What is the relationship between technology and war?

Technology shapes warfare, not war. War is timeless and universal. It has afflicted virtually every state known to human history.

Warfare is the conduct of war. It is the clash of arms or the maneuver of armed forces in the field.

It entails what military professionals call operations, whether or not the opposing forces actually unleash their organized violence on one another.

War is a condition in which a state might find itself; warfare is a physical activity conducted by armed forces in the context of war.

Of course, many kinds of group violence, from gang fights to terrorism, might display some or all of the characteristics of warfare without rising to this definition of war, but more often than not these violent conflicts use instruments of war. To understand the technology of warfare is to understand the technology of most public violence.

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Wording is also important in articulating exactly what impact technology has on warfare. A number of verbs suggest themselves. Technology defines, governs, or circumscribes warfare. It sets the stage for warfare. It is the instrumentality of warfare.

The most important verb describing the impact of technology on warfare is that it changes warfare. Technology has been the primary source of military innovation throughout history. It drives changes in warfare more than any other factor. Consider a simple thought experiment.

Sun Tzu and Alexander the Great are brought back to life and assigned to lead coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2008. These near contemporaries from the fourth century BCE would understand almost everything they would need to know. Alexander actually fought in Afghanistan, and Sun Tzu (if such a person really existed) fought in comparably mountainous terrain in China.


Both were masters of strategy and tactics. What came to be called the “principles of war” is simply the tacit knowledge that all successful commanders throughout history have carried around in their bank of experience: an understanding of intelligence, surprise, maneuver, command and control, concentration of force, unity of command, terrain, etc.

Even Clausewitz’s seminal contributions to military art and science-chance, violence, the “fog of war,” and “friction” -were concepts that Alexander and Sun Tzu knew by different names.

The only modern tool of command they would not know and could not readily assimilate would be the technology of war. Airplanes, missiles, tanks, drones, satellites, computers, GPS, and all the remaining panoply of the modern high-tech battlefield would be incomprehensible to them.

A sergeant from their operations staff could exploit these resources more fully and effectively than either of our great captains. Sun Tzu and Alexander would be incompetent on the modern battlefield.


The point is even more obvious in humankind’s other two fields of battle-the sea and the air-to say nothing of space, perhaps the battlefield of the future. Naval warfare does not occur without ships, which, through most of human history, were the most complex of human technological artifacts.

Of course the same is true of planes for air warfare, missiles for strategic warfare, and spacecraft for star wars. In each case, the vehicle defines the warfare.

Horatio Nelson, perhaps the greatest naval commander of all time, would have been powerless to understand the strategy and tactics of World War II’s air warfare in the Pacific or submarine warfare in the Atlantic.

The cat-and-mouse contest of Soviet and American attack submarines in the Cold War would have been even more incomprehensible to him. He might have gone back in time and intuited the essence of galley warfare, but he could not command in the age of steam, let alone the nuclear age, without a solid grounding in modern science and technology.

The more modern, or postmodern, the warfare becomes, the more the generalization holds true. Technology defines warfare. Air warfare was not even possible before the twentieth century, save for the vulnerable and inefficient reconnaissance balloons that were pioneered in Europe and America in the nineteenth century.

In the twenty-first century, air warfare ranges from strategic bombing to close air support of ground troops to dog fights for air superiority to pilotless drones that carry the eyes and ears, and sometimes the ordnance, of operators hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

The U.S. boasts a missile defense installation that can stop the unstoppable, an intercontinental ballistic missile. Space-faring nations flirt with anti-satellite weapons launched from earth and even the prospect of space-based weapons to fight one another and threaten the earth below.

Air warfare differs from naval warfare, not because the strategy and tactics of conflict in those realms differs, but because planes differ from ships. And, of course, both differ from tanks and rockets and satellites. Each technology shapes, defines, circumscribes, and governs a new kind of warfare.

Nor is it just the evolution of weaponry that changes warfare. It is the distribution of the weaponry. Throughout history, states have usually fought one another in weapons symmetry. In the first Gulf War, for example, Saddam Hussein attempted to defeat a conventional, industrialized, mechanized American army with a conventional, industrialized, mechanized Iraqi army. The quality and quantity of the American technology prevailed.

In the second Gulf War, however, the insurgents resorted to asymmetrical warfare, fighting the high-tech American arsenal with low-tech instruments of assassination, sabotage, and terror.

Only when the United States adjusted its technology to meet the new threat did the enemy tactics lose their edge. Of course training, morale, numbers, will, and politics also contributed to the outcome in Iraq, but the nature of the technology set the stage for the struggle.

