The Pitfalls of Writing About Revolutionary Defense Technology
Technology as a source of military innovation is hot stuff within the U.S. defense establishment right now. Anyone following the flow of information coming from the U.S. armed services and the Department of Defense will have noticed this. This is especially true for readers of War on the Rocks, who will have consumed a steady diet of commentaries on innovation and technology. Nina Kollars brilliantly noted that innovation makes policy makers swoon and weapons developers salivate. As such, innovation and “breakthrough” or “revolutionary” technologies is a match made in heaven. The fit is both easy to see and easy to communicate to stakeholders such as the public, Congress, service branches, and industry. However, the propagation of revolutionary technology and innovation is often cursory. I offer a critique on the current discourse on revolutionary technology by presenting two pitfalls that distort the conversation and diminish the prospect for action.
A Decrepit Discourse
The impact of modern technology on warfare has always been a central concern within military science. Though the glory days of the “revolution in military affairs” have long since passed, the notion that we are (once again) witnessing a technological revolution — and, as a result, one in military affairs — is gaining new traction and attention. The essence of the idea of a revolution in military affairs remains the same. It is still understood, in the words of one analyst, as “the emergence of technologies so disruptive that they overtake existing military concepts and capabilities and necessitate a rethinking of how, with what, and by whom war is waged.” Virtual and physical pages are covered with studies of revolutionary technologies and their potential implications for warfare and military organizations. Dominant interest lies in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and drones. Further, most of the debate in the defense community about the future of war revolves around questions of technologies rather than, for instance, demographic trends.
A synthesis of the debate about revolutionary technology presents one important insight: The rapid development of new technologies for both civil and military use poses both a threat and an opportunity for the U.S. armed forces. It is an opportunity for military organizations to deter enemies and, if necessary, make war better, faster, more effective, and less risky. But it is also a threat in that the development and operational use of advanced technologies are no longer an exclusive prerogative of the United States. Near-peer rivals as China and Russia are becoming more technologically advanced, while the militarization of commercial technology poses an increasing threat from non-state actors.
The emphasis on revolutionary technology is frequently linked up with the notion of innovation — another concept that dominates the current defense discourse. Innovation has quickly risen to become the new inescapable buzzword in virtually every policy document. They highlight technological innovation, organizational innovation, and development of innovative operational concepts as a means to overcome roughly three issues: the reemergence of long-term strategic competition, increased global disorder, and the erosion of U.S. competitive military advantage. As one analyst puts it, military innovation emerges as a new frontier for great power rivalry.
By now analysts agree that the rapid progress in science and technology will reward the innovators and that victory in war belongs to the masters of military innovation. This also means that those countries who develop and integrate superior technologies may stay one step ahead of their adversaries. As the defense community 60 years ago talked of a “bomber gap” followed by a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union, it 10 years ago discussed a “transformation gap” between America and European allies in NATO. Now it speaks of an “innovation gap” between the United States and its competitors, notably China. This gap exists because Chinese investments in technological innovation and manufacturing are catching up with American investments; in addition, Chinese investments are made much more strategically. In this way, the agendas on revolutionary technology and innovation join together. These concerns fuse in a deep-seated fear among policymakers that the United States has settled into a reactive mode of military development, leaving the country vulnerable to Russian and Chinese technological innovations. Thus, the United States risks losing its technological and military dominance. “Being innovative” is not only about inventing new machines, but also about developing agile organizational structures and innovative war fighting concepts. Nevertheless, technological innovation and rapid technological change hold a very central place in the defense innovation discourse. The concern for the United States is then — depending on one’s perspective of the severity of the state of affairs — how to retain or become the leader in the sphere of innovation and technology development, and thereby force one’s adversaries into a position of reacting to U.S. innovations and initiatives.
In an ideal world, this discourse is good: It means that there is a link between the strategic and operational levels of war if we presuppose that the U.S. military can actually and successfully field, integrate and employ the innovative technologies of today and tomorrow. However, there are two pitfalls in this discourse that need more attention.
