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The following is the text of an RSIS Commentary I wrote that just came out. It is basically the themes of several past entries, tightened up (hopefully).

No. 007/2013 dated 15 January 2013

The (Over?) Promise of Modern Technology

By Bernard Fook Weng Loo

Synopsis

The tendency to seek technological solutions to strategic problems is a policy option that many states desire, but it is fraught with potential affordability questions. A new way to seek solutions to strategic problems might be necessary.

Commentary

TECHNOLOGY as a force multiplier is a familiar argument for states with limited strategic resources – such as manpower – to overcome. However, the lasting qualitative advantages any armed forces should seek may not come from technology.

Technology is necessarily short-lived. Five years ago, portable storage devices – so-called thumb drives – with mega-bytes of storage space were considered fairly cutting edge technologies. Then came along portable hard drives with hundreds of mega-bytes of storage space. Today, mobile storage devices contain giga-bytes of space. Technological change is accelerating and once measured by the century, is today likely to occur every year.

Accelerating pace of technological changes

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

Furthermore, new technologies, particularly in the military domain, are increasingly expensive. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a morality-tale of modern military technology. The aircraft was initially envisaged as a low-cost and ubiquitous air combat platform. That vision of “low cost” no longer exists!

As advanced economies slow down in terms of their annual growth rates, it means that the growth of absolute amount of money that can be dedicated to military expenditure is going to slow down as well. This translates into a simple argument that increasing costs of emerging military technologies may be out-stripping economic growth rates. This means armed forces will be able to afford fewer of these new technologies.

This has been called structural disarmament, a concrete example of which is the F-15SGs that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) acquired to replace the F-5Es. Given the costs of the F-15SG relative to the F-5E, it was impossible for the RSAF to replace the F-5Es on a one-to-one basis. Sure, new technologies (the F-15SGs) are more capable than the ones they replace (F-5Es), but fewer platforms also means that the loss of a single platform represents a greater percentage loss of potential combat power.

By the way, while the putative adversary might right now be at a technological disadvantage, that disadvantage is going to be increasingly short-lived as the technological solution might be just around the corner.

The ‘best’ versus the ‘good enough’

The follow-on from this increasingly transient nature of technological advantage is that armed forces should be mindful of the pitfalls of relying heavily on technological advantages to help them gain a force multiplier effect. For to help them overcome other inherent strategic disadvantages, this 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 two or three decades; now, that force multiplier effect is likely to last significantly less. It means an almost-constant search for the next technological development. How can military organisations begin to approach this entire question of accelerating technological change? What are its implications for force structure decision making?

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 of the Second World War. However, as a consequence of the exacting engineering standards that went into German tank design and production, 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; in other words the Russians sacrificed quality for quantity. However, at the greatest tank battle of that war, Kursk, quantity prevailed over quality. But, to paraphrase Napoleon, enough quantity has a quality of its own.

Potential financial storm

When it comes to decisions about force structures, military planners always face this question: go for the ‘best’ (of which only, say, 10 platforms can be afforded), or go for the ‘good enough’ (of which, say, 40 platforms can be afforded)? It is important to remember that the acquisition process itself incurs costs: countries do not simply go for a new technology; how that technology is acquired 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, combine to create a potential financial storm.

Therefore, the solution for military organisations maybe to go for the ‘good enough’ – and to blend that ‘good enough’ technology with the best training you can possibly give your personnel. Military hardware is undeniably important to strategic effectiveness, BUT it is not the only determinant. Qualitative variables cannot and must not be omitted from the ‘equations’ we use to ‘calculate’ these concepts.

Most of the anecdotal evidence from Coalition operations in Afghanistan suggests very clearly that 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. 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 does not know what to do with it.

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A spate of recent RSIS commentaries on these inter-related topics for your reading pleasure.

The most recent, from colleague Collin Koh (available here) looks at the possible ramifications of the soon-to-be operational Chinese aircraft carrier, designated the Liaoning. Collin suggests that this aircraft carrier is likely the precursor of a fleet of aircraft carriers, but that is something that is going to take some time in constructing. More importantly, Collin argues, it is going to take the Chinese Navy considerably longer to construct a proper balanced fleet that support carrier battle groups. But that is going to pale in comparison to the time the Chinese will take to master carrier battle doctrines and tactics.

The second (available here) is by Youna Lyons, who argues that satellite imagery can have a significant impact on adjudicating the various competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. To some extent, the contest is generated by the ambiguity of the various rocks and islets that make up the Spratlys. That being said, satellite imagery is merely a small part of an eventual political solution. As Youna astutely observes, “Satellite imagery … only contributes to the debate of what is a rock, what is an island and what is neither but may be a low tide elevation. Google Earth does not determine sovereignty over islands or rocks. It does not determine the extent of the maritime zone to which an island or rock may be entitled.”

