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Past Event

War Made New: The History and Future of Technology and Warfare

On October 26, 2006, as part of the speaker series organized by the 21st Century Defense Initiative, Max Boot presented his latest book War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History – 1500 to Today. The event drew a crowd of defense and security experts, including representatives of the military branches.

Reviewing 500 years of history and technological innovation, Dr. Boot put the latest of four revolutions in military affairs (RMAs) in historic perspective and identified the implications for national security and defense policy. In doing so, he eloquently supported his thesis laid out in War Made New: only states that put in place organizational structures that enable the government to harness new technologies will emerge as dominant powers within the international system.

According to Max Boot, a first lesson to be drawn from history is the simple fact that each revolution in technology not only changed the face of the battlefield but profoundly changed the balance of power in the international system. While changing the social and economic conditions for the people, the advent of gunpowder, the steam engine, the combustion engine, and the information revolution were at the origins of a reconfiguration of power among states.

For example, before the discovery of gunpowder, the Mongols and Chinese were the dominant powers, and European states only controlled 14% of the land globally. After the invention of gunpowder, Europeans expanded their influence drastically and eventually controlled 84% of global territory. Even though gunpowder was a Chinese invention, European states were much more efficient in harnessing the new technology.

Similarly, Boot explained, the advent of the steam engine and the first industrial revolution gave rise to Germany and Japan, who were able to exploit the new technology better than other states. After World War I, Britain, France, Japan, Italy, and Germany could not compete with Russia and the United States in successfully reaping the benefits of the third revolution brought about by the combustion engine, and as a result the status of old Europe and Japan within the international system declined.

The final revolution, the information revolution, which started in the 1960s, was only mastered by the United States, and Max Boot argued that, at least to some extent, the successful application of information technology by the U.S. led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The key question, Boot pointed out, is ‘How does one state effectively use revolutions in technology to get an edge over the other states?’

Max Boot answered this question convincingly during his presentation. According to his analysis of 500 years of history, military power is not just a function of developing a lot of technology. Most of the technologies that were truly revolutionary did not come from the military. In addition, those few inventions that originated in the military domain made a very quick transition to the public sphere – everybody uses the internet today, and thanks to Google we can download satellite imagery of remarkable quality for free.

Dr. Boot argued that while technology is important, it all comes down to bureaucracy and whether a state or organization has the structures and administrative capabilities in place to successfully exploit a particular technology. Technologies are only enablers. Adequate structures to integrate technology are what cause shifts in the power structure of the international system.

Dr. Boot explained that the first and second industrial revolutions necessitated very hierarchical structures, which gave rise to conglomerates such as Ford, General Motors or Standard Oil. The information revolution, in contrast, is better harnessed through decentralization and flat hierarchies. Max Boot argued that Al Qaeda resembles the new, flattened model of organization. As a result, the enemy is more nimble and can respond and act more quickly. The U.S. military meanwhile may be compared to the old giants, such as Ford. In order to regain its edge, according to Boot, the U.S. must undertake bureaucratic and organizational reforms that make it more nimble and flexible in responding to threats.

The information revolution has some unintended consequences that threaten the current balance of power in favor of rogue states and non-state armed actors, including terrorists. Technological innovation results in an ever more destructive capacity of weapons and it has become increasingly easy for rogue states and armed non-state actors to acquire and use new technologies. In the words of Max Boot, “They take our technology and turn it against us.”

In his final comments, Max Boot provided an outline for bridging the gap between technological superiority and military power on one side and fragmented insurgencies that use technology to negate at least some of the U.S. position of dominance on the other side.

As the U.S. has developed the capacity to destroy virtually every target in the world, its ability to identify which targets to destroy has eroded as a consequence of the enemy’s decentralized structure, civilian camouflage and low-tech guerilla tactics.

Boot argued that the behavior of insurgencies and terrorist organizations necessitates that intelligence officers, military personnel and diplomats become more proficient in their language skills, cultural awareness, and human intelligence tactics. Key to the transformation is an organizational reconfiguration of the military and the government to support the process of building up these capabilities.

