It’s Science—Not Magic

Dec. 1, 1986

Among the spectators in the stands for the tactical capabilities exercise during AFA’s Gathering of Eagles last spring was Gen. Robert T. Marsh, USAF (Ret.). He, along with thousands of others watching from the bleachers, saw a A-10s and F-16s roll in across some low hills to bombard trucks and bunkers with live ordnance. It was precision delivery all the way. An impressive number of the gravity bombs centered their targets, and most of the other were near bull’s-eyes, clearly within lethal range.

When a few rounds missed, though, the crowd was noticeably disappointed. General Marsh, who is Chairman of AFA’s Science and Technology Committee, had a different reaction. The staple of firepower demonstrations of the past, he says, was area bombing by inter-valometer. In those days, the accuracy wasn’t good enough for show-quality sharp shooting. Tactical precision has come a long way.

A similar assessment comes from Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. Aldridge, Jr., who, in his remarks to the AFA National Convention in September, said that tactical weapons accuracy has increased by a third since 1980. Modern precision-guided weapons, of course, take long-range accuracy far beyond anything seen in the Gathering of Eagles demonstration. The Air Force, General Marsh says, has entered a new era of precision, an achievement that he rates among the most significant developments in military airpower over the past forty years.

Tactical precision is just one illustration — although a spectacular one — of how technology is reshaping the art of war. Anyone who has been in or around the Air Force for long can think of numerous other examples.

The general trend in technological progress I indisputable. Yet there is a fairly broad apprehension about trusting too much in technology for future military effectiveness. The anti-technologists put up a variety of arguments. Technology costs too much. It’s too complex for us to assimilate. The gadgets don’t work the way they’re supposed to. Scientific innovation is dangerous and destabilizing. It leads to change for change’s sake and forces on us capabilities that we don’t really need.

In each of these arguments there is a sliver of truth, but not much more than that. While technology is expensive, it’s often the least costly way — and sometimes the only way — to solve a problem. Over time, technical devices tend to work, and we learn to use them to our advantage. Scientific change can pose new dangers, but in a military sense, failure to innovate and improve one’s capabilities can be even more dangerous. The Gyro Gearloose school of interpretation might accuse basic research of finding answers for which no questions exist; the evidence of history, however, says that once a technology is developed, plenty of worthwhile applications ensue. Technical complexity is not a virtue in itself — but neither is old-fashioned simplicity. On the whole, systems that incorporate mature modern technologies work better and are easier to use than their less-technical predecessors.

A great many people find technology bewildering. They don’t understand it, and they’re unsure what to expect from it. The National Science Foundation reports that the US public is very interested in science, but knows little about scientific matters. A majority believes that technology will eventually solve most of the world’s problems — if technology doesn’t destroy the world first. Research by Dr. Jon D. Miller of Northern Illinois University finds that only seven percent of American adults meet minimum standards of scientific literacy, that forty-three percent of them think earth has been visited by extraterrestrial creatures, and that forty percent of them believe in lucky numbers. More than half worry that technologists have cornered the market on scientific information and might use this power in dangerous ways.

In their ambivalence, people often seem inclined to swing back and forth between extreme positions. At one extreme, they have an excessive faith in technology, expect perfection every time, and are harshly intolerant of shortcomings. At the other extreme is fundamental distrust of technology and disinclination toward new technological ventures. Neither of these positions recognizes technology for what it is: a tool kit for improvement. Most of the time, the tool kit works well, but it’s science, not magic. There will be some failures along with the successes, because technological development inherently involves reaching and risk-taking.

In military developments, particularly, it is important to set the right level of technical risk. The probability of failure is great when a new system pushes too far beyond state-of-the-art technology. But if the risk level is too timid, the system may be obsolete by the time it’s fielded, or the limited gains may not be worth the effort. “The combat capability of the Army, Navy, and Air Force today did not result from marginal improvements,” says Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, Commander of Air Force Systems Command. “No risk means no payoff.”

The history of the last half-century encourages optimism about technology as the engine of progress. Technology, as a general proposition over time, takes several steps forward for every step it falls back.

There’s no getting away from the fact that technology will be a major determinant of the future, so it is important for all of us to understand it as well as we can. Seven percent scientific literacy in the adult population, for example, is insufficient.

Attitudes toward science and technology are important, too. The most sensible view is that technology is neither omnipotent nor malevolent, but rather a set of tools that work well when we use them wisely and have a realistic notion of what to expect.