November 1, 2006  

Warfare — past and present

What has changed and what remains constant?

Since the end of the Cold War, an internal struggle has taken place between U.S. military “transformationalists” who hyped the wonders of the Information Age versus “traditionalists” (almost solely ground combat officers) focused on the enduring nature of warfare and the human dimension of conflict. The Defense Department’s infatuation with revolutions in military affairs (RMAs) and its enthusiastic embrace of information technology looks misplaced given the nature of the war in Iraq. The ongoing chaotic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to have given the edge to the skeptical traditionalists.

However, this may not be the best strategic conclusion, given America’s broad role in world affairs. Over the past few decades, the American way of war has pursued technology in search of a decisive position based on America’s competitive advantages. This endless quest for a competitive edge will not end with Iraq, as U.S. primacy and the world order it underwrites may still be contested by states with modern capabilities used in novel and unexpected ways. That is the policy-maker’s and the transformer’s dilemma. Max Boot’s latest book, “War Made New,” shows that maintaining a technological and qualitative edge is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a critical element in maintaining readiness in uncertain times. Boot’s sweeping narrative over 500 years of human conflict makes it clear that there is no way to get around it. This extraordinary book reinforces the fact that the tools of war, from the stirrup to the English longbow to the Joint Direct Attack Munition, have altered the course of history.

Boot’s magisterial grasp of the long trend lines of history is impressive and compelling. He breaks down his study into four distinct military revolutions over the past 500 years: the Gunpowder Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution and the ongoing Information Age. Some technical advances, such as gunpowder and the combustion engine, were drawn from society and incorporated into the military. Others, like the Internet, were formulated to serve defense needs and eventually diffused into the larger economy with radical effects. Each innovation enhanced the power of the state that could harness its potential and shifted the extant balance of power.

In exploring the Gunpowder Revolution, Boot reviews the underlying factors behind Britain’s destruction of the Spanish Armada, Gustavus Adolphus’ stunning win at Breitenfeld and Wellington’s disciplined lines at Assaye in India. The winning forces were the product of societies and states that were transformed themselves. “Only large states could afford large, well-trained, well-equipped, well-supplied armies [and navies],” Boot notes, and they had to establish the administrative and bureaucratic means to raise and sustain these forces.

The sail and shot of the Royal Navy gave way to steam and steel in the Industrial Revolution. Prussian mastery of improved rifles and the railroad allowed it to dominate the sluggish Austrians at Koniggratz in 1866. Further improvements in firepower allowed a thin Red Line to trounce a larger force at Omdurman. The potential of Industrial Age navies is made apparent in the Tsushmia Strait, where Admiral Togo annihilated the Russian fleet in 1905.

The importance of technology and how it can be harnessed to resolve identified operational challenges was clearer in the Second Industrial Revolution. Whereas the first Industrial Age was powered by coal and steam, the second was fueled by oil and electricity. Here, Boot examines Germany’s blitzkrieg through the Lowlands and France in 1940, the rise of aircraft carriers leading up to Pearl Harbor, and the development of strategic bombing and its impact against Japan’s capacity to resist.

In the concluding Information Revolution, the author narrows his range to recent conflicts, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the ongoing war in Iraq. Boot sets up this age by revealing how Pentagon leaders pursued a range of technologies including the Global Positioning System, long-range missiles and stealth aircraft to address the Warsaw Pact’s quantitative advantages. Within this age, Boot also captures the regenerative process that took place within the U.S. military after Vietnam. This process took 15 years to culminate, and stressed the intellectual development of an officer corps immersed in the operational foundation of its profession. This process successfully combined the precision of information-enabled weapons with a highly professional force that rolled over Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

In this final section, Boot looks at how the U.S. military can best use the developments of the Information Revolution to combat state and nonstate threats. He realizes the data is incomplete on this age. Information technology, he concludes, “is reshaping war in ways that are as profound as they are unpredictable.” His evaluation of the application of Special Forces and precision-based fires in Afghanistan notes both the strategic failings of that approach in Tora Bora, as well as operational failings against motivated and entrenched opponents. The inappropriate lessons from Afghanistan and how they were applied to a different context in Iraq are also correctly noted: “Rumsfeld’s technocentric vision of military ‘transformation,’ in which the overall number of soldiers would be reduced and resources redirected to long-range, precision strike systems, left the American armed forces ill-prepared for the challenges they would face in Iraq.”

The need to defeat elusive enemies who adopt asymmetric remedies is not overlooked. Boot suggests that the advantage in the future will go to highly networked, decentralized forces unimpeded by the hierarchal bureaucracies created for the Industrial Age.

Boot cautions that advanced technology provides only part of the answer. His arguments track well with the RMA countermovement that has warned American policy-makers that technology by itself is rarely an enduring advantage. Given the widely diffused nature of information technology, this is a warning worth noting. But standing still is not an option, as Boot observes. Early adaptation does not confer an indefinite advantage as rivals eventually copy the innovators. But it does give an advantage initially, and that lead can be built upon.

Another critical theme is the need to adopt a holistic approach about technology. Technology alone rarely confers a decisive advantage; tactics, organization, training and leadership are needed to fully achieve the potential of new technologies. “War Made New” is an ambitious effort that ultimately succeeds in capturing the general sweep of history, as well as the intricate details of technology’s role in influencing human conflict. The product of prodigious research and concise analysis, the engaging narrative of “War Made New” synthesizes the history that underpins arguments of both the transformationalists and the traditionalists. It will be a requisite addition to the reading lists of all U.S. military education institutions and, one hopes, at those few civilian academic institutions that devote time to the study of war.