The whole notion of “technological determinism” is a red herring. Humans can always resist the historical forces surrounding them. To believe in determinism is to believe in inevitability. In hindsight, events may appear predetermined or inevitable, but nothing in human activity can be predicted with certainty.

Think about the instances in history when technology appeared to determine the nature and even the result of warfare. Chariots were perhaps the most dominant instrument of warfare before nuclear weapons. Indeed, historian William H. McNeill has called them the super weapon of their day. When they appeared in the Levant in the eighteenth century BCE, they swept all before them.

From Egypt to Mesopotamia, states either adopted chariots or ceased to compete in interstate war. The chariot craze bred an international chariot aristocracy, the Maryanne, who sold their services to the highest bidder.

States built up enormous chariots corps with attendant supply and maintenance trains, culminating in the battle of Kadesh in 1275 BCE, when the contending Egyptian and Hittite forces committed an estimated 5,000 chariots to a cataclysmic but ultimately indecisive day of battle.

Western warfare through most of the second millennium BCE was chariot warfare. The chariot defined, drove, governed, circumscribed ground warfare.

And then it was gone. Within a century after the Armageddon at Kadesh, the chariot disappeared as the dominant technology of Levantine warfare. Just as there is no sure evidence of where the chariot came from and why it ruled, so is its fall from dominance a mystery.

Robert Drews notes that it lost power in “The Catastrophe,” the wave of wars, raids, and forced migrations that swept the eastern Mediterranean around 1200 BCE. William McNeill believes that the introduction of iron weapons at just this time gave infantry new power to stand up to chariots.

Another possible explanation is state bankruptcy brought on by the arms race in chariots and the horses to pull them. Still another is a change in infantry tactics, perhaps coupled with McNeill’s iron weapons. In any case, the apparent determinism of the chariot evaporated.

Countless other examples through history of seemingly irresistible weapons leading to inevitable triumph have similarly risen and fallen in their turn, from gunpowder through the “Dreadnought revolution” and strategic bombing to the recent enthusiasm fqr the “revolution in military affairs,” a technological superiority that was to have given the U.S. unassailable military prowess.

The aspect of modernization of war was also industrialization of war. A dialectical relationship existed between the growth of modern war and industrialization of West Europe. Modern warfare in a way meant more killing in a shorter time. This in turn necessitated newer technology especially by the bourgeois officer corps.

Continuous technological advancements made the acquisition of lethal arsenal possible. This in turn facilitated Modern War. The history of Krupp’s (a German military firm) exhibited that innovation in technology was accelerated due to the soldiers’ demands for more guns of better quality.

And these big firms invested lot of human resources and capital for research and development. The complex credit network emerging in the West aided these firms.

Besides Krupp, the Remington Gun Factory in New York also made possible production of weapons in mass for arming large armies. Remington developed assembly line techniques of production based on the principle of interchangeable parts introduced early in the century by Eli Whitney. This marked the beginning of the military-industrial complex.

The 19th century witnessed continuous improvement in weapons of mass murder. Matchlocks were fired with the aid of lighted matches. Hence, they could not be fired during rainfall. The use of flints removed this defect.

However, flintlocks used to misfire at every seventh shot. The introduction of percussion caps reduced misfires to fewer than one in two hundred rounds. Again, the introduction of the cylinder- conidial bullet made practicable the replacement of the inaccurate short- ranged smoothbore musket carried by Napoleonic infantry by the highly accurate longer-ranged rifle.

This transition occurred between 1850 and 1860. The grooved barrel of the rifle imparted a spin to the bullet which enabled the latter to achieve accuracy, range and penetrative power greater than the ball fired from a smoothbore musket.

The rifle first emerged among the huntsmen of Rhineland. From there is spread among the huntsmen of North America. The rifle could hit target even at 1000 yards and it remained the basic infantry weapon till World War

Then the smokeless powder of the 1860s allowed clear vision for repeated firing. Modern War in the sea witnessed the replacement of the wooden ships with ironclads. Short recoil carriage and high explosive shell became the chief component of naval artillery. The first clash between the ironclads occurred at Lisa in the Adriatic on 20 July 1866 between the Austrian and the Italian fleets.

By 1840s the Western navies experimented with steam propulsion which gradually replaced sail driven wooden ships. Steam power enabled the ships to become heavier. Hence, for protection against enemy naval gunnery broadsides, it was possible to cover the body of the ships with armor plates.

Britain the biggest colonial power first produced the iron hulled warship with watertight compartments and boilers. Then a Swedish engineer named John Erickson of the US Navy came up with revolving armored turrets and air ventilation below the decks. This supremacy in ships enabled the Western powers to project power over long distance and to acquire colonies.

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