Document created: 6 January 04
Air University Review, July-August 1972

The Technological War

Colonel Francis X. Kane, USAF (Ret) 

Technological leadership is essential for the U.S., given the nature of the Soviet society. 

                                                                                                                          Dr. John S. Foster, Jr.

A small, important, but unwelcome book has appeared in the literature of international affairs. The Strategy of Technology,*  by Doctors Possony and Pournelle, is fittingly small because it deals with principles; it is important because it is destined to become one of the fundamental books for the future; it is unwelcome because it illuminates some of our most cherished self-delusions about war, strategy, and policy.

*Stefan T. Possony and J. E. Pournelle, The Strategy of Technology: Winning the Decisive War (New York: The Dunellen Company, Inc., 1970, $7.50), xxxii and 189 pages.

The book is controversial in another sense in that the authors engage in polemics on past programs. Critics of the book have focused on the polemics rather than the fundamentals. Hopefully, however, this book will contribute to forging new options for the future of the United States. One conclusion is clear: we have been committing a major strategic blunder in our current dismantling of our technological base, a blunder that ranks with the demobilization of our armed forces at the end of World War II. That past blunder could be overcome, though at the cost of much treasure, because we had time and a lead in technology.

Our current blunder could be a disaster for us and the Free World if it permits the Soviet Union to become technologically superior. In testimony in 1971 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dr. John S. Foster, Jr., Director of Defense Research and Engineering, stated:

U.S. recovery from such a loss of technological leadership would not be feasible without enormous expenditures over many years—and without grave risk meanwhile of losing our national margin of safety.


The principles articulated by Possony and Pournelle are important because The Strategy of Technology asserts correctly that we are involved in a war-in fact, the decisive war: the technological war. Thus, the authors reason that success in the decisive war requires a deliberate strategy. Such a strategy must recognize that technology has a momentum all its own. In the sixties we saw an attempt in the U.S. to legislate technological change out of existence by postulating that we had reached a “technological plateau.” The conclusion which was supposed to follow was that we did not need to invest time, talent, and treasure into modernizing our technology. Possony and Pournelle show that change in technology follows a “life pattern,” deduced from experience and demonstrated to apply to the present. Their “s” curves of change illustrate that any “leveling off” is not only extremely short-lived but also the prelude to a new cycle of change. The “plateau” never was reached because of the continuing onrush of technology.

Such an attempt to legislate the end of change implied more than the denial of an impersonal momentum; it was based on the false assumption that the course of technology can be controlled unilaterally by the U.S. withdrawing from its mainstream. Understanding and applying the basic principles of momentum are essential to our national security.

The second principle is that the elements of technology are interdependent. Those elements are not national; they are international, even global, in extent and complexity. U.S. withdrawal from the supersonic transport element of technology resulted from a failure to understand this second principle. Development of the SST goes on in French/British and Russian programs. The qualitative changes that will result will not bear the imprint of the U.S. as they could and should.

The third principle is that technology and its impact are ubiquitous. We assumed that the space age ended when we put three astronauts on the moon. We had done what we set out to do; the rest of the world was supposed to follow our lead and thence ignore space. What happened is quite the opposite: our success has called attention of the rest of mankind to the potential of space. Consequently, over half the countries of the world now use satellites on a daily basis for communications and weather. Hundreds of ships use satellites for navigation continuously. Soon satellites will provide the means for direct broadcast to the whole Indian subcontinent and to all of Brazil. The resulting changes in their national education will be profound.

More important, the Soviets have continued an aggressive space program and have applied space technology to offense, defense, surveillance, communications, weather, navigation, and geodesy.

The final principle is that technology paces strategy; it leads strategy and determines its content and effectiveness. This principle is the most controversial one because it expresses what is, not what ought to be. Strategy should lead technology, but it has not and does not. Those who constrain our technology through measures such as reducing the space budget do not give us a better strategy; they reduce our strategy potential and constrain our strategy.

The whole point of Strategy of Technology is to energize effort toward creating a national strategy that can and does lead technology. The second main theme of the work is that such a reversal of relationships and establishment of the proper ones require leadership.

Finding and exerting such leadership go counter to one of the schools of thought that make Possony and Pournelle’s work unwelcome. As they correctly point out, the technological war is inseparably liked to the protracted conflict. Intuitive understanding of that interlinking runs counter to the self-delusion that protracted conflict does not exist. All our past efforts, including General Bernard Schriever’s attempts to create a Technological War Plan and Project Forecast, came to naught because they were unwelcome to those theorists who postulated that U.S. initiatives produced Soviet reactions. In effect, they assumed that the U.S. influenced Soviet behavior. They refused to accept that the Soviets could be pursuing a strategy of technology. Rather than take the intelligent step of creating strategy to guide our dynamic technology, they constrained our technology.

