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The bane of Western military strategy – Technological Determinism

In war, new technology matters, but adaptations dramatically dampen its effects

Stephen Biddle

As Stephen Biddle has so presciently stated, we have witnessed both the confirmation and denial of the importance of technology in war over the past two years. Heavy combat assets and indirect firepower matter, but only if used correctly. No amount of drone wizardry seems to mitigate the need for soldiers to get ‘knee-deep in the big muddy.’ The dominance of systems in one environment (maritime) does not mean that others cannot destroy them.

None of it is new to even the most casual students of war. Yet, pundits sing praises for the next weapon system ‘game changer’ to be belatedly provided to Ukraine, this one promising apparently to snap the Russian camel’s back finally. Yet still, drunk, poorly trained and equipped, Ivan stays curled up sodden in his partially dug trench on Ukrainian soil. Ukrainian combat cohesion is remarkable, Russian is miraculous.

Why do defence equipment exhibitions abound with the latest technical toys and receive disproportionate attention compared to other important aspects of military capability? The simple answer is money, personnel, and strategic conferencing are less likely to benefit corporate balance sheets. Still, I believe there is a bigger trap Western militaries have fallen into: that of technological determinism.

Lance Corporal Kai Webb, from ITDU (Infantry Trials and Development Unit) operates the AtlasPro drone using the AtlasStation touchscreen. Photo: MOD.
The UK Infantry Trials and Development Unit operating the AtlasPro drone. Credit: MOD. .

I will use an Australian example of this entrapment in the persistent over-reliance on technology as a poor surrogate for strategic thought. I will leave you to decide if the case applies to your nation.

The current Australian Department of Defence definition of capability is the capacity or ability to achieve an operational effect. An operational effect may be defined or described in terms of the nature of the effect and of how, when, where and for how long it is produced. Both UK and US definitions appear broader; however, they can soon fall into the equipment solution mindset or, in the case of the myriad US agencies, follow the Australian example.

Narrow definitions

This Australian definition is too narrow in meaning for complete understanding and too prescriptive to serve the organisational process of capability development and to inform public debate. It ignores the stark realities of conflict and is servile to the ‘technological edge’ over other aspects of capability.

Australia is not alone in this phenomenon, as others have similarly commented. Like most Western nations, Australia fell in love with technical advantage as an intellectual sunscreen to the harsh light of warfare. raming fighting concepts as technical capability descriptions, avoiding war’s visceral nature and ignoring other important aspects of warfare, such as mass. Such language additionally sanitises the language of war; most of the time, ‘effects’ mean destruction and suffering.

The other sign of this malaise is the seeking of the asymmetric edge. Asymmetry in military operations occurs against a specific enemy force at a particular time and space. An infantry soldier with an anti-armoured weapon well concealed in an urban environment is asymmetric to an unsupported tank. The same soldier is not when walking an open plain at night with the same weapon. The assumption that a new technology is automatically asymmetric and grants a Star Wars ‘force’ like advantage over an adversary shows a lack of understanding of the conduct of war and the hard limits of science.

RN engineering and DE&S
MoD Abbey Wood. The UK centre for procurement. Credit: MOD.

I am in no way marginalising the unavoidable complexity of material procurement. But the conduct of war is chaotic; seeking high certainty in technical solutions before a profoundly uncertain event is a somewhat tenuous approach. This paradox does not mean the best possible equipment should not be pursued. Still, this need should be based on the lessons of rigorous historical analysis, recent conflicts, and substantiated trends, not ‘leading-edge’ concepts or wonder weapons. There is a need to avoid ideas that missile gaps are bridged with more missiles alone or services self-serving declarations that lethality is somehow automatically decisive.

There are two ways to resolve this inadequacy of definition and start to break determinism. The first is to develop a more complex and nuanced understanding of capability. The second is to accept that most military capabilities are operationally ambivalent.

In the first case, Stephen Biddle provides perhaps some of the most rigorous studies of military capability in state and non-state warfare. Biddle’s understanding of capability is far more profound and broader than the Australian definition, and he concedes it is still a work in progress. His later work even considers social issues, such as internal politics among non-state actors, having a marked effect on military capability. However, I believe it is too complex a theory for easy application inside a bureaucracy, but it is well worth such bureaucracies checking his conclusions now and again. Moreover, it raises an important point: why aren’t non-technical factors in warfare given greater transparency when we discuss capability?

