Technology Is Good, but People Are Better

January 1, 2013
By Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN

Uncertainty reigns in warfare, and it is impossible to fully understand the intentions of a capable, thinking adversary in the midst of conflict. Yet, the best counter to this is to have equally adept and creative personnel able to recognize that warfare does not merely consist of armed clashes, but the combination of moral, psychological, economic and political forces.

In a landmark historical incident, the onset of World War I brought about one of the more remarkable chases of 20th century warfare. As Barbara Tuchman describes in her book, “The Guns of August,” with hostilities declared in early August 1914, Germany sought then-neutral Turkey as an ally to mitigate a Russian front to its East. The masterstroke to securing this alliance involved sending the entire German Mediterranean fleet—all of two ships—in a mad dash toward the entrance of the Dardanelles on a diplomatic, not military, mission.

Not expecting this unorthodox move, Britain deployed its numerous ships to protect a French convoy sailing from Africa while also maneuvering to prevent an escape by the Germans through the Straits of Gibraltar. Through the winding fates of war, multiple opportunities were missed to sink the armed German messengers. The once-bold Nelsonian Royal Navy had revealed its evolution toward a technologically superior, but far more untested, conservative one.

The ultimate arrival of the Germans persuaded the Turkish government to renounce neutrality, causing Winston Churchill to later admit this one action caused “more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

Today, much of our defense policy wrangling occurs around technology and kit—what kind of ships to buy, which networks to secure or whether drones will take over the battlespace. These resources are valuable, but only as an element within a wider strategic narrative. The defense business sometimes forgets that hardware is merely a tool, not the whole ballgame. It is the agility and critical thinking within our personnel that ultimately wins the day.

The past 10 years of war have shown that rapid advances in technology and tactics may not lead to strategic success. In fact, two technologically inferior foes to our own forces have managed protracted stalemates with outcomes still to be determined. Drones and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, have been immensely useful for winning individual battles but have done little to win the broader war.

Where progress has been made is with innovative service members engaging local populations in economic and political reform, not merely resorting to sandboard brilliance. The British failed to recognize machines built for battle as more than just relevant in conflict, and they paid for it dearly in a prolonged brutal war. We too have tried to quell our current adversaries with better kit instead of better people, and we now find ourselves engaged in a prolonged brutal war.

John Boyd once noted that “Machines don’t win wars. People do, and they use their minds.” This reality should be the main focus of our 21st century endeavors. Our best and most valuable strategic assets are not multibillion-dollar weapon systems, but educated, multitalented military and industry leaders. The next wars will be won by creative and intelligent people with the moral and political courage to challenge established orthodoxies that are no longer relevant—not those who simply “go along to get along.”

This will be increasingly relevant as the world becomes more interconnected. That is not the case just socially, but more broadly as well. Understanding how seemingly disparate fields relate to one another will define successful information age military and industry leaders. Nothing occurs in a vacuum anymore; military action through advanced technology is not just within the defense silo. It has moral and diplomatic ramifications that must be managed by adept personnel trained across fields.

For example, what effect do drone strikes have on populations from whom we need support? How do our efforts to prevent cyber attacks inhibit the rapid sharing of information that is so necessary in an age where collaboration is required? How do delays and massive cost overruns with generation-leaping capabilities such as the joint strike fighter affect relations with our allies?

When asked what the next war would consist of, Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security presciently responded, “Whatever we aren’t good at.” When that moment arrives, we need to have developed leaders who can pivot, connect the dots between various silos and act with multiple considerations in mind. Technology can help. But people will win.

Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, an F/A-18 instructor pilot based out of MCAS Miramar, California, is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers, an organization devoted to bringing innovative military personnel together with civilian entrepreneurs. The views expressed in this column are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or of SIGNAL Magazine. We welcome your comments on this column online or via email at


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