The Lethality Peak

18 December 2008


The history of warfare from prehistory to the middle of the twentieth century reveals a steady increase in lethality, culminating in the mass slaughter of soldiers during the First World War and the mass slaughter of the civilians during the Second World War. The temptation is to extrapolate this trend, and this temptation was given support by the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, which seemed to portend the totality of lethality in warfare, i.e., the suicide of the human species through the steady improvement of warfighting capability.

Near the end of the Cold War (though the idea dates from 1958), nuclear scientists produced what was called a “neutron bomb” (an “enhanced radiation weapon”, or ERW), which would minimize the physical infrastructure damage of a nuclear explosion while producing massive amounts of radiation that would kill all the inhabitants of a targeted area. Such a device represents the apotheosis of the trend to lethality, the ultimate anti-personnel weapon, even to purposefully limiting infrastructure destruction while maximizing casualties.

But the neutron bomb was controversial. It had a deservedly ghoulish reputation. It was portrayed in the media of the time as a weapon that would empty enemy cities of their populations, so that presumably other populations could be moved into the nearly undamaged physical infrastructure. One must ask who would want to be part of such an unenviable colonization scheme. It would be difficult to argue for the military necessity of such a weapon. (Although the designer of the neutron bomb gave compelling arguments for his invention.)

The US and France produced and deployed some neutron bombs, but later disassembled them. No country is currently known to deploy a neutron weapon. Subsequent events, moreover, suggest that the trend of lethality in war has leveled off, and future history may show lethality to be a curve that peaked in the twentieth century. Alternatively, lethality in warfighting may well describe a sigmoid (i.e., “s”) curve rather than an exponential growth curve, with the organized slaughter of the twentieth century representing the attainment of a plateau of lethality.

The effects-based warfare doctrine of contemporary war planners emphasizes more than ever the precise use of munitions and the minimizing of casualties. Effects-based warfare is as yet imperfectly realized, and unintended casualties are still common, but statistics tell an even more dramatic story than the anecdotal incidents favored by television cameras. Recent wars have seen a precipitous drop in casualties. Military casualties from recent combat operations are historically low, not merely in terms of incremental rates, but by an order of magnitude.

There is every reason to believe that gradual but continual improvements in military technology will be better able to realize the aims of effects-based warfare in the future, that targets will be selected and eliminated with ever greater precision, that fewer civilian and non-combatant deaths will result, and that civil society can be largely left intact even while a regime and its military power are painstakingly excised from the body politic. Such efforts constitute something of a de facto “neutron bomb” targeted exclusively at enemy military and leadership targets, or rather we should say that the “smart bomb” has taken up where the neutron bomb left off.

It is not only technology that is pushing military operations toward lower lethality, but is as much due to the change in the social context of warfare. US Army planners recently released an updated field manual to focus more on non-conventional forms of combat. The new army field manual speaks in terms of “persistent conflict” and “stability operations”. Army FM 7-0, Training for Full Spectrum Operations, is an update of the previous Field Manual published in October 2002. The “full spectrum” of the title refers to “the spectrum of conflict, from General War to Stable Peace.” This represents an admirable sophistication of doctrine, although it has been called “a pre 9-11 regurgitation.” Whatever its institutional shortcomings — and any bureaucracy as large as the army will, of necessity, move slowly — the army is attempting to change its thinking about war. Initiatives such as full spectrum operations and outcomes-based training represent new social technologies (which I have previously discussed in this forum) that have emerged as a response to novel threats.

The evolution of society is driving an evolution in the warfare that emerges from changing societies. And what has changed societies more, in turn, than war? Western history was permanently changed by the experiences of the two world wars of the twentieth century. So we find that civilization and war are in a relationship of co-evolution, each driving the development of the other, and being driven in turn.

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