F-35s, Aircraft Carriers or Missiles: What Makes Something a Military 'Game-Changer'?

October 26, 2020 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWorldF-22V-2ChinaRussia

F-35s, Aircraft Carriers or Missiles: What Makes Something a Military 'Game-Changer'?

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, and above all the concept of how to use it effectively.

Here's What You Need To Remember: Some of these technologies may prove to be blind alleys or have marginal impact—but others could cause unforeseen disruptions to traditionally accepted ‘rules’ of how military power works. Yes, the technology by itself may not be a game changer. But when harnessed to a larger military machine, when tactics and doctrine on their employment are devised and tested and finally deployed in a relevant context—then history shows the game can change with stunning speed.

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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This highlights that ‘new players’ are sometimes less-invested in the old ways and thus more capable of experimenting with new approaches—or are forced to by circumstances. Militaries, like any human organization, tend to become bureaucratically and even emotionally invested in doing things a certain way, and resistant to new methods. Even Patton was initially skeptical that the tank could ever replace horse-mounted cavalry.

Admittedly, the initial dramatic edge granted by technology is typically short-lasting until an adversary adapts tactics, and develops counters or copies—unless the game-changing surprise overwhelms swiftly and utterly as German mechanized warfare did to France in 1940.

The problem is that modern technologies continue to increase the tempo of destruction to new levels—but often require decades to develop. By contrast, warring states during World War II often deployed new ships, warplanes and sensors in a couple years or even months. Such rapid turnaround will not be possible in the twenty-first century.

Bitzinger particularly criticizes Western anxiety concerning the DF-21D ‘East Wind’—a Chinese intermediate-range ballistic missile with a terminal-guidance seeker that would potentially allow it to sink ships up to 900 miles or farther away from the Chinese coast. Bitzinger thinks those fears fail to consider the major targeting, doctrinal and technical challenges the PLA would have to overcome to make the DF-21 a genuine ‘carrier killer.’ Fellow TNI contributor Robert Farley has written a similar critique. An additional reason for skepticism is that there are no publicly reported tests of a DF-21D against moving ship.

But just as carrier-based warplanes matured rapidly, so could anti-ship ballistic missile technologies and the necessary supporting tactics and complementary support assets such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance from maritime patrol planes, satellites, submarines, etc. If the East Wind becomes an efficient anti-ship platform, then the entire Asian Pacific could be subject to an unprecedented maritime Anti-Access bubble and the viability of today's aircraft carriers, with their relatively short-range air wings, could be seriously challenged.

I’d like to finish with a non-exhaustive list of technologies that have clear potential to change the game in the twenty-first century conflicts.

Drone Warfare: In the long term, jet fighters, submarines and tanks may eventually evolve into unmanned combat vehicles. More immediately, however, deadly swarms of lower-capability drones could overwhelm high-capability platforms. As defense has frequently proven more expensive than offense, expendable unmanned platforms might become the future of warfare—if they can be produced at sufficiently low cost.

Cyber-and Electronic warfare: Not a day goes by without new evidence that supposedly secure computer networks are anything but—yet militaries across the globe continue to grow more reliant on such networks. This is even true at the tactical level for systems such as ballistic missile interceptors, Aegis missile defense systems, and the F-35’s sensor suite and ALIS logistical network. China and Russia are therefore investing in jammers to disrupt communications, sensors and datalinks that the U.S. military uses in abundance—and electromagnetic capabilities to locate those transmitters and subject them to lethal attacks.

Stealth Aircraft? Stealth jets, with their ability to penetrate defended airspace and stalk aerial opponents undetected from a distance, are widely perceived to be the defining weapon system of twenty-first-century warfare and have undergone significant testing and refinement. However, stealth jets have yet to be tested versus a truly formidable opponent with state-of-the-art surface-to-air defenses and air power.

Missile Proliferation and Area-Denial Strategy: Proliferating supersonic and long-range cruise missiles threaten to make the seas a very dangerous place for surface warships. GPS-guided rocket artillery is giving armies the ability to effectively launch air strike-like attacks. Short to intermediate ballistic missiles like the Iskander are proving increasingly threatening strategic weapons for a military unlikely to have air superiority. Together, these enable actors like China and Russia to threaten everything from carriers to airbases with prompt and precise attacks.