#8: Technology doesn't win wars. Why the US pretends it does. | Top 10 2019

Big Think's eighth most popular video of the year reveals what the real future of war could look like.

SEAN MCFATE: War is getting sneakier. War is going underground. And we have to go underground with it. We have to fight in the shadows. Otherwise, we will be left behind. So for example, you know, in this type of new environment, some of the best weapons do not fire bullets. In the old days, the old rules of war, when the Soviet Union wanted to arrest the West, wanted to sort of freak out NATO, what it would do was hold a huge military exercise on the border of Germany, East and West Germany. 150,000 troops. And NATO and the United States wasn't sure, like, well, is this an exercise or could it be a real invasion? And that would shake things up. But that's the old days, the innocent days.

Today, when Russia wants to shake up Europe, what they do is they weaponize refugees. They deliberately bomb civilian centers in Syria, creating an avalanche of refugees into Europe, which creates Brexit, which creates the rise of right-wing national parties that want to disembowel the European Union. The Soviets wish they could do that, if they could only have done that. So I think this is an example of how wars of the future will be fought. They will not even look like wars to the traditional mind, and a few heads will explode in the Pentagon. Sure. When people think of the threats that face our country today, they think of Russia, China, terrorism, pandemics, et cetera. But those are not the worst problems.

The worst threat is systemic. It's growing entropy in the global system. It's persistent conflict. It's something I call durable disorder. What durable disorder is and what durable disorder means is that we have an emerging global system that can contain problems but not solve them. Meanwhile, we have this post 1945 idea of a liberal world order that the US sort of champions and rules upon, but that world has gone away, and we're not prepared for what follows next. For the United States, the last successful war was World War II. We won decisively in 1945. The world ran on vacuum tubes, yet the idea of conventional war is still the strategic paradigm of which the Pentagon, the military, the modern national security establishment is built around, and this is dangerously wrong.

When you ask people to think about the future of war, often what they tell you is something that looks like World War II with better technology. But there is nothing more unconventional today than conventional war. Nobody fights this way. When people think about what warfare is they think of John Wayne or Saving Private Ryan, they think of killing more enemies, taking more territory, and flying your flag over the enemy's capital. They think of Berlin in '45. They think of Japan's surrender on the battleship, the USS Missouri. And then they wonder why there's not a USS Missouri moment against the Taliban, against ISIS. The reason is nobody fights this way of war anymore, yet we are mired in the past. And as long as we're mired in the past, and war has moved on, we will be left behind. And even an undefeated So if there's one maxim for the last 70 years of war, it's that technology is not decisive in warfare. If you look at big, powerful, technologically advanced militaries go up against low-level Luddites who confound them.

You know, whether it's the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, or America fighting in Vietnam against the North Vietnamese, et cetera, Iraq and Afghanistan, this is, without question, the one thing we should all agree on. Yet for some reason, people think we need to double down and invest in technology for warfare. In fact, for most people, they can't even imagine the future of war without high tech. Such is the bias that we have for it. But this is the definition of insanity, doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. For example, take the F-35 fighter jet. You know, we have not fought, we have not had a strategic dogfight since the Korean War. So why do we need more fighter jets? I do not know. We already have the best fighter jets. And the F-16, the F-15, and the F-18. So why do we need the F-35? And what's even more amazing is that we have spent more on this small airplane than any other weapon in history. We've spent $1.5 trillion on the F-35. That's more than Russia's GDP.

If the F-35 were a country, its GDP would be in the top 15 of the world. And amazingly, it has flown zero combat missions in two long wars. And we're buying more of them. Right? So the idea of putting our faith in technology is ludicrous. It is absolute ludicrous. A lot of people think that the future will belong to AI, artificial intelligence, and cyber and cyber war. But the truth is, if you ask 11 people — well, 10 or 12 experts on what cyber war is, you'll get 20 different answers. All cyber people can agree on is ones and zeros and space. You know, they always come up with these fantastical things. Oh, the power grid for the East Coast can come down. You know, and Hollywood depicts this in James Bond movies. But in reality, cyber, all cyber does, it allows us to do old things in new ways. Old things like espionage, theft, propaganda, and sabotage. There's nothing new about it. I mean, it's not a new way of war, it just allows us to do old things in new ways. So technology is not the savior that most futurists pretend it is when it comes to warfare.

  • Number eight on Big Think's list this year says the future will not even look like wars to the traditional mind. The worst threat is systemic. It's growing entropy in the global system.
  • Today, when Russia wants to shake up Europe — the world — its operatives weaponize refugees. That is, by bombing civilian centers, they create an avalanche of refugees, which, in turn, creates Brexit and the rise of right-wing national parties that want to disembowel the European Union.
  • High-tech is not the savior that many futurists pretend it is when it comes to warfare. As a matter of fact, McFate contends, much of our investment in it is ludicrous. "You know, we have not fought, we have not had a strategic dogfight since the Korean War. So why do we need more fighter jets? I do not know. . . . We've spent $1.5 trillion on the F-35. That's more than Russia's GDP."


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