Impact of Technology on Conduct of Warfare
Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow,IDSA
"Armies that could reach further, hit harder, and get there faster usually won, while the range-restricted, less well-armed, and slower armies lost. For this reason, a vast amount of human creative effort has been poured into extending the range, increasing the fire power, and accelerating the speed of weapons and of armies."1
Technology has always been used to produce improved tools of warfare. In the modern age, which is normally accepted to have begun after the French Revolution, systematic research in sciences has enabled development of new technology and innovations for both military and civilian use. These have had effects both on the society and the nature of warfare. European nations, besides waging wars among themselves, used their superior technology to subjugate and colonise other nations. If we reflect on the history of the Indian subcontinent, we would observe that, since the days of invasion by Babur, foreigners have exploited their superior technology and at times, superior strategy and tactics to subjugate India. The present age which is being referred to as post-modern age or knowledge age, is unfolding an unprecedented revolution in technologies. These technologies have not only touched myriad activities in the civil field but have also initiated a revolution in military affairs. In this article, an attempt will be made to examine the dominant trends in technologies and their impact on the conduct of land warfare. Future technologies which are being envisaged would also be discussed in brief.
Warfare, over the centuries, has progressed from primitive wars between tribal societies to warfare between societies based on agrarian economy and further, to warfare between industrialised societies. Mankind has progressed successively from fighting with bows and arrows to rifles, guns, tanks, aircraft and missiles. Scientific and technological advances though slow and gradual in 18th and 19th centuries, were dramatic in the 20th century.
The development of iron clad ships in the 1860s, the machine gun in the 1890s, the manned aircraft and the tank in the 1920s-1930s, the aircraft carrier and radar in the 1930s-1940s, and nuclear weapons in the 1940s-1950s are some of the important signposts in the evolution of military technologies. Each of these developments had revolutionary effects on the conduct of warfare. Alvin and Heidi Toffler postulated that "the way we make war reflects the way we make wealth."2 Technology has always been exploited to make wealth as well as to make war. The industrial revolution launched the second wave of historical change in the form and nature of warfare. Mass production was accompanied by raising of mass armies loyal to modern nation states and mass production of weapons. Technology was put to use to make new tools of war. Wars in turn accelerated industrialisation. The principle of standardisation was applied to military training, organisation and doctrine as well. Written orders replaced oral orders giving rise to the development of General Staffs. Mechanisation in warfare with new kinds of fire power vastly enlarged the scale of military operations. The aim of war was destruction of the enemy's main forces on the battlefield. The concepts of total war and mass destruction were seen in World Wars I and II and they carried on to the Cold War.
The advent of nuclear weapons in the 1940s-1950s added the ultimate in destructive power. War scenarios between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and Warsaw Pact forces envisaged the ultimate war of attrition. Thus, mass destruction came to play the same central role in doctrine as mass production did in economies. The evolution of all these concepts was a direct outcome of the impact of technology on the conduct of land warfare.
Transition to New Kind of War
The Gulf War is widely accepted as a transitional point which contained elements of the past i.e. industrial age warfare or Second Wave form of warfare which stressed on mass destruction (e.g. fleets of US aircraft carpet-bombed Iraqis in their bunkers, in villages, and everything was destroyed) and elements of a new kind of war. This new war was fought with precision weapons with minimal collateral damage and with vastly improved means of real-time information, surveillance and target acquisition. It was realised that destruction of the enemy's means of command and control should be the prime canon of military doctrine. Thus, this kind of warfare, when fully developed, would be knowledge based information age warfare characterised by manoeuvre rather than attrition. Toffler described this as the Third Wave form of warfare. Others have described this as warfare of the post-industrial age or post-modern age.
The Gulf War demonstrated a number of high-tech weapon systems, surveillance and target acquisition and command and control systems. Historically, man has always attempted to extend the range and lethality of his weapons. In the post-modern age, technology breakthroughs are being achieved with increasing frequency and rapidity. The impact of advances in technology on the conduct of warfare can be characterised into a number of dominant trends, namely, quest for extension of range of weapons, volume and accuracy of fire, system integration, concentration of maximum fire power in smaller units and increasing transparency in the battlefield.
