Stepen D. Biddle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Victory in the Information Age: Conversation with Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; January 27, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Understanding Military Power

Your most recent book is called Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Let me show it for our camera. book coverLet's talk a little about military victory. How did you come to this problem and how did you define the problem?

My first job out of college had been at a policy think-tank in the Washington area that did studies for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and one of my first jobs was running an enormous computer model of imaginary combat outcomes in central Europe between the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

This would've been during the Cold War?

That's right, in 1981 to 1983. I was running this enormous 400,000-line Fortran model, and I would sit there and I would watch the computer printouts, and these were produced on these big line printers, producing stacks of paper this tall, telling you everything you might want to know about this imaginary war that the computer had created. I couldn't help but wonder, "Does any of this have anything to do with reality? What would happen if you put data for the German invasion of France in 1940 into this computer model? Would it predict that the Germans would win, or would it predict that there would be a long stalemate, or what exactly would happen?" So, the relationship between the particular way that the Defense Department analyzed war and the actual historical record of real war interested me and led me down a trail that ultimately created this book.

How did you define the problem that you wanted to struggle with?

Good problem definition stems from debates. People disagree about something and that's what makes it important to think new thoughts. In this particular case, the debate that drew me in was over the relative importance of technology for military outcomes. From the time I got into this field, people were saying that new technology is revolutionizing warfare, there's a revolution in military affairs, radically improved information technology is changing everything about war. The debate that ultimately drew me in and became the framing for the book: how important is technology, anyway?

When you read military history, it's all about strategy, and choices, and human personalities. The software of war is almost all of what most military historians are concerned with, and it's almost wholly absent from the way we do defense analysis in the Washington community. So, what I was most curious about is, is technology or materiel in general nearly as important for the outcomes of wars as the defense planning community seems to think? And so, the book is framed, in large part, as an attempt to answer that question. Of course, the answer the book comes to is no.

Let's place this problem in the context of what we know about the history of American military doctrine, especially after the Cold War. As a solution to the politics of appropriation with regard to military, we have, over time, invariably turned to technology. It's part of our character. Is that fair to say?

Oh, I think that's absolutely right. For a whole collection of reasons, Americans are a technology-obsessed people. I fancy myself a Luddite, and yet I have a Blackberry in my briefcase. Technology is all around us, it's everywhere, and Americans are just fascinated and intrigued with the stuff. So, when you deal with a society full of people who are fascinated with gadgets and gizmos, and then you ask them, "Now in war, do you think gadgets and gizmos matter?," most of us instinctively say, "Well, of course, they must." And the military, which comes out of this same society, is predisposed to expect that there's a great technological change right around the next bend in the road and it's going to change everything. People think that militaries are incredibly reactionary, conservative, resistant-to-change institutions, and yet the American military in particular has been -- almost throughout its history, certainly since World War II -- the exact opposite. They're way over-predisposed to expect that everything is going to change because of the next new gadget.

In addition, is it fair to say that in order to deal with the budget battles, that is, how much do you spend on defense, how much will we spend on healthcare, that in those fights technology is seductive, because it says, "Hey, we can do this cheaper"?

That's right. The politics of this reinforce the cultural predispositions in all sorts of ways. In part, it's a device to do more on the cheap, but in part, it also fits very naturally with the narrow micro-incentives of legislators. Money spent on good strategy, money spent on training, money spent on quality of life, things that retain skilled people once you've created them, are disseminated widely around the country. Money spent on a new weapon program goes to the plant in my district, and the people in that plant understand that my vote on its behalf assists them. So, both cultural predilection, desire to do things on the cheap, and the particular way that the Congress is wired together and the nature of constituency politics, all tend to reinforce this tendency to privilege technology relative to other contributors to military outcomes.

The book is called Military Power, and it combines a quantitative analysis with a lucid account of historical examples. As somebody who's not quantitative, I'm happy to say that the quantitative part was segregated so that those could be the chapters that you could skip! -- but what were the measures of military power? We should talk a little about this whole question of what is military power, [which] is controversial in political science, and then this debate of deploying and training personnel versus the use of technology.

It's particularly important because military power is an infamously vague, foggy phrase that different people use in very different ways. It has soft, attractive elements [and] hard, coercive elements, but what I mean in the book when I say military power is three logically distinct but interrelated dimensions: the ability to take and hold territory; the ability to inflict or avoid casualties; and the time that it takes you to do those things. Those are the three outcomes -- variance in the ability to take and hold ground, variance in casualties suffered, and variance in time to complete -- that I'm trying to explain by the analysis in the book.

I'm going back to this question about the skills involved in the work you do. How did you then set about demonstrating this, using both historical cases and the quantification of those cases?

There's a piece of this that involves creating a theory, an explanation, and then there's a piece that involves testing the theory once it's created. There's a certain tendency among academics to say [that] theory creation happens in the shower or through some magic bolt of insight, and you can't teach that, you either have it or you don't. I think that it's possible to go a little further than that. The theory that came into this book came from a close reading of a series of new waves of military history that are revising radically our understanding of the conduct of the First and the Second World Wars. Especially for the First World War, the old-fashioned view was that all these dunderheaded donkeys leading lions (in the traditional description) insisted on stupidly repeating the same mistakes over and over again. [These new histories] tend to suggest that no, that wasn't the way it happened. In fact, there was a lot more change and doctrinal adaptation, change in tactics and strategy, during the war. In particular, all the great powers engaged in the First World War eventually groped their way towards and ended up with what I call in the book the modern system of force employment.

Explain how at the beginning, in the first phases of World War I, they all found themselves trapped. What was the trap that the great militaries of Europe found themselves in?

This generation of officers had been raised to believe that infantry was the queen of battle and everything else is just a minor support to the infantry. So, faced in a world of radically new firepower that the industrial revolution had brought to the battlefield, their solution to this problem essentially amounted to using the supporting arms to soften up the target a bit, and then let the infantry close. That produced slaughter in the battles of the frontiers in 1914. And then -- as opposed to what people supposed happened, stupid repetition of the same mistake -- instead, we get arguably the greatest revolution in military doctrine of all time. In less than a year, multiple great paramilitaries that had been raised their whole lives to believe infantry is the queen of battle spin on a dime, and all of a sudden decide, no, no, no, artillery is the queen of the battle, artillery is going to do all the killing, artillery will destroy everything that's there, and then the infantry will just walk forward and police up the remains and occupy the blasted moonscape that will result.

I can't imagine a more sweeping change in military doctrine, very innovative -- a really bad idea, of course, [which] produced a collection of enormously costly slaughters in the mud of Flanders, and of course the First World War [as a whole], but a dramatic change of perspective. They observed that failure, though being reasonably competent officers they tried different things, and through this process of trial and error they gradually replaced the initial idea that infantry is everything, the secondary idea that artillery is everything, with a combined arms conception that the two have to work together as co-equals in a way that will enable them to exploit the inherent complexity of the earth's surface to provide cover and concealment from this storm of steel that new technology had confronted them with. And that became, by 1918, the modern system.

Next page: The Modern Warfare System

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