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Reader's Companion to Military History

Innovation, Military

Over the five millennia of recorded history, warfare has seen the introduction of new and more effective weapons of destruction. But in the centuries before the early modern West began its drive toward world power, innovation was very much a haphazard affair. Developments such as iron weapons and the stirrup occurred by accident rather than design and then spread through the known world. But such innovations were rare. Stability rather than change characterized warfare.

But in the Middle Ages, gunpowder and then metal casting appeared in a Western society dominated by military competition and innovation, setting in motion a series of military revolutions that have inexorably pushed Western civilization to a position of world domination. Although military institutions by their basic nature possess a culture of obedience and a respect for tradition that do not always support innovation, in an environment of intense competition, Western military institutions have needed to innovate; the alternative all too often would have been catastrophic military defeat. Such intense military competition did not mark the other centers of world civilization; as a result, they slowly fell behind until they were hopelessly out of the race. They could imitate, but could not innovate. Only the Japanese proved able to adapt to an environment in which change rather than stasis was the basic principle.

Perhaps the most important military innovations in Western history began with Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus. These two individuals reestablished the Roman system of disciplined obedience to military authority. This allowed their armies to spread out in linear formations without losing their cohesion and thus maximized the potential of handheld gunpowder weapons. This tactical innovation also helped states impose more coherent, effective governance on their populations.

By the early eighteenth century, innovations in sailing technology had given Western navies domination over the oceanic expanses of the entire world. Western ships had the seagoing capacity to survive almost any weather; but equally important, a host of technological aids, from compasses to chronometers and astrolabes, allowed Western sailors to determine where they were at any point in the world. Western navies were thus able to vie for world domination, while their counterparts on land struggled for control of Europe.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, military power remained the preserve of rulers who used it as a simple tool of government. In 1793, however, the entire context of Western war changed when French revolutionaries, about to lose a war of their own making, decreed the levée en masse. Everything in France—all men, women, and children, as well as their goods and wealth—was now at the disposal of the Republic. Inspired by fervid nationalism, the French waged a quarter-century war against the rest of Europe (see French Revolution, Wars of the and Napoleon). Only when the other European states replied in kind was Europe finally able to overcome French tyranny.

For the next century, Europe enjoyed an era of unprecedented peace, broken only by three relatively short major conflicts, the Crimean War (1854-1856), the Seven Weeks' War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). But the shortness of those wars obscured the emergence of an important new development: the impact of technological innovation on the strategic, operational, and tactical framework of conflict. The American Civil War (1861-1865), however, displayed the new trends. The combination of technological change with mass popular support (as in the French Revolution) made the American conflict long and bloody. The Industrial Revolution provided both the economic strength to prolong the conflict and the weapons to increase the lethality of the battlefield. Railroads and steamboats allowed the Union to project its mobilized power over continental distances, while Northern ironclads made the blockade of the Confederate coast increasingly effective. Rifled muskets firing the minié ball allowed troops to kill at ranges of more than three hundred yards—nearly three times the range a Napoleonic infantryman could attain. And by the end of the war, Union cavalrymen were equipped with multishot carbines.

The Most Important Military Innovations

  • Copper-headed mace (about 3500 b.c.). First use of metal for other than ornamental purposes; forced the development of helmets and body armor.
  • War-horse (domesticated in about 2000 b.c.). First source of energy to challenge human muscle as the determinant of success in combat.
  • Wheel (about 2000 b.c.). First applied to the war chariot. Caused a revolution in battlefield mobility and permitted the transport of weapons too heavy for pack animals or human porterage.
  • Composite bow (about 2000 b.c.). The first artificially engineered means of converting muscular energy into lethal projectile velocities and impact energies.
  • Gunpowder (eleventh-century China). The first storable source of chemical energy capable of doing work (by definition, force times distance) directly.
  • Full-rigged ship (about 1375-1475). In combination with nautical charts and celestial navigation, gave Europe mastery of transoceanic navigation.
  • Military maps (about 1550s-1750s). Accurate depiction of land masses, road nets, elevation information, and topographic detail including vegetation and humanmade features made possible realistic long-range tactical planning.
  • Steam power/propulsion (1780s-1840s). Expanded the scale of conflict through mass production and, in the form of steam locomotives and steamships, increased the speed, scale, and reliability of military movement.
  • Rifled musket (about 1850). Increased maximum effective ranges from less than 150 yards to over 300 yards, vastly increasing battlefield lethality.
  • Quick-firing artillery (late 1890s). Light, efficient, hydropneumatic recoil systems enormously multiplied the lethality of artillery.
  • Internal combustion engine (about 1880-1900). Expanded war into a third dimension by making submarines and aircraft practical realities, restored mobility to the battlefield (the tank), and vastly increased the speed and flexibility of overland maneuver (automobiles, trucks).
  • Radio and radar (late nineteenth century, late 1930s). Revolutionized operations by permitting instant communications between headquarters and subordinate units from 1914; revolutionized tactics (1938-1939) by permitting aircraft, ships, and small units to coordinate their actions in combat; revolutionized air and naval warfare from 1940 by permitting the detection of ships and aircraft beyond visual range.
  • Computers and transistors (1940-1945, 1960s). Used in World War II for Allied code breaking and as the guidance mechanism for German V-2 missiles: later applied to a wide range of analytical tasks, including weapons systems.
  • Nuclear weapons and nuclear power (1945, late 1950s). Made possible the instantaneous destruction of entire cities and development of the true submarine, capable of traveling indefinitely beneath the surface of the ocean all but free from detection.