Extension of Range
As the range of weapons extended and their lethality improved, individuals and units became more dispersed. The introduction of rifling in the 19th century extended the range and accuracy of individual weapons and artillery guns. This development forced individuals to go to the ground and disperse. Increased lethality and dispersion had direct effects on organisation, tactics, doctrine, equipment, force mix and methods of command and control. These changes, in turn, had effects on training, soldiers and leaders. There has been trend of an ever expanding battlefield; the battlefield has been emptying. In 1815, a division occupied about 5 km; today it may take up the space of 40 by 40 km or even more. By 2015, it may require an area of over 150 by 150 km.
The Gulf War saw a quantum increase in dispersion and improvements in the ability to deliver long-range lethal fires. In August 1998, precision strikes by Tomahawk cruise missiles against terrorist camps in Sudan and Afghanistan were a true demonstration of this trend. These were either launched from submarines or ships cruising in the Arabian Sea. The ultimate in range are the inter-continental ballistic missiles which can target almost any place on the globe. In our context of the battlefield milieu 2015, we would be having Multiple Rocket Launcher Systems like Smerch and Pinaca, Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DIPCM), and Agni and Prithvi missile systems all of which confirm the trend towards increased lethality and dispersion. Increased ranges and enlarged dispersion create the requirement to communicate over greater distances, to manoeuvre more quickly and to use fire power from various type of platforms. This trend will place a greater premium on the commander's ability to make decisions quickly, the staff's requirement to synchronise movements of greatly dispersed units, the junior commanders responsibility to make on-the-post decisions and emphasis on cohesion of the force and quality of the individual soldier.
Volume of Fire
The first automatic gun with heavy volume of fire was invented by an American, Hiram Maxim in 1884. Using a mechanism powered by energy released by the previous detonation, the rate of fire was 600 bullets per minute.3 Richard Gatling, inventor of the Gatling machine gun averred that two Gatlings were presumably enough to replace an entire infantry regiment, thus, reducing overall costs.4 The machine gun with its heavy volume of fire reaped havoc in World War I. World War II saw massed artillery fires being brought down on the enemy to pulverise the enemy's defences and to cause maximum destruction to the enemy's assets. The Battle of El Alamein in North Africa witnessed moving barrages of artillery fire behind which Allied troops advanced and which caused devastating effects on German forces in defence. The trend of bringing down a very high volume of fire with improved effectiveness continued after World War II. Heavier calibres of guns, increased rates of fire and improved effectiveness of munitions changed the nature of the battlefield. The development of technology to locate the enemy's guns and mortars was aimed to counter the effects of the adversary's heavy volume of artillery fire.
These trends gave rise to the use of entrenchments, and field fortifications in the battlefield. A deadly zone of fire was created between two opposing forces which converted the nature of warfare into a long drawn out slogging match or almost static warfare which was also termed as trench warfare. Development of tanks and infantry combat vehicles provided mobility, protection, survivability and added fire power. They could move through a battlefield dominated by fire and turn the defences. The Germans exploited the characteristics of tanks fully in the initial stages of World War II when they carried out their Blitzkrieg campaigns.
The increasingly heavy volumes of fire produced their own dynamics in the realm of logistics. By 1918, during the great German and Allied offensives on the Western Front, there were batteries which fired as many as 450 rounds per day. In the same period, consumption of infantry ammunition by the German Army had risen to three million rounds a month.5 Transportation of such vast quantities of ammunition was a formidable task. In the present context, the problems of logistics get highlighted when we consider the operations of our own Strike Corps. The reach and operations capability of any force gets directly affected by its logistic wherewithal.
Earlier, the lack of accuracy of various weapon systems was sought to be compensated by heavy volume of fire but the development of guided weapons added a new dimension to the battlefield. The purpose of guided weapons was to economise on the size of forces by substituting accuracy for saturation, and also to provide a method for combatting targets (such as supersonic aircraft) that were too fast and manoeuvrable. Induction of various kinds of missiles, laser-aimed weapons, laser target designators that guide artillery rounds and development of smart and "brilliant" munitions confirms the trend towards precision fire. Whereas 300 conventional artillery rounds were required to achieve the desired effect at the target end, the same effect could be achieved by 30 rounds of improved conventional munitions and two to three rounds of precision guided munitions (PGMs). Thus, an increased inventory of the PGMs would reduce tremendously the logistics infrastructure required for offensive operations. The technological developments in the field of volume and precision of fire would have a direct bearing on organisation, tactics, equipment, planning factors and balance between combat elements and support services.
