Chapter 2—
Harnessing New Technologies

Thomas C. Hone and Norman Friedman

This chapter describes new technologies and their likely transformational effects on military operations in the near (5-10 years) and far term (20 years out). We focus on the United States because much of the technological development important to military operations is taking place here. At the same time, our crystal ball is no better than that of our readers. Put another way, predicting the future is extremely risky, especially predicting the future of technology. Children in the 1950s, for example, might have expected by the 21st century to see frequent space voyages to planets in our solar system, nuclear fusion power plants producing abundant and cheap electricity, and space planes able to reach Tokyo from New York in 3 hours or less; they would most likely not have foreseen the airbus, global warming, or the personal computer. Despite the difficulty inherent in predicting the future of technology, however, we can develop an appreciation for the ways in which technology has transformed warfare in the past, and we attempt to do this in the first part of this chapter. This appreciation can shed some light on what may happen in the next several decades, which is the subject of the remainder of the chapter.

We must begin by asking, “What is transformation?” The “Transformation Study Report” conducted for the Secretary of Defense and completed on April 27, 2001, defined transformation as “changes in the concepts, organization, process, technology application and equipment through which significant gains in operational effectiveness, operating efficiencies and/or cost reductions are achieved.”1 This definition covers not only what is normally thought of as technology, such as the ability of an aircraft to cruise at supersonic speed, but also “organization” and “process.” That is, it covers both technology and the social structures and processes by which the technology is made an accepted part of daily life. The definition ties together concepts, equipment, organization, and processes.

This chapter, however, focuses only on technology—the devices and equipment that embody critical scientific concepts. Organization and process issues are left to other chapters. We offer here no definition of technology as our starting point because we all know, at some elementary level, what modern technology is and what it does. What is so extraordinary about current digital technology is the way that it has penetrated our everyday lives, from the personal computer to the wireless phone to the thermostat that regulates the heating and cooling of homes, offices, and factories. This is a repetition of the process that introduced earlier forms of technology, such as the automobile, rotary telephone, and electric typewriter. First a single, everyday device becomes digital, and then, rather soon, many more devices become digital. Why? Because these devices better support essential activities or supplant existing technology. This phenomenon becomes apparent from the answers given by people randomly chosen to explain what technology is. They will point to technologically sophisticated devices: those devices that incorporate today’s information technology, and especially those things that have made their work or their everyday lives better. We will do the same. We will describe devices that will change the way war is fought, assuming that scientists and engineers continue working as they have.

Nine Characteristics of Modern Warfare Technology

First, military organizations that can adopt and promote new technologies clearly have a critical edge in “modern” warfare. This was certainly true when modern warfare was attrition warfare, and it is true even now, when the stated policy of the United States is to avoid attrition warfare like that seen during World Wars I and II. As the military services of the major nations well understood after World War II, adapting the technology developed in the civilian world, such as radios, to military uses was not enough. They had to take the next step and actually foster the development of technology, knowing from experience gained in wartime that this development would be essential.

Second, technology is something that can be deliberately and consciously developed by human beings working within complex organizations. Thomas Edison, for example, is recognized as a gifted inventor, but he is also less frequently recognized for an even greater achievement: developing the first systematic technology research laboratory in the United States. Third, new technology is useless to military organizations unless their members “formulate a doctrine to exploit each innovation in weapons to the utmost.” This point, made succinctly nearly half a century ago by Professor (and reserve Major General) I.B. Holley, Jr., in his classic study Ideas and Weapons, is now generally accepted. Indeed, we might combine the second and third points into “Holley’s Law of Technological Innovation in the Military”: The adoption of new technology within a military service requires that the service develop a doctrine for the successful use of this technology in war, and neither the doctrine nor the technology will be developed unless that military service has an organization whose members understand technology and can make binding decisions about its support and application.2

Fourth, militarily significant technologies are often developed almost simultaneously in different nations. A classic example of this phenomenon is radar, which was under development as a military technology in eight countries (France, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan) before World War II. Current versions of this same phenomenon are the ubiquitous personal computer and wireless phone. Given the often rapid spread of new technology, the question then becomes, “Who can best use it as an instrument of war?”

