James Holmes

What Modern Militaries Can Learn From Battlestar Galactica

“Sometimes revolutionary innovation delivers; it often doesn’t.”

There's wisdom in science fiction. The conceit behind the reboot of the sci-fi epic Battlestar Galactica was that networking military forces exposes them to disaster unless commanders and weapons designers think ahead to the repercussions should an enemy exploit or break the network. The mechanical Cylons, arch foes of humanity, are able to crush the humans' battle fleet and bombard their home worlds with nukes by insinuating viruses into networked computers. They sever contact between capital ships and their fighter forces, and they shut down the fleet's and planets' defenses. Having lost the habit of fighting without networked systems, human crews make easy pickings for Cylon predators. The Galactica escapes only because its commander, a throwback to a low-tech age, refuses to permit networked computers on board. Any viruses are quickly compartmented and create little mischief.

Sci-fi aside, interrupting networks or other connections among fighting units is nothing new. For instance, my colleague Williamson Murray and his coauthor Alan Millett relate how in 1940 the invading German Army seeped through weak spots in French defenses, leaving "clots" of nearly intact units that nonetheless found themselves isolated and combat-ineffective. French soldiers and their gear remained; the French Army was gone. The same goes for scattered naval bases. There's a symbiosis between bases and the deployed forces they support. Unless a base can provide for itself, it depends on resupply by air or sea. Cut the air and sea routes, and it withers on the vine. That sad fate befell Japanese defenders during the Pacific War, when U.S. forces leapfrogged past their island redoubts. In its effort to cordon off vast swathes of the Western Pacific, Tokyo overtaxed the capacity of its merchant fleet to support forward outposts, and of its navy to protect merchantmen shuttling between rear areas and the defense perimeter.

Lesson: take a skeptical view of military hardware or doctrine that promises to choreograph the actions of ships and aircraft scattered across broad distances, clear away the fog of war, or exempt one side from harm. Sometimes revolutionary innovation delivers; it often doesn't. Part of my objection is philosophical, I suppose. If an innovation claims to strip battle of its essence — combatants striking blow after blow against one another, inflicting pain and death in pursuit of political gain — I apply an extraordinarily high standard of proof. That's mainly because the enemy gets a vote. Even successful schemes and technologies can be undone by determined adversaries. As Clausewitz teaches, opponents are not inert masses on which we work our will. They are thinking beings who deploy their own energies and ingenuity to balk our efforts.

That being the case, methinks a fatalistic attitude toward high technology is the healthy attitude. Let's embrace gee-whiz technology. But let's do so while trying to foresee how an opponent might frustrate GPS and other capabilities in combat, and while practicing doing without them. We may have to when it counts.