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The Evolution of Warfare and the US Navy's "Rail Gun"

Dec 13, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

I was reading, with great interest, the announcement that the U.S. Navy has demonstrated a new electromagnetic "rail gun" that can shoot projectiles at Mach 7 for a distance of 100 miles. Yes, it's futuristic, but I think it's more important because it's yet another milestone on the ever-increasing abstraction of warfare.

Watch the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey to imagine how war was approached before we became "civilized": face to face, blunt objects, and whoever swung first or with more force won the scuffle. Battles ended relatively quickly because, as with animals fighting for territory, hurting and besting the opponent was sufficient for a victor to be recognized.

Even as recently as the American Civil War, warfare was still face-to-face, as non-combatants would sit on the surrounding hills to watch the battle progress, though one wonders about stray bullets and misdirected cannon fire.

It was about the beginning of the Twentieth Century that civilians became legitimate targets in battle, rather than observers as professional soldiers and conscripts fought on their behalf. World War II was rife with loosely justified attacks on civilian targets, ranging from Angell's defense of the bombing and destruction of the German city of Dresden as an attack on a "military and industrial target" to the German all-out attempt to defeat the English with The Blitz, which began with 76 consecutive nights of bombs dropped on London.

The Next War Won't Be Won with Technology

Even as our weapons have become more efficient and higher-tech (think "surveillance satellites" and "cellular network monitoring") the trend in conflict is guerilla warfare where the rules are changed and civilians have become not just acceptable but desirable targets of terror campaigns. Indeed, terrorists seek not to defeat the opposing military power, but instead have the goal of economic or civil disruption. In this world of future war, the tech of major military nations like the United States of America, China and the Soviet Bloc will prove almost useless.

From an interpersonal perspective, the trend seems pretty clear: money isn't going to win the next war, higher tech isn't going to win the next war, because it's not about a further abstraction of warfare where battles are fought on command and control computer systems but about being in the trenches, going door-to-door in a small village where anyone can be a combatant. (Vietnam foreshadowed this modern world of warfare in many ways, from the impossibility of attaining a clear, outright victory to the terrible, yet inevitable, tragedy of Mai Lai)

On the one hand, the technological achievement of the new rail gun by the U.S. Navy and its contractors is fantastic, but isn't it taking us in the wrong direction? The next major war won't be nation against nation, it'll be group against group, or religion against religion, with few, if any, clearly identified targets and wholesale attacks on civilians. When a so-called dirty bomb is detonated in Paris, Jakarta, or Washington DC, rail guns aren't going to have any targets for their retaliation.

I started out with a movie reference, so I'll end with one too. Go watch Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and pay close attention to the arguments in the "War Room" while thinking about our contemporary world. The next war won't be neatly demarked by ICBM lights blinking on a situation board, but thousands of individuals infiltrating the enemy's world.

In that world is something like a Mach 7 Rail Gun really going to keep us safe?