War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology

  • Published

War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology by Keir A. Lieber. Cornell University Press, 2008, 256 pp.

Keir Lieber’s sophisticated critique of technology as a determinant of national security policy is worth noting for several reasons. His monograph aims to unhinge a laboriously constructed, fiercely guarded citadel of social science wisdom: the idea that new technology, most importantly nuclear weapons technology, can alter the fundamentals of political competition. Lieber mostly succeeds in this endeavor, but, as he implies in the conclusion, his achievement leaves those concerned with international relations and defense policy with much work to do.

Lieber’s demolition strategy forces so-called offense-defense theory into social science requirements espoused by leading methodologists, so it can be rigorously tested against the historical record. He identifies the core of the theory with military technologies that dramatically increase either the mobility or firepower of land-based forces. Expansion of railroad networks during the late nineteenth century increased the quantities of men and materiel that could be moved, and reduced the time for mobilizing armies. Incorporation of the tank into combined-arms operations freed fighting from the static trench warfare of World War I. Railroads and tanks, then, are candidates for offensive technologies. By contrast, the small-arms and artillery revolution of the late-nineteenth century and the nuclear revolution of the twentieth century are evaluated as harbingers for defensive dominance.

In case after case, Lieber finds that new mobility at the tactical or operational levels can be harnessed at the strategic level to serve defensive as well as offensive political goals. On the other hand, firepower, up to and including nuclear warheads packing the explosive punch of over one million tons of TNT, can be overcome—using duck-and-cover tactics in the conventional realm or brinkmanship in the nuclear era. In sum, Lieber finds little evidence that technology, in and of itself, ever exacerbated or ameliorated international competition. What matters is what mattered to Machiavelli—opportunities for gains in influence afforded by the international balance of power.

Unfortunately for the purist version of realism that War and the Engineers espouses and fortunately, perhaps, for international politics, readers may question whether national-power comparisons confound scholars as much as net assessments for offensive advantage. When analysts attempt to measure the systemwide distribution of capabilities or break this down into smaller dyadic comparisons, they find that power, like advantage, involves other variables besides numbers of troops or classes of equipment. As Raymond Aron persuasively argued during America’s Cold War trials with irregular warfare, the balance of power for a given conflict also depends on skill, geography, and domestic comity—in other words, the kinds of variables Lieber eschews as so much unscientific hand waving.

Lieber reserves his most devastating criticism for Stephen Van Evera’s Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict (Cornell University Press, 1999), an ode to defensive dominant technology as a means for warding off tragedy in great-power politics. Yet, Van Evera’s argument is not engaged on its own terms. Lieber assiduously separates technology from organization and doctrine while Van Evera does not.

In justifying the spare approach, Lieber asks readers to consider how equipment variables are easier to measure compared to doctrine. Also, he argues, powerful militaries generally get it right: they rapidly optimize their use of acquired technologies to support offensive or defensive political objectives. Still, Adam Stulberg and Michael Salomone of the Georgia Institute of Technology analyze defense transformation as a complex, managerial challenge that some militaries address ahead of others. Their blow-by-blow account of German reorganization and experimentation across the interwar years in Managing Defense Transformation (Ashgate, 2007) contrasts sharply with Lieber’s epiphanic debut for blitzkrieg in the May 1940 Battle of France.

In isolating equipment from doctrine, Lieber does demonstrate how little developments in pure technology alter the fundamentals of international competition. Those who favor arms control as a means of mitigating certain deadly incentives for aggression are obliged to push back against Lieber’s thesis at least enough to show how variation in science and technology management drives increases in offensive military power as well as perceptions of its effectiveness. In this context, Van Evera’s prodding to think holistically about technology—in terms of what happens under varying combinations of doctrine or geography and in terms of how certain weapon technologies sow seeds of overoptimism—has to be carefully reevaluated.

Today, the United States engages other militaries in a mixed world, featuring space-based targeting systems that might allow standoff platforms to pick apart another state’s defenses with impunity, alongside the presence of robust nuclear arsenals capable of administering unbearable punishment to a would-be conqueror. For Lieber, few technical arrangements could soften fears of an opportunistic, space-supported strike or discourage aggression even after nuclear weapons entered the arena.

On the other hand, Lieber’s critics will recall instances when the “president’s explicit and public rejection of mutual assured destruction” (p. 147) succumbed to joint declarations averring that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Beyond bans on equipment, exchanges of information as part of the negotiation and verification processes in arms control can buttress defense estimates and leaders’ perceptions respecting the full costs of a first strike.

War and the Engineers speaks directly to military strategists and students of international politics. Within these audiences, modern skeptics of arms control will find systematic, historical support of their inclinations. For foreign policy and defense analysts who hold out hope, War and the Engineers provides the right kind of provocation. A less rarefied, more practical version of offense-defense theory may yet rescue deterrence policy. An improved version of offense-defense theory, however, will still confront Lieber’s gauntlet: under what conditions, if any, can technology be engineered to preserve peace?

Dr. Damon Coletta

US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."