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The Role of Technology in Warfare Sixty-five years ago a comparably under-trained and poorly supplied army of peasant Russians defeated the Nazi war machine, the most formidable and professional army in history. Using improvised munitions and rifles designed in the previous century these inexperienced conscripts repelled elite Panzer tank corps across hundreds of miles, how? Until the 18th century, the Feudal Tsarism of Russia had little to no interaction with the Western World. For two and a half centuries this isolated, agrarian state continually lagged one step behind the West in terms of technological capability. However, despite an egregious lack of comparable armaments, the Russian army surprised the world and prevailed in several conflicts against modernized Western states. Serious questions arose concerning contemporary military thought and doctrine. Repeatedly, Russia had somehow found itself winning engagements against superior firepower, often without the advantages of modern weaponry. Yet flash forward to today and the United States, the most technologically advanced military in the world today, is still struggling with irregular, fragmented insurgents in Iraq after seven years. What is going on? How significant of a role does technological superiority assume in the determination of victory? Though the study of Russia provides an interesting case in military history, it is no anomaly. War is a chaotic system, infinitely complex in its variables and conditions, but analysis of recent and historical conflicts suggest that some factors play larger roles than others in the decisiveness of war. The advancement of weapons changes how wars are fought, but leadership, training, moral, and most importantly, political strategy dictate how wars are won. First, a empirical perspective of wars must be considered. In this sense, battles were truly fought as chess games, such that commanders would spend hours mobilizing, organizing, and detaching men, cavalry, and artillery into massive segments to be slowly but surely dealt out on the battlefield. By a consequence of this nature of warfare, strong leadership was absolutely critical. As described by Robert K. Massie, the popular American historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, in his book on Tzar Peter of Russia, hundreds of thousands of men needed to be coordinated and precisely timed with the rest of the army to deliver a decisive attack . Organization became the crux of combat, the current mode of warfare required extensive management and logistics. However, what happens if the invention of a weapon with a higher rate of fire, such as a machine gun, comes about? Suddenly this idea of concentrating men in a slow moving column is rendered utterly useless. The first and arguably most important weaponry advancement resulted from the introduction of flintlock rifles. This invention made the rifle more reliable and quicker to reload. Therefore, a typical rifleman could nearly double his rate of fire: In a matter of years the mode of warfare changed completely, generals had to rethink doctrine and soldiers had to rework tactics. Nonetheless, it is evident that this advancement did not help predict the outcome of any battle; it only revised how the battle would be fought. The point remains, however, that the new gunpowder arms did little to change battle outcomes. Even at the point of introduction, where the innovative side had a monopoly, the decisiveness of impact was at best modest. So then what happens during this stage of imbalance? Feudal Russia again provides an excellent example of the competitor in technological lag. In the Great Northern War, a Russian army, one again severely under-armed with pikes and matchlock muskets, faced off against a superior Swedish force. These glaring discrepancies help illustrate the factors to which Robert K. Massie attributes Russian victory in the face of technological inferiority: This is only one of many instances in history where the underdog bested his opponent so quickly through means other than attrition. Napoleon was famous for winning battles against opponents four times in size through sheer manipulation of geography and maneuver. From the onset of war there is never any ability to predict a victor, mathematics cannot measure the abstract qualities of courage, wit, and luck. Understandably, wars cannot be boiled down to simple factors that determine a single outcome like flipping a coin. Both Raudzen and Smith agree that a large field of variables influence the tide of battle and no single item can determinately decide the outcome. This idea is never more critical than now when the United States is engaged in a new type of warfare where the opponent is always under-armed, outnumbered, and unorganized. Assuming technological superiority as a means for victory is dangerous. Whether or not the idea of concise and clear generations exists, the current conflict America faces is one of asymmetrical battles with insurgents. The War in Iraq is therefore reliant on the social and political realm, i. Insurgency is only another mode of warfare that America has only recently dealt with, and radical changes in doctrine are necessary for our military to respond to the evolving nature of war around the world. In the early hours of March 20, , the First Marine Division raced across the southern border of Iraq in armor-plated vehicles, determined to capture the southern oil fields in less than 48 hours. However, even though victory had been proclaimed for the Allied forces, sporadic fighting continues to this day. The invasion was successful, but occupation and restoring order remains a headache for the American and Iraqi governments. Why can the military not quickly and effectively respond to decentralized guerilla attacks? Supposedly the structure of an insurgency can be defined by a ratio, which determines coalescence or fragmentation of a given political group. This number can decrease, indicating a more cohesive force with more organized attacks and political influence, or increase, suggesting higher fragmentation but weaker attacks . Moreover, these fluctuations in violence and insurgency strength are affected by changes in political climate, not the result of battles. Neither the million-dollar missiles nor the cutting technology America built can help win a psychosocial and political war. There is, however, still one mode of warfare that seems to elude conforming to the thesis. Nuclear warfare, and indeed any weapon of mass destruction, has the unique property of assured annihilation. Regardless of leadership, training, or skill, a thermonuclear device will render any opponent incapacitated; the factors of time and effort disappear altogether. Instead, this topic broaches the more abstract ideas of game theory and psychology. What political stakes and ethical consequences will one gamble with when deciding to push the button? If anything nuclear warfare represents the most pure form of strategy, a game where battles have been simplified into single, definitive moves and generals and politicians evaluate the cost of victory. In all of human history nations have strived to be the best armed and have superior technology. Famous wars are identified with the emergence of a new weapon or technology, yet we often ignore the larger factors that military historians attribute to the cause of success. The Shang Dynasty was a military bureaucracy that armed even slaves for battle, the Assyrians utilized the Tigris River next to their cities to acquire expedience in the invasion of opposing regions, and Germany was the first to develop and implement maneuver warfare. The advantage of better technology is of no more value than training, cohesion, strategy, or geography. The time before the enemy adopts the newer weapon is almost negligible. Even in the case where technological imbalance is permanent, such as the conflict in Middle East, the will of the combatant can overcome the gap. The most important example comes from the Vietnam Era, where in the Viet Cong attacked US forces on multiple fronts and overran the embassy in Saigon. The offensive was considered a complete tactical failure, the Viet Cong were repelled swiftly and order was restored, yet American media televised the pandemonium to the world. Soon the war lost popular support in America and the withdrawal of US troops was inevitable: Politics, not weapons, shifted the tide of war. Better weapons do change warfare, drastically. From the Great Northern War to the War on Terrorism, the modus operandi of armies evolved into an entirely new beast with different strategy and tactics. With every new technological advancement there is a corresponding change in training, cohesion, strategy, geography, etc. But although one tends to approach war in the most logical fashion possible, it must be accepted that there are an overwhelming number of factors and probabilities of which we cannot possible aggregate. Scholars from political science departments to the Society for Military History agree that wars are multifaceted organisms that grow and are inherently as complex as the humans that fight them. His Life and World. Journal of Military History. Fighting Battles, Winning Wars. Journal of Conflict Resolution. Generations, Waves, and Epochs: Spring ; 10 1: New York City, New York: Berkley Publishing Group; Alex Kessler is a student at Georgia Tech. You May Also Like.
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