"Every war," former president Dwight Eisenhower once observed, "is going to astonish you in the way it occurred, and in the way it is carried out." In his new book, The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovation Determines the Fates of Great Powers, Andrew Krepinevich reminds us that in warfare the only constant is change. War might be the "mother of invention," as the British historian A.J.P. Taylor famously said, but innovation itself can shape the destinies of nations.
Krepinevich, the author of several well-regarded books on warfare, spent years at the Department of Defense’s famed Office of Net Assessment, an inhouse think tank. In his latest volume, the scholar shows that militaries that successfully pursue "disruptive innovation" can "gain a major advantage over their rivals, while those that fail to do so risk exposing their countries to great danger."
The topic couldn’t be timelier.
For the first time in modern history, the United States is confronted with a potential war with a peer competitor, China. Beijing has designs on Taiwan and seeks to impose its will far from its shores, reshaping the global order to its benefit.
Meanwhile, as Krepinevich demonstrates, the United States will not be able to avail itself of many of the advantages it possessed in previous great power conflicts. Rather, the nation finds itself in the unenviable position of being thoroughly reliant on an enemy that seeks to destroy American hegemony.
A key component of this competition is in the realm of technology. Artificial intelligence will be a decisive battleground. A.I. has received a lot of attention lately, with the advent of Chat GPT and warnings from luminaries like Henry Kissinger and Elon Musk that A.I. will transform the world. It will also, Krepinevich makes clear, change war.
In 2017, when Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan witnessed Project Maven, a Pentagon effort that utilized A.I. and machine learning, he was so impressed that he suggested "the Department of Defense should never buy another weapon system … without artificial intelligence baked into it."
A.I.’s potential to change warfare spans the gamut, from basic logistics to how war itself is fought. Once largely confined to air, sea, and land, the wars of the future will extend to the realms of space and cyber. And disturbingly, the United States no longer holds a homefield advantage.
A 2021 report by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs warned that China has "become a serious competitor in the foundational technologies of the 21st century" and "will overtake the U.S. in the next decade." The Origins of Victory makes clear this isn’t hyperbole—and that the costs of inaction would be disastrous. Urgency is a necessity.
Yet, the book’s greatest merit rests in framing the future—and the rapidly changing present—in the past.
Krepinevich manages to put the rise of A.I., drone swarms, the internet of things, and big data in their proper historical context. Disruptive technologies are almost as old as warfare itself. He offers a study of modern history that focuses on several momentous changes that, while known to others in his field, might have escaped the general reader.
"History shows," Krepinevich writes, "that a military that first masters the new form of warfare enjoys a clear and potentially decisive advantage over its rivals." And he offers numerous examples.
In the middle of the 19th century, Prussia stood at the forefront of the "Railroad, Rifle and Telegraph Revolution." Trains offered land forces "the advantage of increased speed in mobilization and maneuver at the strategic and operational levels of war" while greatly reducing the wear and tear brought by long marches. They also enabled militaries to rapidly move supplies, further enhancing both their staying power and size.
The use of the telegraph increased a commander’s ability to direct and move troops. And improvements in small arms offered both better accuracy and the ability to engage at longer distances.
Prussia used this revolution in military affairs to its benefit, forging the nation of Germany and defeating the once mighty French empire. Other countries, notably the United States, which itself was fighting a war to unify a continent, soon followed.
The Fisher (or "Dreadnought") Revolution transformed naval warfare. Led by Great Britain, navies began to emphasize speed and were able to operate at greater ranges. New technology in the form of diesel engines and better torpedoes led to a seismic growth in submarine warfare. These advents, coupled with the rise of air warfare and greater mechanization, led to a greater emphasis on geolocating and scouting.
During World War II, signals intelligence and cryptography played a crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Radar, and eventually satellites, became increasingly important as America stood at the forefront of the nuclear age. The Soviets and others soon followed.
Perhaps the most instructive historical lesson that Krepinevich cites is the "Precision-Warfare Revolution," best demonstrated by the quick and relatively painless victory achieved by a U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf war. Stealth aircraft linked to a nascent battle network coupled with laser-guided "smart bombs" changed warfare.
As Gen. Buster C. Glosson, the U.S. military’s director of air campaign plans, noted, "One need only look back to our raids on Schweinfurt, Germany, in World War II to see how dramatically precision weapons have enhanced our capabilities. … Two raids of 300 B-17 bombers could not achieve with 3,000 bombs what two F-117’s can do with only four."
But contrary to appearances, American victory wasn’t achieved overnight. As Krepinevich rightly notes, that revolution in military affairs could be traced back to the 1970s, when the Pentagon began to invest heavily in researching new technologies. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously observed, you "go to war with the army that you have, not the army that you might want or wish to have at a later time." Victory isn’t built overnight. Preparation is key.
Uniquely, the United States maintained its dominance for more than a decade. Potential competitors like Russia and China, beset with economic and development issues, were unable to take the field.
But times change. And so too does warfare. The nature of man, however, does not. "Only the dead have seen the end of war," Plato famously observed. And if war does come, innovation will be key to preserving life, liberty, and freedom against the greatest police state the world has ever known.
As Krepinevich warns, "Silver medals are not awarded to those who come in second."
The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovation Determines the Fates of Great Powers
by Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr.
Yale University Press, 568 pp., $40
Sean Durns is a Washington, D.C.-based foreign affairs analyst.