“The ultimate cause of our failure was a simple one: despite all statements to the contrary, it was not due to lack of bravery on the part of our men, or to any fault of the Fleet’s. We were defeated by one thing only – by the inferior science of our enemies. I repeat – by the inferior science of our enemies.”
The story is about a war in which one side has the numerical and slight technological advantage. Instead of exploiting that numerical advantage and risking loosing lives it comes up with a new weapon. The fleet must be retrofitted to house the new weapon, allowing the enemy time to gain the numerical advantage and moral. When the new upgraded Fleet goes into action the numerical advantage of the other side proves superior to the new weapon’s destructive capability. But not to fear, the science boys have a new super computer capable of turning the tide in the war. Unfortunately the super computer takes up a huge amount of space and requires 500 men to operate it. The battleships cannot contain both its’ own crew and the technical staff, so the technical staff is in unarmed frigates that sticks close to the battleships. The war goes well for a while, until the enemy, still with the numerical advantage, starts targeting the frigates at all costs. Once the technical staff are lost the fleet cannot fight and are slaughter. By now the enemy is striking targets in the solar system, but the science boys have the ace in the hole. They develop a device that warps space locally but maintains surface area of original space. Think of a rubber sheet in between two rings. One can pull the rubber sheet down and “stretch” space but the diameter of the ring doesn’t change even though the distance to the center does. Now picture that in three dimensions (ha!) So anyways this new technology is leaps and bounds above the enemy. It allows the ships to go undetected and also, so long as the device is active, un-attackable. It is like flaming sticks vs. machine guns. The only down side is the ships have to turn the field off to actually engage targets, but with the new weapon and hit and fade attacks things go great. Yet there is an unforeseen consequence to this in that the ship itself is warped slightly when brought back into alignment with normal space. Systems begin to malfunction and worse yet there are physical distortions, by the end of the war not a single bolt from one battleship would fit into another’s nuts. So they lost, because the perception was their science was unbeatable. In essence their science was too good to not use, but not good enough to actually win the war. The inferior science won the day.
Clarke modeled this after the German V2 program which was a massive expense and did no where near the damage as say a full fledge invasion would have. The V2 program was also immensely expensive and drew valuable funds from the Nazi war chest that could have been used on more conventional weapons. While the English and the Americans tended to rely more on traditional forces the Nazi’s thought that German science would see them through. Luckily, it didn’t. I though Clarke’s point was very interesting and I began to think about the war in Iraq.
I looked it up on the net, so I do not know how accurate this figure is, but I feel it is in the ballpark, the Bradley Fighting Vehicles costs about $3.1 Million each. I read about a Bradley being destroyed at least 2-4 times a month by road side bombs. A road side bomb is pretty basic engineering made from some pretty basic material. Such a bomb could not cost more than a few hundred dollars tops. That means that for a few hundred dollars the enemy is able to take out a weapon orders of magnitude more expensive. It is a general fault of Americans to believe that technology will see us through. That instead of sending a battalion of marines we need only send a Bradley. We have a perception that our technology is so leaps and bounds above the enemy that we simply can’t loose and do not need to commit the human resources needed to get the job done. I think part of this stems from the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, we often only hear about the atomic bombs ending the war without the massive cost of life needed for an invasion. Though this holds some water, American planes flew uncontested in Japanese airspace and had been firebombing Japan for months prior to the atomic bombs being dropped. Far from the dues ex machina that they are often portrayed as, the atomic bombs were the straws that broke the camel’s back. Perhaps technology won the war faster and with less bloodshed then, but I don’t think one can truly say for sure either way.
Nevertheless, it seems to be built into the American mentality that technology is the solution when it clearly isn’t. For example, in the Kosovo conflict we extensively used the “smart bombs” that home in on radio and/or microwave signals. It sounds very impressive to think that one bomb costing between $55,000 - $110,000 (average $83,000) could destroy a radio/microwave tower. Do you want to know how our smart bomb got out foxed? Walk into the kitchen and think about how the smart bomb works. Did you figure it out? So here is how they outsmarted our latest greatest technology. They took a microwave oven, modified it to run with its door open (easy process of fooling the catch sensor/trigger). Then they took the microwave out into a field pointed it up towards the sky, hooked it up to a generator, or ran it right off the grid, and left. A microwave oven produces a big time amount of radiation compared to a tower so the smart bombs homed in on microwave ovens in the field rather than on real towers. A cheap microwave oven costs $75 assuming you needed a generator that is another $500 or so. So we spent around $83,000 to destroy $600 worth of household appliances!
The point isn’t that technology has no place, but technology cannot replace certain aspects of war. We needed more troops on the ground in Iraq when we went in and we need them now to get the job done. That is clear. It is also clear that our smart bombs, though the media didn’t talk much about this, are still pretty dumb compared to people who know even some basic physics. The sad fact is a high school student could have countered our smart bombs! I am afraid that the nation is forgetting that war is bloody and a dirty business for both victor and looser. We think that our smart bombs only kill the bad guys, when in reality they go astray and are easily fooled. We want to think that our superior Bradleys’ can take anything the enemy throws at them, when all it takes is a road side bomb. We want war to be less horrible – a noble goal indeed – but our technology cannot meaningfully accomplish that goal. The only truly meaningful way to make war less horrible is to not get into wars in the first place. I am afraid we are going to loose in Iraq in the end because we thought our technology would pull us through. We laughed at the cheap makeshift bombs, even as they destroy our million dollar a pop tanks.
Our science is so good we can’t help but use it, but it isn’t good enough to win the war by itself. Unfortunately, not enough people realize that and troops and a nation are paying the price for that lack of understanding.