Better Weapons Don’t Make for Shorter Wars

In spite of major advances in offensive military technology, researcher Marco Nilsson says the most cost-efficient weapon is a motivated soldier fighting a defensive war.
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In spite of major advances in offensive military technology, researcher Marco Nilsson says the most cost-efficient weapon is a motivated soldier fighting a defensive war.

As the British gobbled up much of Asia and Africa in the late 1800s, tiny forces of red-coated soldiers routinely thrashed huge groups of native troops, the odd Isandlwana aside, thanks to the Europeans' superior military technology. As historian Hillaire Belloc famously observed about a particular machine gun: "Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun, and they have not."

Superior military technology should make a war winnable. That suggests nations with the best offensive military technology — say Predator drones now or Maxim guns a century ago — are more likely to wage wars and win them quickly.

The U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and, less recently, Vietnam, challenges this wisdom. If the enemy doesn't recognize your superiority, don't expect it to back down quickly.

That's the tone of Marco Nilsson's recently published dissertation, "War and Unreason: Bounded Learning Theory and War Duration." Nilsson, who recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Gothenburg, statistically analyzed wars between nations from 1817 to 1992. He found that offensive technology had no effect at all on war duration.

He studied four wars in depth, two pitting Finland against Russia (The Winter War 1939 and The Continuation War 1941-1943) and two combatants in Southwest Asia (Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 and the Indo-Pakistani War in 1965) and found that when states sit down at the negotiation table, they don't always make their demands based on military capacity. In an e-mail interview with Miller-McCune, Nilsson discussed the implications of his research.

Miller-McCune: What prompted you to investigate the connection between military technology and war length?

Marco Nilsson: I got interested in the relationship between military technology and war length because of the assumption among several scholars — so-called 'offense-defense theorists' — that offense-dominant technology that makes attacking easier than defending also makes it more advantageous to start wars. This, however, depends on the assumption that military technology also has an impact on the probability of swiftly defeating the enemy. Nobody had yet tried to analyze whether this seemingly common-sense assumption holds.

M-M: How would you summarize your findings?

Nilsson: Wars are not shorter on average when military technology favors offensive operations. Instead, if we look at the interstate wars after the Napoleonic era, what matters more is the size of the armies. If one state has more troops, it will clearly shorten war duration.

The offensive potential of military technology such as tanks and attack aircraft (often believed to make swift victories more likely) are clearly limited by technological development, training of the troops, terrain, weather and norms of warfare.

Because the enemy can seldom be overrun by relying on military technology rather than overwhelming force, the duration of most wars will be decided at the negotiation table. A problem arises, however, if at least one of the belligerents does not adjust its war aims and demands based on its relative military performance. If there are beliefs that some force beyond the grasp of the enemy — for example God — will grant victory, the probability of being able to agree on the terms of peace will dramatically diminish. Similarly, if there are expectations that the offensive capacity will soon increase, the war aims will become too high for the belligerents to find a mutually acceptable negotiation solution to the war.

M-M: You state in your paper that the duration of a war is decided at the negotiation table. How could wars between an obviously militarily superior state and an obviously inferior state be resolved more quickly when the inferior state is unaware of its limitations?

Nilsson: There is no easy way. Usually, the offensive capacity is so limited that offensive action does not make it possible to defeat the enemy more swiftly. The U.S. willingness to use the nuclear bomb against Japan has been an exception.

The best way is, naturally, not to get involved in wars where the enemy cannot be expected to act rationally, e.g. lower its war aims when its battlefield performance is not encouraging. However, if the stronger enemy encounters a weaker enemy that is willing to bear the high costs of war and has unrealistic expectations of its ability to win the war, thus keeping up its high war aims, there is still a way out. The stronger state must then lower its war aims, even if it dominates the battlefield events. This is often somewhat counterintuitive for rational actors and politically unpopular.

Why would we make concessions to the seemingly irrational and weaker enemy? Some concessions can be made in secrecy, so that they do not stir up popular unrest. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy allegedly agreed to remove missiles from Turkey in return for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Sometimes, we hear people say 'we will bomb them to submission.' The problem is that the bombing does not always work against an enemy motivated by religion or some ideology. And if it succeeds in making the enemy lower its war aims, we often raise our own war aims beyond what is acceptable to the enemy as a result of the successful bombing. Either way, a negotiated solution to the war cannot be reached.

