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Strategic Studies Institute

United States Army War College

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Slowing Military Change

Authored by Dr. Zhivan Alach. | October 2008

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SUMMARY

This monograph looks at the development of military technology in recent years. It examines three major platforms: fighter aircraft, tanks, and cruisers, examining the gaps between generations as well as the capability gains of each succeeding type. While it shows that development has slowed, at the same time capability increases have also slowed: it takes longer to get new equipment, and that new equipment is less of an improvement over its predecessor than its predecessor was over its predecessor. It is thus a period of declining gains. Only in electronics and computer technology was that thesis shown to be somewhat untrue, but even there military technology has lagged significantly behind commercial advances, and thus to call it innovative and rapidly developing is to draw a long bow. This relative military stasis, in technology, at least, has a range of causes: the end of the Cold War, bureaucratic changes, political cultures, scientific limits, cost inflation, a focus on new characteristics that cannot be so easily measured. The monograph also looks at the strategic environment to see whether that has evolved rapidly while technology has proven more dormant. While many of the issues that characterize the post-Cold War period were also present during the Cold War; they may be newly important, but they are not necessarily new. Indeed, the contemporary period may be seen as a return to military normalcy after the lengthy anomaly of the Cold War. It is a shift away from state-on-state conflict, away from large scale war, away from a view that sees armies as forces designed solely for decisive, Clausewitzian battles. Yes, there has been change since the end of the Cold War, but it should not be exaggerated; rather than innovation, itmight be taken as reaction, and the Cold War should be examined from a new perspective as a period of radical innovation in strategic terms, which would further be reinforced by the rapid technological development that characterized it.

This monograph, as the centerpiece of its method, examines the development of a range of military systems; one of the most indicative of these is the F/A-22. The F/A-22 is expected to remain in service until 2050; this will be 66 years since the detailed requirements for the Advanced Tactical Fighter were set. This is a long time in military history; 66 years ago, a fighter known as the P-51 was entering service. That is an argument from extremes, but it is still valid nonetheless. Today?s military environment moves slowly; let us be willing to accept that, rather than assume that because it is our environment, it must somehow be more innovative than those that have gone before. Let us use the time that this relative military stasis affords us to examine the strategic environment both more closely and from a greater distance.

INTRODUCTION

It seems to be a commonplace today among strategic and military analysts that we are in a time of rapid, world-altering change.1 The military environment is evolving swiftly, they say; some even believe we are witnessing a full-scale revolution in military affairs (RMA). Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as "fourth generation" warfare, by definition distinct from anything that has gone before. Modern technologies, from the F/A-22 Raptor, through robotic bomb disposal systems, to personal weapons, are seen as pushing the boundaries of capability far beyond those that existed but a few years ago. Even as we speak, it seems, defense forces are making quantum gains in military effectiveness through the acquisition of new weapons and the communications and control systems required to integrate them. Concomitant with this rapid progress is rapid obsolescence; each system is swiftly superceded by its successor, and if a force does not jump onto the "elevator of progress," it runs the risk of being left behind in a sort of military backwater, a Swiss Guard writ large. This military acceleration is seen as part of similar development around the world, whether it be how social interactions are being shaped by the internet, or how global trade patterns have adapted and shifted as a response to new policies and technologies. Some have gone so far as to call the contemporary strategic environment "global chaos."2 A cursory look at some of the futurist projections of defense analysts shows that many expect such world-altering trends to strengthen in the future, creatingan unstable and dangerous world full of asymmetric threats, international crime, and extremism-fueled terrorism.3 In such an environment, it is not merely equipment that can become obsolescent, but also mindsets, exemplified by planning to fight the last war, rather than the next.

