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War and Technology

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In this engaging book, Jeremy Black argues that technology neither acts as an independent variable nor operates without major limitations. This includes its capacity to obtain end results, as technology’s impact is far from simple and its pathways are by no means clear. After considering such key conceptual points, Black discusses important technological advances in weaponry and power projection from sailing warships to aircraft carriers, muskets to tanks, balloons to unmanned drones—in each case, taking into account what difference these advances made. He addresses not only firepower but also power projection and technologies of logistics, command, and control. Examining military technologies in their historical context and the present centered on the Revolution in Military Affairs and Military Transformation, Black then forecasts possible future trends.

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1 Early Modern Western Warships: Technologies of Power Projection and Lethality

ePub

Killing and the ability to kill are key aspects of military history. In popular works, they also tend to crowd out other types and characteristics of technology. In particular, there is a tendency to downplay those facets that do not relate directly to conflict or to discuss them only when they are involved in battle. This contrast is less marked when considering naval history because ships serve both to project power and to provide the fighting platform. As a result, improvements in the specifications of warships serve to offer an all-round enhancement of capability, although, in detailed terms, as with other branches of military technology, an improvement in a particular specification can compromise other advantages. For example, increasing weight in order to provide greater protection can limit speed and maneuverability, a trade-off that became of major significance as armor developed in the nineteenth century in response to the increased power of naval ordnance.

Western expansion from 1450 to 1700, in what was subsequently described in the West as the early modern period,1 provides an important instance of the linkage between military technology and key changes in world power. The extent to which global naval strength and world history altered as a result of Western warship technology is a central issue. In turn, this question relates to a number of technologies, specifically ship construction, navigation, and firepower, and these technologies have to be considered in both conceptual and instrumental terms.

 

2 Gunpowder Technology, 1490–1800

ePub

Edward Gibbon was to claim that gunpowder “effected a new revolution in the art of war and the history of mankind,”1 a view that was common in the eighteenth century and indeed both earlier and later.2 More recently, the widely repeated thesis of the early modern Military Revolution3 has focused renewed attention on the issue of gunpowder technology. Improved firepower and changing fortification design, it is argued, greatly influenced developments across much of the world and, more specifically, the West’s relationship with the rest of the world. In other work, I have questioned the thesis,4 but here, first, I want to draw attention to the changes that stemmed from the use of gunpowder.

Gunpowder weaponry developed first in China. We cannot be sure when it was invented, but a formula for the manufacture of gunpowder was possibly discovered in the ninth century, and effective metal-barreled weapons were produced in the twelfth century. Guns were differentiated into cannon and handguns by the fourteenth.

 

3 Firepower, Steamships, Railways, Telegraphs, Radio: Technologies of Killing, Logistics, Command, and Control, 1775–1945

ePub

The progress in the state of gunnery and steam navigation renders it necessary to reconsider from time to time the principles of attack and defence of coasts and harbours. Whatever improvements may be made in land batteries, their entire adequacy for the purpose of defence cannot be certain against the rapidity of steamers and the facility of their manoeuvring power . . . but they may be powerful in combination with . . . the floating batteries with their sides coated with thick iron plates.

Sir John Burgoyne (1782–1871), influential
British Inspector-General of Fortifications

Works on military technology commonly discuss the nineteenth century in terms of increased firepower, and especially so if the period is extended to include the First World War (1914–1918). This firepower was indeed important, whether provided by the minié bullet or steel artillery, the machine gun or recoil and recuperator artillery.1 The machine gun, an automatic repeating weapon, was a metaphor of the application of industry to war. The employment of the very workings of the machine for further effect was seen with the recoil energy of the Maxim gun, the use of barrel combustion gases by the Browning and Hotchkiss machine guns, and the way in which the Skoda’s breech was blown back by propellant gases.

 

4 The Internal Combustion Engine: The Technology of Decentralized Power, 1910–2013

ePub

Really a fearsome sight . . . The road was on a slope of the hill, and the tanks just crawled up the slope, up the right bank nose in air, down with a bump into the road and across it—almost perpendicularly up the left bank, and down with a bump behind it and so onward up the hill without a moment’s pause or hesitation.