Several important findings follow. We are still waiting for proof of the theorem of the sixties that the Soviets would slow down their technology if we slowed down ours. Events have proven those theorists to be wrong. We might ask why.

Furthermore, we have seen several Presidents attempt to find ways out of the strategic box in which they have been placed by those who constrained technology in the past. As the authors point out, the decisions the President makes on technology have impact two terms later. It follows that in order to cope with current circumstances we must take a view which is both broader and deeper.

Our strategy is confined to tactics—that is, the “realm of the possible.” The key to a strategy adequate for security problems lies in a top-down approach to reversing the present situation. If we have a strategy, we can lead our technology in directions that enhance our security. An after-the-fact strategy is not adequate today and will not be tomorrow.

The technological war is the decisive war. It is also an alternative to destructive war, not a cause of “arms races.” Our goal must be to win that war, not play by play, or game by game, but season after season, for it is a war that will not end unless we default or surrender.

Russian Strategy of Technology

That we do not have a strategy of technology is very clear. That the Russians do have a strategy of technology is equally clear. In his testimony of March 1971, Dr. Foster described the elements of that strategy and its importance.

First, the Soviets have purpose and continuity of purpose. Science and technology have been vital in their thinking since Lenin. They have used research and development to better their position. Their planning and allocation of resources have reflected long-term steadiness of purpose.

Second, they have followed consistent policies on technology. In order to challenge the U.S. technologically, the Soviets have implemented three main lines of policy. They have increased the number of technically qualified people available to them. The number of graduates in engineering and natural sciences grew from 145,000 in 1960 to 247,000 in 1970. Our estimate is that by 1976 the number will grow to 359,000 annually. (The corresponding numbers of graduates in the U.S. are 83,000; 142,000; and 181,000. The latter number for 1976 seems high considering the extent of the depression in the U.S. aerospace industry and the greatly reduced opportunities for employment in the coming years.)

The Soviets have steadily improved the quality and quantity of laboratory and engineering facilities available. They have a planned growth in the floor space of their design bureaus and laboratories to accommodate the growing number of scientists and engineers.

 is to energize effort toward creating a national strategy that can and does lead technology. The second main theme of the work is that such a reversal of relationships and establishment of the proper ones require leadership.

They have steadily increased the amount of money devoted to research and development efforts. Beginning in the early 1950s, the Soviets started to increase steadily their investment in RDT&E. Through 1965 the average annual growth exceeded 10 percent. Since 1965 it has averaged 8 percent. However, in military RDT&E their growth rate since 1968 has been 15 percent per year. U.S. funding for military RDT&E in the same period has been constant. As a result, this year the Soviets will be devoting about 40 to 50 percent more in equivalent effort to military R&D than the U.S.

If the Soviets continue to implement their strategy of technology and we continue to constrain our efforts, the resulting trends will give us cause for concern. We could see several technological surprises; we could expect the Soviets to become technologically superior in military R&D in a few years.

In addition to purpose, continuity, and resources, the Soviet strategy of technology includes secrecy. Secrecy coupled with parity or superiority can give the Soviets a real and substantive advantage over the United States. Contrary to some U.S. theorists, the U.S. policy has been to wait for Soviet advances and then react to them. The so-called “action/ reaction cycle” applies to the U.S. nonstrategy of accommodating to Soviet initiative. But Soviet secrecy and superiority could make timely, effective U.S. reaction impossible.

    We need look only briefly at the list of Soviet advances in recent years to understand the effectiveness of their strategy of technology:
    They have passed us in numbers of ICBM’s.
    They are continuing the rate of SLBM deployment.
    They are continuing to increase the number of satellites launched each year. They have demonstrated the ability to

    “kill” satellites with nonnuclear devices.
    They are creating a global navy and projecting their presence throughout the oceans of the world.
    They are demonstrating formidable new techniques for air defense.
    They are modernizing their aircraft.
    They are equipping their land forces with advanced weapons.

Dr. Foster’s finding that they can increase their civilian RDT&E and still reach military technological supremacy by the mid-seventies will not be accepted by those who complain about the high cost of military and space R&D. As Kosygin pointed out as long ago as 1965, expenditures for space are as helpful to the Soviet economy as any other expenditure. (He doubted that space expenditures were an undue burden in the U.S. either.)

In sum, the Soviet strategy of technology has changed the entire global strategic situation. One of the principal effects is, as Admiral Zumwalt stated before the House Committee on Appropriations, to decrease our military options in the event of a conflict of national interests.

Several important findings follow. We are still waiting for proof of the theorem of the sixties that the Soviets would slow down their technology if we slowed down ours. Events have proven those theorists to be wrong. We might ask why.

