Murphy's Law: April 30, 2003

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: Donald Rumsfeld is being widely credited with forcing a "new revolution" in warfighting on the Pentagon. The pundits would have us believe that unmanned aerial vehicles, volumes of Special Forces, and real-time ground-air strike coordination are going to lead the US military into new realms of martial domination.

Let's put aside the bluster, however, and examine reality. There is no "revolution" in warfare, and there hasn't been since World War I. The revolutions du jour - digital communications, UAVs, unconventional warfare forces, and real-time targeting - merely allow us to do what we've always done, just bigger, better, faster, and more. No one argues that the MOAB is any sort of revolution over the traditional World War II dumb bomb with which we pounded German factories, but somehow using a computer instead of a runner to move a message from point A to point B is a "revolution".

The last real "revolutions" in warfare both occurred right around World War I. Flight and indirect artillery fire had both been developed before World War I, but were first widely used in "The Great War." The revolution of flight and indirect artillery fire was to make warfare a three-dimensional enterprise. 

Before flight, there was no way to lift over the enemy, and the enemy had only to secure his flanks to secure his rear areas. Suddenly, with flight, securing the flanks did not guarantee the security of the rear area, and though vertical envelopments took time to perfect, they were possible.

Indirect artillery fire changed warfare in a similar way. Cannons were no longer direct-fire weapons (i.e. really big muskets). Lobbing shells into an enemy trench became more effective than trying to get a gun into his trench. 

To think about the "3D-ing" of warfare another way: before World War I, troops digging in never worried about overhead cover. Since World War I, every "revolution": the helicopter, the A-bomb, ICBMs, in-flight refueling, carrier aircraft, submarines, SONAR, computers, frequency-hopping radios, laser-guided bombs, thermal sights, GPS, stealth, and psy-ops, have simply allowed us to do what we always do in more efficient means.

To recap the previous list by listing the technology they improved on: biplanes, artillery shells, artillery shells (again), aircraft sustainment, airfields, aircraft (in reverse), reconnaissance, paper charts, message runners, artillery shells, eyeballs, map-reading,
flying low, and bragging to your opponent before opening a can of whoop-ass (think: Scottish war chants from Braveheart). Not a single technology on that list is "new" since World War I.

Revolutions don't come often, and nearly every "revolution" of the past 80 years can be characterized as a way to simply do something we've always done with greater efficiency. It is true that at some point you develop such a high efficiency that it becomes pointless for your opponent to try and disrupt your decision cycle, either tactically or operationally. But to call the technologies that keep us ahead as "revolutionary" simply because no one else can do it is to fall into a popular trap of media pundits and military technology salesman: ignoring history. -- Brant Guillory

 


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