Pitfall #1: Presentism, or Old Wine in New Bottles
The repetition of the gap metaphor can be seen as a discursive expression of a broader tendency of military organizations to think in terms of presentism. Presentism articulates the universal human condition that we tend to regard the time we live in as a period of unprecedented turbulence, eroding stability and increasing complexity, while we attribute exaggerated tranquility to the past. According to historian Bert Spector, this both distorts our understanding of the past and limits our analysis of the present. Further, the idea that change is accelerating is ever-present, even though in reality the world is not changing exponentially. This tendency is indeed strong within the U.S. military. Framed as an issue of strategic nostalgia, Andrew Hill has warned that presentism hinders sound strategic thinking and defense planning. Even more grievously, Paul Barnes notes that for the military, presentism and neophilia (the belief that what is observed and experienced in the battlespace is entirely novel) ties the military into an interminable and esoteric debate about the nature and character of war that is informed by budgets and reputation more than by history and experience, and which therefore also endangers military thought and practice.
In a less alarming but nevertheless important perspective, presentism leads to a repetition of the rhetorical articulations surrounding military technology and change. Let me illustrate with a few examples: During the “transformation” and “information technology revolution of military affairs” era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, statements like the “technological race…of the current era is just beginning” and “maintaining a U.S. advantage requires constant improvements” was part of the standard vocabulary. In 1997, the issue of “maintaining a true technological lead” and of “exploit[ing] the revolution in technology” that “will transform warfighting” was voiced from the Department of Defense. The dangers the United States faced were “unprecedented in their complexity.” In 1990, the White House noted that “the international landscape is marked by change that is breath-taking in its character, dimension, and pace” while “[m]odern battlefields are characterized by an unprecedented lethality” and “new conditions require continuing innovation.” In 1987, Americans lived “in a complex and changing world” and were “impelled to seek security in America’s national genius for technological innovation.” Today, as expressed in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the “rapid technological advancements” will ensure that the United States “will be able to fight and win the war of the future” while the security environment is “more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” As is evident alone from these statements, the recent memory of the national security base is indeed short, while the shackles of presentism endure.
From a business-like perspective, the notions of change and presentism can act as legitimization, authorization, and motivation for action. As such, it becomes a well-intentioned rhetorical device. The potential problem of this is that the repetition of rhetoric distorts the distinctness of the reality it is supposed to reflect. Innovation, transformation, and revolutions in military affairs are conditions you actively and purposefully create. If the discourse remains monotonous and bland, it becomes harder to translate intentions into action on the specific technologies and challenges. Though the feeling of urgency is constant, the official rhetoric on technology and military change should reflect the strategic and technological reality and not come in general terms. Intriguing new research on military innovation shows that the discourse of new defense concepts and material innovations influences their success or failure. Likewise, the U.S. Army’s experience with the ATLAS controversy shows that semantics and discourse actually do matter in the process of military technological innovation. When the official discourse remains unspecific and unchanged, it becomes vulnerable.
Pitfall #2: Ignoring the Boring Stuff
Traditionally within the U.S. defense establishment, and certainly within the Office of Net Assessment, technological innovation has been directly connected to military effectiveness. This is also the essence of the three U.S. “offset strategies.” In the thriving debate about the dynamics of future war, the efforts to assess the role of technology is an important contribution. It is paramount to extract what implications — ethical, legal, strategic, tactical, etc. — new technology will have. However, when both research and official discourse focus solely on revolutionary technologies, we run the risk of ignoring the advantages, challenges, and implications that come with the mundane and non-revolutionary technologies. This is the second pitfall of the current discourse on military technology.
The U.S. Army, for instance, currently has comprehensive modernization programs underway. Among these projects is one introducing a new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicles to replace the aging M-113 armored personnel carrier, and another one fielding a new infantry fighting vehicle (now called the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle) to replace the M2 Bradley. It is true that one of the preliminary requirements for the new vehicle — which separates it from the old one — is the ability to conduct remotely controlled operations. But, aside from that, the new vehicle will be new by virtue of “improvements.” Essentially, it resembles the old one while having, among other things, better sensors, mobility, range, and armor. Since the 1990s, Army acquisition efforts in particular focused primarily on “leap-ahead” technologies such as the disastrous Future Combat Systems. The current Army modernization programs, however, are far more balanced and the service deserves praise for this. But it stands in stark contrast to the church of innovation that reigns supreme in the national security discourse.