Fifth, there is no guarantee that a new technology, once developed in the laboratory or even in prototype form, will receive adequate funding to become an operational capability. Radar’s historical development also illustrates this point. Just before World War II, Adolf Hitler’s regime reduced funding for microwave radar development because his war strategy was to rely on quickly defeating his enemies. This neglect of long-term technology development, though consistent with Hitler’s strategy, cost his regime dearly once the war became one of attrition. In Japan, the problem had a different cause. There, uncoordinated army and navy programs inhibited the establishment of an efficient electronics industrial base and hence the fielding of adequate numbers of operationally useful radars.3

Sixth, the development or refinement of one technology may complement the development of another and lead to results that no one had anticipated. An example is the development of the small, reliable cruise missile in the early 1970s. Cruise missiles were not new in the late 1960s: both tactical and strategic versions had already been fielded, but most were quite large weapons because their engines were heavy. Furthermore, because they consumed a lot of fuel, their necessarily large fuel loads also added to their weight and size, thereby limiting operational utility. The development of a small, lightweight turbine engine by Williams International made possible a much smaller cruise missile, one that could be fired from a torpedo tube, launched by a carrier-based attack aircraft, or fired by a small fast-attack craft. Adding digital processors to radar seekers and radar altimeters gave improved accuracy, stealthiness, and reliability to this new generation of cruise missiles powered by the smaller, more efficient engine. There are many other cases of such synergy in the historical relationship between technology and warfare.4

Just having a technology, however, is not enough. Our seventh point about technology is that a military service also needs access to an industry that can produce the equipment embodying that technology in sufficient numbers. The historical development of radar, once again, illustrates this point. In August 1940, a British delegation showed the cavity magnetron to representatives of the American military services. This device generated signals for high-power microwaves and made it practical to develop airborne radars. The British would have needed to produce the new device, along with its receiver and display sets, in quantities sufficient to equip thousands of aircraft. Because British industry apparently lacked the capacity for such production, the American electronics industry, with its greater industrial capacity, served as the foundation for the rapid wartime introduction of this new technology.

Our eighth point is that possessing a technology, even in quantity, is no guarantee that it will be decisive in war. The doctrine, which Holley argued was so essential, has to be implemented through training, and this means that training techniques and technology may be as crucial as production capacity. This is particularly true of sophisticated simulators to give soldiers the “feel” of how best to use a new technology in combat. For example, with night-vision devices—infrared detectors or visual light magnifiers—modern ground forces can fight around the clock. The availability of these devices, however, does not guarantee that they will be used effectively. Both the Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led Gulf Coalition forces had advanced night-vision devices in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. American forces, however, employed superior training technologies and were therefore better prepared to use this technology effectively in battle. Since training is a key factor, the Department of Defense (DOD) spends a great deal of energy and money to advance the technology of training, even though the benefits of this effort are often not apparent until after a conflict.

Our ninth point concerning the relationship of modern technology and warfare is that the military’s initial experience with a new technology can reveal problems with making the new capability operational. Over time, as the technology is better understood, the number of systems needed (both experimental and operational) to work out the bugs will decline. This means that a military service may have to invest in a number of prototypes, or even in numbers of different types of operational models, before the technology is proven in operations.

The introduction of jet engines into the Air Force after World War II reveals this tendency. Aircraft powered by these engines can be divided into three categories. The first category consists of experimental aircraft built to test a new design or concept, such as the Bell X-1 series aircraft designed to break the sound barrier. The second category includes aircraft built as part of a development program, such as the XF-88 McDonnell penetration fighter of 1946. Though such aircraft were never produced for actual service use, tests on them helped jet propulsion technology mature. The third category consists of operationally fielded aircraft, such as Republic’s F-84.5

The result of several decades of experimentation and production can be thought of as a funnel, with many options in the beginning (the mouth of the funnel). Gradually, through tests and the evaluation of actual operations, some technological possibilities are abandoned and others matured. The result is a narrowing of options (the throat of the funnel) and the eventual production of large numbers of standard but sophisticated designs. The F-86 Sabre Jet represents a first-phase production jet interceptor, the F-104 a second-phase type, and the F-15 a third-phase type. All three aircraft shared the same basic mission, but considered sequentially, they showed the evolution of operational jet aircraft. Our point is that the number of experimental and developmental models tends to decrease as the technology is better understood: as it shifts from being a revolutionary technology to an evolutionary technology. The exception is when new technology requires a new approach. The current example of a new technology that is still in its revolutionary phase is that of vertical take-off and landing. The V-22 acquisition program was based on an assessment that vertical take-off and landing technology had passed through its revolutionary stage and was essentially evolutionary. Recent events have shown that this assessment was erroneous.

