8 March 1997
The Economist, 8 March 1997, pp. 15-16, 21-24.
ADVANCES in military technology have often had momentous effects. The invention of the stirrup enabled mounted warriors to put all the force of the horse behind the spears that they had hitherto thrust with only the strength of their arm. The arrival of that technology in Western Europe in the eighth century soon led to the seizure of church lands and the establishment of feudalism among the Franks. Seven centuries later feudalism was undermined by the longbow, which destroyed the power of horse-owning aristocrats. More recently, the invention of nuclear weapons has brought about a paradoxical peace among superpowers. Now another military revolution is dawning. This one could put the already pre-eminent United States vastly ahead of enemies and allies alike, and thus change the world again.
This latest revolution is based on the application of information technology to weapons. It involves gathering huge amounts of data; processing them so that relevant information is displayed on a screen; and then destroying targets, at much greater distance and with much greater accuracy than was previously possible. These changes favour attack rather than defence: large, easy-to-hit objects -- whether military bases, ships, tanks or concentrations of troops -- are increasingly vulnerable to weapons such as cruise missiles steered by satellite beams (see below).
All this is bad news for America's potential foes. Russia, a once and perhaps future rival, has neither the money nor the know-how to imitate the latest American advances. Other countries with more cash to spare may aspire to master enough of the new technology to challenge American power locally. China, for instance, is plainly flexing its muscles in Asia. Iran wants to develop cruise missiles to allow it to keep other countries' ships away from the Gulf But the Americans' mastery of the new warfare will make it increasingly foolish to take them on in a high-intensity shooting war, as Saddam Hussein did. So if anyone wants to have a go at Uncle Sam, he will probably do so by other methods, such as ballistic missiles, biological weapons or terrorism.
The revolution also has implications for America's friends. By increasing American might, it may encourage the country's unilateralist element to think it can win wars without having to work with troublesome partners. In any event, working with allies will probably become more bothersome: their low-tech armies may be incapable of plugging into American information networks. Moreover, given the increasing vulnerability of military bases to missile attack, America may wish to withdraw its soldiers from Europe and Asia. When necessary, it will be able to strike its enemies with long-range weapons and mobile intervention forces.
Such a retreat inside American frontiers could have dire consequences for Europe. Happily for America's partners, however, there are arguments that may persuade it to share some of the new technologies. The more internationalist among American strategists have long argued that a stronger Europe would be better able to help the United States sort out the world's crises. America could strengthen Europe's military capability by, for instance, giving NATO allies access to cruise missiles and the satellites that steer them (Britain has already bought Tomahawk cruise missiles for its submarines). Sharing could also save money: if America wanted to cast a missile-defence shield over its troops on a task abroad, why not protect its allies' forces on the same mission and send the bill to their governments? Needless to say, American defence contractors are all for helping allies.
So long as the internationalists run its foreign policy, America is likely to share at least the less sensitive sorts of equipment. That would reinforce trends that are already visible within NATO, such as role-sharing between America and its European partners. American voters, and some American defence secretaries, are more reluctant than they used to be to risk their servicemen's lives in a fight; some of America's allies, if not all of them, are still a bit readier to accept casualties. So when America wants to intervene abroad it may expect its allies to provide troops, but offer high-tech equipment as a quid pro quo. That is what happened in Bosnia, in 1992-95: American warplanes, satellites and airborne radars supported non-American soldiers. It was not an entirely happy experience. On the evidence of Bosnia, that kind of division is likely to create huge strains within the alliance. But the allies may still prefer it to being completely cut out.
The more advanced America's technology, the more clout it will have. Already, it would be hard for the Europeans to mount a serious military operation without American help. Last year, when NATO agreed to establish European-only taskforces, the Americans promised to lease the Europeans the necessary command, control and communications equipment. But it is unlikely that they would want to sustain an operation they disapproved of. European governments would be free to back an EU foreign policy with armed force -- so long as America gave its blessing.
The French appear to be the only Europeans worried by the new technology gap. Trying to keep up, they have launched one spy satellite and want Germany to help pay for others. The Japanese have similar worries, and hopes for similar satellites. But, like the French, they are unlikely to catch up with America. Europe may not like the idea of an alliance even more dominated by the United States, but it may have to lump it. Better a dominant than a unilateralist America.