Finally, colleague Yang Razali Kassim (and editor of the RSIS COmmentary series) examines the viability of a code of conduct in shaping the on-going contest of territorial claims and recent naval activities in the South China Sea. His piece (available here) argues that a Code of Conduct can actually be consonant with China’s broader geo-strategy, since it facilitates the so-called Deng Xiaoping solution – to shelve sovereignty issues and to focus on joint economic development.

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Following from the last post, an analysis of Vietnam’s acquisition of Kilo-class submarines, this time courtesy of colleague Collin Koh. His RSIS Commentary can be accessed here. As Collin argues, “Vietnam’s Kilos will … create concerns for China’s naval planners who in the past did not have to consider a Vietnamese undersea capability.” Nevertheless, “this new capability will not pose too great a challenge to China’s naval primacy in the South China Sea, given the growing overall edge of China’s submarine capabilities.”

So basically, there really isn’t very much that the Southeast Asians can do to improve their positions with regards to China in the on-going disputes over the South China Sea.

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An entry, courtesy of the highly regarded Kings of War blog, by colleague Professor Paul Mitchell (no, not the hair care products guy!) of the Canadian Forces College, which can be accessed here.

Paul writes about a recent joint exercise between the 33rd Canadian Brigade Group and elements of the US 1st MEF. Paul’s blog basically describes the joint exercise, and intersperses his description with his usual analytical scalpel.

The key issue, as Paul notes, is the human interfaces that necessarily underpins the long and complicated staffwork that plans and precedes the deployment of even a relatively small group like a brigade, which in the Canadian Army numbers about under 8,000 troops. And this staffwork is necessarily the domain of what a former SAF Chief Defence Scientist referred to as ‘wet’ware’, that is, the human operators behind any weapons system or technology.

As his conclusion notes, “The overall impression left at the conclusion of the exercise is a human one, not a technological one. True, information technologies in terms of how the Brigade’s forces were marshaled and employed were evident throughout. True, these technologies were critical in requesting and managing the long range forces that turned the lop-sided battle the Brigade fought. However, it was the ability of the different groups of people within the headquarters to use the resources under their direction to produce a collaborative result in a highly dynamic situation. In many ways, it is this human capability rather than the excellence of its technology which explains the effectiveness of Western armies.”

One vignette offered by Paul refers to Operation Totalize, which was a Canadian Army operation to effect an Allied breakthrough at the French city of Caen, after the successful Operation Overlord, the landing of Allied troops at Normandy in 1944. Paul writes, “Despite its innovative nature and successes early in the battle, Totalize failed to close the Falaise gap. USAAF bombers struck friendly targets; untested armoured units failed to press home the attack and laagered early in the battle; units became lost and failed to properly coordinate their attacks. Arguably, Simmond’s staff, particularly at the divisional level, lacked the skill to coordinate a welter of resources in the confusion of battle.” I would argue that at least one key element of the eventual failure, the so-called ‘friendly fire’ from USAAF bombers, was part and parcel of the so-called fog and friction of war, which the great Clausewitzian scholars like Christopher Bassford referred to as the non-rational elements of the Clausewitzian Trinity. That is something that, I suspect, even the best staffwork would never be able to prevent.

Many thanks to Paul for volunteering to let us reblog his Kings of War submission!

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Associate Research Fellow Collin Koh comments on the recently signed submarine rescue agreement between the Singaporean (RSN) and Indonesian (TNI-AL) navies. Buying and fielding submarines is high on the agenda of many regional governments, given the perceived utility of these stealthy vessels in defence of national interests. However, such acquisitions (and projected acquisitions) have caused a number of concerns, such as a potential naval arms race in the region. Collin argues that this new, and unprecedented, agreement concerning a traditionally sensitive aspect of naval operations is a positive step for regional military cooperation and maritime safety. The commentary can be accessed here: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/RSIS1342012.pdf

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Another RSIS Commentary, this one written by colleague Adrian Kuah, and available here, on how the issue of complexity can be understood and approached by policy makers. Adrian argues that as policy-making moves from clockwork to network, one implication arising out of complexity science is that every once in a while, the best approach might be to do nothing.

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A recent RSIS Commentary, by colleague Nah Liang Tuang, and available here, for your reading pleasure. Liang Tuang analyses the two approaches – sanctions or inducements – in persuading Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear ambitions. He argues that sanctions will likely be unproductive, and urges a more positive approach, to induce Iranian leaders to abandon their alleged ambitions.

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