On August 28, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced a bold initiative called “Replicator”, which involves using thousands of drones across “multiple domains” to compensate for the US’s relative lack of military mass compared to China. The ambitious policy is designed to minimize American casualties in a potential conflict with Chinese forces, which Hicks claims the US does best: “master the future character of war.” The impact of the Replicator on military training, education, and doctrine remains to be seen. But, despite the external novelty, the spirit of this declaration has a history.
In 1955, as the Soviet threat became more apparent, President Dwight Eisenhower drafted policies recognizing that future conflicts would involve the use of nuclear weapons. The following year, Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell D. Taylor announced that his service was “burning its military textbooks to remove the old and make room for the new.” According to historian Brian McAllister Lynn, nuclear hysteria ushered in a “siege mentality” of adapt or die, leading to desperate attempts to “adopt change for its own sake”.
Lynn believes that the novelty of nuclear weapons overshadowed military thinking, and the Army “struggled to achieve the greatest combat effectiveness using the minimum men, money, and material.” Thus began the widespread transformation of America’s ground forces into weak organizations designed for limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union. This became known as “The Pentomic Army”, based on the idea of ”five subordinate battle groups of five companies each”.
Not unlike the Replicator, this reform was inspired by a technological revolution, the fear of “falling behind” in the emerging bipolar security environment, and study by several prestigious institutions. Yet, within several years, the Pentagon canceled the program, increased its presence in Vietnam, and many of these concepts were taken into the jungle where they disappeared. Feeling that it had gone too far, the Army discarded the Pentomic design, but the pull toward faster and more dramatic improvements persisted.
In 2023, the artificial intelligence revolution has made tech enthusiasts push the orthodoxy of technological determinism with all the confidence of Maxwell Taylor. The Replicator initiative has great potential, but several lessons from the pentonomic era are worth considering as America speeds down this innovation highway in its “decisive decade.”
First, the complexity of converting ideas into effects means that overly ambitious projects may outstrip the nature of warfare and the military’s ability to absorb large-scale change. In the worst cases, this leads to reliance on unproven capabilities between wars that prove irrelevant or non-existent during them. The Pentomic Initiative, the airborne-capable Sheridan Tank, and the Future Combat Systems program are three previous examples of belief in technology to change the character of warfare.
The aspirational nature of innovation can produce promises in peace that are difficult to keep in war – a lesson learned and forgotten earlier in this century. Despite entering Iraq and Afghanistan with a coalition promoting weapons described by General Tommy Franks as “science fiction”, the Pentagon received multiple troop surges, a 24-month-long deployment, the mobilization of National Guard and Reserve units and Until action had to be taken. Controversial stop loss program.
Military families shouldered the burden of these policies, but they also shocked the American public, who had come to believe that American technological supremacy rendered such traditional demands obsolete. Yet collectivization proved essential even in the fight against not just a two-million-strong combined arms force with heavy bombers and a blue-water navy, but several thousand poorly armed extremists. This confusion can be attributed to America’s quick victory in the Gulf War, which is misunderstood in some circles as the rule rather than the exception. The possibility of a Gulf war in the Indo-Pacific region is idealistic.
One of the greatest mistakes of the nuclear era was its attachment to the idea of ”limited” or “strategic” nuclear war. This concept supposedly limited the use of nuclear weapons to the battlefield and kept the fighting “out there.” Like modern efforts, this cozy fantasy gave future conflicts involving commercial progress a scientific cover that insulated society from the ugliness of war.
However, the myth of cheap spectator wars makes it easier to enter one on favorable terms than to exit one. For much of the last century, American officials and defense contractors have worked hard to harness modern science, but in the process they may not keep promises related to decisive conflicts in which new weapons would be the “butcher’s bill.” Let’s reduce it.
Since 2022, the Ukrainian military has actually benefited from small, expendable unmanned systems in its fight against Russia. But in less than two years thousands of Ukrainians have lost their lives, and Kiev has had to mobilize much of its society to make those gains possible. Innovation is important, but it cannot be tied to fashionable theories that turn war into the Kabuki of euphemisms.
British historian Sir Michael Howard believed that the Allies had made a serious mistake by focusing on smaller conflicts before World War I because they were not able to imagine otherwise. The pantomic illusion followed this trend, depicting nuclear war as a military affair because the alternative was too terrifying for a world still reeling from 1945.
Today, leaders in Washington can avoid falling into similar traps by ensuring that innovation helps the military win ugly wars as much as it aims to avoid them, and by reducing the social and economic consequences of the massive conflict in East Asia. By clearly communicating industrial losses. Such candor will increase the likelihood that promises made in peace will be kept during war.
U.S. Army Captain Michael P. Ferguson, Ph.D. Are. student in the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the co-author of “The Military Legacy of Alexander the Great: Lessons for the Information Age, The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
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