ENG : The Limitations of Technologism

The HMS Dreadnought ©U.S. Naval Historical Center

The present article was written in the context of the reflection of the ANAJ-IHEDN’s Comité Armée du Futur (Committee ‘Army of the Future’) on the digitization of the battlefield, available for consultation at the following link: http://www.anaj-ihedn.org/la-numerisation-du-champ-de-bataille-par-le-comite-armee-du-futur/

In 2017, this article was included into ANAJ-IHEDN’s collaborative publication titled S'Engager par la Plume (downloadable at the following link: https://www.ihedn.fr/document/sengager-par-la-plume-anaj). 

It was then published on the website of Le Point (http://www.lepoint.fr/societe/les-armees-face-aux-limites-du-technologisme-18-04-2017-2120624_23.php). 

Translation by Stephen Seizilles de Mazancourt.


Though it is to this date difficult to consider the future of warfare in terms other than a duel of willpowers, as defined by Carl von Clausewitz almost two centuries ago, it is nevertheless appropriate to acknowledge the major influence continuously exerted by technological innovation over the art of war. Not on its contents – which remains intrinsically the same, as defined by Carl von Clausewitz – but on its form. Or rather its forms, given the extent to which the very way in which war is waged has been redesigned over the centuries in the wake of new inventions.

Thus, aviation – which Marshal Ferdinand Foch only saw as a “toy” with no military value – gradually allowed to make the most of the third dimension and a new full-fledged armed force to emerge. Complementing the traditional land and naval forces, this new army contributes to characterize the essence of modern warfare. Even in the most surprising sectors, examples of the sort are abundant: in the 19th century, military logistics were revolutionized with the invention of canned food, which facilitated transporting and storing food supplies.

Nevertheless, the links between the art and technique of warfare do not always represent a virtuous circle. For although the astute Vulcan seems to strive to make his brother Mars’s life easier, let us not forget that the weapons Vulcan forged were double-edged: they were used to chastise Mars after he had fallen for his sister-in-law, Venus.  This mythological allegory shows that this rivalry is ancient and brings us to question the great contemporary armament programs which seem to consecrate the supremacy of a technology-centered approach in their perception of current and future conflicts.

In this respect, two topics are particularly eloquent: the digitization of the battlefield and augmented soldiers. Two innovation axes bearing a strong revolutionary potential as well as specific risks.

Economic limitations

Robotization and digitization, or the triumph of quality over quantity

Digitization and robotization are still in their early stages, yet their effects on the public finances of States that invested in them – the USA in the first place – can already be distinctly felt. The best example of the budgetary burden resulting from these systems growing more complex would be none other than the (very) criticized F-35: the ten-million-or-so lines of codes required for it to function properly have a direct negative impact on the development issues of the program. Thus, in a particularly critical report[1], Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) pointed out the frequent delays and other development issues that ensued from the commitment to full-scale digitization while designing the Joint Strike Fighter.

Another illustration: the Zumwalt-class destroyer program. With its revolutionary design, the Zumwalt does justice to automation and task digitization; this 15,000-ton vessel can be manned by a crew of barely 140 men. The Zumwalt program was supposed to be the new backbone of the U.S. Navy and foster the production of no less than 32 vessels. Once more, in front of skyrocketing prices [2], the program was prematurely put to an end in 2009, after only three vessels had been budgeted.

These very topical and copiously documented examples thereby tend to confirm Norman R. Augustine’s analysis – the former vice-president of the aircraft manufacturer Martin-Marietta. In his publication, Augustine’s Laws[3], he indeed predicted that the costs of armament programs would grow geometrically in proportion to their increasing technological level, whereas military budget know nothing more than arithmetical increase. The well-known law n°16 states in particular, with a reductio ad absurdum in its demonstration, that: « In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day ».

Extrapolating this heavy tendency to give accounts on more and more complex – and therefore expensive – systems, we can conclude that the future armies’ room for maneuver will continue to decrease. There is a risk that the “sample” army will impose itself as the reference force model for armed forces, that attrition will become an impossible luxury, and that the slightest hope of increase in power of the defense industry in order to face a high-intensity conflict will hit an almost impassable fiscal cliff. Admittedly, a strong political will could be enough to overcome these budget constraints. But as a result, the war would be succeeded by an unbearable financial and economic crisis in view of the unprecedented amount of resources allocated to a war economy, which would then need to reinvent itself – not without difficulty – into a civilian economy…

War between States, in its traditional form, would then literally become overpriced. And thereby, logically, it would be abandoned and replaced by more “affordable” forms of conflict: hybrid, economic, cyber warfare…

Augmented soldier, atrophied army

Enabled by professionalization of the armed forces (which started in 1996 in France), the growing technicity of a soldier’s job – which today implies manning more and more complex equipment and vehicles – has led the “soldier-technician” model to emerge. As a result, soldiers’ training is longer and longer and more and more expensive. Hence the current troubles modern armies are experiencing when operating swift resurgence.