“War Made New” is a timely reminder that technology is a critical component of combat but not a panacea. As Colin Gray underscored in his classic “Modern Strategy,” “Technology does not determine the outbreak, course and outcome of conflict, but it constitutes an important dimension.” Its application has to be strategically relevant to the problems at hand and must be employed effectively by rigorously trained professionals. Although technology permeates the history of armed conflict, it remains just one of several dimensions of war, and never the most important.

Eternal realities

Gray, professor of international politics and strategic studies at the University of Reading in England, stands atop the list of modern strategists, at the apex of a small international community of scholars steeped in history, realism and the perpetual complexity of strategy. For several decades, Gray’s contributions to strategic studies have helped frame issues and options for policy-makers and students of global affairs.

In “Another Bloody Century,” Gray offers a sober corrective to those who espouse revolutionary theories about Information Age warfare or the obsolescence of major interstate conflict. He quashes the new orthodoxy about the end of interstate conflict: “If history is any guide, this popular view is almost certainly fallacious.” To hold to the idea that the state is in serious decline could be “lethally premature.” Gray acknowledges that major changes in war’s conduct are regularly recurring phenomena. Technology, he asserts, is often a catalyst of change, but it historically has been a source of relatively evolutionary change. Political, social and economic forces also come into play and have been far more revolutionary in their strategic effect. For Gray, the context of war changes continually, but “much of what is most important about war and warfare does not change at all.”

While recognizing that discontinuities do occur and that every age has its own unique way of war, Gray emphasizes the “eternal universal realities” of human conflict for those who want to examine the future. Human nature, history, social culture and geography provide the context on how these realities play out. Rather than focus on the discontinuity of experience, he prefers the vast evidence that can be drawn from 3,000 years of recorded human experience. He underscores this point: “Historical experience is a gold mine for the understanding of future war and warfare.” Of course, history is sometimes nonlinear, and “trends come in bunches, interact unpredictably and may produce a future which … is so qualitatively different from what went before as to frustrate prediction.” Gray does not dismiss casually the claims of revolutionary paradigm shifts in the conduct of war. But based on several millennia of documented evidence, thinking that future conflict shares no common ground with what has gone on before is a speculative voyage.

After exploring the nature of warfare and demolishing a few speculative concepts of others, Gray offers simple navigational aids for those who are paid to secure their nation’s security interests. These aids are the major themes of “Another Bloody Century.” The first theme involves the conundrum of continuity and discontinuity in warfare. Again, history offers the serious student the right questions to ask to determine the constants and the novelties of each age. Gray places a strong emphasis on history’s insights, as a proper respect for history will facilitate an “understanding of the unity of our past, present and future.”

The role of politics and technology is another major theme. Gray takes pains to highlight the fact that “no study of future warfare can avoid adopting technology as a pervasive theme.” But it is only one dimension of strategy and never the most critical one. Far too many contemporary studies emphasize technological toys and equate them as synonymous with military history. Politics will continue to be the principal driver of war’s form, purpose and character.

His penultimate theme involves the character of future conflict. Gray acknowledges the logic about the prominence of irregular warfare. However, he notes that future conflicts will more probably contain a blurring or fusion of conventional and irregular capabilities. The purported rise of asymmetrical war does not disturb him because carbon-copied opponents are historically rare. For all of today’s attention on nonstate actors, Gray finds more than sufficient evidence in Asia to suggest that great-power politics is neither dormant nor utterly relegated to history books.

He also notes that the U.S. remains overly focused on its own images of conflict with concepts based around information dominance and network-centric warfare (NCW). Not mincing his words, Gray adds that some of these concepts are “disturbing in their strategic naivety” and that “the current official American vision of NCW is an example of a technophilia undisciplined by recognition of the enduring nature of war.” He also disparages effects-based operations for “its unmistakable banality,” as well as its “un-Clausewitzian belief that the conduct of war can be precisely orchestrated” and made reliably predictable.

The final theme involves the human dimension, which is the greatest and most constant factor in warfare’s long history. People matter most, no matter how much our theory and practice insidiously attempt to run around that fact. This factor alone will ensure that conflict remains a part of our future and that the next century is likely to be just as bloody as the last.

No one separates strategic nonsense from sensible thinking better than Gray. His work is unlike today’s purveyors of fashionable ideas, who seek to perform alchemy by repackaging the fad du jour as a genuine new discovery. Instead of building castles upon sand or specious speculation, Gray reveals the enduring fundamentals of sound strategy and steady statecraft. No one else today can match his analytical framework or reasoning for long-term national security policy in an age of uncertainty. To understand tomorrow’s security challenges, it’s hard to imagine a better single source.

Plato was right — only the dead have seen the end of war. If you want to understand the adaptive character of conflict and grasp what can be known and unknown for the foreseeable future, read this book. If you want to read fictional projections about “New Wars” or “Post-Modern Wars,” pass it by. This is a deeply serious work of scholarship from a practical and practicing strategist. For anyone equally serious about the dynamics of strategy, the risks of future conflict and the variables affecting American defense policy, this book is indispensable.

Retired Marine Corps Col. Frank Hoffman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.