Strategy vs. Technology: the 21st Century Edition

The drone seems to be the new ‘it-toy’ in the technological circles. You can now buy one for a few hundred pounds on eBay, and Amazon has been planning on deploying drones for smooth and easy deliveries. The commodification of military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to everyday life objects is an intriguing matter in itself but this article will focus on the link between current technological advancements and changes in military strategy. The debate on whether or not new technological innovations create fundamental changes in strategy has been heated even before the mechanisation of warfare and especially after. What drives changes in military strategy in the contemporary world?

Strategy is commonly divided into three layers: grand strategy, strategy and operational level. Grand strategy includes foreign policy and the long-term goals of the state at the highest level of decision-making, mostly separate from military strategy. Strategy consists of the overall goals and aims of the military action. The operational level is more concerned with pragmatic considerations regarding certain military operations on the ground. Prussian General and one of the most renowned military theorist Carl von Clausewitz defines military strategy as ‘the use of engagements for the object of the war’. The main difference between strategy and operational level is that strategy includes the aims of the military action whereas operational level composes the means and resources used to achieve these aims.

There are historical examples of how technology can be seen as changing strategy. For example, it could be argued that the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ was made possible by the creation of the tank. However, the ‘Blitzkrieg’ shared the aims of earlier German strategy of defeating France quickly. Tanks where just deployed at the operational level to support the existing strategic objective. Even though the impact of nuclear weapons on Cold War foreign policy was significant on strategic level, nuclear weapons, especially in the early days, were widely seen as an extension of the existing strategic bombing doctrine. Similar connections can be drawn between drones and the perceived emergence of ‘post-heroic’ form of warfare composed of a focus on robotics and force protection.

Drones hold the highest level of force protection, since they are unmanned and operated from a distance. A Reaper bombing a specific target in Pakistan is controlled by a pilot somewhere in Nevada. Even with their novel features considering warfare at the operational level, the question remains whether or not drones have had a fundamental impact on military strategy. They are deployed to gather intelligence or demolish pre-selected enemy targets, so-called ‘targeted killings’. Even though drones use different methods on the operational level than a conventional special operations forces (SOF), the strategic level aims have stayed intact. The aim is still the targeted killing of an enemy. In addition, the US counterinsurgency field manual of 2006 specifically emphasised a move away from force protection to civilian protection and the importance of winning ‘the hearts and minds’ of the local populations. This strategic framework was deployed in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq after drones had already been introduced to the scene even though UAVs seem to promote a strategy with less boots on the ground and more focus on force protection and robotics. Therefore, even though technological developments have an impact on the conduct of strategy they have not been the driving force of strategy-making in the 21st century.

Technology certainly helps strategy to achieve its aims and at times has a fundamental impact of how wars are fought, such as in the cases of the creation of railways and the rifle. However, many commentators have a tendency to overemphasise the effect of technological advancements on changes in strategy. Currently, the increased deployment of UAVs in various locations has not shifted military strategy from focus on conventional forces and COIN strategy to reliance on robotics and prioritisation of force protection. Taking into account military culture, external influences and current domestic political environment might help explain changes in strategy better than just arguing for a causal linkage between technological innovation and strategic change.