Winning Wars: Technological advantage or the will to fight?

‘Nor can technology abolish war’s central essence as the realm of uncertainty and of the clash of wills. Processing power can no more replace discernment and sheer guts at the strategic level than on the battlefield itself.’  

– The Dynamics of Military Revolution

As more have come to accept that our global society is on the verge of a fourth industrial revolution military and national security professionals are increasingly focussed on technological solutions to future conflict. Which is fair enough – and necessary. Artificial Intelligence, biotechnologies, autonomous systems and advanced human-machine teaming are evolving the character of war, and will continue too at an increasing pace. Those nations which lead the development of these technologies will hold a powerful advantage. More importantly those who manage to evolve their doctrine, and as a result fundamentally change their way of warfare, will hold an almost certain advantage over those who don’t. However, war’s nature (even if it does change, as some suggest it might) will still remain a clash of wills. War will continue to be a contest between groups of humans with opposing interests and ideologies.

So, while those nations who lead and incorporate technological change will hold the military advantage, does that advantage necessarily mean they will ultimately win? History suggests not always, particularly when we consider large scale conflict. In the event of war, victory is far from certain; even to those who initially hold the technological advantage. States avoid international conflict until they come to believe that more can achieved by going to war than remaining at peace. Superior technology may therefore act as a strategic deterrence to prevent war. When nations go to war, they look for ways to end it decisively and quickly. Naturally, military intellectual and material development during interwar periods therefore tend to focus on gaining technological-military advantage over potential adversaries.

States avoid international conflict until they come to believe that more can achieved by going to war than remaining at peace.

The aim is to be able to achieve decisive victory early, having sacrificed the minimum amount of blood and treasure necessary. However rapid decisive victories, such as  that achieved in the Israeli Six Day War of 1967, occur rarely. Historically, large scale conflicts are not short and tend to escalate over time. This is because the nations involved each refuse to give in remaining convinced that staying at war stands to achieve better outcomes than the current potential options for peace. Therefore, as large-scale conflicts draw on, belligerent nations become increasing desperate in their resolve to find ways to achieve victorious ends. They are forced to harness their economic and industrial might to build mass.

Entire nations fight wars, not just the military. While military forces do the fighting, it is the opposing nation’s will to fight that ultimately needs to be defeated to be victorious in war. In his exploration of the humanness of war, Thucydides tells of fear, honour, and interest as societal motivators for war. Clausewitz gave his explanation of the drivers of war in his description of the trinity of people, government, and military. Both foundational theories demonstrate the intrinsic relationship between the motivation and or will of the people of a nation and a nation’s ability to conduct and sustain war. A closer examination of the societal approaches of actors in the second world war are examples of the inextricability of a nations people in underpinning a nation’s will to fight. The truism being that until a nations people have accepted defeat, that nation will not truly be defeated.

When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, they expected their Blitzkrieg tactics to defeat the Russians within six months. Initially, it appeared that their campaign would be over even sooner than expected. However, the Russians would not accept defeat. In the midst of initial and overwhelming tactical defeats during Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets absorbed almost 750,000 casualties representing around one sixth of the Red Army. In the meantime, their nation began to mobilise. By the time the Germans were approaching Moscow the entire soviet society was preparing for war. Civilians, most of them women, were building defense lines and workers’ militia battalions were preparing to fight.

The Soviets had every right to have lost their war in the first six months. The Germans had superior technology and had integrated that technology to create far superior tactical methods which manifested as the Blitzkrieg. The simple explanation as to why the Soviets didn’t lose is that; they refused to. In spite of the astronomical loss of more than 24,000,000 people representing well over 20% of their population throughout the Second World War, the Russians emerged victorious and more powerful than when they were first invaded. As a nation they were willing to sacrifice as much as they needed to turn the tide of the war.

The simple explanation as to why the Soviets didn’t lose is that; they refused to.

Stalin’s brutal totalitarian regime is undoubtedly part of reason for their approach, but it doesn’t account for all of it. As Stahel observed in The Battle for Moscow that the Soviet resolve to defend Moscow sprang from a love of the Motherland and desperate patriotism. Ziemke and Bauer noted in Moscow to Stalingrad that ‘Soviet disdain for life evidenced in a seeming unconcern for casualties either from cold or from enemy fire…their commanders always seemed willing to pay the price no matter how high it might be.’ No one factor can be evidenced as the reason for the Soviets refusal give in and for their remarkable turn of events. The Thucydidean explanation points to; fear of the Germans, honour as a nation, and self-interest for preservation. The Clausewitzian approach would argue the intrinsic combination of Stalin’s political leadership, the Soviet military commanders, and the soviet people. All reasons are right ones, but at the heart of them all is the fact that as a society they rose up and would not accept defeat in spite of the initial overwhelming superiority of the Germans.