The question that poses itself to the author is whether or not the above analyses are truly the case. Have we instead committed a basic human fallacy in assuming that there is something unique about our generation that was somehow lacking in the myriad previous generations that stretch back into pre-history? This perspective is a sort of distorted presentism, and it is understandable: we cannot see the past, but we can see the present, and thus we assume greater distinctiveness about that which we can perceive. A good example of this is public perception of the standards of contemporary youth behaviour. The first months of 2008 have been full of political posturing and public comment about the declining standards of New Zealand?s youth.4 They are seen as more violent, more disrespectful, less educated, less well-spoken, and generally a devolution from the youth of the past. Unfortunately, the value of such assertions is reduced by the fact that every generation criticises the declining moral standards of its youth.5 The parents of the 1960s were shocked by the sexual promiscuity of their free-love embracing teenagers. The parents of the 1920s were concerned about the dance crazes sweeping much of the western world. Medieval moralists thought society was on the path to destruction, and if we go back just a little further, we find two marvellous quotes that might easily have come from the mouth of Leader of the Opposition John Key or Prime Minister Helen Clark:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.6

I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.7

The former is attributed to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, and is approximately 2,400 years old; the latter to Hesiod. They show that either youth standards have indeed declined every generation, which surely would have led to the destruction of human civilization by marauding teenagers at some stage in the past, or that our comments about those standards are flawed and subjective. More objective measurements, such as statistics on youth crime, teenage pregnancy, drug use, literacy, and educational achievement, provide much better evidence with which to either criticise or compliment the moral standards of any particular youth generation. The use of such semi-objective criteria for measurement avoids the distorted presentism mentioned before, the tendency to believe strongly in the uniqueness and distinctiveness of one?s own generation without truly examining such assertions in the light of the historical context.

This monograph is a reevaluation of the thesis that we are in a time of rapid military change. It might be called revisionist strategic analysis. Its broad conclusion can be stated simply: we are in a period of relative military stasis when compared to developments of approximately the past 150 years. This monograph comes to that conclusion through an analysis of technological change across a range of systems and countries, as well as an examination of the evolving character of the strategic environment. The monograph is a broad-brush treatment, and for good reasons: to identify the nature of change (or lack thereof) within an entire system requires a very broad perspective, lest a point that is true in the general be criticized because it does not explain a specific issue. A second reason is length. All macro analyses, by definition, are simplifications, but they are no less true for being so. This monograph touches on several issues of theory and detail that are deserving of much closer attention and lengthier works, but that is for a later date. It avoids making policy recommendations for the very simple reason that to do so would add yet another analytical stage to the piece and would thus lengthen it further. It is enough merely to suggest that contemporary interpretations of the military-strategic environment require substantial rethinking if they are to withstand critical cross-examination, and to make some minor recommendations for further work in the area.

CONCLUSION

This monograph began by looking at the development of military technology in recent years. It looked at three major platforms: fighter aircraft, tanks, and cruisers, examining the gaps between generations as well as the capability gains of each succeeding type. What it showed, quite clearly, was that development has slowed, but at the same time capability increases have also slowed: it takes longer to get new equipment, and that new equipment is less of an improvement over its predecessor than its predecessor was over its predecessor. It is thus a period of declining gains. Only in electronics and computer technology was that thesis shown to be somewhat untrue, but even there military technology has lagged significantly behind commercial advances, and thus to call it innovative and rapidly developing is to draw a long bow. This relative military stasis, in technology, at least, has a range of causes: the end of the Cold War, bureaucratic changes, political cultures, scientific limits, cost inflation, a focus on new characteristics that cannot be so easily measured. The monograph then looked at the strategic environment to see whether that has evolved rapidly while technology has proven more dormant. It noted that many of the issues that characterize the post-Cold War period were also present during the Cold War; they may be newly important, but they are not necessarily new. Indeed, the contemporary period may be seen as a return to military normalcy after the lengthy anomaly of the Cold War. It is a shift away from state-on-state conflict, away from large scale war, away from a view that sees armies as forces designed solely for decisive, Clausewitzian battles. Yes, there has been change since the end of the Cold War, but it should not be exaggerated; rather than innovation, it might be taken as reaction, and we should instead examine the Cold War from a new perspective as a period of radical innovation in strategic terms, which would further be reinforced by the rapid technological development that characterized it.