These nine characteristics of technology and its effects on warfare reveal that much has been learned about the subject. This is not unknown territory. Defense officials have given a great deal of thought for decades about how to apply technology to modern war. In 1981, for example, William O’Neil (author of chapter 5 in this volume) wrote a classic essay entitled “Technology and Naval War.” This effort, undertaken while O’Neil worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, identified the technological trends that were shaping the future of war at sea: stealth, linked surveillance systems, information processing, and stand-off weaponry.6 In September 1987, Lt. Gen. Glenn Kent, USAF (Ret.), then working for the RAND Corporation, presented a paper to the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “Exploiting Technology.” He covered a number of lessons that had been learned about turning a technological advance into an operational weapon, and he also discussed the larger, strategic implications of digital technology. For example, he noted the potential of precisely guided conventional munitions to have strategic effects.7 Officials such as O’Neil and Kent have been instrumental in developing policies and procedures for surveying technology for those elements that have military implications. They and their successors have kept U.S. forces armed with the most technologically advanced sensors and weapons of any military force on earth.

The official interest in, and exploration of, advanced technology is just as strong now as it was during the Cold War. For example, to improve the process of moving a technology from an engineering laboratory, such as Lockheed’s Skunk Works,8 to a developmental program, the Secretary of Defense has established the Office of Technology Transition.9 Since September 2000, the office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Science and Technology) has produced a number of plans and “roadmaps” showing potential paths from demonstrated technologies to likely future programs.

Although there is no way to predict how specific investments in basic research will produce technologies of military value, there are ways to evaluate and compare proposals that purport to show how a certain technology can add to the military power of the United States. For example, software designer Barry Boehm is a well-known pioneer in the field of software development and metrics. His work on software standards, much of it promulgated over a period of two decades by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), has helped the defense industry to judge the technological maturity and developmental requirements of new software.10

There has also been a great deal of progress in recent years in understanding how technologies develop and how they can be adapted to warfare at an acceptable cost to the Nation.11 In July 1999, for instance, the General Accounting Office published a report entitled “Better Management of Technology Development Can Improve Weapon System Outcomes.” This report, drawing on the work done by the Air Force and the National Aeronauticsüand Space Administration, described how certain measures, referred to as technology readiness levels, could be used to gauge a technology’s maturity. Put another way, the report argued that there were quantitative means for determining whether a given technology was ready for development in a military acquisition program. Though there is still no consensus within the defense acquisition community that these measures are in fact completely reliable, the work to create and then test them in actual proŽrams is a sign of the progress that has been made in linking new technology to measures of its production (and hence its military) potential.12

Some Recent History

This improved understanding of how technologies develop is useful in comprehending what has happened and why. We can also use it to anticipate future technological developments that may have a major impact on warfare. To show how, table 2-1 presents a set of projections of transformational technologies that could have been compiled in 1920. The 10 listed technologies all became critical in later years.

Some of these projections were actually made following World War I. The Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, for example, chose to fund the development of larger and more powerful radial piston engines, despite technical concerns in the mid-1920s that such powerful engines would wrench themselves out of the aircraft that they powered. Both the Navy and Army financed the development of gyroscopes for bombsights and analog computers for gunnery fire control. The Naval Research Laboratory was the original home of radar research and development in the United States. Both services financed the development of high-frequency radio, radio direction-finding, and radio intercepts and decryption of coded messages. In 1920, it was clear that the piston-engine aircraft was a rapidly advancing technology. So, too, were electronic devices and analog computers.

But there were some real surprises that a knowledgeable observer could not reasonably have projected in 1920. The one that transformed warfare was the nuclear weapon, especially the plutonium bomb.13 Nuclear propulsion of submarines and ships was just beyond the 20-year time horizon, but serious thought about naval nuclear power plants followed quickly on the heels of the work done by the Manhattan Project.

