Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Disruptive change in military technology?

A few days ago I responded to Max Boot on military supremacy. He arrives at the right result for the wrong reason. Changes in military supremacy are almost without exception the result of economic forces rather than technology alone. If you don't have the economy you can't afford the technology either.

There is perhaps an exclusion to the rule and possibly even a combination of two current technological trends that may combine to create a blind spot for the US military machine. The politics of US military appropriations may be such that these create the equivalent of a 'disruptive change'.

The first trend is the use of unmanned weapons. Remote controlled drones are no longer limited to reconnaisance, armed with missiles they become a potent force.

Although the US is well positioned at the forefront of the development of robotic warriors it is much less well placed to deal with one of the consequences - automation and mass-mass production. The US is very good at producing relatively small numbers of exceptionally high technology military equipment. It is much less well suited to producing vast numbers of servicable arms. If the AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle had pushed the limits of manufacturing in 1949 it would not have been possible to built 100 million.

The politics of US military procurement ensure that when a contract is awarded for a weapon it will be awarded on the most favorable political terms. This generally means securing jobs in the districts of the politicians with the sharpest elbows and the most generous campaign contributors. Procurement rules intended to secure the lowest possible cost frequently end up inflating costs dramatically.

While there is little doubt that the US will be the first country to have a supersonic drone capable of intelligent independent action this may prove to be the wrong approach. It is likely that the more potent force will be to have a hundred thousand or a million slower, less intelligent, less powerful but expendable drones.

China has factories that can stamp out DVD players for $10 a time. When they start stamping out robot warriors by the million instead who will be the superpower then?

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