Had it not been for their Emperor, Japan also may have also refused to accept defeat in the Second World War. As a nation they were unwavering until the very end when the Emperor publicly announced their surrender over the radio and directed the Japanese people to lay down their arms and cooperate. By 1945, Allied forces had completely turned the tide in the Pacific area of operations. Since Guadalcanal in early 1943, Nimitz and MacArthur’s plans had come together. The Islands which had previously been held by Japan had been recaptured including the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and MacArthur’s prize; the Philippines. The Japanese Navy had been soundly defeated, their Army and Navy Air Forces had been heavily worn down and the United States had launched the largest amphibious operation in history to successfully capture Okinawa. Yet in spite of their pending certain defeat, the Japanese would not surrender.

Nations must focus significant effort toward advancing technological solutions to gain and maintain military superiority over potential adversaries.

In addition to Japan’s steady losses in Asia and throughout the Pacific, the United States had begun executing a strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese mainland from mid 1944. These bombings continued until August 1945 where they culminated with the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Throughout these defeats, and the destruction and loss of civilian life on their mainland, the Japanese people maintained their will to fight. Japanese military culture was founded on the concept of Bushidō – a combination of intangibles such as élan (energy, style and enthusiasm) and what was considered a fighting spirit unique to Japan. This concept was drawn from and built upon the importance of the broader Japanese cultural idea of honour. As a result of these cultural factors many Japanese people could not conceive of an end to the war without either winning or fighting to their complete destruction. So why did they accept defeat?

The American’s identified the Japanese Emperor as being central to the Japanese political and social system and therefore linked to their national concept of honour. Not wishing to spend the tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of American lives that it would cost to assault the Japanese mainland; the American’s identified that if the Japanese could retain some honour the Emperor, and subsequently the people, would accept defeat. In other words, if Japan were to remain Japan and if the Emperor where to remain their Emperor the war could be over. The task became to convince the Emperor that surrender was the least worst option for the Japanese.

Many believe that it was the dropping of the atomic bombs which caused Japan to surrender, resulting in the end of the Second World War. But in reality, while the atomic bombs were an important factor, the reason was far more complex. Numerous events played a role in setting the conditions which forced the Japanese to consider defeat. The operational defeats throughout the Pacific along with the defeats and pressure in Asia; the economic, resource and industrial strangulation, largely executed by submariners; the strategic bombings; the entrance of Russia into the fray; the American successful capture of Okinawa; and finally, the dropping of the atomic bombs and pending invasion all played a role. Of course, the degradation of trust in the Japanese Army and the status of the defensive preparations of the mainland were also factors which set the conditions for the Emperor to be convinced that accepting defeat was the better option.

The Japanese Emperor’s acceptance of defeat and subsequent announcement to the Japanese people that they had been defeated was critical to the war’s end. The Americans identified the importance of the Emperor to the Japanese political and societal being and realised that through him the Japanese could retain their honour and identity despite defeat. An alternate history, where the Americans demanded complete regime change, would very likely have resulted in an American invasion of the Japanese mainland, tens of thousands of more lives lost, and a long-term counter-insurgency war completely changing the course of history. Instead, Japan was allowed to rebuild and retain their national identity. America and Japan are now close allies sharing economic and defence ties in support of mutual interests.

Nations must focus significant effort toward advancing technological solutions to gain and maintain military superiority over potential adversaries. Particularly where they are unlikely to gain advantage through mass. However, as history demonstrates, large scale conflicts seldom end quickly and the will to fight of nations is ultimately what must be maintained, or defeated. Effort needs to be applied to understand what might constitute the strategic defeat mechanisms of potential adversaries’ national will. Further, nations should not rest all hope on achieving technological superiority in lieu of potential requirements to generate mass and accept that long and escalating future wars might be a reality. As Strategist and Author, Peter Singer, said in his address to the United States Senate Armed Services Committee ‘…our human flaws and mistakes still drive conflict, whether it is fought with a stone or a drone.’ Wars are a human endeavor and they only ever truly end when a belligerent nation, and its people, accept that it is ended.

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