Table 2-2 looks not at projections but at transformations. It highlights the spectacular growth in the sophistication and military utility of aviation, from a decidedly auxiliary role in World War I to an essential role in World War II. The funds pumped into aviation in World War I stimulated the technology; that technology, coupled with battlefield radios and new tactical concepts, led to effective combined arms warfare—to blitzkrieg.

Table 2-2 also shows the rapid growth in electronics just before and during World War II. Almost all of the elements of electronic warfare were introduced in some form during World War II, including the essentials of electronic countermeasures (ECM) and counter-countermeasures (ECCM). For electronics, World War II was a period of rapid and intense development that carried over into the Cold War.

Industry in table 2-2 refers to modern industry, with its planning, financing, and linkage between research and development and production. Modern industrial organizations learn quickly and therefore can adapt to changing situations. They can capitalize on new research, plan and execute major projects, and sustain huge social initiatives, such as modern war. But during World War II, U.S. industry essentially displayed an improvement on the production effort of World War I. Neither World War I nor World War II dramatically altered American industry. The major alteration waited on the creation of a set of organizations linked electronically to produce increasingly sophisticated digital systems; this came about as a consequence of Cold War efforts that produced a software industry that is still transforming warfare.

Several patterns can be observed here. The first is that different technologies have transformed warfare at different speeds. For example, even if some might not agree that aviation turned into a war-transforming technology in World War I, by 1919 the scientific and industrial basis for effective combined arms aviation existed. It needed refinement before the early crude radio-telegraphs could be turned into effective voice radios on aircraft, and the military aircraft flying in 1920 were limited in terms of range and bomb load. However, better, lighter radios and heavier, more powerful piston engines were simply projections of existing technology. In other words, predictable improvements could be expected, eventually and inevitably, to lead to a military transformation if only military organizations continued investing in them. The required technological revolution had already taken place.

In contrast, the technological revolution required to underpin electronics had not taken place by 1920, but by 1930, it had. Following considerable investment in the technology as war approached, all forms of warfare employed electronic technologies in World War II. Electronics, however, did not transform warfare in this global contest. War remained a destructive struggle of attrition, exhausting the mobilized national resources of all of the participants except the United States. Electronics truly transformed warfare only in the digital age, when electronics enabled, for example, area bombing to be replaced by true precision targeting.

Table 2-2 also reveals the logic behind the industrial bombing campaigns of World War II and the survival of that targeting strategy into the Cold War. It shows why a blanket attack upon an enemy’s industry does not make sense in the post-Cold War world. Today, the American military can hit what it can see with precision. Conventional forces with precision weapons can now, it is said, produce strategic effects. War, or at least some of its forms, has been transformed.

But some technologies are missing from table 2-2, and these missing elements suggest how difficult it is to look beyond imminently expected technological developments. Nuclear weapons and space are absent; they were not anticipated or developed until midcentury or later. Yet if any technology transformed war, it was that of nuclear weapons. Will any technology similarly transform war in the next 25 years? Micromachines and hybrid organic-electronic computers are candidates for that role. Some have suggested that space technology, currently providing reconnaissance and communications support to military operations, is in the same relative position that aviation technology was in 1919. The high cost of producing and orbiting satellites may, however, prevent such a pervasive transformation. Instead, the new technologies of advanced software, “intelligent” devices, and digital telecommunications are more consistent with the transformational patterns displayed in table 2-2.

In World Wars I and II, emerging technologies were infused with lots of money and pushed by demand for new devices. Thus, these emerging technologies advanced quickly, laying the foundation to change future combat. The Cold War was no exception to this pattern. One particular emerging technology funded by the Cold War—the personal computer—joined to another—the Internet—to transform not only warfare in Western industrialized nations but also much of society and culture. Investments in software and related hardware have continued at wartime levels since the end of the Cold War, resulting in predictably rapid growth in software and software-related technologies. However, since private-sector sources are largely responsible for maintaining these high investment levels, public agencies such as the Department of Defense have not been able to control or direct the rapidly emerging capabilities resulting from this growth. Thus, the future, when DOD will depend on private sector investment in information technology for advances, may be very different than the Cold War, when it was DOD that financed so much basic research with military implications.

