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Mahnken, Technology and the American Way of War Since 1945

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Thomas G. Mahnken, Technology and the American Way of War (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008).


Central Proposition/Thesis:

[2] "This book explores how technology interacted with the culture of the US armed services in the six decades following World War II. It argues that although technology has in some cases shaped the services, particularly the development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, more often the services have molded technology to suit their purposes."

[10] "The book is about the interaction of technology and culture in the context of the strategic environment. It argues that technology both shaped and was shaped by the culture of the US armed services. On the one hand, technology undoubtedly shaped the US military. Most dramatically, the advent of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles changed--in some cases dramatically--the structure and organization of the armed services. It led, for example, to the formation of the Strategic Air Command and the development of ballistic missiles by the Army, Navy, and Air Force."

[11] "On the other hand, the culture of the US armed services influenced the technologies that they chose to pursue. Technology does not dictate solutions. Rather, it provides a menu of options from which militaries choose. A service's culture, in turn, helps determine which options are more or less attractive. "

[11] "On balance, the services shaped technology far more than technology shaped the services. Indeed, the culture of the services proved to be resilient in the face of technological threats. Even such a disruptive development as the advent of nuclear weapons left the culture of the services generally intact."



[219] "[The book's] central argument has been that although the culture of the US armed services both shaped and was shaped by technology, the services molded technology to suit their purposes more often than technology shaped them."

[220] Enthusiasts are guilty of hyping technology and skeptics are guilty of discounting it. "Although technology is not the only--or necessarily the most important--determinant of success, its effects should not be ignored. Technology has played an important role in US military success in each of the conflicts this book has examined. [221] Technology gave the US an edge over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Technology also increased the effectiveness of US forces in Vietnam, though it could not salvage a flawed strategy. And over the past fifteen years technology has helped create a series of lopsided battlefield outcomes between the US and Iraq (twice), Serbia (twice), and Afghanistan."



Mahnken analyzes the interaction of US service culture and technology within the context of the strategic environment since World War II. In the Introduction he describes US strategic culture and the cultures of the US armed services. His periodization of history coincides with the book's chapters: Chapter One, Nuclear Revolution, 1945-1960; Chapter Two, Flexible Response, 1961-1975; Chapter Four, Cold War, 1976-1990; Chapter Five, Gulf War & Post-Cold War Era, 1991-2001; Chapter Six, GWOT, 2001-2005. Chapter Three provides an exposition on technology and service culture during the Vietnam War.


US Strategic Culture: Four enduring characteristics.

1. Prefer Unlimited Political Objectives. [4] "The United States has displayed...a strong and long-standing predilection for waging war for unlimited political objectives."

2. Discomfort w/ Limited Political Aims. [4] "Just as Americans have preferred a fight to the finish, so, too, have they been uncomfortable with wars for limited political aims."

3. Demonization of Adversaries. [4] "Related to the desire to wage war for unlimited political objectives is a tendency to demonize America's adversaries."

4. Reliance on Advance Technology. [5] "Reliance on advanced technology has been a central pillar of the American way of war, at least since World War II."

The question of technology's role in war overarches Mahnken's project. [5] "On one side have been technophiles who argued, explicitly or implicitly, that technology holds the key to victory in war. Arrayed against them are latter-day Luddites who decry the American military's seeming fascination with technology." [6] "Each perspective has its flaws. The technophiles can be accused of ignoring the nonmaterial dimensions of strategy. Technological proficiency is no substitute for strategic acuity. Indeed, technical prowess may breed hubris. The Luddites, however, can be accused of underplaying technology's benefits."

US Service Cultures: [7] Two primary variables distinguish the service cultures--attitude toward technology and organizational structure. Regarding the former, the USN and USAF "tended to emphasize the role of technology in war," while the USA and USMC "have tended to emphasize the human element." Regarding the latter, the USAF and USMC are "'monarchical,' with powerful service chiefs drawn from a single dominant subgroup, whereas the Army and Navy are 'feudal,' with less powerful chiefs drawn from a variety of subgroups."

