Opinion: Unmanned Vehicles and Cyber are a Warfare Evolution, Not Revolution

August 6, 2013 4:30 AM - Updated: August 5, 2013 10:55 PM
A Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle is launched from USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44) in 2012. US Navy Photo
A Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle is launched from USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44) in 2012. US Navy Photo

The use of cyber-tactics combined with unmanned aerial vehicles to prosecute the campaign against terrorists has increased dramatically over recent years. Technological development along those lines has sparked discussions ranging from talk of revolutions in how wars will be fought to changes in domestic law enforcement. The New York Times recently published a column titled “At War: How Cyber Warfare and Drones Have Revolutionized Warfare,” by Tim Hsia and Jared Sperli. Both are West Point graduates and combat veterans, currently serving as ROTC military science instructors. Unfortunately, geography and the facts on the ground do not bear out their observations.

Hsia and Sperli nonetheless offer some interesting insights. Their conclusion is that cyber-warfare and drones represent a military revolution. They acknowledge that there have been a great many recent developments heralded as revolutions in military affairs that in the end proved just evolutionary.

While the analysis is compelling, the question is still open. Army Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster has weighed in more recently, suggesting that traditional ground forces retain their predominant position. Cyber warfare and drones may in fact be revolutions in military affairs, or as Soviet scholars once called them, military-technical revolutions, but will they change broader aspects of our world?

It is interesting that Hsia and Sperli began their active careers in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. A somewhat different perspective is provided in a slender volume edited by MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, written just before the events of 9-11. The introductory essay in The Dynamics of Military Revolutions, 1300-2050, defines the difference between a revolution in military affairs (RMA) and a military revolution. The former changed how warfare was conducted, the latter “brought systemic changes in politics and society.” Drones and cyber-warfare could proceed down either path. The path down which those technologies evolve will be determined by the choices made in employing them, but thus far they do not constitute a revolution.

Autonomous vehicles, whether operating in the air, on or under water, or on land, present the easier case. The devices represent evolution. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a good case in point. They represent another step in an evolutionary chain of moves and countermoves in the development of air warfare. Attacking aircraft have successively sought sanctuary in speed, altitude, and stand-off to protect the operators. The next logical step is to leave the operators safely on the ground. As such, UAVs represent a change in the degree of sanctuary enjoyed by the individual but do not change the essential function or the outcome. The argument might be more convincing had drones been the impetus for introducing women into combat roles. Had that been the case, and autonomous vehicles the reason for this expansion of opportunity, then those weapons might have represented a military revolution in the broader sense. That, however, is not the case. Women have been deploying in aircraft carriers and flying combat missions for almost two decades. Another argument is that the use of drones—whose operators sit at consoles half a world away—somehow defies a warrior ethic and upsets the socio-political aspects of warfare, particularly when used against less technologically advanced opponents. The same arguments were made regarding the use of the crossbow almost a millennium ago. That weapon did not revolutionize warfare, nor thus far have drones.

The strategist Edward Luttwak in his 1987 book Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace suggests that there is a paradoxical relationship between the effectiveness of a new weapon system and the intensity of the efforts to develop countermeasures. It is simple logic that the more effective the weapon, the more fervor with which the countermeasures are pursued. While this may prove true for autonomous vehicles, it is the conclusions drawn by Hsia and Sperli regarding cyber warfare where the intensity of that defensive reaction has already been demonstrated.

The problem of cyber-warfare seems more likely to produce a revolution. Computers have indeed changed politics and society systematically. The question remains whether the interference with this pervasive influence will generate a military revolution. The concern over potential effects of the Y2K phenomenon is instructive. The threat posed to critical infrastructure by old code that registered the year portion of a date in two digits might have been catastrophic. None of the disasters that were envisioned came to pass because the severity of the threats sparked a vigorous effort to prevent trouble.

The fact that so many aspects of our society are so thoroughly interwoven with computer and internet-based controls has initiated similar attention. Thus far, even the most effective cyber-attacks have met with only marginal success. The possible cyber-attack on the Iranian nuclear weapons development program may have stalled progress. If the Iranian claims are to be believed, the processing of weapons-grade fissionable material has resumed apace. Iranian claims must be taken with a grain of salt. In 2006 Iran announced a major exercise complete with the roll-out of advanced weapon systems. None of the video and still pictures of those weapons proved to be Iranian weapons, so the cyber-attack may or may not have had more lasting effects. The recent allegations that Marine General James Cartwright leaked classified information about cyberattacks suggest that revelations about U.S. cyber capabilities have compromised the ability to conduct similar operations. The military theorist Karl von Clausewitz teaches us that “war is not an exercise of will directed at inanimate matter . . . the will is directed at an animate object that reacts.” The Iranians have reacted.

Perhaps there will be some innovation that changes the very nature of warfare, politics, and society. In A Taste of Armageddon, an episode of the original “Star Trek” series, a conflict was posited that was conducted completely by computer. Casualties were determined by simulation and people reported to suffer their fate without the actual employment of a single weapon. That would be a revolution. Until that time, our new weapons are just part of an incremental march to afford warriors greater protection while simultaneously increasing the lethality of their efforts. These are the revolutions in military affairs about which Soviet theorists wrote. It is not these military-technical revolutions that should concern us, but rather revolutionary change. Cyber-warfare and drones may ultimately lead to dramatic social and political changes, but have not yet. In earlier military revolutions it was the military change that drove social and political change. The information revolution seems to be working in the opposite direction. No military revolutions here, just evolutionary changes in military affairs—at least for now.

Kevin Delamer

Kevin Delamer is a retired naval officer. He served as director of political-military affairs on the NAVCENT/5th Fleet staff before concluding his career at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he taught strategy.

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