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Archive for December, 2012

First of all, my apologies for having taken so long to get this done – many things kept getting in the way.

Second, my thanks to very perceptive comments from reader Shahid. Your observations about the non-exclusive nature of technology and human quality is well taken, and I was intending to build upon that issue, particularly when I was going to get to the issue of today’s post – the implications of this pace of technological change for force structure decision making.

The key issue I want to look at now is the follow-on from my comments about the increasingly temporary nature of technological advantages. To re-cap, the point I had made in my last post was that technology is changing at an accelerating pace. For armed forces that rely on technological advantages to help them gain a force multiplier effect, to help them overcome other inherent strategic disadvantages – whether small population, small size, whatever – this reliance on technological advantages is going to mean an ever-increasing pace of technological change in their military hardware. Once, investment in a new weapons technology might have accrued force multiplier effects for maybe 2 or 3 decades; now, that force multiplier effect is likely to last significantly less. It means an almost-constant search for the next technological development.

At the same time, because military technologies are getting increasingly expensive, leading to what my colleague Ron Matthews refers to as structural disarmament, the numbers of new combat platforms that can be bought necessarily reduces. The Singapore Air Force’s F-15 SG does not just cost more than the F-5 aircraft it replaced, it cost exponentially more. As a consequence, the Singapore Air Force could not replace F-5 with F-15 on a aircraft-to-aircraft basis: in other words, if they needed to retire a hypothetical 100 F-5s, they could not buy 100 F-15s as the replacement, the number of F-15s bought is necessarily significantly less than the 100 F-5s being replaced.

Now I know what people will say, that F-15s are significantly more capable aircraft than F-5s. One F-15 probably does have the combat power of several equivalent F-5s. Undeniably true! But what is also true is that if, for whatever reason, one F-15 is lost, that loss represents in percentage terms a much more significant loss than the loss of one F-5 would have represented.

Now, finally, on to the topic that I really wanted to focus on today. Which is about how military organisations can begin to approach this entire question of accelerating technological change, and its implications for force structure decision making.

I think the issue can be set up as a straightforward contest between the ‘best’ versus the ‘good enough’. One of the best analogies of this ‘best’ versus ‘good enough’ is the contrasting philosophies of tank design between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Few people will dispute that Nazi Germany produced probably the most technologically sophisticated tanks during the Second World War. As a consequence of the technological sophistication, Nazi Germany had to sacrifice quantity for technological quality. In contrast, Soviet Russia produced the T-34, which although not as technologically advanced as their German counterparts, could be produced in very large numbers; the Russians sacrificed quality for quantity, in other words. At the greatest tank battle of that war, Kursk, quantity prevailed over quality. But then again, to paraphrase Napoleon, enough quantity has a quality of its own.

When it comes to decisions about force structures, military planners always face this question: do I want the ‘best’ (of which I can only afford, say, 10 platforms), or do I go for the ‘good enough’ (of which I can afford, say, 40 platforms)? Given that technological change is accelerating, it means that the shelf life of any given technology is shorter than its predecessors. We ought to remember that the acquisition process itself incurs costs; you’re not just paying for a new platform, how you acquire that platform also has to be paid for. The shrinking shelf life of new technologies, allied to the perceived need to remain at the technological cutting edge, these two combine to create a potential financial storm. What makes it worse is that the platforms you just acquired are going to give you a technological advantage that lasts for a very short time.

Maybe, therefore, the solution for military organisations is to go for the ‘good enough’. And to blend that ‘good enough’ technology with the best training you can possibly give your personnel. Looking at vignettes that come from Coalition operations in Afghanistan especially, what appears to have saved thousands of Coalition soldiers was not their superior technology against their Taliban counterparts; rather, it was their superior training that mattered the most. I contend that a ‘good enough’ technology in the hands of a superbly trained soldier generates a combat effect far greater than a ‘best’ technology in the hands of a soldier who doesn’t know what to do with it. We saw this in the Kuwait war. Most military analysts initially thought Iraq was not going to be an opponent that rolled over easily; but then the shooting started, and the lack of quality in the Iraqi soldiers became evident.

Maybe, just maybe, that could be the way forward for small armed forces with very limited resources in manpower and finances.

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Following from my last post about Iron Dome and asking a number of questions about the strategic importance of technology, more thoughts for the considerations of this Blog’s readers.

Most of us are familiar with the argument about technology as a force multiplier, allowing states with limited strategic resources – manpower, strategic depth etc – to potentially overcome these potential strategic shortfalls. The reason for the emphasis on ‘potential’ is deliberate: the technology-as-force-multiplier argument is focused on the potentials for most states. For Singapore, definitely – Singapore as a modern independent state has never had to taste war, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has never had to be tested. For the SAF, therefore, their argument about technology helping the organisation fulfil its mission of protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Singapore is a potential argument. Unless and until war comes to Singapore, unless and until the SAF has to actually carry out its mission statement of defeating potential aggressors swiftly and decisively, we will never know if the SAF can actually do what it sets out, what it claims to do.

However, I am coming to the viewpoint that the qualitative advantages any armed forces should seek might actually best come not from technology, but from training. In other words, maybe the best and most lasting force multiplier effect comes from quality training, not from cutting edge technology.

Here’s the thing: technology is necessarily short-lived. Does anyone who reads this Blog actually still use floppy disks? Or 486 computers? Yet, a decade ago, these were still fairly cutting-edge technologies. Who still walks around town listening to music from a portable CD player? The difference is this – technological change is accelerating. Anyone who has read Martin van Creveld’s magisterial Technology and War knows this. Military technology once moved at a pace that would have made tortoises, turtles and snails seem Speedy Gonzalez-like. Come the 19th Century, however, the pace of change in military technologies began to accelerate, and as the 20th Century wore on, that accelerating pace itself accelerated even faster.

What this therefore means is that for any armed forces seeking to maintain a technological advantage over its putative adversaries, accelerating technological changes means that any extant technological advantage (already naturally temporary) is increasingly short-lived. That armed forces is going to spend an increasing amount of time, money and other resources looking for the next technological advantage, and the next, and the next …

Furthermore, new technologies, particularly in the military domain, are increasingly expensive. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was initially envisaged as a low-cost and ubiquitous air combat platform. Well, that vision pretty much no longer exists, certainly the part about being low cost. And as advanced economies slow down in terms of their annual growth rates (that is, assuming no Lehman Brothers or Greece-style meltdowns), it means that the absolute amount of money that can be dedicated to military expenditure is going to slow down, in terms of growth rates as well. I don’t know the figures, but I suspect the empirical evidence will show that the costs of emerging military technologies are out-stripping economic growth rates. Which means armed forces will be able to afford fewer and fewer of these new technologies – something my colleague Ron Matthews has referred to as structural disarmament. Sure new technologies are more capable than the ones they replace, but fewer platforms also means the loss of a single platform represents an greater percentage loss of potential combat power.

And, oh by the way, as my preceding paragraphs suggest, the putative adversary right now might be at a technological disadvantage, but the pace of technological change means that that disadvantage is going to be increasingly short-lived.

If my arguments are correct, therefore, it seems to me that technology is not going to help us out of a strategic pickle. Human qualities are probably going to be the more lasting solution. But more on that at another time …

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