Advances in communications technology, computers, information systems, surveillance and target acquisition systems have given rise to improved means of command and control to a commander. Systems integration engenders force multiplication and gives a high level of precision to the overall force, not just to individual or massed fires. Modern integrative technology, however, started with the telegraph and railroad, two systems that, when joined, revolutionised the warfare. The British introduced railways and telegraph in India, not entirely with altruistic motives. They could move troops quickly from one trouble spot to the other to maintain their empire. The railway revolutionised the mobilisation and transportation of armies, but without the telegraph, a command system which could use these forces intelligently would not have been forthcoming.6 Thus, it became possible to coordinate mass military action. By the end of the 19th century, the Schlieffen Plan of Germany to catch France off-guard and win a dramatic victory pre-supported the most detailed and precise use of rail and telegraph. Introduction of radio and aviation expanded the scope of integrative technology. Efforts have always been directed towards obtaining a perfect real-time information system on which to base decisions and give directions. However, a perfect command, control and information system is the fog of war and uncertainties will continue. Developing subordinate commanders who are able to take on-the-spot decisions within the intent of the higher commander--that is, decentralisation not centralisation--will remain vital in the future battlefield milieu.
During the Gulf War, the use of links between scout and attack helicopters, between Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar Systems (JSTARS) and weapons delivery platforms, between forward observers and indirect fire systems produced a quantum leap in systems integration. The future battlefield will depend largely on digital data and voice and video communication. Communication has always played a very dominant role. Table 1 gives the rate of data transfer during various wars.7
Period Data Transfer Rate
Words Per Minute
US Civil War 30
World War I 30
World War II 56
Gulf War 1,92,000
Future War 1.5 trillion
The effect of the first three trends--lethality and dispersion, volume of fire and accuracy, and systems integration are increasingly being clubbed together in reinforcing a fourth: the trend towards the ability of smaller units to create decisive effects.
Force Multipliers and Concentration of Effects
It is evident that services in both defensive and offensive operations depend upon the ability to field a favourable combat superiority at the place of one's own choosing. This in turn requires physical mobility and ability to overcome battlefield friction. This ability is conceptually achieved by shaping the battlefield in one's favour with help of force multipliers. Therefore, weapons and high-tech systems of modern technology which attempt to substitute "mass" and provide greater "effect" are generally termed as "force multipliers." Richard E. Simpkin in his book Race To Swift has classified force multipliers into various types which include fighting multipliers, manoeuvre, logistics, doctrinal, human, intrinsic and extrinsic multipliers. Force multipliers improve the combat effectiveness of the force across the full range of military activity. Information warfare technologies help us to focus on the key battle winning aspects of manoeuvre (mobility), concentrated fire power (precision strikes), focussed logistics and situational awareness made possible by the digitised battlefield.
With the trends in compressing greater fire power, a well integrated smaller size force/unit could achieve greater and decisive effects. Increased lethality and accuracy, mobility and extended ranges of weapon systems give small forces a lethal and forceful punch. The second way that smaller units can create decisive effects is in organisational mixing of arms within a formation. Some historical trends are given below:
(a) In the 19th century, separate infantry, artillery and cavalry divisions were combined under a single corps HQ.
(b) In World War II, this concept descended from corps level to mixing arms within divisions and regiments to combat teams.
(c) In our context, combined arms concept in terms of combat commands, groups and teams came to be practised in the late Sixties. Acquisition of attack helicopters added another powerful element to the combined arms concept.
Manoeuvre is the third way that smaller units can create decisive effects due to increased mobility e.g. with tanks, ICV's and aerial platforms and self-propelled artillery. At each step, improved manoeuvre capability contributed to the commander's capability to move over increasingly dispersed areas and converge quickly at the decisive point, thus concentrating the effects of both fire and manoeuvre. The next logical step of integration would be when land combat is waged by formations consisting of combined arms, air and ground based units. This will be reinforced by the use of integrative technology. Further evolution of combined arms will be the joint arms concept with a smaller unit, or, in other words, a composite unit.