Operationally ambivalent

We must, therefore, treat military technology and capabilities as operationally ambivalent. The rediscovery of the long-neglected self-propelled anti-aircraft capability (something Australia has always neglected) to help defeat the drone threat in Ukraine is an excellent case study. Initially designed for the Cold War, these systems are now highly effective against mass-produced, off-the-shelf, and military drones they were never planned to counter—something a recent Australian strategic review ignored, dazzled by the distant light of nuclear submarines.

An excellent example of operational ambivalence was the Australian Defence Force’s maritime patrol capability to provide surveillance support to ground troops in urban operations in Iraq. Imagination and permission are the only limitations to employing military capability; in many cases, those in combat won’t even seek permission. To use an adage, if it works and it’s stupid, it isn’t stupid.

Will Leben proved, at least within the Australian forum, that discussion could occur without a solely technical cant; he asks, what do we want the Army to do? This approach was necessary for stabilising the deeply polarised debate, which was initially narrow and ill-informed, with no in-depth consideration of the capability.

More broadly, many senior Western commanders comment on ‘gaps’, whether hypersonics, space, cyber, drones, or grey zone. Strangely, most of these commanders oversee said assets and only suggest more of their own as a solution, not even remotely seeking alternative counters. They may be correct, but history shows that missile and ship gaps have been sensationalist before (the current hypersonics gap, in particular, is highly contentious). Still, more worryingly, it shows an abject failure of imagination.

I have attempted to demonstrate that the current Western understanding of military capability is too technically constrained leading a strange strategic logic ignoring the realities of warfare. Additionally, it concurrently lacks the nuance to present a thorough understanding of justification and acquisition. We need to be deeply aware of this deficiency and not cast an incomplete paradigm over the problem, thinking it will suffice. Nor believe that this technology based determinism isn’t already unbalancing strategic thought as it has in the past.

A better context is to recognise that a military capability is ambivalent to the tasks set before it. Likewise, their effectiveness is not constrained or amplified solely by the levers of technology. It may be that, technically, a capability is not ‘optimally employed’ in a particular conflict, but that is moot. What is essential in capability acquisition is ensuring the best chance in the worst environment; the enemy (not a ‘threat’ but a ruthless enemy) gets a say. Of course, it is not the ultimate solution, but the underlying themes that propel this idea perhaps are at least a good place to start on this issue and more broadly. Capability doesn’t care if it ‘projects impactfully’, ‘manoeuvres littorally’, ‘partners allies’, ‘covers NATO flank’ (which seems to change compass points often), ‘fights for shared values’, ‘competes jointly’, or sits in the splendid isolation of neutral national defence. Likewise, reality’s horrible ambivalence to any predictive concept du jour will lead to an inevitable praxis gap, which technology alone will not bridge.

In the Australian context, the nation has an undebated strategy simply through the cost and lead time of some major equipment decisions. This lack of public debate is grounds for concern, as Australia is now setting down a road with fewer forks than before. It may be the right path, but that is not readily apparent. This vacuity, as Peter Layton, through the work of David Horner, has recently asserted, is symptomatic of Australia’s historical difficulty in acknowledging the massive uncertainty in war.

Likewise, UK soldiers clad in the best body armour, personal role radios and advanced assault weapons, perfect for the last war, are arguably symptomatic of technological determinism. This equipment upgrade should occur; it is good news but not a panacea. Again, lethality isn’t solely decisive. More people need to spend more time reading Stephen Biddle’s work.

When seeking equipment, understand it is just that: equipment. Capability requires greater understanding and detachment from strategy regarding process than currently. Operational ambivalence in technical solutions must be embraced and detached from strategic shifts. Then perhaps we can focus on debating what truly matters: a good, clear, and flexible strategy while equipping service people fittingly.

Jason Thomas

Jason is a retired Australian Armoured Corps Officer who served in a variety of command and staff appointments.  Including capability development and future warfare positions. He holds a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering, a Master of Science in military vehicle technology, and a Master of Arts in strategy and policy. Currently, he is living in Copenhagen where besides reading for a PhD in Mission Command at the University of Sydney, and being a house dad, he occasionally writes on military topics with a focus on leadership and strategy.

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