Speaker: Freedman, L. (King’s College, London)
Date: 18 October 2019
SMA hosted a speaker session presented by Prof. Lawrence Freedman (King’s College, London) as a part of its SMA General Speaker Series. Prof. Freedman first provided a series of observations on how new technologies are introduced and how strategists’ expectations are managed. He presented several examples of technologies whose use has gone beyond strategists’ initial expectations, including air capabilities, nuclear weapons, precision-guided weapons, and drones. He then stated that when new technologies are introduced, strategists tend to think of them as being decisive and making a significant difference. Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is an example of such thought pattern, as it operates under the assumption that a nation can catch an enemy by surprise and defeat it before it can even recognize what is occurring. Next, Prof. Freedman stated that although surprise attack is a fixation in all studies of military war, surprise does not necessarily guarantee victory. He used Pearl Harbor as an example, highlighting that one of the reasons why it failed was due to the US’s tendency to exaggerate the importance of shock. He also explained that the question of why a nation chooses to act in the way that it does is rarely discussed, as opposed to surprise and new weapons. This question requires more attention, according to Prof. Freedman. He then used great power competition as an example and presented the following questions for further thought: 1) Are we currently in a similar state to that of the Napoleonic era, World War I and II, or the Cold War?; 2) Why do countries compete?; 3) Is world domination actually possible?; and 4) What are the US’s objectives? Moreover, in the midst of modern great power competition, Prof. Freedman suggested that strategists think about the nature of political interactions and consider how much particular things matter to them and how much they matter to their opponent. Prof. Freedman then identified a factor that distinguishes the US from its adversaries—alliances. China and Russia do not appear to even want to try to form alliances in response. Prof. Freedman suggested that strategists should assess why the US wants to occupy this position with these alliances and why China and Russia choose to take this approach. To conclude, Prof. Freedman stated that although the future of war literature is primarily focused on great power competition, there are many wars that are being fought without the involvement of great powers. Thus, one must keep the actual reality of modern warfare in mind and acknowledge that there is a stark contrast between the wars that strategists generally think about and the large number of grinding struggles occurring across the globe.