Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Future of War: Power, Technology, and American World Dominance in the 21st Century, by George and Meredith Friedman

New York Crown Publishers, 1996, pp. 464.

The grandiosely if uncreatively titled The Future of War does not concern itself with insurgency and terrorism; with state failure, peacekeeping or nation-building; with rogue states and organized crime; with resource conflict and environmental security; with biological weapons and computer warfare; with the growth of the private military sector.

Rather this book's focus is squarely on conventional, interstate warfare, and even then its focus is not on making predictions about the balance of power in the international system, or laying out specific conflict scenarios (for instance, there is little on the rise of China), but on the theoretical and historical (their single geopolitical prediction, that the future will be an "American epoch," aside).

Simply put, the Friedmans posit that the modern (post-1500) era was the age of firearms, centered on the massing of explosive power. This culminated in the dominance of the battlespace by "hydrocarbon-driven, gunned weapon platforms" like battleships, tanks and planes. These systems, however, are increasingly "senile," meaning that the measures taken to insure their survival on the battlefield are overwhelming their offensive value.

The reason: the precision-guided munitions which will dominate the coming epoch as surely as the gun dominated the one preceding it. The ultimate expression of these will be hypersonic, intercontinental-range cruise missiles with the versatility of manned bombers (their discussion of missiles shading into what we today commonly term drones).

Meanwhile, the world's military center of gravity is shifting skyward, to space, global dominance meaning space dominance, to be won by manned command platforms in space, and fleets of space vehicles that can see and attack anything on the surface.

There will be little place for tanks, warships and traditional combat aircraft in this new military order, or even for massed infantry because while "boots on the ground" will still be necessary for close-in combat and holding territory, they will more and more resemble the "starship troopers" of Robert Heinlein-small, elite units whose individual members have been made far more deadly by advanced armor, sensors, communication systems and weapons.1

In short, the book is an explanation of the then-fashionable thinking about what is commonly called the "Revolution in Military Affairs," albeit a very thorough, comprehensive and accessible one. Indeed, it made quite a strong impression on my own thinking about these subjects when I first read it back in 2000, and much of my early writing and publication cites its ideas.

I find myself looking rather more skeptically at the book now, however. While we have perhaps gone overboard in the degree to which we have overlooked great power politics in the last decade or so, this book's focus is too narrow, not only in its considering just one level of warfare while ignoring all the others, but in its particular technological focus. It was not the gun which gave Europe its ascendancy, but industrialization, and that ascendancy was also briefer and more precarious than the half millennium suggested here.2 Their vision of a "European epoch" based on the mastery of a particular weapons technology therefore seems a poor basis for arguing for a similarly founded American epoch extending far into the future (even without considering today's much more rapid technological diffusion).

Additionally, where the key technologies themselves are considered, this is at best a long-range vision, rather than a guide to practical policymaking. The day when militaries serious about fighting conventional wars can finally dispense with their tanks and warships is still a long way off. The space dominance visions described here remain technically and economically infeasible, and can be expected to remain so for decades.

Even precision-guided munitions seem likely to make much slower progress than they imagined. There has been surprisingly little progress toward really fast, really long-range cruise missiles in the decade since they wrote their book, and it is not really that surprising. Many of the areas of technology relevant to realizing the idea (like propulsion systems) have been seeing fairly slow progress for quite some time. Besides, the PGM itself might become senile sooner than imagined, if directed-energy weapons become ubiquitous, an outcome that may be in real doubt, but still seems more likely than the realization of the space capabilities envisioned here.

The authors are also too dismissive of the importance of mass in future warfare, erroneously predicted so many times before-not least, by Basil Liddell Hart after World War I. Even if armies get smaller because of the cost of their equipment, numbers will still count, and the political units able to raise the resources to support those numbers will count for a great deal. Indeed, the size of the space forces necessary to achieve really workable, continuous coverage of the whole planet will be staggering.3

While this is said with all the advantage of hindsight, the book remains more interesting as an expression of the thinking on these topics in its day, and for the thoroughness of its extrapolation from a (flawed) theory, than as a comment on contemporary concerns, or a fully-rounded vision of things to come.

1 As for nuclear weapons, these will remain, but as a factor of declining significance-simply guarantees of state survival, and as checks on the nuclear weapons held by other actors-enabling the conduct of limited wars. (Notably, the authors count both the world wars as having been limited conflicts.)
2 After all, Asia had its own gunpowder empires, which did much to limit (and at points, even reverse) European expansion at the expense of India, China and the Ottoman Empire until late in the eighteenth century and often after; while Russia and Japan successfully resisted colonization.
3 One study indicates that as many as 1600 interceptors may be needed to stop a single ICBM. See American Physical Society, Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense: Scientific and Technical Issues (College Park, MD: APS, 2003). Cited in Nancy Gallagher and John D. Steinbruner, Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008), pp. 66-67. It has also been estimated that as many as 1200 satellites would be needed simply to image every point on the planet once an hour. Gallagher, p. 69.

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