Impact of Technology on Military Tasks

This section matches technologies against 12 military tasks likely to be required in 3 future time periods—within the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP [a 5-year period]), out to 10 or 12 years, and what would be needed in 2020 to support the expectations expressed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Joint Vision 202014 (see table 2-3). The “military tasks” are drawn primarily from the “Final Report” of the Conventional Forces Study (otherwise known as the Gompert Study) done recently for the Secretary of Defense, augmented to transcend the Gompert Study’s focus on conventional forces.15 We drew on our own experience and knowledge for the technologies. Note that legacy systems embodying accepted technologies would persist across each of these time horizons. For example, the B-2, listed as a FYDP system under the “Long Range Strike” military task, should also be performing this task in 2020. There is even a chance that the Air Force will still be flying B-52s in combat roles at that time.

Table 2-3 shows that there will be a shift from chemical explosives in warheads to directed energy weapons. However, chemical explosives and propellants will still be manufactured and used; unguided, chemically explosive small arms and other weapons will have roles for many years to come. For example, chemical explosives can generate electromagnetic pulses to overload many existing digital circuits, thereby giving chemical explosives a new lease on life even in a network-centric battlefield. Such technological developments do not stand out in table 2-3 but are examples of how certain existing technologies will have, at least for a while, important roles to play in warfare.

Table 2-3 also indicates that future weapons (although not necessarily their platforms) will zero in on targets faster. The potential to acquire and share real-time data will grow, and weapons will be able to act on this data to strike mobile targets. Deployment of hypersonic missiles can be expected by 2020, if not sooner. We should, by then, also see missiles that can loiter above a battlefield at subsonic speeds yet are capable of suddenly attacking at hypersonic speeds.

Even now, sensors, digital communications signals, and weapons increasingly are being netted together, and systems designed for such networking (such as the Joint Tactical Radio System) will first supplement and then replace current systems. The Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, for example, survives as a legacy system because it can be linked to the signals broadcast by global positioning system (GPS) satellites. Although designing a new composite missile with stealth characteristics that could operate in a netted environment might be better in terms of cost, that approach would be too expensive right now, so this transition will occur only when future modifications to the Tomahawk cease to be cost-effective.

Successfully implementing Joint Vision 2020 in a fiscally constrained environment will require a choice between much improved networks, on the one hand, and new systems, such as directed energy weapons, on the other, because the country cannot afford both. The network choice would seem to be an easy and obvious one, except that directed energy weapons promise to reduce ammunition requirements so dramatically that it may be difficult for DOD to avoid investing in them. One of the goals of Joint Vision 2020 is “focused logistics,” and one big step toward this goal would be to eliminate numbers of conventional munitions. Moreover, directed energy weapons may be the only effective counter to certain forms of missile attack.

One way out of the dilemma created by the high cost of both systems and the links among them would be for the military services to rely on private industry to construct netted or networked systems. This approach would not be without precedent: military forces in World War I relied on industrial telephone capabilities, and in World War II they relied on radio equipment built to commercial electronic standards. The military risks that are associated with such commercial off-the-shelf command and control are great, however. They include the risks of interception of digital signals and invasion, disruption, or even destruction of the network. But if U.S. industry has any advantage in this area, it is in software development; American commercial developers are currently pioneering developments for advanced digital communications.

Likely Future Technological Developments

Table 2-4 lists potentially transforming technologies and their development across time. This list of technologies is compiled from current unclassified periodicals, such as the IEEE Computer, augmented by our own additions.

Several points about table 2-4 are worth noting. First, very few of the table’s boxes are blank; many technological areas are likely to produce militarily useful capabilities. All of the areas listed are being monitored by DOD, and many are being funded directly. Second, this comprehensiveness contrasts with the many blank boxes in the historical snapshot presented in table 2-1. In 1920, there were many areas not being funded or studied by the military departments. Even the development of 2,000-horsepower radial piston engines for aircraft was judged high risk, while nuclear weapons, jet aircraft, helicopters, and amphibious tractors were not even under consideration. Today, DOD has processes and procedures for monitoring and encouraging wide-ranging technological developments. This institutionalization of the link between technology and the Nation’s military organizations, which was brought to fruition during the Cold War, is itself an important—even transformational—innovation and should be treated as such. The issue today is how to maintain this link.

