Air & Space Power Journal

The Future of War: Power, Technology, and American World Dominance in the 21st Century by George and Meredith Friedman. Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York 10022, 1996, 464 pages, $30.00.

Arguably the first modern airpower theorist, Giulio Douhet, argued that “research into the war of the future is not, therefore, an idle pastime. It is, rather, an ever-present practical necessity.” The quote is applicable to the Friedmans’ book The Future of War, since those in the national security field should consider reading this work a practical necessity rather than an idle pastime. The book does not present radical “2013, 2023, or pick your favorite date” scenarios articulated merely for shock value and doomsday predictions not based on any logical analysis of historical fact, as the current glut of most futurist-oriented works tend to do. Instead, the work presents a line of reasoning and argument that is thought provoking and well supported.

The authors start the work by presenting their argument along with the majority of the national security community that Desert Storm represented an epochal change in warfare. The twenty-first century is argued to be an American epoch secured through brilliant weapons just as the European epoch was secured by ballistic weapons. To support their fundamental thesis, the Friedmans present as a framework (referenced indirectly throughout the book) a list of eight points on weapons development that determine when a weapon has atrophied from being strategically significant to becoming obsolete, or “senile” as the Friedmans express it. To the Friedmans, a strategically significant weapon “is the one that brings force to bear in such a way that it decisively erodes the war-making capability of the enemy,” while a senile weapon is one in which “the primary strategic function of the weapon has been obscured by the need to construct expensive defenses against threats to the weapons platform.” Historical accounts providing examples of how past strategically significant weapons systems have become obsolete are presented throughout the work.

Despite the title, earlier chapters avoid discussion of the future of warfare and focus on other indirectly related issues. For example, chapters 2 and 3, respectively, discuss the evolution in which American scientists and civilians became military strategists and present an argument outlining the reasons for the irrelevance of nuclear weapons. As an interesting debating point, the special treatment accorded nuclear weapons in The Future of War seems to imply that the authors themselves believe that as a total system, nuclear weapons are not necessarily obsolete but rather irrelevant due to their lack of political utility through actual use. The political discussion entailed in their treatment of nuclear weapons also discounts an early statement in the work that stresses that the authors intended The Future of War to be a “book on the technology of war only.” The discussion of nuclear weapons, however, within the context of the entire book serves as an interesting digression more than an integrated portion supporting overarching themes.

The later chapters are directly linked to the Friedmans’ fundamental thesis and supporting framework. For this reason, these portions of the work are very interesting and demand attention. The Friedmans spend much time identifying current weapons systems destined for obsolescence or senility (implying that some type of technological Alzheimer’s disease exists and that the authors by dealing only with discussing the technology of war are prone to humanizing weapons systems). Weapons systems argued to be approaching senility include the tank, the aircraft carrier, and the stealthy manned aircraft. Obviously, this alone makes the book somewhat unique since it endeavors to criticize the most prized programs of each service and chooses no favorites as works in the defense policy field tend to do (intentionally and unintentionally). The book’s support for the mobile off-shore base in a final chapter may be the one exception depending on which service is the owner of such a program. What makes the final chapters exceptional of their own accord is the Friedmans’ predictions regarding future strategically significant systems.

The book articulates that increasingly more brilliant and faster weapons, coupled with the inevitable movement of warfare into the medium of space, represent the arena in which military dominance is to be established, as well as the tools with which to establish dominance, far into the future. Hypersonic cruise missiles are advocated as the quintessential weapons of the future. The discussion of hypersonic missile technology does not seem that futuristic when considered with recent informational reports such as the September/October issues of Surface Warfare and the 13 October issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, which both possessed cover-story articles discussing plans for hypersonic weapons development. Arguing space to be the high ground of future military activity also is reasonable considering policy documents such as Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force and the White House’s National Security Strategy identification of space as an area in which the United States has an overarching capability.

The book’s discussion of space warfare begins with the premise that the migration of warfare into the realm of space has a historical precedent in the migration of warfare into the realm of air, and later continues into an analysis concluding that the actual conduct of space warfare shares the most commonality with the conduct of naval warfare. The control of the seas is then revisited when the book concludes that controlling space will be a necessary step to maintain control of the seas, which is cited as the most fundamental mission for any hegemonic power to be able to complete in order to protect its interests and ensure its national security. As summarized on page 411 of The Future of War:

Whoever controls space, therefore, will control the world’s oceans. Whoever controls the oceans will control the patterns of global commerce. Whoever controls the patterns of global commerce will be the wealthiest power in the world. Whoever is the wealthiest power in the world will be able to control space.

The final chapters also include one that presents the effect of future weapons technologies on land warfare that foreshadows the “return of the poor, bloody infantry” possessing information-age weaponry and firepower, extending to it extraordinary capability in what by today’s standards seems to be in small quantity. As already alluded to, however, the primary prediction of the final chapters is that the future of American preeminence is and will be founded on its capability to expand military activity into space and to operate hypersonic, brilliant weapons. Readers of The Future of War are left to discern for themselves what will motivate this expansion, at whose hands it will take place, and whether it will be politically acceptable. This makes it a valuable, perhaps an indispensable, read for those guiding the future of American military power.

Patrick Harding
McLean, Virginia


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.

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