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Forecasting change in military technology

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Michael O'Hanlon

Michael E. O’Hanlon (BROOKINGS)

Senior Fellow – Foreign PolicyCenter for 21st Century Security and Intelligence

Director of Research – Foreign Policy

The Sydney Stein, Jr. Chair

This paper revisits the debate that raged in American defense circles in the 1990s over whether a revolution in military affairs was imminent in the early parts of the 21st century. It also seeks to establish a benchmark, and reaffirm as well as refine a methodology, for forecasting future changes in military-related technologies by examining what has transpired in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Taking this approach helps improve and validate the methodology that is employed in my forthcoming book, Credible Deterrence: Preventing and Limiting War with Russia and China (2019). A subsequent paper seeks to extrapolate a similar analysis out to 2040, gauging the potential for major breakthroughs in military technology and associated operational concepts over the next two decades. Such analysis is of critical importance for evaluating American and allied military and strategic options relevant to great-power war and deterrence in the years ahead.

The paper’s category-by-category examination of military technology mirrors the approach that I employed in a book published in 2000, Technological Change and the Future of Warfare (though it really should have been entitled, The So-Called Revolution in Military Affairs, because I was largely challenging the then-popular notion that a military revolution of historic importance was afoot). Much of the research foundation of that book was the study of a list of 29 different types of technologies in an attempt to gauge which might undergo revolutionary change by 2020. Through a combination of basic concepts of physics, examination of the scientific and engineering literature on various types of technological research, and consultation with experts including at several of the nation’s major weapons laboratories, I argued that in fact only two of the 29 were likely to experience truly revolutionary change. Those two were computer hardware and computer software. I predicted that another eight categories would likely witness high change—chemical sensors, biological sensors, radio communications, laser communications, robotics, radio-frequency weapons, nonlethal weapons, and biological weapons. The remaining 19 categories of key military technologies, many of them sensor technologies or major components of weapons platforms like ground combat vehicles, aircraft, ships, and rockets, seemed likely to advance at only modest or moderate rates.


Forecasting change in military technology, 2020-2040 –Michael E. O’Hanlon 



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