Do Better Weapons Win Wars? The Role of Technology in Warfare

Sixty-five years ago a comparably under-trained and poorly supplied army of peasant Russians defeated the Nazi war machine, the most formidable and professional army in history. Using improvised munitions and rifles designed in the previous century these inexperienced conscripts repelled elite Panzer tank corps across hundreds of miles, how?  Until the 18th century, the Feudal Tsarism of Russia had little to no interaction with the Western World. For two and a half centuries this isolated, agrarian state continually lagged one step behind the West in terms of technological capability. However, despite an egregious lack of comparable armaments, the Russian army surprised the world and prevailed in several conflicts against modernized Western states. Serious questions arose concerning contemporary military thought and doctrine. Repeatedly, Russia had somehow found itself winning engagements against superior firepower, often without the advantages of modern weaponry. Yet flash forward to today and the United States, the most technologically advanced military in the world today, is still struggling with irregular, fragmented insurgents in Iraq after seven years. What is going on?

How significant of a role does technological superiority assume in the determination of victory? Though the study of Russia provides an interesting case in military history, it is no anomaly. War is a chaotic system, infinitely complex in its variables and conditions, but analysis of recent and historical conflicts suggest that some factors play larger roles than others in the decisiveness of war.  The advancement of weapons changes how wars are fought, but leadership, training, moral, and most importantly, political strategy dictate how wars are won.

First, a empirical perspective of wars must be considered. Before the 1700’s, wars were fought in the classical sense: seemingly infinite battalions marched in parallel columns in the fog of cannon shots, musket balls, and gunpowder smoke. In this sense, battles were truly fought as chess games, such that commanders would spend hours mobilizing, organizing, and detaching men, cavalry, and artillery into massive segments to be slowly but surely dealt out on the battlefield. By a consequence of this nature of warfare, strong leadership was absolutely critical. As described by Robert K. Massie, the popular American historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, in his book on Tzar Peter of Russia, hundreds of thousands of men needed to be coordinated and precisely timed with the rest of the army to deliver a decisive attack [1]. Organization became the crux of combat, the current mode of warfare required extensive management and logistics[1]. However, what happens if the invention of a weapon with a higher rate of fire, such as a machine gun, comes about? Suddenly this idea of concentrating men in a slow moving column is rendered utterly useless.

The early 1700’s rested on the bridge between two technologically different stages of war. The first and arguably most important weaponry advancement resulted from the introduction of flintlock rifles. This invention made the rifle more reliable and quicker to reload. Therefore, a typical rifleman could nearly double his rate of fire: “As a smaller number of men could now deliver the same volume of fire, the sizes of battalions were reduced to make them easier to handle. Command became quicker, easier, and more responsive”[1]. In a matter of years the mode of warfare changed completely, generals had to rethink doctrine and soldiers had to rework tactics. Nonetheless, it is evident that this advancement did not help predict the outcome of any battle; it only revised how the battle would be fought. As George Raudzens, a professor of history at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, states in his paper,

“[advances in weapons] brought huge changes in the nature and methods of war, but little advantage to innovators since their competitors quickly imitated each new weapon…. The point remains, however, that the new gunpowder arms did little to change battle outcomes. Even at the point of introduction, where the innovative side had a monopoly, the decisiveness of impact was at best modest.”[2]

Better weapons give no one any specific advantage past an acute period of transition. So then what happens during this stage of imbalance? Feudal Russia again provides an excellent example of the competitor in technological lag. Despite such critical advancements in the early 1700s, “only the Russians and Turks continued to issue old, heavy matchlock muskets, to the detriment of their infantry firepower”[1].

In the Great Northern War, a Russian army, one again severely under-armed with pikes and matchlock muskets, faced off against a superior Swedish force. King Charles XII of Sweden had the most modern and well equipped army in all of Europe. These glaring discrepancies help illustrate the factors to which Robert K. Massie attributes Russian victory in the face of technological inferiority: leadership and training [1]. Tzar Peter’s risky decision to lure the enemy into the cold winter of Russia and sever their supply lines reflects dominance in strategy over strength, brains over brawn. In one fell swoop, just one mistake by the Swedish command, Charles’ great army was defeated. This is only one of many instances in history where the underdog bested his opponent so quickly through means other than attrition. Napoleon was famous for winning battles against opponents four times in size through sheer manipulation of geography and maneuver. In World War II (WWII) General Zhukov of the Soviet Union accomplished a similar feat by surrounding and starving the mechanized German 6th Army in the Russian winter.

From the onset of war there is never any ability to predict a victor, mathematics cannot measure the abstract qualities of courage, wit, and luck. George Raudzens notes that “scholarly writers more often emphasize the context in which such technology must fit and recognize weapons as parts of a system of armaments and institutions rather than isolated devices” [2]. The fact is that throughout the history of warfare “there is indeed insufficient evidence to demonstrate that improved military technology has increased casualties or won battles” because solely analyzing the weapon does little to bring light to the bigger picture [2].

Understandably, wars cannot be boiled down to simple factors that determine a single outcome like flipping a coin. Alastair Smith, from the political science department at Washington University, defines war as “a dynamically evolving process” where the conditions are examined in “the decision to fight, effort levels, choice of military strategy, negotiation position, and domestic support” as a whole [3]. Both Raudzen and Smith agree that a large field of variables influence the tide of battle and no single item can determinately decide the outcome. This idea is never more critical than now when the United States is engaged in a new type of warfare where the opponent is always under-armed, outnumbered, and unorganized. Assuming technological superiority as a means for victory is dangerous.