The comfort is that, when America uses its gee-whizz new weapons, it will often be in pursuit of objectives that Europe shares. Many of their fundamental interests are similar. So long as the Americans are prepared to share their discoveries, and so long as the Europeans do not expect just to bask in the Americans' protection come what may, this military revolution could in the end help to tighten transatlantic ties. [End editorial]
Only America is close to mastering the new technologies that are transforming war. That gives it a huge advantage over potential foes -- and allies
MILITARY revolutions occur repeatedly throughout history. They are as often based on broader social developments as on military technology; generally they favour offence. Revolutionary France used new ideas such as liberty and patriotism to create huge "citizen armies" which swept all before them for a while. In the 1860s the Prussians in Europe and the northerners in the American civil war exploited the telegraph, railway and rifle to win wars on the basis of superior logistics. In the 1930s, when all the big powers were developing tanks, radios and bombers, Germany found the tactics and organisation that could meld them into Blitzkrieg.
The world is in the early stages of a new military revolution. The technologies include digital communications, which allow data to be compressed; a "global positioning system" (GPS) of satellites, which makes more exact guidance and navigation possible; radar-evading "stealth"; and, of course, computer processing.
One of the first people to think about what such changes might mean was Nikolai Ogarkov, the Soviet chief of staff. In 1984 he started worrying that America's long-range cruise missiles would create a "revolution in military affairs". Elements of that revolution have already been glimpsed. In the 1991 Gulf war stealthy F-117 bombers, laser-guided bombs and precisely targeted cruise missiles destroyed many Iraqi installations. And over Bosnia the Americans have deployed JSTARS, a ground-surveillance system in the sky: a single screen can display, in any weather, the position and type of every vehicle within an area 200 kilometres (125 miles) square.
This embryonic revolution, unlike the development of nuclear weapons, has not emerged in response to any particular threat to the United States or its allies. It has come about because it is there -- that is, because generals want to play with new technologies in case a future threat emerges. In that it may resemble Blitzkrieg, which was based on the technologies of the 1920s, when defence budgets were declining and there seemed little prospect of another world war. "This revolution is just beginning. It's in the phase of thinking, analysis and war games -- as if we were in about 1922," says Andrew Marshall, a Pentagon official who has encouraged research on many of the new devices. "In future we'll need to spend money on getting the forces to experiment with new sorts of operation."
No one can be certain where this revolution will end. But a few of the questions that it raises can be posed.How will it affect the way armies fight and are organised? Will it make much difference to "low-intensity" conflicts such as guerrilla warfare? How easily could the new techniques be countered? And will the revolution make America unchallengeable?
The revolution in military affairs revolves around three advances. The first is in gathering intelligence. Sensors in satellites, aircraft or unmanned aircraft can monitor virtually everything going on in an area. The second is in processing intelligence. Advanced command, control, communication and computing systems, known as C4, make sense of the data gathered by the sensors and display it on-screen. They can then assign particular targets to missiles, tanks or whatever. The third is in acting on all this intelligence -- in particular, by using long-range precision strikes to destroy targets. Cruise missiles, guided by satellite, can hit an individual building many hundreds of miles away.
America's armed forces have elements of these new systems already up and running. The navy's "Co-operative Engagement Capability" enables several warships to combine their radars into a single, more powerful one, available to each ship. But America has not yet integrated the advances into a single "system of systems", to use the phrase of Admiral William Owens, until recently vice-chairman of the chiefs of staff. Such a system would allow a commander to watch a screen displaying everything going on in a battle, select targets and destroy them by pressing a button.
What are the implications of all this? Much of the thinking about that question -- in the Pentagon and in think-tanks such as the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments -- concentrates on what might happen as offence is strengthened against defence. Combat will probably be compressed in time: modern missiles and bombs are so powerful that each side will have a strong incentive to strike first and thus stop the enemy doing anything.
Operations will also expand in space, so that fewer concentrations of soldiers or vehicles are exposed. For centuries, the battlefield has been emptying. In 1815 a division (normally 15,000-20,000 men) occupied about three square miles. Today it may take up a space of 25 miles by 25. By 2015 it may require an area of 100 miles by 100. Troops will move rapidly over the battlefield in small groups; there will be nothing resembling a front line.
Since defences against missiles are unlikely to be foolproof, ports and air bases (indeed fixed sites of all kinds) will be increasingly vulnerable. So logistical chains will be harder to sustain, which means that expeditionary forces will need to carry more of their supplies with them. Warriors and their machines will find stealth and mobility more useful than armour.
The new warfare will be "multi-dimensional", meaning not only that air, sea and land operations will be increasingly integrated, but also that information and outer space will be part of modern war. "Information warfare" could mean disabling an enemy by wrecking his computing, financial, telecoms or air-traffic control systems. The relevant weapons might be computer viruses, electro-magnetic pulses, microwave beams, well-placed bombs or anything that can smash a satellite.
