Does new technology render strategic theory irrelevant?

by Dr. DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

The impact of technology upon warfare is a complex topic, but one which retains perennial relevance to militaries the world over. Can new weapons fundamentally alter the conduct of war, or do certain immutable ‘principles’ remain unchanged over time? These questions cut to the heart of history’s value to the military professional. After all, if technological innovation invalidates pre-existing strategic paradigms, then how can the work of strategists and thinkers from antiquity help to inform solutions to the challenges faced in the modern world? Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today program last week would have heard the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West, advocate ‘a close blockade of the Libyian coastline’ as the most effective means of curtailing the activities of human traffickers in the Mediterranean. Lord West alluded to one of the enduring ‘principals’ of naval warfare; namely that it will always be easier to detect and intercept a maritime threat at its point of origin, rather than in the expanses of the open seas. His use of the term ‘close blockade’ provides a striking example of how the fundamental characteristics of a strategy which Nelson employed during the Napoleonic Wars can retain their relevance in 2015, albeit in different circumstances and through different means. Yet, it is interesting to note that, at various points between Nelson’s ultimate victory at Trafalgar and the present, numerous commentators have argued that new weapons and platforms rendered the very idea of a ‘close’ blockade anachronistic. The introduction of steam power in the early nineteenth century made the maintenance of a continuous presence off an enemy coastline problematic due to issues of endurance and fuel supply. Similarly, innovations in underwater weaponry caused widespread debate in the 1880s and 1890s as to the practicality of a ‘close’ blockade due to the newfound dangers to which a blockading squadron might be exposed. In 1895 RUSI even commissioned the prominent historian and theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan to write a paper examining whether:

The Naval Strategy of the past has been dependent upon power to maintain close blockade of hostile ports. Can such blockade be maintained under present conditions of steam, steel and torpedo –boats? If not, what modifications are demanded by the circumstances largely varied, from past wars?

Taking their lead from these contemporary debates, successive generations of historians have agreed that innovations in submarine, torpedo and mine technology had rendered ‘close’ blockade impractical by the early 1900s. This argument receives post-facto justification from the so-called ‘distant blockade’ the British enforced during the First World War. Here, then, we apparently see technology invalidating the principals of naval strategy. However, despite first appearances, contemporaries did not see things in such clear-cut terms. In July 1913 the Admiralty War Staff speculated that recent improvements in the capabilities of British submarines might ‘enable us to revive the strategy of close blockade.’ This proposal rapidly gained traction within the Admiralty and constructing enough modern submarines to enforce such a blockade became official policy soon thereafter:

Until big submarines are available in sufficient numbers to enable us to revert to the old policy of close observation of the enemy’s ports, the duties and responsibilities of cruisers of all classes in the North Sea must be very onerous on account of the extensive area requiring to be watched. This condition of affairs is probably temporary, and will only prevail until we have the submarines required to carry out blockade.

Developments in underwater technology may have rendered the maintenance of a close blockade by battleships problematic in the 1890s, yet they also promised to allow for submarines to assume such a function by 1913-14. The means may have changed, yet the fundamentals elements of the strategy remained reasonably constant. These problems of interpretation extend to the history of the First World War in general. A body of scholars has argued that the Royal Navy identified and sought to exploit the ‘revolutionary’ potential of new technologies to its own advantage by enacting what would now be considered a Revolution in Military Affairs in the years before 1914. Yet, it cannot be denied that the First World War at sea was conducted along broadly conventional lines. Underwater weapons did not prevent the widespread usage of surface units in the North Sea. Equally, Britain exercised its naval power in the traditional manner, gradually eroding the capacity of the Central Powers economies to support their societies and the War on land. Even Fisher, depicted as the arch ‘revolutionary’, advocated a strategy of ‘steady pressure’ upon returning to the Admiralty in 1914. I examined these issues in a recent article, which stresses the dangers of assigning ‘revolutionary’ implications to the manifold new weapons systems which entered service in this period. ‘The challenge for the historian’, writes Hew Strachan, ‘is much harder than the identification of continuity…the next stage is to use that as the bedrock from which to identify what is really new…to distinguish the revolutionary and the evolutionary from the evanescent and ephemeral.’ When assessing the role technology plays in shaping conflict, I might argue that the opposite approach is sometimes necessary. In periods of rapid innovation and development, when technology may appear to have ‘changed everything’, searching for continuity can be vital in order to place the impact of new weapons into their true perspective. Article E-Prints: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/8GTeidKAGxEACP9h8FXx/full Image: HM Submarine No 3. This was a ‘Holland’ type submarine. One of 5 experimental craft, in service by 1903. Broken up in 1913. HMS VICTORY is in the background. courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM (Q 41181): http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205248472.

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