Not every new important technology is “revolutionary.” Nor should it be. Some new technologies are “boring,” while being still more technologically advanced than their predecessors. Challenges will occur with such non-revolutionary technologies as well, but the study and appreciation of these tend to fall into the shadow of broader issues of revolutionary technologies like artificial intelligence. However, the implications of new non-revolutionary technologies should interest us. Most new military technology is not revolutionary, but has a tendency to resemble the old one it replaces save for improvements in key areas of performance. Most often, the technological changes that the military makes are not major innovations that makes old ones obsolete. Whether this is a function of the way the acquisition system is structured or if it is an expression of the persistent value of certain weapons platforms, such as the fighter jet or tank, is another discussion that is worth having.
This is not to say that scholars and practitioners shall not scrutinize major technological innovations like additive manufacturing (3D printing) and drone swarms. There is no doubt that such technologies will play an important role in future war. But I question if we, as writers and thinkers about military technology, divert enough attention to the minor, or boring, technological changes which represent the more trivial side of technology development and military adaptation. In his classic study of technologies in their everyday use, The Shock of the Old, David Edgerton argues that we write technology history centered on revolutionary technologies, and that technological innovations are always set equal to progress — that is why they appear so interesting to us. This, as previously mentioned, certainly also holds true in the military domain. Where scholars have viewed technology as progress in that it is a means to reduce the costs (both in lives and money) of war while improving its effectiveness, they have also noted and critiqued a distinct American preoccupation with technology’s role in warfare. America’s long-standing love affair with technology is still alive and well.
Asking the Right Questions
Getting the right answers to questions surrounding the role of technology in future war matters a great deal. But it is equally important to pose the right questions. As is a widely recognized fact, the process of military innovation is highly complex and is not reducible to general statements on revolutionary technologies and broad strategic documents. At the same time, the preoccupation with technological innovation and revolutionary technologies appears to have led us to neglect and disregard that of the mundane. All military organizations are constantly in the process of incorporating new technology, some “hard” as the Joint Strike Fighter program, some “soft” as the impending U.S. Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud program. It is part of their everyday business. Integration of technology is therefore a constant challenge, and the innovation discourse should reflect this. Retaining the competitive edge cannot only be about inventing revolutionary machines, but also understanding how non-revolutionary technologies, like the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, already have and can help us gain and maintain the tactical advantage, and how they may complement (or impede) revolutionary technologies like AI.
The role played by technology on future battlefields remains uncertain. As civil and military analysts, we can at least attempt to mitigate some of that uncertainty by also exploring further the future of non-revolutionary technologies, as well as the general and structural dimensions of integrating technology in military organizations. Questions like what role legacy systems and low-tech technologies will have in future warfare, how they complement or hinder present innovation initiatives, how technological shortcomings may be rationally assessed and taken into consideration, and what implications the current organization of the acquisition system has for battlefield success, can be asked. The list should continue.
The articulation of presentism in the discourse on technology and innovation distorts the conversation and risks distorting action. Civil scholars, officials, and armed officers alike should generate an honest assessment of the current discourse and a problematization of the specific challenges that come with developing and integrating new as well as the non-revolutionizing technologies that are an overlooked but essential part of warfare. Besides the fact that endless repetition of the discourse is tiring, we constrain our capacity to learn from past experience when we assume that the present is a time of unpredicted turbulence in comparison to a tranquil past.
Laura Schousboe is a PhD Fellow at the University of Southern Denmark and the Royal Danish Defence College in Copenhagen. Her thesis examines how military technological innovations cease to be new, i.e how they are implemented and integrated in military organizations. She specializes in the study of the U.S. military.
Image: Adapted in part from U.S. Air Force