1. USMC. [7] Unitary, monarchical organization. Smallest and most cohesive service. Ethos that all marines are first rifle-men. Strongest commitment to tradition and the status quo. [8] "Marines value technology the least of any service. In part, this is the result of a culture that puts the individual warrior at the center of warfare."

2. USA. [8] Power shared among the traditional combat arms: infantry, cavalry/armor, and artillery. Army Chief of Staff position rotates among combat arms branches. Army is a "brotherhood of guilds." Army tends to "assimilate technology into its existing branch structure." For example, the adoption of the helicopter "did not spawn a new branch, but rather led to a redefinition of cavalry to include rotary-wing aircraft." "Army officers, like their marine counterparts, frequently profess that technology plays a subordinate role in warfare. In fact, however, the Army has traditionally valued advanced technology."

3. USN [9] General culture attitude toward technology that recognizes its importance but also "prizes the tried-and-true over the novel." Pre-WWII USN was a surface fleet dominated by surface warfare officers. The advent of aviation and submarine technology resulted in the creation of new branches. USN transformed from a "monarchical" organization into a "feudal" one.

4. USAF. [9] "The Air Force had its origins in, and continues to be defined by, the technology of manned flight. The Air Force is divided into pilots and non-pilots and between different communities of pilots. Even though combat pilots make up less than one-fifth of the Air Force, they are the ones who have dominated the service since its inception. From 1947 to 1982, the Air Force chief of staff was always a bomber pilot; since 1982, the chief of staff has always been a fighter pilot."

Strategic Environment: [9-10] The strategic environment influences both technology and service culture.

Chapter One: Nuclear Revolution, 1945-1960. [54] The post-WWII era "witnessed the most dramatic change in the size, organization, and technology of the US armed forces in the twentieth century. The period saw the large-scale introduction of a wide variety of new weapons, such as jet aircraft, guided missiles, satellites, and integrated air defense systems. The services also fielded new organizations: the Air Force created missile units, the Navy launched nuclear-powered submarines, and the Army fielded pentomic divisions. Indeed, the nuclear age created whole new areas of military competition, including long-range nuclear strike, continental air defense, and the military use of space. It also led to a dramatic shift in the allocation of defense resources, with the Air Force taking the lion's share of the resources. Perhaps more profoundly, the nuclear era led to a change in thinking about warfare." [55] However, "the nuclear revolution failed to bear our the predictions of the more extreme technolophiles. Nuclear weapons did not render war obsolete. Nor did ballistic missiles replace the Air Force's strategic bombers or the Navy's aircraft carriers. Indeed, the new elites that emerged from the nuclear revolution--such as missile officers in the Air Force and submariners in the Navy--remained subordinate to the traditional service elites."

Chapter Two: Flexible Response, 1961-1975. [84] The period from 1961 to 1975 was marked by the ascendancy of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the civilian defense analysts that largely populated it, and their preferred methodology of systems analysis. The armed services had to compete for resources within relatively fixed budget shares, with the Defense Department's civilian leadership acting as the ultimate arbiter of which programs survived." Civilian control of acquisition programs produced mixed results. Mahnken offers the F-4 Phantom II as a successful joint aircraft; the F-111 as less successful, but useful; and the TFX program as a failure. "The weapons designed in the 1950s and developed in the 1960s were created to meet requirements of conventional and nuclear war with the Soviet Union in Central Europe. Many would be employed in a far different setting, in an irregular war in Southeast Asia."

