A Survey of Defence Technology: 

The softwar revolution - The information advantage (DATE 10-Jun-95)

"The technologies of warfare are undergoing a revolution. The most important weapon now is information," argues Oliver Morton. In the skies above Korea two knights faced each other, as in a medieval tournament. Their horses were the first supersonic jets, their lances missiles; their technology was the highest the 1950s had to offer. That technology gave one pilot the advantage.

One fighter climbed and flew faster than its adversary, and could bank more sharply. Yet it was the other fighter that had the advantage. The Russian jets, faster and more powerful, were consistently bested by their American adversaries. The American jets had better hydraulics, so they could switch more easily from one manoeuvre to another; and they had better cockpit design, allowing unobstructed views of more of the sky. As one of the Americans, John Boyd, later put it, they got through a cycle of observation, orientation, decision and action (OODA) just that bit faster, allowing them to maintain the initiative. Good visibility and sensitive controls gave them an information advantage which more than made up for being slower.

In 1991 the world saw that same advantage writ large. 'One of the most unequal conclusions ever recorded', in the words of John Keegan, a British military historian, was reached in the sands of Kuwait and Iraq. All victories have many parents; the allies had better resources, better machines, better leadership, better training and better morale. But perhaps the key was the information advantage provided by a communications network that linked satellites, observation aircraft, planners, commanders, tanks, bombers, ships and much more. It enabled the allies to get around Colonel Boyd's OODA loops at breathtaking speed in a sort of continuous temporal outflanking. A completely new air-tasking order - a list of hundreds of targets for thousands of sorties - was produced every 72 hours, and would be updated even while the aircraft were airborne. Iraq's radar eyes were poked out, its wireless nerves severed.

Technology does not win wars. But an innovative combination of new technologies and tactics can, on occasion, give an overwhelming advantage to a well-organised, ardent fighting force. In response to such changes, all others must either try to master the same tactics and technologies or to develop counters. In so doing, they revolutionise the way the world fights. Such a revolution is now under way. It turns on the ability of countries, armies, commanders, soldiers and individual weapons to gather, process and use information.

Not the Russian revolution

Military revolutions have happened before, though no two historians will produce the same list. Table 1 on the next page rounds up a few favourites. Some are innovations of a purely military kind, such as the development of the dreadnought. Others are the military articulations of greater changes, either economic and technical - say the rail-rifle-telegraph revolution of the 1860s and 1870s; or more broadly social - say the mass armies of the Napoleonic era, revolutionary in every sense.

In the late 1970s, a Russian marshal, NV Ogarkov, wrote about a revolution in warfare made possible by technologies then on the horizon. Extremely mobile forces making use of excellent communications would be able to carry out coordinated attacks throughout large theatres of operation, rather than on a linear front. As the battle was expanded in space, it would also be foreshortened in time. So it turned out to be. Whereas America's long bombing of Vietnam was operation Rolling Thunder, its first plans for attacking Iraq went by the name of Instant Thunder.

Russia had neither the resources nor the technology to realise all of Marshal Ogarkov's ideas. America has. The Americans who have taken up his ideas - most notably Andrew Marshall, the veteran head of a Pentagon think-tank - model their work on one of the more recent previous revolutions: the linked set of transformations between the two world wars. That period saw the widespread integration of the internal-combustion engine, the medium- and long-range aircraft and the radio into military equipment and doctrine. Then, as now, the technological base was far from exclusively military, and was thus widespread. What mattered was not so much what technology you had as what you did with it. The Americans and the Japanese developed modern carrier-based navies. The Germans developed Blitzkrieg, literally 'lightning war'.

Another similarity between the inter-war years and the present is a relative scarcity of resources. After the slaughter of the first world war, the great powers drastically reduced their manpower and their budgets. The innovations of the 1920s, which were incorporated in the rearmament of the 1930s, were for the most part developed on a shoestring. Carrier aviation was devised with a handful of carriers, strategic bombing with a bare minimum of strategic bombers.

NATO's military spending now, $ 464 billion in 1994, is hardly a pittance; but the West's armed forces are significantly smaller than they were during the cold war. America's army is moving down from 18 divisions to ten, and its allies are making similar cuts. New procurement is falling. These straitened times might seem to offer little prospect of radical innovation. In fact, they provide an excellent opportunity. While the revolution now in progress calls for some new capabilities, its basic tools - remote sensing, precision-guided weapons, stealth and above all communications - are already at hand, just as tank, radio and aircraft were available at the end of the first world war. It is a matter of making existing equipment fit together and adding a few innovations. That requires thought. Such thought is the consequence of tight budgets that rule out solving problems simply by buying large quantities of bigger, more expensive weapons.