John F. Guilmartin

The Europeans, who generally ignored the American Civil War, had two more chances to observe the significant impact of modern technology on the battlefield: the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese conflict. Although they understood some of the implications, only World War I hammered home the impact of modern technological innovation. On the ground, rapid-fire weapons, massed artillery—the great killer of the war, gas, tanks, flamethrowers, and barbed wire forced new tactical and further technological innovations on the combatants. World War I was the chemists' war, and their lethal innovations, from explosives to poison gas and petroleum, added to the terrible casualties of trench warfare.

Each side had to acclimate to an ever-changing battlefield; what worked in one year might not work in the next. In fall 1916, General Robert-Georges Nivelle launched a major offensive at Verdun to drive the Germans back; using innovative tactics, the French won a major victory. But the following spring, Nivelle, now commander in chief of the French army, attempted a similar but larger offensive against the Germans. This time the attack not only failed with terrible casualties, but almost resulted in the collapse of France. Why? Because in one of the major tactical innovations of the war, the Germans had created a defensive system in depth. Placing the bulk of their infantry out of range of enemy artillery, they developed a sophisticated tactical system that utilized artillery, firepower, and movement to dominate the battlefield. The Germans created an offensive system of infantry tactics that by early 1918 had restored movement to the battlefield (see Ludendorff Offensive). In effect their innovations had created modern warfare.

But innovations occurred not only on land. The navies of the world had gone to war in 1914 with ships possessing capabilities unimagined when their admirals had joined up forty years before. Ship speeds had quadrupled, and their firepower, formerly effective only at point-blank ranges, could reach targets almost on the horizon. These radical changes in technology explain why admirals had so much trouble controlling their fleets. The appearance of the submarine further disturbed navies, as the undersea weapon threatened all the standard precepts of naval power. Finally, to add to the misery of military institutions, aircraft made their appearance in World War I in all the missions that are familiar to us today: close air support, reconnaissance, air superiority, and strategic bombing.

The end of the war brought no respite from rapid technological change. Moreover, war had underlined the fact that science and technology were inextricably linked to the battlefield. Few military organizations missed this essential point. Unfortunately for Europe, only the Germans proved willing to learn the tactical and operational lessons of the war as those lessons pertained to armies. Consequently, German military innovation during the interwar period pursued the course that the battles of 1918 had suggested—with an emphasis on speed and exploitation that positioned the Germans to innovate with armored warfare.

World War II, whatever the impact of armored formations, proved to be a physicists' war, especially the war in the air. Even before the conflict began, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding coupled the development of radar with the monoplane fighter and a modern command and control network to build an effective air defense system that enabled the Royal Air Force to triumph in the Battle of Britain. Innovations came fast and furious in the air war: sophisticated navigational and blind-bombing devices, long-range escort fighters, airborne radar, radio-guided bombs, and eventually jet aircraft all played their part. By 1944 the Germans were firing ballistic (V-2) and cruise (V-1) missiles against their opponents. They flew the first jets in aerial combat. In the end, what won the air war for the Allies was their overwhelming productive superiority—based on the innovations in industrial manufacturing that set the United States apart from the rest of the world.

Innovations in the naval war equaled those in the air. The war against the submarine was won not only by technological innovations, such as sonar, radar, and direction finding, but also by intellectual innovations such as systems analysis. In the Pacific, by 1944 the American fleet was carrying with it a great air force based entirely on aircraft carriers. The conflict finally closed with the most terrifying technological innovation of history: the atomic bomb.

The Cold War ushered in the atomic age, in which the two superpowers deterred each other from another disastrous world war by building ever more frightening weapons of mass destruction. Both the weapons and their delivery vehicles proliferated—bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles with pinpoint accuracy. The contest drew on the scientific knowledge of both societies, but there were spin-offs: ballistic missile development provided the launch vehicles for civilian communications and weather satellites, and the complexities of hitting targets at continental distances pushed the miniaturization of computers. But the Cold War had other spin-offs as well. The extended development of military aircraft resulted in the innovations that allowed civilian jets to shrink the world.

Conventional wars have accelerated the development of "smart" weapons. Laser-guided bombs that so devastated Iraq in the Gulf War are now being replaced with weapons that will use the global-positioning satellites. Despite the increasing lethality of the battlefield, it seems unlikely that wars will stop or that military innovation will cease to contribute to military capabilities.

Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (1996).

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