The United States of America is developing a tank system titled Future Combat System (FCS).8 This would be equipped with laser cannon, multi-purpose missiles, variety of smart munitions, extended surveillance means, fully digitised, with revolutionary means of propulsion and independent from the logistical resupply chain. FCS will thus be able to perform roles of all arms rolled into one i.e. armour, artillery, air defence, engineers and mechanical infantry. Therefore, the above trends/changes would require adjustments in doctrines, leadership, command and control and inter-service relationship.
For a long time, detectability in the battlefield was limited to line of sight, scouts, spies and cavalry. It progressed, thereafter, to field glasses and balloons. In the beginning of the 19th century, battlefield information was passed on telephones and with the invention of radio it could be transmitted almost instantaneously. With the introduction of radars and various kind of electronic devices, electronic means of intelligence and deception were developed and they continued to be evolved after World War II. In the 1950s, transistor based machines began replacing their vacuum-tube predecessors. During the Seventies, these were in turn replaced by models based on integrated circuits, which kept getting miniaturised in successive evolutionary stages. In the late Sixties, computers, based on electronic chips, were provided with direct links, either through line or radio, to a variety of electronic, optical and acoustic sensors such as cameras, television, radar, infra-red and in the case of the Navy, linkage to sonar. The purpose of these sensors was to provide up-to-date intelligence by picking up the "signature" left by the adversary's operations. Computers could not only store vast amount of data, they could also be utilised to process the data based on pre-determined criteria.
The purpose of all these endeavours was to improve the ability to obtain a real-time picture of the battlefield. The Gulf War demonstrated many new technologies in this field. The ongoing revolution in military affairs has three fundamental characteristics. The first one is advances in surveillance and target acquisition technologies, satellites, unarmed air vehicles and various kinds of radars and sensors that have made the battlefield transparent. The second characteristic is advances in the processing of intelligence using advance communication and computing systems. The third is acting on intelligence, for instance, by using long range precision strikes (as dominated by US cruise missile strikes against pin-point targets in Afghanistan).
Advanced technological and human intelligence systems will continue to expand the commander's detection range, improve the quality of information and disseminate the data to required levels via near real-time digital transfer. The battlefield, therefore, is becoming more transparent while attempting to make it more opaque for the adversary.
Information Technologies and Information Warfare
In the earlier paras, mention has been made of how information technology (IT) and Information Warfare (IW) technologies help us to focus on key battle winning aspects. However, it would be pertinent to dwell upon how these technologies are impacting the conduct of warfare. Just as the Industrial Age led to concepts of mechanised warfare and mass destruction of the enemy's war-making resources, the information era is leading us to concepts of domination of "information systems" to ensure attainment of military objectives. As Alvin Toffler says, "It is the great equaliser, you don't have to be big and rich to apply the kind of judo you need in information warfare. That's why poor countries are going to go for this faster than technologically advanced countries." The population of electronic devices on the battlefield is increasing at an exponential rate, signalling the growing primacy of the electro-magnetic spectrum. A number of technologies are being fused together to bring the cutting tools of IW. IW relies increasingly on artificial intelligence, knowledge embedded in weapons and surveillance technologies, to enhance combat effectiveness. From satellites to submarines, modern weapons are studded with information--rich electronic components. Countries are more likely to spend their defence budgets on information dominance platforms like Airborne Warning and Control Systems, JSTARS and satellites. It is believed that weapons in the information warrior's repertoire can have very significant consequences, without the attendant physical destruction. In addition, tools of IW can inflict unacceptable harm to civil and military information systems of the adversary. The entire concept of IW is based on the lethality of the digitised battlefield. The most likely victor of IW would be the side which can go through the cycle of "observation, orientation, decision and action" faster.
The prime cannon of military doctrine in knowledge based-IW would be the gaining of electro-magnetic superiority with a view to neutralise the adversary's command, control, communication, computer, surveillance, intelligence and information acquisition systems. In other words, in IW, a deliberate attempt is made to gain access to, tamper with, and exploit, information and information systems of the adversary to own advantage; at the same time preventing him from doing the same to own side. The electro-magnetic spectrum would become the new "high ground" to be captured for success of operations, and battlefield interdiction would also include electronic isolation of a force. The aim of future wars will gravitate more towards psychological paralysis and not destruction of forces or capture of territory. Apart from seeking nuclear and conventional deterrence, the armed forces would strive to achieve "information deterrence" against likely or visualised adversaries.