Today's revolution is different from that of the 1920s in some important respects. Military change then was still possible on a service-by-service basis, whereas now all the services must get together to dominate large theatres of war. In the 1920s different nations could gain supremacy in different niches, whereas now the size and complexity of the many co-ordinated systems involved suggest that only one nation can take full advantage of the opportunity on offer. Smaller countries can modernise and improve their performance, undoubtedly, but only America has the resources to go all the way. Today it spends almost as much on the use of satellites - tools of intelligence and communications that are crucial to getting a whole army around an OODA loop quickly - as Britain spends on its entire military establishment.

That could engender complacency, but another difference between now and the 1920s counsels against it. This revolution is built on information technologies. Information technologies are now developing far faster than the underlying technologies of that previous revolution, in ways that are obvious in everyday life. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, the director of the U.S. Air Force's Gulf War Air Power Survey, points to this as the real evidence for a military revolution. Information technology is revolutionising everything else - why should soldiers be exempt?


Inside a hollow mountain in the Colorado Rockies sits the North American Air Defence command, protected by a kilometre of solid granite. Its buildings are insulated from war's outrageous fortunes by more than a thousand shock-absorbing springs, each the size of a child, each weighing half a tonne. This is the nerve-centre of the cold-war military machine. When it was built in the early 1960s, it represented the height of technological prowess. But that was a time when the Pentagon provided most of the American market for sophisticated electronics. Now it makes up less than 1% of that market; almost any office has the sort of computer power that it was once worth hollowing out a mountain to protect. It takes more than springs to absorb that kind of shock. When the hollow mountain is fitted with new systems, they will be nothing more than customised versions of the kind of moderately priced workstation familiar to medium-sized companies everywhere. In many ways the soldiers are following the revolution, not leading it.

In that, the armed forces of the developed world resemble the large companies that supply them - companies now facing small, agile competitors. The large and previously successful are by their nature slow to adapt to change; like supertankers, they live in a world of great inertia and far horizons. Weapons systems on the drawing board today could still be in the field in 50 years' time. Such weapons and their military establishments may come to look increasingly unwieldy. In the world of business, the pace of change is lowering barriers to entry, allowing newcomers with less history and more processors to do quickly with a few what used to be done slowly with many. In some ways, the same could apply to waging war.

Mr Marshall talks of Wal-Mart war. Computers could do for the military what they have done for the supermarket, making it cheaper and more responsive than it is now. However, to match America's might would still take a lot of time and money. And without matching America's might, fighting it on a battlefield would be unwise. Potential aggressors are more likely to look at ways to wage war differently, including ways that allow the new technology its head. After all, Mars has many temples.

Beyond Clausewitz

This leads to the last great difference between the 1920s and today. The earlier period was bounded at both ends by total wars between nation states. Karl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military theorist, saw war as a function of the relations between government, military and people, the 'wonderful trinity'. The world wars fit this model, but the wars of today and tomorrow may well not. Martin van Creveldt, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is one anti-Clausewitzian proclaiming the end of the 'trinitarian' war; John Keegan is another. In Mr van Creveldt's view, the seeds of von Clausewitz's downfall were contained in the second world war: first, nuclear weapons, which made mutual destruction a possibility; and second, the wide acceptance of a role for partisans, fighters without uniform or clear governmental legitimacy.

Since 1945, nuclear weapons have largely forestalled major wars between states, while partisans and freedom fighters outside the Clausewitzian model have toppled states all over the world. This trend, argues Mr van Creveldt, looks likely to continue. The world-wide clash of communism and capitalism may no longer engender low-intensity wars, but there are other reasons to fight. Thomas Homer-Dixon, of the University of Toronto, has suggested that environmental collapses might be a serious cause of conflict. Changes in climate, or overpopulation, could easily lead to war and mass migration in the third world.

'Low-intensity conflict' and nuclear proliferation provide options which mastery of the battlefield cannot counter. These, too, will be affected by the growth of information technologies. The free flow of information makes it easier to produce weapons of mass destruction. Computer and voice networks, among other things, will open up new ways of co-ordinating low-level conflict and disseminating information about it.

Geography, from the terrain of the battlefield to the structure of geopolitical relationships, has always dominated military and strategic thought. Now it is under attack. Environmental change disrupts the geographical basis of the state. Nuclear weapons provide a more radical challenge to geography, being as immune to distance as they are to defence. Partisan forces do not care about geography. They live off the land without front lines or logistics trains, fighting a delocalised war. In the information age, delocalisation is becoming ever easier and more radical.

The military faces this confusing future with some advantages. It has experience in the integration of complex systems, as well as strong cultures and traditions that have survived many revolutions before. And the West is not at present facing any parlous danger. That means planning can be based not only on assessments of threat but also on assessments of opportunity - the opportunity for sustained peace after a century that has encompassed terrible war.



Selected innovations in warfare:


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