In the ensuing discussion, Max Boot highlighted some of the areas in which insurgencies and terrorist groups have successfully used technology to challenge U.S. military power. Asked about how his framework would apply in the case of the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict, Boot replied that non-state actors can easily acquire enough technologically advanced weapons, or use technology to construct make-shift weapons, that increase the cost of projecting power. Hezbollah did just that in limiting the movement of Israeli tanks through simple mines. In addition, Hezbollah and other groups make good use of media outlets, including satellite television and the internet. They are able to influence public opinion much better than Israel, and while Israel may have won on the battlefield, it may have lost in the court of public opinion. This view may also be applied to Iraq and the Global War on Terrorism.

One participant asked whether the success of the U.S. on the battlefield is more a function of politics than a function of fighting an irregular war, stating that if the U.S. fully deployed its war machinery it could overwhelm irregular war fighters.

Boot agreed that the U.S. could field more military power if the political will to do so were there. But he contended that even then it would not be evident that the U.S. could defeat guerillas or insurgents due to their ability to make the costs of conflict so high. Using history as an example, Max Boot stated that it is not unusual that hegemonic states are challenged. What is unusual today is that the U.S. is not challenged by a peer state, but a group of non-state actors.

Much of the discussion focused on the ability of societies to adapt to change, and the nature of successful bureaucratic structures. Societies, Dr. Boot pointed out, are in constant flux and it is hard to pinpoint the qualities that make some societies more dynamic than others. He stated that liberal democracies seem to have an edge, not because they are better at establishing military power, but because they are better at using it.

It is similarly hard to distinguish the causal relationships between technological innovation and organizational structure. In the information age, decentralized structures seem to have been more effective than centralized bureaucracies. However, decentralization is not necessarily conducive to organizational learning and organizational memory, which in turn are important elements for development. A structure that combines a central hub for information collection and analysis with decentralized, local solutions and decision making processes is likely to be most useful in the information revolution. A participant mentioned Wal-Mart as an example.

Technology and technological innovation are increasingly oriented to serve the needs of tomorrow. As a result the needs and challenges of today are neglected. Dr. Boot stressed the importance of achieving a balance between preparing for tomorrow and reacting to the present. The impact of technology and the need for organizational change are particularly acute in the U.S. military. One participant stated that the technical requirements of military jobs demand smarter people to handle the complex weapons systems and equipment. As a result, the military enters into competition with the private sector for the best and brightest minds and must offer competitive salaries and benefits. Boot agreed that personnel policy and structure of the military were central questions in the debate about adapting to the new environment, a debate that needs to take place in the very near future.

In addition, the image of the soldier is changing in many ways. Not every soldier is laden with weapons and hunkers down in the trenches anymore. Tomahawk missiles are fired from positions of relative safety, intelligence analysts feed information through satellite communication systems, and pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles scanning Iraqi territory sit in a container in the Texan desert. This means that there are opportunities in the military that are removed from the battlefield but still impact the conduct of war. Currently, many of these positions don’t lead to a career within the armed services. Boot argues that the military needs to review its policies on rewarding people in these more removed positions. For example, more and more soldiers will pilot UAVs and there must be a reward structure and career path for them. Also, there are at present no incentives for soldiers to become specialists in languages, cross-cultural communication and other skills that are vital to fighting insurgencies.

In his closing remarks, Max Boot highlighted again the necessity for organizational change to take advantage of technological revolutions. He concluded that in order to initiate and drive change within an organization, the leadership qualities of the people involved matters greatly. His favorite character in his book War Made New was Admiral Moffat, who was at the origin of reform of the maritime services in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. His diplomatic and social skills in advancing new ideas within the Navy without antagonizing fellow officers were a key in making reforms possible.

Agenda

Moderator

Peter W. Singer

Former Brookings Expert

Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

Speaker

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