Let us return to the beginning. This monograph began with an examination of the development of the F/A-22. The F/A-22 is expected to remain in service until 2050; this will be 66 years since the detailed requirements for the Advanced Tactical Fighter were set.240 This is a long time in military history; 66 years ago, a fighter known as the P-51 was entering service. That is an argument from extremes, but it is still valid nonetheless. Today?s military environment moves slowly; let us be willing to accept that, rather than assume that because it is our environment, it must somehow be more innovative than those that have gone before. Let us use the time that this relative military stasis affords us to examine the strategic environment both more closely and from a greater distance.

ENDNOTES

1.It would be impossible to make an exhaustive list of sources that state that we are in a time of rapid change, but the following provide a good start point for the interested reader. It is also not the goal of this monograph to criticize or attack particular pieces, but rather to suggest that more thought needs to be put into our characterizations of the contemporary environment. The following provide a fair introduction to many of the issues. Richard Bitzinger, Defense Transformation and the Asia Pacific: Implications for Regional Militaries,Honolulu, HI: Asia-Pacific Center for Strategic Studies, 2004; Jim Garamone, "Mullen Addresses Rapid Change, Other Issues at Australian War College," 2008, available from www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspxLonsdale, The Nature of War in the Information Age: Clausewitzian Future,London: Frank Cass, 2004; Herfrieds Munkler, The New Wars, Cambridge: Polity, 2005; John Bennett, "Interview with James Finley," DefenseNews, December 17, 2007; Department of the Army, The Strategic Environment and Army Organization, updated June 2005, available from www.army.mil/fm1/chapter2html; Williamson Murray, The Emerging Strategic Environment: Challenges of the Twenty-First Century, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1999; Project on Defense Alternatives, "The RMA Debate," available from www.comw.org/rma/fulltext/overview.html..

2. Colin Gray, Strategy for Chaos, London: Frank Cass, 2002; Yahya Sadowski, The Myth of Global Chaos,Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1998. These two books are good start points for reading on the concept of global chaos/new world disorder.

3. John Alexander, Winning the War: Advanced Weapons, Strategies and Concepts for the Post 9/11 World, New York: St Martin?s Press, 2003; Michael Evans, "Appointment in Samarra: Western Strategic Thought and the Culture of Risk," in Michael Evans, Alan Ryan, and Russell Parkin, eds., Future Armies, Future Challengers: Land Warfare in the Information Age, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2004; Michael Evans, "Clausewitz?s Chameleon: Military Theory and Practice in the Early 21st Century," in Evans et al., eds., Future Armies, Future Challengers; Lonsdale, The Nature of War in the Information Age; Thomas Mahnken, "The American Way of War in the Twenty-First Century," in Efraim Inbar, ed., Democracies and Small Wars, London: Frank Cass, 2003; RalphPeters, "The West?s Future Foes: Simplification and Slaughter," in Evans et al., eds., Future Armies, Future Challengers; Alan Ryan, "Land forces in 21st Century Coalition Operations: Implications for the Asia-Pacific," in Evans et al., eds., Future Armies, Future Challengers; Raimo Vayrynen, "Capitalism, War and Peace," in Raimo Vayrynen, ed., The Waning of Major War: Theories and Debates, London: Routledge, 2006.

4. Simon Collins, "Being There for the Teens in Trouble," New Zealand Herald, February 9, 2008; Angela Gregory, "Classroom Cops Plan Raises Pupil Rights Fears," New Zealand Herald, February 19, 2008; "Helen Clark: State of the Nation Address," New Zealand Herald, January 30, 2008; "John Key: State of the Nation Speech," New Zealand Herald, January 30, 2008; Fran O?sullivan, "Problems Need Answers Rather than Blame Game," New Zealand Herald, February 2, 2008; Claire Trevett, "Opponents Tag Bill an Electioneering Stunt," New Zealand Herald, February 22, 2008.

5. Robin Friedman, "Youth Speak," eJournal USA, August 2007, available from usinfo.state.gov/journals/itsv/0807/ijse/friedman.htm.

6. "Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations," 1989, available from www.bartleby.com/73/195.html.

7. ThinkExist.com, "Youth Quotes," available from thinkexist. com/quotations/youth/4.html.

240. And as noted earlier, the Abrams tank, developed in the 1970s, may still be in service then also.