Table 2-4 also indicates some technical obstacles that inhibit the military from developing sought-after capabilities. For example, there is no entry under “Supporting JV 2020” for “High-Speed Surface Ships,” despite the fact that such ships would be extremely important militarily if they could be produced and operated at a reasonable cost. The basic obstacle to high-speed, high-capacity surface ships is the resistance of water to any ship moving on and through it. Similarly, economically feasible use of space depends on having a cheap way to loft satellites into orbit. Right now, there is no cheap way to do so, certainly not for the large satellites that meet the requirements of DOD. In both cases—ships and space—certain unavoidable physical obstacles have to be surmounted, and table 2-4 highlights these barriers. However, the services continue to examine and invest in space and high-speed ships because the potential payoffs are so great.

Improved communication, command, and sensor technologies are listed in table 2-4, which shows how critical these digital, software-driven technologies are to advances in a number of areas. Admiral William Owens, USN (Ret.), former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been saying for years that the critical “revolution” is informational. In Lifting the Fog of War, Owens argues that microprocessors were the key element in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development. He defines the ongoing revolution in military affairs as “the ability to achieve integrated sight—the stage where the raw data gathered from a network of sensors of different types is successfully melded into information.”16 Table 2-4 supports these arguments, although Owens might expect battlefield leaders to be able to draw information from netted raw data earlier than this table projects.

Table 2-4 also shows how many complex technologies there are with military implications. It is not enough for agencies within DOD to watch a limited number of critical technologies; a great number have to be tracked and assessed. For example, technology number 6 in the table is “Avionics Miniaturization.” Miniaturization is possible because computer chips have gotten not only smaller but also more capable and reliable. What technologies have improved so that the chips could get better and smaller and cheaper? Photolithography is one; another is the manufacturing of reliable silicon substrates. Indeed, what we have seen in this particular field is the application of quantum physics to industrial processes, but the details of how this is done are beyond the understanding of even well educated officials. In other words, understanding technology so as to direct it is harder than it was just a few decades ago, and many of the people who understand new technology are not working for the Department of Defense. How can their expertise be used to DOD advantage?

One answer is that DOD can purchase much new technology “off the shelf” from commercial vendors and thereby stay up with the best technology that private firms can field. But commercial vendors are not particularly interested in the problems of distinguishing decoys from an actual warhead in space or of identifying a shallow trajectory ballistic missile’s likely target once it is launched. What private firms can offer commercially may not ever meet DOD needs.

How, then, are DOD leaders to know which specific technologies to watch and which to invest heavily in? A very interesting recent paper on the military potential of lasers illustrates this dilemma. The author, Mark Rogers, claims, “Laser technology has matured so substantially in recent decades that the United States now has the capability to use lasers from space-based platforms to change radically the conduct of war.” Yet he also admits that semiconductor lasers, which are most efficient in converting “input energy into laser light,” are not suitable as weapons. Moreover, he acknowledges that “it is difficult to point laser beams with great precision,” and therefore it is not easy to keep the focused beam on the target long enough to destroy it. In consequence, Rogers admits that a space-based laser weapon would be expensive, vulnerable to antisatellite weapons, and face “significant engineering challenges.”17 So what are DOD leaders to do? Invest heavily? Or wait, while investing in limited advanced research projects?

There is no easy answer to these questions because we cannot see the future clearly. One or more nascent technologies may turn out to be “sleepers,” apparently useless initially, but very important once developed. For example, there are DOD officials who believe that exotic nonlethal weapons might have a bright military future. There are chemicals that cause metal to turn brittle, for example, and other chemicals that put a stop to combustion in vehicle and aircraft engines, and even sticky foams that could immobilize soldiers without otherwise harming them.18 It is not possible to predict what new and militarily useful technologies will come out of basic scientific research labs. It is not possible to eliminate technological surprises or to prevent key developing technologies from drawing scarce resources away from investigating exotic but promising new technologies. The balance between pursuing exotic, risky technologies and pragmatic, well-understood technological developments is the subject of the final section of this chapter.


The future of science and technology is often thought of and described in fantastic terms, even while revolutionary changes are taking place right before our eyes but are not necessarily recognized as such. A classic example is the affordable automobile. Henry Ford developed it in order to revolutionize American society, which it did. But who, 50 years ago, would have described the affordable automobile as a revolutionary technology? In the 1950s, revolutionary technology was space travel, intelligent robots, and the means to eliminate dreaded afflictions such as polio, heart disease, and cancer. But the really revolutionary technology was sitting in the garage.