M-M: What policy implications do you believe your research has for the United States?

Nilsson: Despite recent technological developments, such as precision-guided munitions, the United States cannot rely too much on technology alone to subdue its enemies. While it is theoretically possible for the technological developments to reach such levels that they will shorten the length of wars, it is still unrealistic to be too optimistic about the foreseeable future. Advanced military technology is still very expensive. It calls for thorough training of the troops and still cannot guarantee quick victories. What matters the most is overwhelming force, inferior training of the enemy and a lack of local groups willing to continue waging a guerrilla war after the regular army has been defeated.

M-M: What implications does it have for Israel?

Nilsson: Even if Israel has access to and develops the most modern technologies of warfare, it cannot rely too much on technological developments alone for its security. In the conventional wars against its Arab neighbors, Israel has depended on the inferior quality of the enemy troops. Also, in its latest incursions against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, it was clear that there is no offense-dominant military technology that would make it easy to swiftly defeat the irregular enemy.

Israel has recently been developing a network of antimissile defenses, but to be effective, such a network [would be] very expensive. However, developing defensive weapons systems is still the best option if offensive operations do not manage to eliminate the enemy.

M-M: How would you explain the long duration of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Nilsson: Mobile tank warfare characterized both the 1991 and 2003 campaigns against Saddam Hussein. The open-desert terrain allowed the well-trained U.S. troops to swiftly maneuver across Iraq and neutralize the inferior Iraqi troops. However, in 1991 the U.S. did not topple Hussein who, without hopes of increasing offensive capacity or help from God, accepted his defeat. Thus the war ended quickly.

In 2003, Saddam was removed from power. Despite "the end of major military operations," the U.S. soon found itself faced with several smaller actors posing a military threat to the U.S. troops. (These actors) did not acknowledge that the U.S. was militarily superior, and many of them believed that help from God would increase their fighting capacity.

The same story can be told about Afghanistan. As long as the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami believe that God will help them to victory, they will have high war aims and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of soldiers ready to sacrifice their lives. Hezb-e-Islami has recently had negotiation contact with the Karzai government. However, the call for a hastier removal of foreign troops and a constitutional change may be too much for Karzai. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the Taliban want to be included in any negotiated compromise.

Both the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect the U.S. overconfidence in what its military technology can do in offensive operations. When the enemy can hide in the mountains or among the civilian population, technology alone cannot shorten the length of wars. In the end, it is the foot soldiers that have to risk their lives. These lessons learned from the jungles of the Vietnam War were unfortunately forgotten after the success of the 1991 war against Saddam.

M-M: What would be an example of unrealistic offensive expectations prolonging war/negotiations?

Nilsson: The most flagrant case of religiously based offensive expectation is the Iranian refusal to negotiate with Iraq during the almost decade-long Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. The war mostly went awry for the Iranians, but religious fervor was thought to substitute tactical skill planning.

M-M: What, in your opinion, are some of the limitations of military technology?

Nilsson: Even if precision-guided munitions can easily hit their targets, it is often difficult for them to find [their targets] in the first place. Night-vision technology works well in the desert, but is limited in its ability to locate the enemy in jungles or urban areas. In Vietnam, it was often difficult to find the enemy troop concentrations in time. In Afghanistan, the mountains provide a good cover for the enemy and make it difficult for U.S. foot soldiers to maneuver in large numbers.

The nuclear weapon would be the most efficient offensive weapon against a non-nuclear enemy. However, for normative reasons relating to the world opinion, the nuclear option has not been used since WWII.

M-M: In the case of the United States, do you believe that funding for offensive military technology should be redirected, and if so, where?

Nilsson: The irony of offensive military technology is that it can also be used for defensive operations. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to completely give up on developing, for example, tanks and stealth bombers. However, the efforts to find the ultimate offensive weapon should not be exaggerated because the costs will be immense and the expected results scant.

Militaries should always look for the most cost-efficient weapons. History teaches us that the most cost-efficient weapon is a well-motivated soldier fighting a defensive war. However, if the U.S. wants to keep the offensive option open, it will have to continue developing offensive military technology at the expense of, for example, missile defense systems. It is hard, even for the world's richest economy, to have it both ways...

The best option is still to not rely on offensive military technology too heavily and start wars too easily. If you cannot eliminate the enemy, you must be prepared to negotiate, but there is no guarantee that the enemy's demands will be acceptable to you.