Western governments worry that an "information strike" could crash their own computers. America's National Security Agency has recruited hundreds of people to grapple with information warfare. But the decentralisation of modern computer networks, plus the practice of copying databases, makes it unlikely that a single blow could disable a western economy.
On the battlefield the information warrior will aim to create an information gap" between his side and the foe. He will attack the enemy's information-gathering capacity and try to mislead his systems with decoys. He will seek to stop the enemy from jamming or corrupting his own systems by hopping from one frequency to another and by using encryption.
America depends on satellites to take photos, spot missile launches, eavesdrop, run the GPS and route military communications. No country yet threatens its dominance of space and neither America nor anyone else has deployed space-based weapons. But if, at some point, a power such as China sought to challenge American superiority by launching sophisticated military satellites, America would be sorely tempted to militarise space.
It might procure a fighter-borne anti-satellite missile that it has already developed. In fact, any country with inter-continental ballistic missiles could use them to knock out satellites. What may come are killer satellites, armed with missiles or lasers; or space mines that approach a target before exploding. As a counter to such threats, valuable satellites may be given armour or made stealthy and manoeuvrable.
The Pentagon already has, or is developing, most of the technologies required for space weapons. For instance, it has just awarded a $1.1 billion contract for an airborne laser to hit ballistic missiles. If that technology works, it could be adapted for a satellite. The American air force wants a space vehicle that could fly in or out of the atmosphere and deploy or attack satellites.
Wait a moment, the sceptics will say. Is this military revolution all that it's cracked up to be? Even if it really does transform what might be called high-intensity conflict does it have any application to guerrilla wars or to peacekeeping?
Some of the top brass certainly regard many of the claims made for the military revolution as dubious. So when its enthusiasts call, as they do, for less money to be spent on today's weapons, and more on research and development for the future, they meet plenty of opposition. Thus the US air force (whose chiefs are nearly all fighter pilots) is reluctant to replace manned aircraft with unmanned ones.
The army is particularly suspicious of the idea that technology can disperse what Clausewitz called the "fog of war". As an experiment, it set a "digital" battalion against a conventional force in exercises. The battalion with the gee-whizz gadgets performed poorly, its soldiers handicapped by heavy equipment and by the time taken to key in the information. In other tests, however, the digital technology performed well.
America's navy and air force tend to see a battlespace as a big open space containing either friends, to be protected, or enemies, to be destroyed. To the army, things look different: the terrain is full of trees, houses, hospitals and civilians who could be friends, or foes, or neutrals. ''If a tank is beside a hospital, a soldier needs good judgment more than computer gadgets," says one infantry colonel. "No screen can convey perfect information: there is always more to know, like, are the enemy soldiers tired and hungry?"
He has a point. Most current conflicts are festering sores of guerrilla warfare, ethnic hostility or terrorism. As in the Middle Ages, many soldiers fight for local warlords or multinational forces rather than for sovereign states. Even when western powers think a conflict so serious that they must deploy peacekeepers, as in Bosnia, they are reluctant to risk casualties. A soldier who can speak the local language and negotiate patiently may be more useful in these circumstances than a stealthy B-2 bomber.
In Somalia, in 1993, Mohammad Aideed humiliated American peacekeepers by shooting them and then hiding. All of America's information-gathering systems could not find him. And the Vietnam war is a reminder that, even in a high-intensity conflict, an enemy who hides in the jungle and will not come out to fight can resist high-tech weapons.
However, those who think that this military revolution really is transforming war argue that, although it began as an attempt to match the Soviet threat, it can also help in low-intensity conflicts. American unmanned aircraft have monitored the compliance of Bosnia's armies with the Dayton agreement. Had NATO decided to arrest indicted war criminals. such as the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, satellite espionage would have helped. A Russian aircraft blew up Jokar Dudaev, the Chechen leader, after a mobile telephone had revealed his position.
Precision strikes also offer the possibility of destroying military targets without much "collateral" damage. In September 1995 the Pentagon would not have launched cruise missiles against anti-aircraft sites in Banja Luka if it had not -- correctly -- thought there would be few Bosnian Serb casualties.
The most serious problem for those who espouse "revolutionary" military technology, say its critics, is that enemies could counter or copy its capabilities. Every breakthrough in offensive technology eventually inspires a matching advance in defence.For example, the arrival of artillery in the 15th century led to the trace italienne, sloping fortifications resistant to cannon balls. There is already talk of new radars that can detect stealthy aircraft.