This tendency to miss the revolutionary implications of what most of us think of as not-so-revolutionary technology is not new. In 1898, in his novel War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells posited some highly advanced but not—from today’s perspective—impossible technology. The Martian vehicles traveled through space and survived the descent through the earth’s atmosphere. The Martians used a “heat ray” or laser with devastating but short-range effects on unprotected living things or combustible material. The Martians also employed chemical weapons against British units who tried to attack them from outside the range of their laser weapon. This deadly gas, released from rocket-propelled canisters, killed human beings but decomposed, after a time, into a substance that was benign and easy to dispose of.

Mobile machines were the fourth advanced technology possessed by the Martians: they assembled a flying machine from component parts and moved over the ground with three-legged walking machines that could outpace a horse. Although Wells did not describe a technologically advanced Martian command and control system, the Martians obviously possessed one since the movement of their invading forces was deliberate and coordinated, even though these forces were dispersed across the industrialized nations of the earth.

These advanced technologies are not considered fantastic today. Our military forces have lasers, are trained to fight and survive in a chemical warfare environment, send reconnaissance and communication satellites into space to support military campaigns, and are extremely mobile. But our capabilities are more than a century beyond the world of H.G. Wells. His contemporaries—even his scientific contemporaries—did not expect that his visions could become reality. Wells the science fiction writer was too far ahead of them. The science required by his advanced technologies, such as relativity and quantum mechanics, had yet to be understood.

By looking into their own recent past, however, H.G. Wells’ late-19th-century contemporaries might have gained a greater understanding of an ongoing revolution that was transforming the way in which they would wage war. During the 19th century, the sources of new technologies changed dramatically. New technologies had traditionally not resulted from purely experimental efforts, like Faraday’s invention of the dynamo; he demonstrated it about 1830, when there was no practical use for it. By the end of the century, however, technological advances built upon known scientific principles. For example, in the mid-1860s, James Clark Maxwell codified electromagnetic phenomena in a series of equations that implied the existence of electromagnetic waves. Maxwell’s work apparently led Heinrich Hertz to experiment with this radiation, now called radio waves. Once Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves, Guglielmo Marconi and others exploited them by inventing a practical device, the radio.

This transition was a considerable break from the past. It was the beginning of the modern link between science and everyday technology. Yet this link was not the key to the revolution in warfare that took place as the 19th century rolled over into the 20th. Thermodynamics, for example, explained how steam engines worked. It was eventually employed to increase the efficiency of engines, most notably the diesel, but the railroads that revolutionized the movement of troops to the battlefield did not depend for their development on an understanding of thermodynamics.

Wells’ contemporaries could have identified three technologies that were revolutionizing and transforming warfare: railroads (in transportation), mass production (in manufacturing), and mechanization (in agriculture). The agricultural revolution made it possible for a limited part of a population to feed the whole country, freeing the remaining population for service in mass armies or industry. This revolution thereby eased the impact of mass conscription on a nation’s food supply. The transportation revolution made it possible to transport large armies quickly; the manufacturing revolution made it possible to arm them. Although railroads greatly improved an army’s strategic mobility, this did not extend to its operational mobility; once dismounted at a railhead, troops could not move very quickly or very far. A relatively well-equipped mass army therefore could be transported and fed best close to railheads.

This combination of railroads and improved agricultural productivity created the possibility that mass armies could be shifted from front to front quickly. Massive, rapid mobilization became a real possibility. The contrast between rail-borne mobility and road-bound mobility made it almost impossible for these mass armies to make decisive gains, since a defender could generally bring troops to the front faster than an attacking army could pour them through gaps in the front lines. Breakthroughs were sometimes realized, as in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but World War I showed that mass plus railroads plus industrial production could result in a stalemate.

Tactical-level factors inhibiting maneuver, such as machineguns, intensified this stalemate, but its strategic roots were based upon the three technological revolutions. Since national economies, not militaries, produced these revolutions, the source of stalemate was beyond the reach of front line armies. As a result, 20th-century airpower advocates began to argue for striking civilian industries directly.