Chapter Three: Vietnam War, 1963-1975. [117] The services employed in Vietnam units and equipment trained and built for conflict with the Soviets in Europe. Nevertheless, innovation occurred. The Army developed airmobile units, the Navy's created riverine forces, and the Air Force launched gunships. "Those approaches that could appeal to an existing constituency within the service, such as the formulation of airmobile operations as a new form of cavalry, flourished. Approaches that complemented a service's identity similarly flourished." LGBs didn't threaten USAF or USN aviators. However, USAF's gunship community and USN's riverine community fit poorly with their service elite's preferred mission sets and understanding of service identity. Therefore, both of these communities existed on their Service's periphery, and later gravitated toward what would become Special Operations Command. [118] "America's reliance on technology was hardly the cause of its defeat in Vietnam. Nor could it have been a source of victory. The United States lost the war because of an inability to develop a strategy to achieve its aim of a free, independent, noncommunist South Vietnam."

Chapter Four: Winning the Cold War, 1976-1990. [152] "Too much can be made of the role technology played in ending the Cold War. Other dimensions were clearly also important, including the US ideological push against Soviet communism, support to anti-Soviet insurgencies across the globe, and the ossification of the Soviet system itself. But the US technological lead--and its strategic use by Carter and particularly Reagan--cannot easily be dismissed. Soviet military concerns about the widening gap between US and Soviet military technology apparently helped to forge ties between the Soviet political elite and elements of the defense industrial sector on the general need to reorient Soviet foreign policy."

Chapter Five: Gulf War & Post-Cold War Era, 1991-2001. [187] "The experience of the 1990s led a growing chorus of military officers and defense analysts to conclude that such a pattern constituted a 'new American way of war.' In their formulation, the US was less apt to use overwhelming force to overthrow enemies, but rather to use incremental force in the pursuit of secondary interests." The tactical effectiveness of PGMs and stealth convinced USAF leadership that it was on the right path. In contrast, the 1990s highlighted Army deficiencies. Army leadership sought to reorganize into units light enough to respond more quickly but heavy enough to package a punch. [188] CSAF Ronald Fogelman asserted, "America has not only the opportunity but the obligation to transition from a concept of annihilation and attrition warfare that places thousands of young Americans at risk in brute, force-on-force conflicts to a concept that leverages our sophisticated military capabilities to achieve US objectives by applying what I like to refer to as an 'asymmetric force' strategy."

Chapter Six: GWOT, 2001-2005. [215] "[GWOT] illustrates both the utility and the limitations of advanced technology. Advanced military technology helped the US achieve quick decisive victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. It did not, however, offer a panacea for insurgency." Advanced technology does permit the avoidance of the combat deaths that erode the public support required to sustain a protracted counterinsurgency effort. [12] The traditional American way of war, with its use of massive force to overthrow adversaries, has re-emerged. However, it now employs more advanced means than available previously.


Looking Forward:

Technology and the US Officer Corps. [226] "Rather than adapt to the information age, [skeptics] see the services as perpetuating increasingly outmoded approaches to combat." ... [226] "Officers tended to equate transformation with marginal improvements to current weapons and doctrine rather than the development of fundamentally new capabilities." ... [227] "The key, in many cases, will be the ability of civilian and military leaders to get the services to view these new ways of war as amenable to service culture." ... [227] It is possible for services to adopt new ways of war. "To do so, however, new technology, doctrine, and organizations must solve an existing or projected operational or strategic problem. Success also requires the support of high-level civilian or military leaders." ... [227] "Of course, technology is only as effective as the strategy it serves."

[228] "[S]uccess in [GWOT] will likely demand modes of operation that differ significantly from America's strategic traditions. First, it is doubtful that a direct approach will work in the future. Overthrowing governments that harbor terrorists is likely to be a favored option only in a small number of cases. Instead, the US will have to use cooperation with local officials, law-enforcement methods, and covert operations to root out terrorists. Second, America's traditional reliance on firepower-intensive strategies may prove counterproductive in a conflict in which maintaining some level of popular support is necessary. Finally, the US military needs to strengthen other areas of competency. Over time, these changes may considerably alter our notion of what the American way of war is."

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