IW, as a constituent of combat power can also be exploited during peace-time, along the entire spectrum of conflict. It exploits the vast potential of technology, to derive benefits in excess of the sum total of individual components. The IT and IW environment signifies a synthesis of technology and human intelligence with force capability. IW contributes significantly in the areas of intelligence, surprise and deception, decision making and adversary's psychological degradation. This gives a tremendous force multiplication effect, though, it may not be possible to quantify this effect in absolute terms. It would have an impact on force structures, force mixes, doctrines, changes in style of command, staffing patterns, quality of human resource and various other planning factors.
Bio-Technologies and Nano-Technology
Advances in the field of bio-technology have already impacted human health and nutrition. Yields of plants have been increased using genetic engineering. Micro-organisms have been developed and used to clean up various kinds of wastes including cleaning up of highly radioactive waste. Gene-tailored plants may produce cheap, readily available ethanol, methanol, and methane as supplements to, and replacement for, coal and oil as energy resources. Genetic studies are being done to learn the information-storing secrets of DNA which can compress enormous amounts of data into microscopic spaces. Techniques from DNA studies are already being applied to computer micro-chips to create information systems much smaller, faster, and more capable than existing ones.
In 1992, a Rand Corporation study identified four areas which were to be part of the research agenda for Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the USA. These promising areas were development of very small systems, biomolecular electronics, new technologies for military logistics and cyber space security and safety. The micro-and nano-technologies are being used to develop miniature flying and/or crawling systems capable of performing a wide variety of battlefield sensor missions. Molecular biology and bio-technology is being used to develop new molecular electronic materials, components, and computational architecture, bio-molecular computers, neuro-computers and bio-sensors.9 A fusion of modern micro-electronic and information technologies has helped to evolve a new advanced military logistics system that would be responsive to forward troops needs, reduce requirements of inventories, and eliminate redundant processors. Smart chips, bar codes, smart labelling of packages and monitoring and control would radically change the way logistics functions on the battlefield.
Technology And Vulnerabilities
Past trends indicate that technological breakthroughs will continue to be achieved with increasing regularity and they would continue to bestow military advantage on the first nation to develop and use them. History is also dotted with examples which indicate that initial revolutionary advantages achieved on the battlefield turned out to be ephemeral once ways and means were found and developed to counter the effect of new technologies or weapon systems. The increasing weight and volume of firepower had brought tactical mobility to a halt during World War I. The Allied Powers found a technological solution in the form of a tank to defeat the classic form of trench warfare. Tanks also gave rise to the development of anti-tank artillery guns and later to anti-tank missiles. Increasing mechanisation and development of tanks while solving tactical problems, gave rise to complex logistical problems. The radio, while solving the problems of communication, could be intercepted by the adversaries and used for identification and location of headquarters and various elements of a field force.
Guilo Douhet saw the potential of aviation as a revolutionary technology in war. He visualised that massive aerial bombing would devastate the adversary's cities, industrial and war-making potential of the enemy. This would cause the demoralised national governments to capitulate. He was certain that the role and importance of armies and navies, being surface-bound, would rapidly decrease in importance.10 He could not have visualised the development of anti-aircraft radars, surface-to-air missiles and integrated air defence systems, and the will and resistance of the people to such massive bombing. Strategic bombing failed to force either Germany in World War II or Vietnam later on, to capitulate. The new technology of steam gunships convinced Alfred Thayer Mahan of the absolute primacy of sea power in ensuring the commercial and military success of nations. That the vulnerabilities of iron-clad steam gunships had increased with the development of submarines and torpedoes, was not paid adequate attention to by the naval strategist.11 Submarines, in turn, were threatened by sonar technology, depth charges and long-range maritime patrol aircraft.
As we enter the information age, there is no doubt that information warfare technologies, precision fire technologies and fusion of a host of other technologies are going to transform the way we conduct warfare. Yet our intellectual thought processes need to be tempered by the limitations and possible vulnerabilities of these technologies.