The French army, currently divided between OPEX (overseas operations) and the Sentinelle operation, faces an operational tempo that prevents individuals from being trained in satisfying conditions, actually implying a risk of skill erosion [4]. Yet, the concept of an augmented soldier inherently implies an exacerbation of the issues raised by the soldier-technician. Whichever form these augmentations may take, it seems difficult to imagine they would not be accompanied by a long learning period to be able to exploit their full potential in combat; and said further learning would be in addition to military training itself.

Even more worrying: the very strong turnover which characterizes modern armies, counting only five years of practice for front line positions [5], raises the question of the economic relevance of augmented soldiers. Indeed, this represents, above all, an investment in time and in money, and it would seem very unwise to devote that amount of resources to individuals who would only briefly prove useful to the armies.

In addition, the question of the augmented soldier’s end of career is still unresolved. Assuming that the augmentation consists in an irreversible and invasive body modification (artificial limbs, lifelong drug therapy, etc.), would our augmented soldier be the owner of his own body after retiring from the army? Beyond an economic issue, this raises an ethical and moral question, with the disaffection of a man dispossessed of his own body. 

Operational risks

The exacerbation of systemic vulnerabilities

Warfare digitization means a massive increase of data flows. And for this digitization to really be an added-value, it must happen in real time. In the current state of the art, there is only one technical solution allowing real-time data exchange at a world scale: satellites.

Yet satellites are no longer inaccessible targets: USA, Russia and China have already demonstrated their ability to strike as far as in orbit. An entirely digitized army would thus turn out to be a colossus with feet of clay, relying on vulnerable space infrastructures. Of course, countermeasures against anti-satellite weapons are already under examination, even in staffing. But, though they can reduce the threat, they could not erase it completely.

Furthermore, digitization counts among its objectives that of providing the army with quasi-omniscience on its environment, lifting the fog of war and thus facilitating decision-making processes to everyone, from general staff to combat sections. The flipside of the coin is obvious: the risk that an opponent may claim this data and gain a chance to know its enemy as well as – if not better than – how said enemy knows itself. Or even to amend said data directly in order to give a false perception of the enemy. Syria is said to have already had the bitter experience of such a prospect in 2007, when the Israeli Air Force destroyed the nuclear site located in Deir ez-Zor: Israel is suspected of having hacked into the Syrian anti-air defense system to make it blind and deaf to Israeli aircraft[6].

New logistic burdens

One of the fields that should be greatly simplified by these innovations is logistics. Opportunities seem endless, from the exoskeleton – enabling to heft heavy loads with a unique operator based on the model of the very promising Hercule by RB3D – to an improved stock management, enabled by the progresses of robotization or the use of the Internet of objects.

Nevertheless, these new solutions raise their own set of issues. In spite of the feats made possible by his super-human abilities, the augmented soldier is still, and maybe even above all, a “super-dependent” soldier in the sense that these augmentations may cost the soldier his resilience.

In fact, energy self-sufficiency is the main obstacle: be it to power an exoskeleton – or artificial limbs – or even sensors and telecommunication systems, the substantial energy needs incurred would halt any deployment without the adequate logistics chain. The result would be an overburdening of operations, not only for the maneuvers per se, which would be slowed down by these new logistic needs, but also for the logistic flows, which have traditionally been a weakness for any military, and which would need an allocation of surplus funds in order to guarantee its security.

Concurrently, the robotization and digitization of the battlefield and support activities will have a definite impact on operation supervision: these complex systems will have to be supervised and maintained by highly qualified technicians, reinforcing the current model of the soldier-technician and thereby aggravating the previously-mentioned issue of an already very time-consuming military training.

In conclusion, it would seem that technology on its own, conveying progress as much as hindrances, is not enough to envision a model of the army of the future. Yet, currently, technology tends to overstep its role as a tool and to turn into an ideology: “technologism”. However, at a time when we are taking our first steps in a world which pushes back the boundaries of what is possible toward the limits of imagination, it would seem appropriate to be careful to keep – or even replace – operational needs at the center of strategic thinking.

[1]Fiscal Year 2015 DOD Programs : F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, USA, 2015, (online).
[2]Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O’Rourke, Congressional Research Service, USA, 2015.
[3]Norman R. Augustine, Augustine’s Laws (6th edition), USA, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1997.
[4] Audition of the General Arnaud Sainte-Claire Deville, Compte-rendu n°16 de la séance de 17 heures du mardi 17 novembre 2015 (Report №16 of the 5PM session on Tuesday, November 17th, 2015), French National Assembly, Commission for National Defense and Armed Forces, [online].
[5] Jean-Louis Bernard (deputy), Avis n°3809 sur la Préparation et l’Emploi des Forces – Forces terrestres (Recommendation №3809 on Armed Forces’ Preparation and Use – Land Forces), National Assembly, Commission for National Defense and Armed Forces, 2011.
[6] David A. Fulghum, “Why Syria's Air Defenses Failed to Detect Israelis”, Aviation Week, 3 October 2007 (online).


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