The shift from analogue to digital technology that started in the late-1950s and gained serious momentum in the 1970s has now reached lift-off speed. Innovations based on this radical development include advanced computing, the internet, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Such is the magnitude of the change that these and similar technologies are driving that many commentators believe we have entered a “Third Industrial Revolution”.
Like its predecessors, the Third Industrial Revolution is expected to create dramatic social and economic change, in this instance by hollowing-out workforces by up to 80 per cent as people increasingly are replaced by robotics.
Because air power is an intensely technological business, its practitioners are well-placed to prosper in this new environment.
Air forces have always substituted machines for manpower. This approach will become even more pronounced as the current industrial revolution continues to enhance the already formidable capabilities of UAVs and other unmanned weapons (for example, loitering ISR and strike systems).
The emphasis air forces have placed on technology has created a distinctive employment model. Whereas the nature of land and sea warfare has made it necessary for armies and navies to take large numbers of people into the field or out to sea, only a very small proportion of an air force takes to the skies. The RAAF, for example, has a “warrior” clique of only 700 pilots, less than 100 of whom fly strike/fighters.
In other words, compared to armies and navies, air forces will be relatively unaffected by the inexorable replacement in warfare of people by machines.
The Third Industrial Revolution has also increased the likelihood that land and sea power will be replaced to an even greater extent by air power. This ongoing process evokes the controversial “substitution” debate in British defence circles in the 1920s and 1930s.
When the (British) Royal Air Force was formed as the world’s first independent air force in 1918 it faced bitter opposition from the British army and navy; consequently, the RAF was constantly looking for new ways to justify its existence. The most contentious of these was the proposal made by the RAF’s first chief of staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, that air power could be substituted for land and sea power.
Trenchard won support from the influential politician Winston Churchill, and in 1922 the RAF was “substituted” for the British Army in the task of policing the British mandate of Iraq.
Using a strategy known as “Air Control”, the RAF kept watch over vast expanses of territory. If a tribe was detected behaving against British interests, a note would be air-dropped advising them to desist, otherwise aircraft would return at a specified time and destroy crops, herds, water supplies, and so on. The method was remarkably successful. Furthermore, it was economical: by replacing 33 Army battalions with five RAF squadrons, the British Government reduced the annual cost of its garrison in Iraq from £20 million to £2 million. Air Control was subsequently applied successfully in other remote areas of the British Empire.
The notion of “substitution” extended into the equally-heated debate of whether aircraft could sink warships.
In trials off the US coast in 1921, flimsy bombers commanded by the outspoken American air power advocate William “Billy” Mitchell had sunk the captured German battleship Ostfriesland. But despite that and similar impressive tests, many navy officers refused to accept that aircraft constituted a threat to capital ships. The skeptics were given the most brutal rebuke on 10 December 1941, when land-based Japanese bombers sank the British warships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya. Six months later near Midway Island, American carrier-based aircraft sank four Japanese aircraft carriers, effectively ending Japanese expansionism. This was one of history’s defining battles: the fleets never came within sight of each other, and all the fighting was done by aircraft.
From then on, warships operating without air cover had to be considered at risk, a reality of warfare that remains applicable today.
The trend towards substitution has gained momentum as Western political leaders have finally realised that their armies cannot win so-called “counter-insurgency” wars. Fifty years of persistent failure (Algeria, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, etc) and unacceptable levels of casualties have popularised the notion of substituting air power for land and sea forces.
Thus, US president Barack Obama’s strategy for combating the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya is based on advanced (Western) air power and local ground forces (the latter receiving expert assistance from small numbers of Western Special Forces). It’s also noteworthy that Saudi Arabia is employing air strikes as the primary means of attacking Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The substitution of technology for human labour has been a dominant feature of previous Industrial Revolutions. As the consequences of the Third Industrial Revolution become more widely experienced and better understood, air power’s standing as the weapon of first choice for developed states is likely to strengthen.
Cody Stephens is a law graduate who works in technology and innovation research