During a training exercise of the American "Army After Next" project in 1997, in which the United States faced a peer competitor, the results of the war games were surprising. A laser attack on the US space-based satellite reconnaissance, Global Positioning System, and communication capabilities was followed closely by a nuclear electro-magnetic pulse burst in space. The combined effects of these two actions of the exercise adversary, reduced by 50 per cent the military information structure on which most of the new American weapon systems are dependent.12
Though the conduct of warfare is changing, it still has some constant determinants. The root cause of war are people, whether political leaders, nation states or non-state actors; they will continue to be involved in wars or conflict for fear, revenge, hatred, greed or other human emotions. It will still be a contest of wills accompanied by death and destruction. Ambiguity and uncertainty, the fog of war, would continue to be its features. The artistic side of war will remain: creativity, intuition, leadership, motivation and decision making under conditions of limited information.
Technology has changed the traditional thought processes on military effectiveness. Increasingly, modern armed forces are endeavouring to obtain superiority over the enemy by qualitative means by deploying advanced technologies. The shift from "mass" and mobility to non-traditional methods of enhancing relative combat effectiveness is being achieved by integrating a number of evolving technologies. Developments in imaging, remote sensing, night vision, sensors, precision guided munitions, stealth technology and above all digital communications and computer networks are compelling us to adopt new warfighting techniques. The current "silent" revolution in military affairs, however, has not been accompanied by an examination of its impact on our force structures, organisational aspects, doctrines, quality of leadership, human resource development and logistics. This is especially so in the Indian context. The 20th century saw the face of warfare being changed by mechanisation, aviation and communication; the 21st century would see, with the help of evolving technologies, armed forces conducting knowledge-based warfare. In the Indian subcontinent, future war will be a hybrid of the industrial age and knowledge based warfare.
As Van Creveld says in his book Technology and War, "The greatest victories that have been won in war do not depend upon a simple superiority of technology, but rather on a meshing of one side's advantages with the other's weakness so as to produce the greatest possible gap between the two." The Vietnam War was one such example. We, therefore, need to understand the technology driven changes and evolve doctrinal precepts to meet the challenges of warfare in the next century. Although technology is making great advances, human beings remain the most effective systems for determining relevance and fusing information. Technology will aid us in many ways, especially in helping offset reductions in size, but technology will not solve all the problems associated with war. Conduct of war requires both science and art. Good leadership, quality soldiers, cohesive units and streamlined organisation, are absolutely necessary.
1. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of 21st Century (New York: Warner Books, 1995), p. 30.
2. Ibid., pp. 57-59. This is a general theme recurring in the book many times.
3. Philip K. Lawrence, Modernity and War: The Creed of Absolute Violence, (New York: St. Martin's Press Inc., 1997), p. 32.
4. Antalio J. Ectierarria II, "Tomorrow's Army: The Challenge of Non-Linear Change" Parameters, vol. XXVIII, no. 3, Autumn 1998, p. 92.
5. Martin van Creveld, Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present, (New York, the Free Press, 1991) p. 175.
6. Lawrence, n. 3, p. 28.
7. P.U. Deshpande, "Armaments For Future Battlefield," paper presented during a National Workshop on Battlefield Scene in 2020 at the Defence Institute of Psychological Research, Delhi on February 19 and 20, 1998. Also see Ryan Henry and C. Edward Peartree, "Military Theory and Information Warfare," Parameters, Autumn 1998, p. 127. Here the authors discuss the system used by Gulf War commanders to transmit messages that could move 2,400 bits of information per second. The current commercially developed and operated Global Broadcast System transmits 23 million bits per second into Bosnia. A message that took more than an hour to send in 1991 can now be sent in less than a second.
8. Asher H. Sharoni and Lawrenica D. Bacon, "The Future Combat System (FCS): A Satellite-fueled, Solar-Powered Tank?" Armor, January-February 1998, pp. 37-42.
9. Richard O. Hundley and Eugene C. Gritton, "Future Technology--Driven Revolutions in Military Operations: Results of a Workshop," Rand documented briefing of 1994.
10. This has been argued by Giulio Douhet in his book Command of Air. Also see Henry et. al., n. 7, pp. 121-126.
11. Henry et al., n. 7, p. 125.
12. Ibid., p. 134.