Important lessons about the relationship of technology to war were thus apparent as long ago as Wells’ time. The first lesson was that science had begun to stimulate technology. The second was that developments outside the military—developments stimulated by technological change—could have a profound influence on how war was fought and could even influence the circumstances under which war would begin. The third lesson was that technological investments for nonmilitary purposes (as in the railroads) could provide major military payoffs.

Projecting the technological future runs the risk of creating visions unconstrained by cost considerations or by the limits of the physical world and the sciences. Such visions are, like the conflict depicted so vividly in War of the WorldsS a form of fiction. At the same time, there is also the equally dangerous risk of not investing in promising technologies. And there is a third risk, too—that of ignoring changes because they seem so ordinary.

What really are the essential military implications of the so-called information revolution, for example? On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States from within. They financed their preparations with funds that had been transferred electronically from banks in the Middle East to banks in America. With those funds, they bypassed the forward-deployed, highly trained, technologically sophisticated forces of the United States. In effect, an apparently “ordinary” electronic funds transfer was a key element in a larger strategy of terror. Is this sort of information age routine act like the automobile—a common technology with long-term implications that are truly revolutionary but nonetheless not perceived as such by most people?



 1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, "Transformation Study Report: Transforming Military Operational Capabilities” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, April 27, 2001), chart 5. [BACK]

 2. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (WashingtonHolley put it in a negative form: “the failure to emphasize better weapons rather than more weapons and the failure to attach sufficient importance to the formulations of doctrine [issue] directly from inadequate organization.” I.B. Holley, Ideas and Weapons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 176. [BACK]

 3.See the entry for radar in I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 918-923. [BACK]

 4. See, for example, Thomas Heppenheimer, “The Navaho Program and the Main Line of American Liquid Rocketry,” Air Power History (Summer 1997), 4–17. [BACK]

 5. For the actual data on these aircraft, see M.S. Knaack, Encyclopedia of U.S. Air Force Aircraft and Missile Systems I, Post-World War II Fighters, 1945–1973 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1978). [BACK]

 6. W.D. O’Neil, “Technology and Naval War” (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering, Department of Defense, 1981). [BACK]

 7. Glenn A. Kent, “Exploiting Technology,” presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on September 29, 1987, and published for distribution in January 1988 (RAND Corporation, P–7403). [BACK]

 8. For Lockheed’s own explanation of the Skunk Works (the designers of the winning Joint Strike Fighter prototype), see “The Skunk Works Approach to Aircraft Development, Production and Support,” Lockheed Advanced Development Company (August 1992). [BACK]

 9. Section 2515 of Title 10, USC, established the Office of Technology Transition with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. [BACK]

10. See Boehm’s “Software Engineering” in the IEEE Transactions on Computers, C25, no. 12 (December 1976), 1226-1241. See also the publications of the IEEE Standards Board and editions of the IBM Systems Journal of the 1980s.[BACK]

11. See, for example, Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton, “Building an Innovation Factory,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2000), 157-166. Also see the office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Science and Technology), “Defense Science and Technology Strategy,” May 2000. [BACK]

12. General Accounting Office, “Report to the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate,” GAO/NSIAD–99–162, “Better Management of Technology Development Can Improve Weapon System Outcomes” (July 1999). [BACK]

13. The coupling of the jet engine and nuclear weapons drove the development of digital computers. To defend the Nation and continent, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) needed an effective, rapid response command and control (C2) system that stressed automated computational capabilities. The digital computer, however, was beyond the time horizon of table 2. In discussing it, we are getting ahead of ourselves. [BACK]

14. Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision 2020 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, June 2000). [BACK]

15. “Conventional Forces Study, Final Report: Exploiting Untapped Potential to Meet Emerging Challenges” (The Gompert Study). [BACK]

16. William A. Owens with Edward Offley, Lifting the Fog of War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 133. Emphasis in the original. [BACK]

17. See Mark E. Rogers, “Lasers in Space,” in William C. Martel, ed., The Technological Arsenal (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 3-19. [BACK]

18. Joseph W. Siniscalchi, “Nonlethal Technologies and Military Strategy,” in Martel 129-152. [BACK]

Table of Contents  |  Chapter Three