Christopher Coker’s Warrior Geeks examines the impact of 21st-century technology and how it is ‘changing the way we fight and think about war’. At its core is Coker’s exploration of the impact of robotics on war. Thucydides and the ancient Greeks thought of war as the ‘human thing’, and it is indeed a state of affairs that, on this planet at least, is unique to the human species. How, then, does it change as we become ever more reliant on technology to allow us to wage war? Does it become less of a human thing?
The problem with Coker’s subject is that despite all the technological advances that have occurred in the last half-century or so, most of the technology with which we fight wars today would be entirely recognisable to a veteran of the Second World War. The basic field equipment of the soldier has been slightly upgraded. Nowadays we use plastics and composite materials instead of steel for helmets and body armour, for example, but most weapons and pieces of equipment are pretty much the same. Guns, tanks, aircraft, missiles and so on have been improved to a greater or lesser degree over the last seventy years, but conceptually they are still the same, designed to do the same job. A directed energy weapon might seem like a strikingly modern means to kill an enemy, but ultimately it is just another way of making a hole in him.
As surprising as it may seem now, a Second World War veteran is likely to have experienced remotely guided weapons, seen jet combat aircraft, benefited from electronic computing and perhaps even been on the wrong end of ballistic missiles delivered via suborbital space. So in what sense has there been a revolutionary change? If we look at society as a whole, information technology is where it has all happened: the ability to process and transmit large amounts of data is the great transformation and this has of course had an impact on the military. Even so, the changes wrought by the information revolution may not be as profound as they superficially appear.
The core of the business of war is the planning and execution of operations. This is a process that has changed relatively little in the 27 years I’ve been an army officer, and in the 30 years before that. When I first started writing brigade operation orders, we did it on Roneo stencils; now we take our laptops into the field with us. I suppose it makes the process a bit quicker, but we tend to write longer orders. Admittedly, it’s certainly faster to email a set of orders than to give them to a runner or tie them to the leg of a pigeon – provided that your email system is working, of course.
Information technology has allowed us to make substantial advances in improving our situational awareness and in grasping some of the complexity of the modern battlefield, but this is an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one. A real-time ‘blue force tracker’ on an LCD screen is better than moving wooden markers on a big map, but it recognisably performs the same function.