Other Strategies of Technology

The Soviets have had spectacular success, but General de Gaulle also made significant advances by implementing his own strategy of technology. His purpose (unwelcome as it was within the NATO alliance) was to permit France to play an independent role. Independence applied to more than political decisions; for de Gaulle, it also meant that he could circumvent U.S. laws prohibiting collaboration in nuclear energy programs and develop his own missile and computer technology. By sustained effort he created an independent nuclear deterrent, the force de frappe (now called force de dissuasion) Presently, Mirage IV-A aircraft are being augmented by medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) in hardened silos and by sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

Emerging countries also are attempting to develop their own strategies of technology. The Jackson Report of 1969 pointed out the need for better management of the programs of the Second Development Decade for the industrial, educational, and economic advances of these ninety nations.

We have little insight into the R&D of Red China, but it seems clear that they appreciate several fundamentals: Possessing nuclear weapons, missiles, and satellites does not make a nation a great power, but having them is essential to becoming a great power. Consequently, Red China is creating them.

Finally, we have yet to see what Japan will do in advanced R&D. Japan, however, is a space power and is increasing its defense budget significantly.

Options for the U.S.

Possony and Pournelle have catalogued the assumptions governing our strategy and challenged some of our most persistent fallacies. One of these fallacies regards science as a substitute for military judgment; another so regards systems analysis. In the past we used management as a substitute for strategy and assumed that the more centralized the management was the more responsive and effective the strategy would be. However, their dissection of errors, delusions, and fallacies is a prelude to their positive steps for improvement. 

Their emphasis is on creative leaders who capitalize on the technological process and make judgments in keeping with the reality of that process. To assist these leaders, we need strategic analysis that integrates technology, the military arts, and nonmilitary conflict. This function of strategic analysis is the final decision in the process of selecting the systems to be acquired.

In his testimony of March 1971 Dr. Foster stated that we could expect some technological surprises from the Soviet Union. The Strategy of Technology deals with surprise in modern war in some detail. Coping with surprise and capitalizing on our own technical advances as surprises are vital to the purpose of the technological war. As already mentioned, Possony and Pournelle consider technological war the alternative to active hostilities; its goal should be the negation of war. And the key to surprise is initiative.

Assured Survival

In identifying U.S. options for the future, the authors describe a strategy of “assured survival.” They propose a complex of offensive and defensive forces. Their complex of weapon systems would give us many capabilities to negate the Soviets’ potential technological advances in the systems they are developing. Such a range of U.S. capabilities would continue to create uncertainty in the minds of the Soviets about the outcome of any war they might initiate. Uncertainty is the key to deterrence. War, including and especially technological war, is an operation primarily against the will of the opponent.

Those operations aim at providing security, but security cannot be guaranteed by passive measures, nor by agreements that try to halt the stream of technology. The way to guarantee security is to win in the technological war. Winning can come from a strategy of technology.

Some Troublesome Issues

Possony and Pournelle have articulated the principles of the decisive war of technology and have illuminated some of the fundamentals we must address to insure our continuing security. They do not address some issues that may make it impossible to effect a viable solution for us. Those issues lie outside the realm of military and security policy; they lie in our national character as well as in our philosophy. We can rid ourselves of our self-delusions, but can we create a new philosophy to guide our strategy and thus our security? French General Andre Beaufre, in his works on deterrence, has stressed the need for a unifying philosophy, but few have recognized the wisdom of his finding and nothing is being done to overcome this basic deficiency.

A great nation can cease to be great either through defeat by its enemies or because its people decline the burdens of leadership that are inherent in being great. In reality, defeat results from attempting to withdraw from greatness. There are many indicators that the U.S. wants to stop being a superpower. The current demobilization of our technology is one of the dominant indicators. But if we are going to lay down our mantle of leadership, let us do so as a rational, conscious decision, not an emotional response to the burdens of the protracted conflict in the technological war.

In The Strategy of Technology, Possony and Pournelle have shown how we must act to win the decisive war, the technological war. By implication, they have shown that we are pursuing a course toward defeat—unknowingly.

Los Angeles, California


Colonel Francis X. Kane, USAF (Ret), (USMA; Ph.D., Georgetown University) served 27 years in war planning, systems analysis, space and missile planning, and overseas as assistant air attaché, Paris, and with the 508th Fighter Group. He is still actively engaged in strategy analysis and long-range space and missile planning. He has taught at Catholic University, Pepperdine College, and the University of California at Los Angeles. His writings have appeared in Fortune, Orbis, Air University Review, Missiles and Rockets, Air Force and Space Digest, and Air Power Historian.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor