First, a little background. I’m hard at work writing the fifth volume of the Maxwell Saga, a short story for an anthology to which I’ve been invited to contribute, a fantasy novel that may or may not see the light of day (I have to find out whether it’s good enough first), and the third and final volume of the Laredo Trilogy. The first two are taking most of my time right now, but the other two can’t be ignored.
As part of this, and planning future books, I’m looking at technology and how it evolves, how it can change the military equation, and so on. I can’t help but remember the old adage that “Generals always fight the last war“. It’s so hackneyed that it’s become a cliché, but it’s been true often enough that it’s stood the test of time.
In that light, considering the evolution of naval technology, I couldn’t help but smile as I recalled one of the more (in)famous quotes from the decline of the Age of Sail and the dawn of the Age of Steam.
In 1828 Mr. Hay, of the Colonial Department, had asked that a steamer might carry the mails from Malta to Corfu. To this, Lord Melville, replying in a minute written by himself,
“regretted the inability of my Lords Commissioners to comply with the request of the Colonial Department, as they felt it their bounden duty, upon national and professional grounds, to discourage, to the utmost of their ability, the employment of steam vessels, as they considered that the introduction of steam was calculated to strike a fatal blow to the naval supremacy of the Empire…”
(From p. 27 of ‘A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering’ by Engineer Captain Edgar C. Smith, OBE, RN, published by Cambridge University Press in 1938.)
That opinion didn’t last long. The first steam-powered Royal Navy mail ship was dispatched to the Mediterranean in 1830.
I suppose the argument could be made that Lord Melville was prescient, missing only the timing.
Imagine what he'd say about the welfare state and its effect on Great Britain's naval powers.
Most tech in sf stories assumes 100% uptime, no maintenance, and no huge support staff. The current ratio of 10 remf to 1 front line person. Look at how the Saudis and other Arab states deal with maintenance. How their tribal society makes for a poor quality military. And what it takes for a successful guerilla war. And what's required for a successful counter insurgency.
I'm amazed by the huge progress that has been made since 9-11 in the military. From smart bombs, drones, and training. The amount of us soldiers killed in Iraq surprised me. The ability to minimize damage / civilians killed. Compare that with the Russians in Afghanistan. Truly a military revolution.
Bio warefare is something I expect more in the future, as Dna splicing technolegy gets cheaper. Biomods will become widespread, and breed true.
And what of living, self repairing weapons? Cyber men are old hat, but think beyond that…
Resistance to change is common. In the 18th Century when a couple of junior officers in the Royal Navy and US Navy perfected a system of rapidly leveling the guns, the brass was against it. They feared that it would lead to an aversion to close on the enemy and board then, which was how battles were won…
We should remember that the reason that generals fight the last war is that they know how to fight, rather than dealing with weapons, tactics, and training that are utterly unproven and may prove to be nothing but ways to take 100% casualties.
And that sort of thinking works so well!
Just look at how well the French did versus the Germans in the early WW2. They only had twenty years to spend money and prepare for what they knew would occur. Isn't that enough time and money to get it right?
on the other hand, look at all the newfangled ideas that militaries have tried that ended up utterly failing when they had to go into combat with them.
If you look at history, a lot of the 'new, better' equipment and tactics that have been perfected in peacetime fail utterly when it comes to combat.
Looking at it in a different light, the French preparations between WWI and WWII were an attempt to change the nature of war from what it had been before. They just guessed wrong as to what changes were significant.