The fine line between military innovation and empty promises

On August 28, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced a bold initiative called “Replicator” that entails using thousands of drones in “multiple domains” to compensate for America’s relative lack of military mass compared with China. The ambitious policy is designed to reduce U.S. casualties in a potential confrontation with the Chinese military by doing what Hicks claims America does best: “master the future character of warfare.” Replicator’s impact on military training, education and doctrine remains to be seen. But, despite its outward novelty, the spirit of this announcement has a history.

In 1955, as the Soviet threat grew more apparent, President Dwight Eisenhower drafted policies assuming future conflicts would involve the use of atomic weapons. The following year, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor declared that his service was “burning its military textbooks to clear away the old and make room for the new.” According to historian Brian McAllister Linn, atomic hysteria ushered in a “siege mentality” to adapt or die, spawning desperate attempts to “embrace change for its own sake.”

Linn observes that the novelty of nuclear arms consumed military thought, and the Army scrambled to “obtain the greatest combat effectiveness using the minimum of men, money, and materiel.” Thus began a vast transformation of America’s ground forces into leaner outfits designed for limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union. This became known as “The Pentomic Army,” based around the idea of “five subordinate battle groups of five companies each.”

Not unlike Replicator, this reformation was propelled by a technological revolution, the fear of “falling behind” in an emerging bipolar security environment, and the studies of numerous prestigious institutions. Yet, within several years, the Pentagon scrapped the program, ramped up its presence in Vietnam and took many of these assumptions into the jungle where they disappeared. Realizing it had overreached, the Army retired the Pentomic design, but the pull toward faster and more dramatic reforms endured.

In 2023, the artificial intelligence revolution has tech enthusiasts pushing an orthodoxy of technological determinism with all the confidence of Maxwell Taylor. The Replicator initiative has much promise, but there are several lessons from the Pentomic era worth considering as America speeds down this innovation highway in its “decisive decade.”

First, the complexity of turning ideas into effects means overly ambitious projects can outpace the nature of war and the military’s ability to absorb change at scale. In the worst cases, this leads to a reliance on unproven capabilities between wars that prove irrelevant or nonexistent during them. Pentomic initiatives, the airborne-capable Sheridan tank, and the Future Combat Systems program are three past examples of faith placed in technology to alter war’s character.

The aspirational nature of innovation can generate promises in peace that are hard to keep at war — a lesson learned and already forgotten this century. Despite entering Iraq and Afghanistan with a coalition touting weapons described by Gen. Tommy Franks as “science fiction,” the Pentagon ended up having to enact multiple troop surges, 24-month-long deployments, mobilization of National Guard and Reserve units, and even the controversial Stop Loss program. 

Military families shouldered the weight of these policies, but they also shocked an American public that had been led to believe that U.S. technological supremacy deemed such conventional demands obsolete. Yet mass proved necessary even in a fight against several thousand poorly equipped extremists, not a two million-strong combined arms force with heavy bombers and a blue-water navy. This confusion could be attributed to America’s swift victory in the Gulf War, which was and in some circles still is misinterpreted as the rule and not an exception. Anticipating a Gulf War redux in the Indo-Pacific is idealistic at best.

One of the Pentomic era’s biggest blunders was its attachment to the fantasy of “limited” or “tactical” atomic war. The concept supposedly restricted the use of nuclear weapons to the battlefield and kept the fight “over there.” Like modern efforts, this pleasant fiction gave future conflicts a scientific veneer enshrouded in commercial progress that isolated society from war’s ugliness.

The myth of cheap spectator wars, however, makes it easier to enter one than it is to exit one on favorable terms. For much of the last century, U.S. officials and defense contractors have toiled to exploit modern science, but in the process made promises they cannot keep related to decisive conflicts in which new weapons reduce the “butcher’s bill” dramatically. 

Since 2022, the Ukrainian Army has indeed benefited from small, expendable unmanned systems in its fight against Russia. But tens of thousands of Ukrainians have lost their lives in less than two years, and Kyiv had to mobilize much of its society to make those gains possible. Innovation is crucial, but it cannot be tied to fashionable theories that transform war into a kabuki of euphemisms. 

British historian Sir Michael Howard believed that the Allies made a critical mistake before World War I by fixating on short conflicts because they “could not afford” to imagine otherwise. The Pentomic illusion followed this trend, depicting nuclear war as a military affair because the alternative was so awful to a world still reeling from 1945.

Today, leaders in Washington can avoid falling into similar traps by ensuring innovation helps the military win ugly wars as much as it aims to avoid them, and by clearly communicating the societal and industrial toll of a large-scale clash in East Asia. Such candor would increase the likelihood that promises made in peace can be kept while at war. 

Capt. Michael P. Ferguson, U.S. Army, is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is coauthor of “The Military Legacy of Alexander the Great: Lessons for the Information Age.” The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense or U.S. government.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Back to top button