In April 2018, Richard Bitzinger, a visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies wrote a piece for the Asia Times criticizing the notion of game-changing military technology, arguing that other factors tend to impact military conflicts more than chasing after the wonder weapon du jour. He cites as an example of tech-obsessed fixation a piece of mine originally published in November 2017 describing the J-16D , a Chinese jet fighter apparently designed to jam enemy radars and suppress air defense systems. (Since its publication, photos of a carrier-based version have also surfaced.)
Bitzinger makes excellent points with which I largely agree—throughout military history, experience, material factors and organizational capacity often matter more than fleeting technological advantages.
However, while Bitzinger takes cares not to caricature my argument, I should clarify that the J-16D is not what I would consider a ‘game changer’—that is a new capability or efficiency, or a non-incremental improvement to an existing one, which significantly ‘disrupts’ the relationship between established combat arms.
Rather, I see the J-16D as an example of China assembling a toolkit of relatively specialized capabilities imitating relatively unique elements of the U.S. military machine such as the EA-18G Growler . Unlike the Chinese commentators I cite, I am not convinced the electronic warfare jets by themselves pose a ‘nightmare’ for Aegis destroyer (bear in mind Russian media fabricated similar claims concerning an Su-24 fly-by of the USS Donald Cook in 2014). However, I think it’s interesting that China is working on technology it hopes could work toward that end.
My primary disagreement with Bitzinger concerns the matter of ‘game changers,’ of which he is prudently skeptical, pointing out that technology rarely by itself changes military conflicts without supporting tactical, doctrinal and material factors.
This is true! An F-35 stealth fighter, a V-2 ballistic missile, or an insurgent’s Improvised Explosive Device by themselves are just hunks of metal. A game changer is not the technology itself, but its refinement into a logistically practical system, its deployment to a context in which its capabilities are particularly relevant (i.e., the IED may be a game changer in a counter-insurgency war, the F-35 is not), and above all the concept of how to use it effectively.
These factors can take years or decades to align fully. But once they do, they can indeed ‘change the game' with terrifying speed.
The battleship and the carrier are a quintessential example. Early in the twentieth century, heavily armored battleships with huge guns were considered the ultimate metric of naval power. The first aircraft carriers in the 1910s were improvised affairs carrying ramshackle canvas-covered biplanes. For the first carrier air strike in 1918, only one aircraft of seven dispatched was recovered. It must have seemed laughable to argue that a floating airfield full of fragile airplanes with small bombs would challenge battleship supremacy.
Over the next two decades, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States practiced operating improved carriers , devised tactics to make full use of them, and designed aircraft with much greater speed, range and payload. When Japan entered World War II, between December 7 and 11, Japanese aircraft sank five battleships and battlecruisers—and battleships sank no carriers. This vividly illustrated that flattops carrying a hundred warplanes each that could scout for enemy ships and drop torpedoes and five-hundred pounds bombs on targets hundreds of miles distant were far more capable than battleships that could lob shells across ten to fifteen miles.
Even here, context is important. Huge fleet carriers were a game changer in the Pacific. In the European theater, where land-based aircraft were usually close at hand, they were merely useful.
So forward-thinking and resource-rich militaries do invest in potential game changers—but of course, not all technologies pay off. Some prove incapable of being scaled up to a practical level, are revealed to be too inefficient or a niche capability, or are overtaken by more practical technologies or counter-technologies. At the same time as the U.S. Navy developed aircraft carriers, it also experimented with two aircraft-carrying rigid airships (zeppelins). Both crashed.
Even armed forces which develop the ‘right’ technology don’t necessarily figure out how to use it effectively. France, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom all invested in mechanized forces between the World Wars. However, despite starting the furthest behind, Germany alone stumbled upon, more by accident than on purpose, the blitzkrieg tactics of rapid mechanized warfare which overran Western Europe. England and France inefficiently dispersed their tanks and limited their effectiveness through ill-conceived design paradigms (single-man turrets, lack of radios, cavalry/infantry tank distinctions). The Soviets designed good tanks but executed the generals with the most innovative ideas on how to use them.
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