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Historical Lessons Applied to the Current Technical Revolution in Military Affairs

March 14, 2012

Despite the persistent counterinsurgency that the United States has been waging for the past decade, the technology available to American ground Soldiers is remarkably similar to the technology that was available to them at the beginning of the conflict. The military stands on the edge of the next revolution in military affairs. Advances in automation and information technologies have dramatically transformed many aspects of civilian society in the past 20 years. When compared to this frenzy of technological development, especially in consumer electronics, these advances have entered military technology at a deliberate and gradual pace.

Western warfare in general and American warfare specifically have always been capitalintensive endeavors. Major capital systems such as air-superiority fighter aircraft and main battle tanks have established a degree of supremacy in technological improvement. This supremacy in weapons traditionally has been considered to be of strategic significance to U.S. interests. However, given the strategic nature of American casualties in recent conflicts, a major upgrade in the military capabilities of dismounted Soldiers is critical to U.S. strategy in the protracted counterinsurgency fight. While the United States may want its adversaries to attempt to counter U.S. asymmetric superiority in technology and training with a symmetric response, once American superiority becomes manifestly and painfully obvious to the enemy, it is reasonable to assume that he will resort to asymmetric tactics and technology to accomplish his objectives.

Part of the response to an asymmetric threat is to oppose violently the asymmetric warrior. Denying insurgents the ability to act directly erodes their resource base and credibility as an effective fighting force. The enemy may not be as sensitive as the American populace to its number of casualties, but after a certain level of enemy casualties is reached, support for direct attacks against U.S. Soldiers begins to collapse, prompting the adoption of other tactics or a waning of the insurgency. While a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy has been discussed at length in other documents,2 it is beyond the scope of this paper. Here, counterinsurgency 2 strategy will be confined to the assertion that one of the requirements to defeat an insurgency is to do so on the battlefield, taking advantage of every opportunity. To seize and maintain the initiative in an asymmetric conflict is difficult and sometimes impossible. Without the initiative, it is necessary—at least on occasion—to let the enemy set the operational tempo. Mass can be achieved through the use of increased numbers of dismounted Soldiers. However, it is often prohibitively expensive for a sustained effort, and a concentration of Soldiers is vulnerable to area-effect weapons such as mortar fire and prepositioned explosives. A concerted effort is required to provide battlefield dominance to the infantry Soldier through the same quality of technical superiority that has led to dominance in air and armored combat.

To improve technologies available to Soldiers, it is first necessary to understand the current state of the art. As a testament to the maturity of firearms, the weapons with which the United States equips its Soldiers are only marginally superior to those used 100 years earlier. Among some Afghan tribes, the Enfield .303 enjoys a reputation superior to that of the AK-47;3 Soldiers who stormed up San Juan Hill in 1898 carried rifles whose range and muzzle velocity were comparable to those of weapons carried by Soldiers today. That said, U.S. Soldiers have the advantage over their predecessors in training, communications and the ability to bring the fires of more sophisticated weapon systems down on their adversaries. Direct capital expenditure on the improvement of dismounted infantry Soldier performance and capabilities has relied until very recent times on increased training. While superior training can dramatically increase the battlefield effectiveness of a Soldier, it does not bring the same decisive psychological advantage as a heavy weapon system. The will and ability to consistently hit an enemy target at ranges in excess of 100 meters in battlefield conditions, to maneuver under fire and to close with the enemy in all weather conditions, even in darkness, might be decisive in a small-arms engagement. However, to the enemy the infantry Soldier appears to be armed with weapons of the same quality as those of his own fighters. From the perspective of the insurgents, it might appear that parity does exist.

The concept of dramatic change in the profession of arms was developed by Soviet military theorists and labeled “military-technical revolutions.”4 The term “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) was first coined by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment in the 1980s and was expanded to include improvements in communication, tactics, logistics and social organizations. The requirement proposed by Williamson Murray and MacGregor Knox in their definitive book, The Dynamics of Military Revolutions, 1300–2050, will be applied to RMAs in this paper:

Revolutions in military affairs require the assembly of a complex mix of tactical, organizational, doctrinal and technological innovations in order to implement a new conceptual approach to warfare or to a specialized sub-branch of warfare.

One characteristic of an RMA is an asymmetric result from a symmetric confrontation, as seen in Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991. During the invasion of France, the Allies enjoyed technological and numerical parity with the Germans. The Germans, however, were able to defeat the Allies with relatively few casualties through their use of Blitzkrieg, an innovated maneuver warfare doctrine based on agility and their integration of the effects of air and artillery with ground attacks by massed armor; this is now known as “combined-arms tactics.” During the 1991 Gulf War, technical superiority, better training and a sound tactical doctrine produced a swift victory of the coalition ground forces following a successful air campaign.