One school of thought divides warfare in four “generations”: linear (Napoleonic columns), attrition (WWII mass sieges), maneuver (Blitzkrieg), and insurgency (War in Iraq) [4]. Whether or not the idea of concise and clear generations exists, the current conflict America faces is one of asymmetrical battles with insurgents. The War in Iraq is therefore reliant on the social and political realm, i.e. “winning the hearts and minds of the people”, because insurgents are not a state to be negotiated with but more of an ideology to influence. Focus should be directed to manipulation of political will rather than pure attrition, a “generation” of warfare the US military has been stuck in since WWII [4]. Insurgency is only another mode of warfare that America has only recently dealt with, and radical changes in doctrine are necessary for our military to respond to the evolving nature of war around the world.

In the early hours of March 20, 2003, the First Marine Division raced across the southern border of Iraq in armor-plated vehicles, determined to capture the southern oil fields in less than 48 hours. Moving at a speed that outpaced both the enemy and the remainder of the invasion force, General Mattis and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld embraced the doctrine of maneuver warfare, an American blitzkrieg that would conquer the country in a matter of days rather than months [5]. A country-wide siege supported by rapid mechanized units, computer guided cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) completely destroyed the Baath Party and Saddam’s regime. However, even though victory had been proclaimed for the Allied forces, sporadic fighting continues to this day. The invasion was successful, but occupation and restoring order remains a headache for the American and Iraqi governments. Why can the military not quickly and effectively respond to decentralized guerilla attacks?

Sean Gourley, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University with a Ph.D. specializing in networks and complexity, has analyzed large volumes of statistical data from attacks in Iraq and has discovered a mathematical relationship between frequency of attacks and fatality rate. Supposedly the structure of an insurgency can be defined by a ratio, which determines coalescence or fragmentation of a given political group. This number can decrease, indicating a more cohesive force with more organized attacks and political influence, or increase, suggesting higher fragmentation but weaker attacks [6]. Moreover, these fluctuations in violence and insurgency strength are affected by changes in political climate, not the result of battles. Gourley’s evidence implies events such as Iraqi elections and the US decision to implement a surge acted as turning points in the war [6]. Neither the million-dollar missiles nor the cutting technology America built can help win a psychosocial and political war.

There is, however, still one mode of warfare that seems to elude conforming to the thesis. Nuclear warfare, and indeed any weapon of mass destruction, has the unique property of assured annihilation. Regardless of leadership, training, or skill, a thermonuclear device will render any opponent incapacitated; the factors of time and effort disappear altogether. Instead, this topic broaches the more abstract ideas of game theory and psychology. What political stakes and ethical consequences will one gamble with when deciding to push the button? If anything nuclear warfare represents the most pure form of strategy, a game where battles have been simplified into single, definitive moves and generals and politicians evaluate the cost of victory.

In all of human history nations have strived to be the best armed and have superior technology. The Shang Dynasty had crossbows, the Assyrians had iron, and the Germans had Panzer tanks. Famous wars are identified with the emergence of a new weapon or technology, yet we often ignore the larger factors that military historians attribute to the cause of success. The Shang Dynasty was a military bureaucracy that armed even slaves for battle, the Assyrians utilized the Tigris River next to their cities to acquire expedience in the invasion of opposing regions, and Germany was the first to develop and implement maneuver warfare. The US has focused too strongly on one form of warfare that favors the cult of technology and thus has a hard time seeing how the opponent’s battle is changing.

The advantage of better technology is of no more value than training, cohesion, strategy, or geography. The time before the enemy adopts the newer weapon is almost negligible. Even in the case where technological imbalance is permanent, such as the conflict in Middle East, the will of the combatant can overcome the gap. The most important example comes from the Vietnam Era, where in 1968 the Viet Cong attacked US forces on multiple fronts and overran the embassy in Saigon. The offensive was considered a complete tactical failure, the Viet Cong were repelled swiftly and order was restored, yet American media televised the pandemonium to the world. Soon the war lost popular support in America and the withdrawal of US troops was inevitable: a political victory for the Viet Cong. Politics, not weapons, shifted the tide of war. After all, as explained in On War, written by General Carl von Clausewitz, the most widely influential military theorist, war is a function of the political realm: it remains independent of technology and science, and every conflict is an extension of politics [7].

Better weapons do change warfare, drastically. From the Great Northern War to the War on Terrorism, the modus operandi of armies evolved into an entirely new beast with different strategy and tactics. With every new technological advancement there is a corresponding change in training, cohesion, strategy, geography, etc. But although one tends to approach war in the most logical fashion possible, it must be accepted that there are an overwhelming number of factors and probabilities of which we cannot possible aggregate. Scholars from political science departments to the Society for Military History agree that wars are multifaceted organisms that grow and are inherently as complex as the humans that fight them.

1.  Massie RK. Peter The Great: His Life and World. New York: Ballantine Books; 1980.
2.  Raudzens G. War-Winning Weapons: The Measurement of Technological Determinism in Military History. Journal of Military History. 1990; 54 (4): 403-34.
3.  Smith A. Fighting Battles, Winning Wars. Journal of Conflict Resolution. 1998; 42 (3): 301-20.
4.  Dr. Bunker RJ. Generations, Waves, and Epochs: Modes of Warfare and the RPMA. Airpower Journal. Spring 1996; 10 (1): 1-9.
5.  Wright E. Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War. New York City, New York: Berkley Publishing Group; 2004.
6.  Dr. Gourley S. “The Mathematics of War.” TED2009 Conference. Long Beach, CA: TED; Feb 2009.
7.  General Clausewitz CV. On War. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications; 2008.

Alex Kessler is a student at Georgia Tech.