B.W. Harvey and C. Fitzgerald, eds., Edward Heron-Allen’s Journal: The Great War: From Sussex Shore to Flanders Fields, 2002

Edward Heron-Allen’s account of British tanks crossing a road on October 16, 1918, as the Allies successfully advanced against the Germans on the western front in Belgium and France at the close of the First World War (1914–1918) ably described the subordination of terrain by the new weapon. Railways and roads might seem similar in that both provided routes along which troops, supplies, and firepower could be transported. However, there was also an important contrast. Trains could not leave railways and move cross-country. In contrast, road vehicles were able to leave roads provided the terrain was suitable. This capability brought a tremendous increase in mobility. That mobility was combined with firepower in the tank, a weapon that was to grip the imagination as a key example of the transforming character of new technology. The internal combustion engine also affected naval and air warfare.

 

5 A New Sphere: Air Power, 1903–2013

ePub

Development in aircraft design and construction is rapid in these days.

British Ministerial Committee on Disarmament dealing with Air Defence, 1934

Air power is a key area of discussion when considering military technology. It provides examples of dramatic changes in capability and also links past and present with consideration of the future of warfare. Moreover, the nature, impact, and limitations of air power and warfare have been the subject of extensive analysis.1 Manned heavier-than-air flight, first officially achieved by the American Wright brothers in 1903, was a key instance of the enhancement of fighting capability through totally new technology. Flight, or at least the use of the air, had had an earlier role in warfare with balloons, which were used by the French for reconnaissance in the 1790s, but its capability was now transformed. Imaginative literature, such as that of the novelist H. G. Wells, had prepared commentators for the impact of powered, controlled flight. Science fiction possibly gave some inspiration as to how airships could be used, as in John Carter of Mars (1912). In 1908, Count Zeppelin’s LZ-4 airship had flown over 240 miles in 12 hours, leading to a marked revival of interest in airships, and in Britain in 1909 there was a scare about a possible attack by German airships.

 

6 Revolution, Transformation, and the Present

ePub

Modern military power is based upon technology, and technology is based upon computers. . . . We [the Soviet Union] will never be able to catch up with you [the United States] in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution.

Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the Soviet General Staff, 1983, cited in the New York Times, August 20, 1992

The literature on recent, current, and future warfare is dominated by the language of change and modernization. As is the general pattern in modern culture, change and modernization are descriptive, prescriptive, and normative, being equated with improvement. Relative performance or promise is defined according to these emphases, as are the conflicts seen as worthy of attention by scholars, and therefore, in a circular sense, as contributing to their analyses. Such an approach to modernization, however, begs the question of what is a modern, let alone a more modern, style of military operations? This question is one of recurring relevance for military history and for understanding present and future situations, and thus links the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) discerned in the 1990s and 2000s to earlier episodes of what have been presented as military revolutions.

 

7 Into the Future

ePub

The year 2000 will be “now” soon, if we ever make it. . . . But maybe the planet will have exploded by then, or been devastated by uranium fires and throw-outs, and a little napalm and laser beams gone wild, on the side.

Janwillem van de Wetering, The Japanese Corpse, 1977

The future recedes continually, at least for humans, unless it is ended for us by destroying the Earth or human life on it. The elusive character of the future means that modernity, the condition of the present seen as looking toward the future and making it possible, also changes. Thus, any discussion of current warfare in terms of modernity and modernization risks rapid anachronism.

This indeterminacy and unpredictability at the present time is linked to another characteristic: the manner in which views of future circumstances so often prove mistaken. That, however, is not simply a case of assuming technological capabilities that do not in the event arise. Instead, there is the abiding need to relate these capabilities to world developments that may provide opportunities, needs, and resources for such capabilities or, conversely, may thwart their development or application. As a result, we are returned anew to the issue of context. Any discussion of future warfare involves consideration of the wars to come, and the latter entails an understanding of possible variations in tasking. This is a matter both of tasking from and for civil society and also tasking by and for the military.

 

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