine or a strategy, in the realm of warfare COIN approaches that of being a technology of its own. First, it's utility on the field of war makes it akin to a weapon system and second, if the superior skills of our military leaders are part of Human Agency then clearly their ability to apply that cleverness to the task of assembling an integrated mix of kinetic and non-kinetic actions, troop movements, tactics, and other factors to create a means to defeat a strategic initiative by the enemy makes the result of that effort analogous to a new form of technology. Think of it: a 105mm Howitzer is clearly a piece of technology. When Human Agency is applied to it and it is placed en masse as part of a predefined set of supporting weapons and tactics such as are found in a firebase the combination becomes a technology upon which Human Agency has acted to create a new form of warfare. In our view this is no different that what happens when COIN is created from a seemingly motley mix of economic, social and political initiatives layered on top of troop movements, kill teams, drones, FOBs and special ops. It becomes a weapon system and in the triumvirate of war, technology and warfare weapon systems fit into the category called technology.

But we don't have to argue this point because the more important point is that its the superior skills of the military leaders who created the concept of COIN that is what is important here. From a military perspective superior skills encompass all of those things that come from superior training and best of breed combat principles, like distributed decision making abilities, enhanced capacity to communicate in real time, numbers of men, and will to succeed. It also encompasses the ability to think on one's feet, combine the tools at one's disposal to create a better tool, and things of this nature. Intellectually, it's what philosophers and sociologists call the capacity of an agent to act. In other words: Human Agency.

Pieter Bruegel - Icarus -- Human AgencyThus, it’s Human Agency that, when applied to a known technology, allows the “agent” to alter that technology so that it is more effective… in this case in combating the enemy. The result of such a situation, the application of Human Agency to a given technology, more often than not results in an extended form of the original technology, one that is more effective in accomplishing the chosen purpose. By these standards most wars, when properly reviewed and assessed in terms of how they were won, can be seen as having had their outcome determined not by politics but by the nature of the technology that each side could apply to its mode of warfare. You can see then the importance of a country not only fostering newer forms of technology, but of denying their distribution to potential enemies.

Why do we put the emphasis on the emerging technology and not Human Agency? Because while we may want to think otherwise the truth is that America does not have a stranglehold on creativity and unique skills. What stops other countries from being able to do what we can do when it comes to warfare is not a lack of Human Agency potential, it's a lack of emerging technology on which to put that Human Agency to work.

Thank God.

So when it comes to assuring that a country has the best form of warfare at its disposal to protect its interests what we see is that a fine balance must exist between i) the quality and quantity of people with Human Agency that are made available by a country to work on improving its form of warfare, ii) the extent to which the country continues to invest in emerging technologies so that there are sufficient doors opened for those people to walk through, and iii) the encouragement that a country gives to those people to pass through those doors and apply their Human Agency to the emerging technologies.

Think of it as a three legged stool: the availability of people with Human Agency, the availability of new technologies for them to act on and a country bound and determined to bring these two together.

If there is anything that we should learn from this it is that it's not the weapons that determine the result of warfare folks, it's a country's determination to keep this three legged stool in play—during both war and peacetime. Throughout history hundreds of seemingly wondrous new weapons were thought to be able to change the result of a war but they didn’t. Such emerging technologies from the introduction of gunpowder by the Chinese through to the great battleships of the past, trench warfare, the airplane, carpet bombing, agent orange, and even nuclear weapons did little more than impact how a war’s managers fought the war not what the result ended up being.

Unconditional SurrenderFor those of you who are skeptical and would point to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples of technology ending a war we would disagree. Yes, the nukes we dropped on Japan worked well but they didn’t win the war. It was the mode of warfare adopted that ended the war. That mode—unconditional surrender, a determination by America’s war leaders to turn Japan into an unpaved parking lot by dropping more and more nuclear  bombs, and a very determined U.S. Army itching to get on the ground on the mainland of Japan and dish out a little payback for the losses incurred in Guam, Saipan, Attu, Guadalcanal and the rest—that caused the Japanese government to throw in the towel. Warfare determined the outcome, not technology. Warfare that was made possible because America's leaders at that time deigned to turn Human Agency loose on emerging technology to create weapon systems that sat the Japanese back on their butt.

