The right technology, Max Boot writes, can give armies an edge that makes a country dominant for centuries. But, he warns, any advantage is fragile, and dominant nations sit on a precarious perch. If they stop innovating, they will lose their advantage, and often innovation means discarding the very weapons and tactics that have made them supreme. History is filled with has-been hegemons who were unwilling to make the leap.
In his new book, "War Made New" (Gotham Books, 624 pages, $35), Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, weaves this theme through the past 500 years of politics, society, and technology, asking how do revolutions in military affairs occur? More important, why are some countries able to use such revolution to their advantage, while others fail?
The answer is often the difference between victory and defeat — and whether a nation continues to dominate the world or is conquered. Mr. Boot believes military revolutions depend as much on an adaptive culture as on new technology.
Military organizations are the quintessential bureaucracy. Few are as orthodox. Indeed, Mr. Boot says , the military organizations that have been most successful in the past are the ones that find it hardest to change. When an army has trounced its opponents, it's hard to make the case for discarding the weapons and tactics that made the trouncing possible — and convince legislators and voters to pay the cost.
Mr. Boot's history of military evolution extends through four successive phases for weapons and tactics since 1500. The first was the utilization of gunpowder. The second was the adoption of conscript armies equipped with assembly line-produced weapons and transported by railroads.The third was mass mechanization with trucks, tanks, aircraft, and missiles. And the fourth was the Information Revolution, marked by the introduction of electronic sensors, guidance systems, and communications networks.
Mr. Boot analyzes a dozen battles over five centuries using this framework.He argues that, when an army has adopted a new technology successfully, it was because it had a visionary who promoted it and overcame the natural inertia of the military establishment. Usually, according to Mr. Boot, successful visionaries are military officers who can devote their careers to the cause. They come out of the very culture they are trying to change.Civilians lack credibility, cannot penetrate the culture, and usually lack the longevity to shape budgets extending over years or even decades.
Successful revolutions, Mr. Boot says, require making changes without threatening the military institution itself.This requires a deft touch.Act too aggressively, and the system rejects you like an antigen. Act too timidly, and you get coopted, delayed, or watered down.
So, for example, the flamboyant, insubordinate, uncompromising Brigadier General Billy Mitchell got headlines for promoting aviation, but essentially failed. He had a fraction of the impact of the more deliberate, diplomatic — and less known — Rear Admiral William Moffett.
Moffett understood that one could not simply sell off the battleships and armies and buy airplanes. Rather, one had to integrate aviation into the U.S. military as a whole, and this required selling the idea to the rest of the defense community. This kind of integration is often a harder and more complex a task than evangelism, but that is precisely Mr. Boot's point.
Quoting Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon's guru on military revolutions, Mr. Boot observes military transformation "is not about how to eliminate current weapons."Armies need to keep whatever currently works, fill gaps in capabilities, while also developing new weapons and tactics to keep them a step ahead of the competition. Transformation is not just change, but change that maintains an advantage.
Some will argue with several of the examples Mr. Boot uses to make his argument. For example, he criticizes the military reformers of the 1980s, saying that, if they had had their way, America would have lacked the technological edge that proved decisive in the 1991 Gulf War. He cites the Air Force's F-15 and F-16 fighters as examples. But in reality, these aircraft — the lightweight, agile F-16 in particular — were famously successful cases in which reformers pushed the military establishment out of complacency.
Also, Mr. Boot sometimes underestimates the random luck of the draw in explaining some events. He notes, for example, that Moffett built two large aircraft carriers in the 1920s using converted battle cruisers, in the process overtaking the British in naval aviation technology. He fails to note that these two carriers were available only because the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty prevented America from completing them as originally designed.
Had this not occurred, Moffett would never have had his opportunity. (Britain did not have comparable ships that it could have used for such a conversion.) Often opportunity is the driver of innovation.
But these are minor quibbles. Mr. Boot is ably filling the role occupied for many years by John Keegan, the famed British author of classics like "The Face of War" and "The Mask of Command." Both use a similar approach: Illustrate broad military trends with specific examples, and embed the analysis in an entertaining historical narrative accompanied by commentary.
Fans of Mr. Keegan's will enjoy Mr. Boot. Few writers today equal the sheer volume of commentary he generates on defense affairs. In addition to this book (his second major work in four years), Mr. Boot also writes a weekly column and occasional pieces for the Weekly Standard. Since military revolutions today depend on an informed public, this is a good thing.
Mr. Berkowitz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.