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The Strategy Of Survival
A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
It’s hard in reading your book to determine your precise position on technological fixes for serious difficulties. You make fun of those who blithely advocate expensive technological innovations without troubling themselves about the possibility of countermeasures, and yet there are times in your own work when a moment of extreme technological optimism pops up. Is there a contradiction between your moments of technological optimism and your moments of technological pessimism?
I think there’s a very consistent pattern. We have military problems, and somebody comes along and offers a low-cost, high-effectiveness silver bullet for it. Now if this were the use of technology against nature, the use of an inanimate object like a bridge, and you’re trying to span a river with a bridge, great. Rivers sometimes expand and change course, but they never deliberately watch you build a bridge and then maliciously expand or change course. But that is exactly what happens in war. So you have the antitank missile, which is a wonderful invention, and then all tanks are supposed to be killed by them. But of course that doesn’t happen; tanks react. People use mortars to lay down smoke in front of you, so you can’t see the tank until it’s on top of you, and they react with artillery fire to suppress antitank infantry.
My technological enthusiasm is not for silver bullets, magic weapons supposed to totally defeat the enemy, but rather for technologies that create a contextual environment. For example, minelets, small mines that detonate under tank tracks. They don’t destroy tanks or armored vehicles, but they will throw a lot of tracks. So an armored force drives over a piece of terrain that you have sown with minelets, and it suffers very superficial damage. However, it gets slowed down. You have deprived the armored force of its secret power, which is momentum.
Similarly RPVs. They’re not very reliable. An RPV, a kind of kamikaze plane, is going to work only about half the time. A lot of them are going to get shot down, a lot of the controls are going to break down, a lot of them won’t hit the target, but here you are using the ability to mass-produce ten-pound plastic aircraft, which we really can do, and low-cost transistor links to control them, and low-cost video cameras, low-cost video monitors. You haven’t manufactured a silver bullet that cannot be defeated—on the contrary, it’s highly defeatable—but the enemy looks up and sees all these kamikaze RPVs coming down on him, and they create the impression of a threat he cannot readily deal with. This is the use of technology in conjunction with production, to create the contextual environment where you affect the terms of trade, as opposed to the use of technology where you’re trying to stop foursquare the full strength of the enemy, into which he has poured his political organization, his talents, his resources, and so on. That would be like the French attempt to defeat the British, to sink the British fleet, not by competing with the British in building battleships, cruisers, and so on, but by having torpedo boats, on the grounds that the battleships will not be able to hit fast little boats with their heavy guns, that they will not even be able to see them. But of course, a big ship that has so much space also has space for little guns, which can hit little boats. The battleship has so much tonnage it can be retrofitted with many countermeasures. It can carry torpedo nets; it can have electrical power, so that it can’t become a victim of night attack. And the analogy holds good. If you try to stop an armored division with a low-cost, narrow device like the antitank missile, you lose.
On the same principle, aren’t minelets vulnerable to cheap countermeasures as well? And cheap antiaircraft systems are presumably more effective against RPVs than against much more capable manned aircraft.
Minelets become important only because we can now also mass-produce a low-cost, reliable rocket. You have a Soviet armored division that is very short of manpower, reflecting the fact that the Soviet Union is a country that has more steel than it has people, as far as armor-trained soldiers go. And now the minelets have bogged it down, and in order to deal with these kamikaze RPVs, these little things putt-putting overhead, you have to have lots of antiaircraft weapons. Labor-intensive antiaircraft weapons. If you try to use technology to stop foursquare the power the enemy derives from the entire organization of his society—as the British derived from the power of the battleship, and the Soviets from their armored divisions—then you fail. If, on the other hand, you use technology to deflect and absorb the enemy’s strength, this is where technology can work for you and tip the balance in your favor. Barbed wire is not a very impressive technology, but barbed wire put cavalry out of business.
Cruise missiles are another of your enthusiasms, one that makes me nervous. Cruise missiles cannot do many things manned aircraft can do. But if we improve them, why aren’t we on the same treadmill you describe in your critique of antitank weapons? You point out that by the time we make a genuinely good one, with protection, effective firepower, and mobility, we have reinvented the tank. By the time a cruise missile becomes genuinely effective, it becomes a high-performance aircraft.