Unconditional surrender. Imagine the audacity of even thinking of staking out a position like that in one of today's wars? One almost hesitates to ask the inevitable question: what is our mode of warfare in Afghanistan? Get out at all costs like the French announced (in the first week in June) that they will be doing? Or an unconditional determination to stay the course until the country is as pacific as, say, Vermont? After all, that's what Japan is today. In terms of its threat to the world Japan is another Vermont, and a darned good one at that. 

The important point here is to distinguish between war, warfare, technology and Human Agency and understand that technologies, emerging or otherwise, do not determine the outcome of war but instead contribute mightily to the ability of those in charge of a war fighting effort to conduct effective warfare.

How does it do this?

Emerging technologies contribute to a country's war fighting effort by opening the doors to the possibility of new methods of warfare that in turn can alter the outcome of a war.[1] Once the door is open however it is up to the civilian leaders to decide whether to allow the combat commanders to walk through a particular door or not, thus allowing them to apply the Human Agency at their disposal. Of equal importance, since no technology holds value on its own (but only via its utilization) those managing a warring effort—both the combat commanders and the civilian leaders—must find ways to adapt the technology at their disposal to the challenge at hand. This means that civilian leaders must be willing participants in the process, looking for ways to use new technology to avoid wars as much as the combat commanders do in their effort to win wars.

The riddle of the Polish missile shieldOne can see an example of this in the emerging technology area of missile defense shields (like those scheduled for Poland, with their Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle capabilities that include a closing speed of about 7 km/s—a technology whose use in Eastern Europe was cancelled by the current administration in 2009). In this case the technology in question resulted from President Reagan's Human Agency. He legitimized the concept when he launched America's effort to develop missile shield technology. Now, so many years later, it is ready for deployment... except our civilian leaders are afraid that doing so will anger our Russian friends. In our view this particular form of technology serves two useful purposes: one, it's a deterrent, and two, it provides a darn good sidearm if an active war ever does take place. This then is what we mean by Human Agency acting on technology to provide a means to alter the outcome of a war. Again... making our case as strongly as we can... in this instance the technology can alter the outcome of a war in two ways: by providing an incentive to avoid it in the first place, and by helping win it if it does get underway.

Clearly, in today’s world there is plenty of emerging technology to go around. The question is, is there enough Human Agency to match it and develop better means to avoid wars through the threat of the ultimate weapon-like capabilities that result when emerging technologies are modified? Or more to the point, are there leaders willing to release the Human Agency at their disposal so that it can develop new forms of warfare that may be able to assure that our side wins the wars we get into? In the end, government leaders must decide if they are going to, or can, take up a given military innovation. And they must adapt it to their country’s unique circumstances. As long as governments, our government, is more inclined to cut back on the roll out of newer forms of military technology we will forever be constrained to fighting the next war with the last war’s technology… while our enemy brings to the field innovative ways to circumvent the technology he already knows we have.

Technology is a possibility not an imperative. If you don’t use it the other guy will. As important, in using it you absolutely must modify it to suit your country’s particular strategic objectives.

The dogs of war, or the dogs of Human Agency?For example, in the years between the world wars the U.S. and Britain, geographically isolated from continental Europe, developed strategic bombers with which to project their military power while the major continental powers concentrated on fighter aircraft to contend with each other for air superiority over the battlefields in their own back yards. Today our strategic goals have to do with things like winning against asymmetrical forms of warfare, implementing a new security strategy in the Pacific, countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats in the Middle East, and maintaining regional access and the ability to operate freely. If, using the analogy of the between the war period, we focus on building fighter aircraft (as the continental powers did) instead of focusing on our own strategic need for bombers, we just might lose the next war. So, allegorically speaking, what do we need today? Fighters or bombers? Whatever it is our government needs to let loose the dogs of Human Agency and let them get busy deciding which emerging technology doors our military scientists should pass through. Further, when the result of imposing Human Agency on emerging technology is finished and a new military technology evolves we need to put it into place and stop this ridiculous trend of worrying that we might offend a country or two who could care a whit about our security to begin with (think: Russia and it's objection to our placing missile shields in Eastern Europe).

Summarizing these points, it can be said that while technology determines the form of warfare that is available for use, it’s Human Agency that determines the applicability of that technology to the war being fought and the outcome of the warfare undertaken, not the technology itself. Yet if a country’s leaders are remiss to either allow the development of newer forms of military technology more suitable to the country’s changing strategic goals, by allowing the application of Human Agency to emerging technology, or deploy them once they come on line, then it is a foregone conclusion that any war fought by that country is going to be long, painful, and internally contentious for the citizens of the country fighting it... likely ending in a failed effort, or possibly even in a loss.

Finally, we visit one more time the issue of emerging technology. Now that we know that the application of Human Agency to emerging technology leads to more applicable forms of military technology for the intended purpose… that is, military technology that is more able to support a country’s evolving strategic needs (such as maintaining regional access and the ability to operate freely), the question becomes how do you recognize when that technology has arrived? Part of the answer has to do with understanding that modern military technology is different than your father’s technology… noticeably different. Yet that difference is subtle because it’s not different in kind but in degree.

If one thinks back to World War II, one will quickly recognize that the weapons in use at the end of that war were significantly different from those used at the beginning. The atomic bomb is the most obvious example but the list also includes jets, guided missiles, microwave radar, tactical FM radio, the proximity fuse, Heat and HESH anti-armor warheads, and even our old friend Napalm, to name just a few. A lot of post war pundits claimed that this plethora of new military technology meant that America’s industrial production capability is what won the war.

We don’t think so. Sure, production capacity is important, but the idea that America’s industrial might is what lets it win wars is an old saw left over from the Civil War, when it was clear that the North’s industrial might helped it arm itself faster and more completely than the rural south could. Instead, in WWII it was the institutionalized research and development capabilities that America had that allowed Human Agency to be applied to emerging technologies in a way that led to the surfeit of “for purpose” weapons that supported the soldiers in the field and enabled them to win the war. Think of the Signal Corps' research facilities at Ft. Monmouth and you'll easily see what we mean. In our minds, the introduction of systematic, institutionalized innovation is what brought new weapons to WWII, not industrial might.

Army Signal Corps LabsIf you can accept this principle then you can see that what has changed in all of these years is the pace of technological change in the modern world, not the rate of development of new military technology. That is, Human Agency works its magic on emerging technology at the same pace that it always has, but the pace at which emerging technology is being brought to the fore has increased considerably. The result is that newer forms of improved military technology (hardware and software, kinetic and non-kinetic) is presented to the military at blinding speed. The upshot is that today’s career Officer expects to see the arsenal at his or her disposal change continually throughout their career.

That was not the case in WWII, nor for that matter in Vietnam. During the WWII era a commander fully expected to retire with the same instruments of war he took up when he came in as a shave tail. Even in Vietnam technological changes were few and far between as far as Company grade Officers were concerned. Today however, what we see is a sustained hothouse of military technology development.

Is this good or bad?

We posit that it all depends on the pace of change of a nation’s strategic goals. If the need this year is to, as Secretary of State Clinton says, “pivot” towards the Asia Pacific, then this rapid pace of development is good as it lets the military bring on-line weapons more suited to the mission at hand. In the case of a new century of Asia Pacific focus this may include an ability for the Navy to more effectively project itself over the horizon when encountering China’s evolving navy, or in the case of our beloved Signal Corps interdict China’s short haul military communications with radio transmissions from northern Burma.

Regardless, what we know is that modern military technology is different. And one of the ways in which it is different is in its pace of change. Why do we care? Because unlike in the good old days that difference means that both Company and Field Grade Officers must be prepared to accept and embrace an ever changing array of technologies and weapons if they are to get the job done and earn their pay. And, of course, what this means is that just as much as we need brawn in our military we also need people—Officers—who are bright and smart enough to keep up with today's ever changing technological infrastructure. In fact, we would posit that if you have a Company grade Officer today that is not fully conversant with today's social media platforms as well as the rudiments of HTML and TCP/IP he may be nearing the end of his "use by date."

A second way in which today’s military technology differs from that of earlier times is that whereas WWII era military weaponry reflected an improvement on preceding forms of the same, today’s technology reflects weapons being brought on line to fill voids where no weapons exist at all. In the old days the best way for a country to improve its war fighting ability was to improve on its existing weapon systems. Got a missile that works well? Then make it fly further or make it carry a bigger warhead. That was the thinking. Today it is expected that such improvements will be made simply as a matter of course. There’s nothing special about improving an existing weapon system. What is special though is filling a void where no weapon exists, in an area where no one ever thought a weapon system should exist.

Take as an example the STUXNET and FLAME malware programs that are in the news (see video at right; right-click to see full screen). These software demons have done something no nation, regardless of how strong their military is, has been able to do: bring Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges to a dead stop. A part of cyber warfare, they provide an excellent example of how Human Agency layered on top of emerging technology can bring a new weapon system to bear almost overnight, creating a new taxonomy of weapons in the process. Definitively speaking, this gives us a second means of differentiating modern weapons from those of the past: pre-modern producers of military instruments were “improvers” while today’s are “innovators.” Modern weapons reflect innovation more than improvement.

As you watch new technologies appear in the news, look for those that will be acted upon by Human Agency to create tomorrow’s post-modern weapon systems. They will have the attributes described above: the pace of change in the technological area will be close to light speed when compared to traditional technologies, new technological areas that seemingly have no relation to the military will open up windows of opportunity for weapons to fill voids where no weapons currently exist, and the weapons that are developed to fill these voids will reflect innovation more than improvement.

Why all of this focus on emerging technologies and Human Agency? So that the military can wage effective warfare. What government leaders must understand is that turning loose a nation’s Human Agency to work its magic on emerging technology, for military purposes, is as critical in being able to avoid wars as it is to winning them once they get started. As important, once these new forms of modern technology are developed these same leaders must guard against supporting policies and plots that limit their application. If Human Agency can leverage a new technology that will shut down Iran’s centrifuges, let the military use it. If Human Agency can leverage an emerging technology to create a missile shield for America’s cities, those of our allies in Europe, or anywhere else, let the military use it.

Hoplite warfighterHaving those in charge understand how Human Agency works its magic on emerging technology to produce military solutions that bring a greater prospect for peace to the world is important. As we have seen, more than just heroics on the field of battle, Human Agency enables the warfighter who displays these heroics a chance in hell of succeeding. It does this by leveraging technology to provide a battlefield hero with the nutrients he needs to sustain himself. Nutrients like the time to think, superior weaponry, real time knowledge of the battle space around him, alternative means to fight, smart weapons, and much more. Without Human Agency enabled emerging technologies our battlefield hero of today would be no more equiped to do battle than if a Hoplite warrior of the 8th century BC appeared beside him.

The next advanced warfighter...While the tools of war have evolved slowly throughout the course of human history only in the modern world has there been an institutionalized and rationalized means for continuously, methodically and analytically innovating and improving military technology. When government leaders stand in the way of that mechanism they put more than their country in jeopardy, they put their warfighters in jeopardy too... and for no good reason.

The thing about war-changing weapons is not that they change the course of wars, but that they change the course of history. War is inevitable. And as long as it is here it will impact the evolution of technology. Technology is not going away either. Enabling it to be applied to change the course of history for the better means letting loose Human Agency to work its magic on evolving technologies, in ways that deliver more effective kinetic and non-kinetic weapons to the hands of the military. Most importantly, not being afraid to use these post-modern weapons will make all the difference in bringing kinetic wars to a quick end, and in avoiding kinetics in the first place.



[1] The Open Door concept was first introduced by historian Lynn White, Jr., in his study titled Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962). - click here to return to your place in the text

Click to read the next two articles:                           Article I                               Article II  

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This page originally posted 1 July 2012 

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