How might other countries react? No country wishing to challenge America could now afford to build a "system of systems". And it would probably not want to invest heavily in traditional weapons, such as tanks and aircraft, which would be vulnerable to American technology. A poor country might choose cheap, horrific and hard-to-counter methods such as terrorist bombs, ballistic missiles or chemical or biological weapons. The regime would hope that, if the Americans had no vital interest in its part of the globe, the risk of casualties would deter them from fighting back.
A richer country might attempt to master some new technologies, such as GPS-steered cruise missiles. GPS is available to any yachtsman or missile-maker (although the Americans' military system is more accurate). Satellite photos and much electronic equipment can be bought commercially. The American navy worries that a country which had a mix of cruise missiles, spy satellites and unmanned aircraft could threaten its surface ships in some seas.
America's "system of systems" would not necessarily enable it to overcome such foes painlessly. But it would help the Americans to best any future foe, especially in a high-intensity conflict. And although other countries may pursue particular strands of the military revolution, they could find "systems integration" -- the skill of weaving all the different components and systems together -- extremely difficult. Japan might seem to be the country nearest to America in having both the wealth and the technological expertise to master the military revolution. But Japanese firms have been trying to make an advanced fighter for decades and still cannot do so without help from an American partner.
Another big advantage of America and its close allies is the culture of their armed forces. A rogue regime may acquire a "multiple launch rocket system". But will its soldiers be well-enough trained and qualified to use the system effectively and to repair it? The creation of a capable fighting force requires decades of investment and effort. As any company in a competitive market knows, the qualities of a successful rival cannot easily be acquired or copied.
The speed at which America will pursue this revolution is uncertain; that it will pursue it is not. America's armed forces -- and others which imitate them -- will have to adapt to the new technologies. Fewer soldiers, sailors and airmen will actually fight. More of them will be specialists in areas like missiles, computers or space warfare; more of them will be women. As Eliot Cohen, a military historian, has written: "The cultural challenge for military organisations will be to maintain a warrior spirit and the intuitive understanding of war that goes with it, even when their leaders are not, in large part, warriors themselves."
The military revolution will allow, in theory, a private to know as much about a battlefield as his (or her) general -- if the general lets him have the information. It will also make the general more confident than his forebears of understanding events in the field. And it will enable a defence minister to watch live video footage of a battle.
So the changes could serve either to decentralise or to centralise power in armed forces. The former may be more likely, if only because soldiers who have some leeway to take initiatives will be more effective. The organigrams of today's forces are as pyramidal as in the 1950s; armies must surely follow companies in "delayering".
Future armed forces will require different sorts of equipment. Because tanks, ships and aircraft are so vulnerable, many of them are likely to be replaced, in part, by unmanned vehicles. Dispensing with the crew saves money. America's F-22 fighters will cost over $100m each. The best unmanned aircraft, although currently less capable, cost perhaps $15m. They are already being fitted with bombs. In the long run, manned fighters may be required for only a limited number of roles, such as shooting down the most advanced enemy aircraft.
Aircraft carriers, like other surface ships, risk being sunk by cruise missiles. Some will be replaced by "arsenal ships" semi-submersible, stealthy barges, carrying hundreds of missiles but few sailors. The Pentagon is developing these ships partly for their cheapness. They would carry no radar or targeting systems: satellites would beam down the relevant information. A large carrier costs $3.5 billion and has a crew of 5,000; an arsenal ship would cost perhaps $500m and have a crew of 50.
So much for the military implications. What about the political ones? This revolution, argues Admiral Owens, offers America a new basis for coalition leadership. "We'll be in a far better position to shape the world, rather than react to it, than at any time since world war two." In the past "the nuclear umbrella provided a co-operative structure, linking the United States in a mutually beneficial way to a wide range of friends, allies and neutral nations." Now an "information umbrella", based on intelligence sharing, could perform a comparable function. If America fails to share the bounty of the military revolution, he says, its allies will try to copy it.
He is probably thinking of France, which, impressed by what American satellites did in the Gulf war, reinforced its own efforts to build spy satellites. But the French have not got the money to develop many of the new systems themselves. Military theorists in Russia and China write copiously about the revolution but neither of those countries' armed forces appear to be doing much about it. So America is likely to maintain its huge lead, at least until and unless a richer China or a revived Russia pushes itself into the competition. America may in the meantime share some of these technologies with its friends; or it may press ahead with them on its own. Either way, the military revolution will greatly expand American power in the years ahead.