As those of you who regularly read this blog may have noticed, I’ve started to look into military innovation during periods of change (after a war, during an RMA, und so weiter). My plan is for this to ultimately culminate in a doctoral dissertation, but I am quite a long way out from that. In the meantime, I’ve attempted to compile a list of significant work that already exists on this topic; I’m still nowhere close to collecting everything. The difficulty, as with most research, is reading through enough material to both find a gap in the literature and have an original idea about how to fill it.
But the more I’ve read, the more I’ve become particularly fascinated by the interaction between power transitions and military innovation. Not only is this topic captivating in its own right but it is also extremely timely. After all, the rise of China has been reviving interest in both power transition theory as well as arms racing dynamics and military innovation. Historically, there are some especially interesting examples of power transitions leading to innovation. Japan, for instance, largely pioneered a new model of naval warfare based around aircraft carriers as it began its imperial expansion. Germany, with secret help from the Soviets, also developed some extremely innovative tank designs and tactics that proved quite decisive in the early part of World War Two. And China is really pushing the boundaries of science and technology today, investing heavily in advanced AI and hypersonics.
The opposite is also true. Countries that are in decline or stagnant have had some significant failures in the realm of military innovation. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, Britain rested on its laurels. The result was an underfunded and stagnant military. After all, the land power France was the first to develop ironclad warships. The Austro-Hungarians, never a convincing military power, didn’t just stagnate but actively rejected artillery innovations under the logic that faster firing cannons would waste ammunition and should thus be avoided. This proved to be a costly decision.
So what might explain the relative dynamism of rising powers? I’m still far from developing a clear, coherent set of arguments, but a few come to mind:
1. Rising powers tend to take on increasingly global responsibilities. This means that previously neglected branches of the military receive more funding and scrutiny that can force them to innovate. For example, British imperial expansion compelled the country to develop a well-trained, nimble land force that could surge to areas across the globe. German imperial ambitions and acquisition of territory in Africa during the late 19th century had the opposite effect, pushing the government to shift money into the navy to ensure sea lanes to its new colonies were protected.
2. Relatedly, rising powers tend to see rapid growth in their military forces and the demands placed on them. This serves to break down entrenched bureaucratic structures and erode the organizational rigidities impeding new ways of thinking and operating. In other words, think of Mancur Olson’s work on special interest groups but in the context of the military.
3. Rising powers also tend to find themselves embroiled in more militarized disputes. Dealing with combat scenarios against a wider range of adversaries forces innovation by highlighting one’s own shortcomings and introducing the military to the different tactics and technologies of the enemy. In economics parlance, this would be a form of learning by doing.
4. Rising powers might also be more likely to find themselves allied with other major powers, creating further opportunities for learning and innovation. There is a reason that NATO exercises as much as it does: these maneuvers allow member states to learn from each other and practice fighting together.
5. Rising powers also tend to be economically dynamic, which means they have access to a greater amount of resources that they can then invest in R&D.
I’m sure that I am missing some crucial arguments and caveats, and I fully recognize that established powers are capable of innovating as well (it was the United States, after all, that developed stealth technology). Nonetheless, I’m increasingly convinced this is a fruitful area of research, so I encourage any comments or advice from you as I continue to flesh out my thinking.