Society, technology, and future warfare
American Enterprise Institute
- Warfare is being transformed by the information revolution. However, history has demonstrated that it is exceptionally difficult to know how new technology will redefine warfighting before the audit of battle.
- It is dangerous to assume that the US will dominate the future battlefield simply because it is leading the information revolution.
- It is equally dangerous to assume that future warfighting will conform to American military cultural preferences, even though those are likely to drive how the United States adopts new technology.
- The key to understanding the future battlefield is that best practices, or the inherent optimum of new technologies, is just one variable among a range of societal factors.
Today, military analysts are struggling to understand how the new technology of the information age will transform warfare. There is a persistent, dangerous tendency to assume that all actors will simply employ new technology according to a theoretical set of best practices—and an even more dangerous expectation that the United States will define those best practices and dominate the information-age battlefield because the US is leading the information revolution.
Historical evidence from the early industrial era, when a similar transformation occurred, offers warnings on both counts.
Great Britain led the industrial revolution. It was the leading economy of the era and the primary source of civilian innovations that brought about the Industrial Revolution and the military innovations that redefined warfare. Yet its military forces were not the most effective practitioners of industrial-age warfare. Similarly, the experience of the Germans and French from World War I to World War II warns that it is extremely difficult to know beforehand which army has learned to use new technologies most effectively before the audit of battle.
Finally, the experiences of all these armies and that of the Israel Defense Force in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 demonstrate that, especially in the early decades of such a monumental transformation, the key determinant of how militaries will perform is less about the new technology’s capabilities and much more about how societal factors will shape militaries and their approaches to that technology.
The great French philosopher Raymond Aron once observed, “An army always resembles the country from which it is raised and of which it is the expression.”1 While Aron’s observation is always crucial for military analysts to understand and respect, it is particularly important when trying to gauge how emerging technologies will transform warfare and redistribute military power in the future. Especially in an era of rapid, dramatic technological change like the present, a military’ willingness and ability to take advantage of new capabilities will inevitably be conditioned by a range of societal factors.
Too often, contemporary military thinkers assume militaries will inevitably gravitate toward changes in warfighting driven by the theoretical optimum inherent in new technologies. This is not necessarily wrong so much as dangerously incomplete. Over time, armed forces will recognize the full potential of new technologies and the best tactics, doctrine, and organizations to get the most combat power from those new technologies. However, what this misses is that no military ever adapts perfectly to the best practices of warfare in any era. In part, this is because the gravitational pull exerted by those perceived best practices is only ever one set of factors shaping how national armed forces and other groups fight.
The world is shifting from the industrial age to the information age. That transformation has profound implications for warfighting. In the most obvious fashion, new technologies will have a direct impact on combat operations, transforming what is possible and how best to accomplish military ends. However, major technological shifts also exert an indirect impact on military affairs by transforming other aspects of society that will in turn dictate the organization, resources, goals, abilities, and constraints that nations and other groups bring to warfare. As it always does, technology is reshaping economies, political systems, cultures, and organizations of every kind. Although these indirect effects are often less obvious, they are typically no less important.2
In short, a complex set of interactions between technological transformation and human society shapes how militaries adapt to new methods of war making. That is likely to hold true in the present and future. Indeed, it would be revolutionary if it somehow did not, and all available evidence indicates it still is.
1. Raymond Aron, The Imperial Republic: The United States and the World, 1945–1973 (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1974), 99.
2. For a discussion of how politics, economics, and culture can shape military effectiveness, see Kenneth Pollack, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).