war on the rocks

The Search for the Technological Silver Bullet To Win Wars

August 26, 2015

Revolutions in Military Affairs are not mere forms of modernization, revitalization or adaptation. They involve order-of-magnitude improvements in military capability. They primarily require sustained and determined conceptual, technological, and organizational innovations over time. They secondarily require deliberate experimentation and an ability to learn from experience.

— Col. Peter Faber, USAF


Pronouncements from military and corporate leadership about the value of the “technological game-changer” abound. The prevailing school of thought in the Department of Defense is that the primary determinant of victory is advanced technology. It remains an article of faith, particularly in the Air Force, despite substantial historical evidence to the contrary. The search for the silver bullet has become so obsessive that billions of dollars have been wasted on programs that do not meet the needs of the warfighter, or arrive so late that they are technologically obsolete. This obscures the reality that the only modern historical example of a technological game-changer in warfare was atomic weapons, for a vanishingly short period over half a century ago when the United States was the sole possessor. Their complete absence from the battlefield since 1945 belies any claim that they changed the nature of warfare, although they certainly changed the nature of strategic deterrence.

If one succumbs to the belief that technological superiority is the most significant attribute a military can have, there is no need for vision, a grasp of strategy or any appreciation of the adversary or environment. This justifies skipping the hard work of concept and strategy development and under-resourcing personnel and training in favor of advanced systems. This attitude is pernicious and deeply embedded in the Department of Defense. Instead of looking at military problems and trying to find a broadly applicable solution, efforts are consumed with a host of “shiny penny” technologies. It takes little effort for technologists to sell advances to managers, neither possessing operational experience, in a concept-free environment where none of the participants have a deep understanding of combat operations.

The belief that technological advantage equates to victory persists in a military that has consistently demonstrated otherwise. During the Second World War, the Luftwaffe was the technologically superior air force in the skies over Europe. During the Korean War, opposing air forces had a rough technical parity, with the United States maintaining air superiority with inferior aircraft until August 1952 with the arrival of the F-86F. During the Vietnam War and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the United States maintained a technological edge that nevertheless failed to bring victory. Operation Desert Storm was a victory for technology, but also for mass, training, and the ability to isolate and surround an enemy country.

Adding insult to injury, the procurement system has become so moribund that the Department of Defense cannot rapidly take advantage of American ingenuity. Time is not treated as a valuable resource but as the means for overcoming our self-imposed process obstacles. From 1951 to 1954, the F-100A went from being an unsolicited proposal to an operational fighter aircraft — today that amount of time might not even suffice to get a set of requirements approved. There is no room in the procurement process for judgment, little tolerance for risk, and by the time a program actually gets rolling, the stakes are so high that terminating a failing, late or technologically outdated program is difficult or impossible. The end result is that we are ineffective at pushing militarily significant technology forward in a timely fashion and an affordable price.

The Department of Defense should be doing the hard work required to generate a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). RMAs are generally few and far between, but they do provide an exploitable advantage, at least until potential adversaries catch up.

RMAs require a great deal of sustained effort in a variety of areas — they are not products of a lucky R&D line that drops magic hardware into the procurement system. The RMA encompasses much more than technology because warfare itself encompasses much more than technology. Achieving an RMA takes a combination of tools, concepts, training and organizational innovation, usually developed over time by individuals with extensive knowledge and experience in operations. Technology is a part of RMA development, but not the most important part nor the component with the highest impact. An RMA can only be generated by a well-resourced, agile and innovative force with a high readiness level. There is no shortcut.

RMAs are themselves time-limited, but can have decisive effects during their useful period. Napoleon’s adversaries all had the 12-pounder brass “Napoleon” cannon, but Napoleon added a new organizational structure, new command alignments and new specialists to provide an advantage. Blitzkreig was not a product of a single technology, but rather a new combined arms approach that took advantage of advances in airpower, armor, logistics and communications. All of the major powers in World War II had technologically equivalent submarines, but only American fleet submarines proved decisive because they matched the distant Pacific geographical challenge with long-range boats, aggressive commanders, adaptable tactics, forward replenishment and motivated, all-volunteer crews. The ability to down a hostile aircraft from beyond visual range took decades of work on sensors, weapons, training and command and control, and is now a staple of modern airpower.

We have the ingredients, if we do not allow them to spoil. Our junior and mid-grade officers and NCOs have broad experience in overcoming challenges in the field without a decisive technological edge. It is entirely our fault if we fail to exploit this opportunity with additional investments in professional education, elevated readiness, realistic training and active experimentation. It would be a far better bet if we placed our weight behind our people — Americans have shown again and again that they can adapt quickly in the face of extreme adversity, even when short of resources. We would be best served by having a ready force of adaptive professionals who can fight effectively when the deck is stacked against them rather than a group of technologically dependent button-punchers who are systematically paralyzed when their systems fail or are negated.

Today, it has become clear that a well-resourced Department of Defense is not a shared priority among Congress and the administration. The impact of sequester has been severe, although the full impact may not be obvious for years. The continuing pressure to deliver a technological edge is not matched by an investment in readiness, training, personnel, strategy and concepts, all tailored to the operating environment rather than a generic “capabilities-based” adversary. Instead the department is holding out the hope that commercial, academic or government research institutes will deliver a silver bullet that will suddenly solve the services’ obsolescence problems and guarantee American military dominance. This pursuit is a poor choice, matching a risky bet on advanced technology against a stable of adversaries who can also field tech quickly. But our adversaries do not have our cultural, educational and geographical advantages, and cannot easily match the experience, adaptability and character of our personnel. We should alter our focus from the silver bullet to the pursuit of all the ingredients of an RMA, and avoid trying to sink resources into an illusory “game-changing technology.”


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E, Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and took part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force of the U.S. government.



Photo credit: Lawrence Crespo, U.S. Air Force