The life cycle of a technical RMA begins when one nation or faction develops a new technology. Early adopters of an RMA may benefit from acquiring the technology that constitutes the RMA. If the advantages are apparent, others will develop the technology, and all military entities will attempt to improve the weapon system. The cost of capital-intensive warfare in the modern age may prove prohibitive, because only a handful of wealthy nation states or alliances can field these modern systems. However, this outcome is not certain. Proliferation of low-cost, high-quality computational electronics and tools for automation, when combined with a development process that is open source or adapted from dual-use technologies, could put futuristic weapon systems into the hands of operators with very limited resources.

Marginal and evolutionary increases in weapon capabilities are not considered RMAs. If a new fighter aircraft has an extended cruising range and a slight advantage in aerial combat, it probably does not constitute an RMA. On the other hand, if the fighter compels an adversary to send all his planes to safety in a remote location and to rely entirely on air defense artillery to defend his airspace, this may be considered an RMA. Tactical or organizational RMAs proliferate much more rapidly than technical RMAs. The tactics developed by the Germans and used against the Poles, French and Soviets early in World War II were the same tactics used against the Germans after their initial successes culminated. An RMA could be thought of as the technological and doctrinal equivalent of the initiative. An RMA would force the belligerent without the innovation to react to the early adopter. The new technology and tactics require the adversary who does not possess the same advantages to dramatically alter the way he wages war—by either mimicking the innovator or developing countermeasures. Without such alterations, the enemy is rapidly defeated.

The current technical RMA is based on the integration into major weapon systems of automation technologies provided by semiconductor integrated circuits. In addition, increases in both performance from better materials and complexity have allowed modern systems to enjoy the synergistic effect of improvements to component systems, which effectively constitutes an RMA. Technological examples of the current RMA include precision-guided weapon systems and weapons with computer-aided targeting integrated into their optical target acquisition components. Recently, projectiles that integrate global positioning system (GPS) guidance into their targeting in the terminal arc of their trajectories6 or that are actually capable of acquiring and engaging a target during the terminal arc7 simultaneously reduce both the collateral damage and the number of rounds required to achieve the desired effect. Fully automated systems such as the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are being used for surveillance and as ground-attack aircraft against asymmetric opponents who lack advanced antiaircraft weapons. Automation has had the greatest difficulty in making progress in equipment used by light maneuver forces. Some remotely controlled unmanned ground systems (UGS) have augmented the capabilities of Soldiers, but the utility of these systems is limited when compared to aerial systems. The UGS that have been fielded are primarily being used to provide remote manipulation and to assess situations that are particularly threatening to Soldiers.8 Some remotely controlled ground vehicles have weapons mounted on them, allowing Soldiers to operate them at a distance and under limited conditions.

The next RMA will complete the saturation of the battlefield with integrated circuits, making information and automation abundant. It is reasonable to expect automated systems that are becoming more common in the air to become prolific on the ground as well. The form, shape, function and degree of autonomy will evolve with the technology and tactics of belligerents and potential belligerents. The complexity of land warfare explains why this is 4 the area in which automation has been so slow to make progress. The difficulties in developing a fully automated ground system become apparent when compared with the aerial battle space. Once a vehicle is airborne, the sky contains either enemies (targets) and/or friendlies (obstacles), but mostly it contains just empty (unoccupied) space. The earliest automated aerial systems were missiles; simple cruise missiles were some of the first UAS. Developed as terror weapons during World War II, UAS were essentially planes with a rudimentary autopilot, packed with explosives almost accurate enough to hit a city.10 The algorithms that control automated systems used in naval combat must be programmed to take into account the interface between sea and air. Since most naval systems can travel exclusively in the air, under the water or along the interface between air and water, the naval battlespace brings additional complexity to autonomous systems as weapons in one region attempt to engage those in another. Antiship remotely controlled glide bombs were used first by the Germans and later by the Americans in World War II. 11 In both the air and sea, most of the space in which a system can maneuver is free from natural and manmade obstacles. For ground-based systems, however, quite a different circumstance exists. Obstacles are the rule, and maneuver space is the exception. This concept is demonstrated by examining the distance that a ground vehicle travels before being required to alter direction to avoid an obstacle. In addition to the problem of maneuver space, there is a problem of perception. Concealment that obscures the maneuver space is much more abundant for ground systems.

Just as history is the laboratory of the social sciences, it is also the laboratory of armed conflict. The success or failure of a military philosophy or strategy can be proven by its historical performance. The same rules apply for the lessons of war and for the synergistic relationship between war and the tools used to wage it. If on the verge of a technological-based revolution in military affairs, previous case studies in fires, maneuver and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) may reveal lessons that can help assess when they should be applied to the modern situation.