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The various stages in the development of warfare Essay

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Technology defines the strategic agenda of a nation at any given time; in particular, the concepts of war, crisis, terrorism and therefore military warfare. Military technology has allowed for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, Precision Guided Munitions, Long Range Theatre Nuclear Weapons, Ballistic Missile-Carrying Submarines and many more.

New military concepts have arisen out from the advancement of military technology, for example arms races or Mutually Assured Destruction; all of these complex military terminologies were unheard of in the middle of the 19th century, therefore showing how drastic warfare has developed since then. As military warfare has an extremely strong influence on the state of international relations as it affects the balance of power and the polarity of the world, it is important to understand both why and how the wars that happen today have expanded.

The industrial revolution in the middle of the 19th century brought about a fundamental transformation in military technology; gone were the cavalry wars with spears as weapons and castles as defence, in was the mass production of war machinery. Nearly every aspect of warfare changed, and has been advancing and increasing ever since.

The firepower of guns and bombs evolved from 3/4 rounds per minute muzzle loading muskets to machine guns capable of firing 650 rounds per minute1; although first used in the 1883 American Civil War which led to 600,000 dead, machine guns were widely used in World War One and helped make 400,0002 British casualties in the Battle of the Somme. From the middle of the 20th century the focus moved to weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, where technology allowed for more range and accuracy, and ICBMs and PGMs are capable of wiping out whole towns. Due to this, war has extended from armies to ordinary civilians, therefore potentially increasing death tolls and creating more fear among inhabitants of a country at war as attacks can be secret.

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The mobility and transport of armies has also changed which has an effect on the development of warfare; the pre-mid 19th century wooden sail powered ships with cannons used during many of the British invasions of India, Australia and Africa proved impractical and from the 1870s onwards, iron steam powered battleships were built. This allowed for access to enemy lands by sea with a lower risk of being sunk, and so invasions became easier, for example the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. The industrial revolution of the mid 1800s created advanced railways so soldiers could be deployed rapidly; this increased the speed of wars from the traditional ‘wars on foot’, and prevented enemy stated from having time to prepare for war.

The introduction of the motorcar in the beginning of the 20th century also helped the mobility of warfare, with army trucks being used in most of the wars since then; in addition, the invention of tanks and submarines combined strong defence with the ability to attack, therefore causing more damage with fewer home casualties. The development of aircraft since the mid 19th century has been extremely significant; the first victims of air war were Arab villagers in Libya during the Italian war on Turkey 1911-123, and although aircraft was used in World War One, the turning point of air warfare was the Second World War, where the Blitzkrieg strikes on British civilian towns by the German Luftwaffe created a new warfare that involved ordinary inhabitants. Similarly, in recent air strikes on Afghanistan and Iraq by technologically advanced fighter planes such as B-1 and B52 bombers have further increased the speed and devastation caused by war.

Protection has also changed over the years, from impractical individual heavy metal armour used by armies before the mid 19th century to much more alternative methods of protection. In World War One, the use of trenches to protect soldiers proved ineffective, however the civilian attacks during the Second World War meant that new types of protection were introduced: air raid sirens, blackouts and gas masks from enemy air warfare. Technology in the late 20th century extended methods of protection to Electronic Counter Measures to locate enemy weapons even before they are deployed – the ultimate method of protection. This would not have been possible without the advancement in artificial intelligence through sophisticated computers to perform operations such as detecting long-range missiles from satellite cameras.

The advancement of military warfare is due to a number of things: the progression of science and development of human intelligence mainly as a result of better education and more of a desire to be all-knowing has created more effective and practical ideas for warfare. In addition, the influx capitalism after the industrial revolution has meant that the munitions industry has profit to be made, and as capitalism seems ever increasing the production of weapons has also amplified. Also, countries around the world have increased their defence spending budgets therefore more money is constantly being spent on inventing the best, most destructive, powerful weapons. This, along with the enlarged competition between states to have the most advanced technological warfare machinery has led to a number of disputes which set the agenda for international relations at the time.

The Cold War between Russia and the United States from the middle of the 20th century until the collapse of the Soviet Union mainly consisted of an unofficial arms race: ‘ repeated, competitive and reciprocal adjustments of their war making capacities between two nations’4, with both countries building up ‘baroque arsenals’ of ICBMs and the most advanced nuclear bombs. Action-Reaction models such as the Cold War creates a security dilemma not just for those involved but for the whole world: ‘An action by any state to increase its military strength will raise the level of threat seen by other states and cause them to react by increasing their own strength’5.

An example of this recently could be the nuclear proliferation of the nine states who presently have nuclear weapons; countries who don’t have nuclear arms may feel threatened by those who do and wish to build up their arms, and so this potential horizontal proliferation would in turn make those who have arms build up theirs even more, creating increased vertical proliferation. Nuclear multi-polarity in the world is likely to be dangerous as there is more chance of rogue states using their weapons and creating more prolific, devastating wars.

While many argue the move to nuclear warfare is better than outdated methods of warfare such as battles as it creates deterrence between states to use their weapons. This could be proven by the fact that since the invention of nuclear weapons in the middle of the 20th century there has been no nuclear wars; however the example of the United States’ atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 show how much devastation and horror they could cause. Also, the new threat of biological and chemical weapons has added to the potential threat of large-scale modern warfare that no longer involves a country’s army only; it seems like the world could potentially be moving into a ‘second nuclear age’.

The progress between offensive and defensive warfare has also changed since the middle of the 19th century; however it seems to have followed a regular pattern. Pre 19th century cavalry wars were largely offensive wars, with attacks on foot and high casualties; the first World War consisted of mainly defence tactics like building extensive trenches; the second World War was again offensive, with air warfare bombing campaigns; the evolution of nuclear arms is largely as a defence mechanism, for example the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction; and recent wars such as the US attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan have been mostly offensive bombing campaigns.

Another factor to consider of how warfare has changed is how the world is not entirely a multi-polar earth; recently, it seems like a potentially unstable combination of unifying centripetal and separating centrifugal forces struggling over the periphery. In addition, the threat of non state actors has also changed warfare; until recently, the enemy could be located in one state, however the main problem for western democracies in international relations today is the threat of terrorism, with the Al Quaida network appearing all over the world. This creates the problem of not knowing where to attack, and counties such as America attacking countries like Afghanistan just because they believe they were harbouring terrorists after the September the 11th attacks.

It is likely that warfare technology will advance in the future despite the disarmament issue over the past few decades. While superpower countries like the United States continue with their arms building, refuse to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty or participate in talks regarding the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in June, and continue to own 95% of the 31,000-plus nuclear weapons along with Russia6, the Doomsday Clock might actually reach midnight. After World War One, Sir Edward Grey said that the horrors of the Great War would make it possible for states ‘to find as least one common ground on which they should come together in confident understanding: an agreement that, in the disputes between them, war must be ruled out as a means of settlement that entails ruin’7. Obviously, this idea seems much too idealistic when we look back at the technological advancements in warfare since World War One, which can maybe suggest that states will always dispute and technology will always advance – the terrifying thought of a future super-war is very possible.


Buzan, Barry, Strategic Studies: Military Technology and International Relations, London: Macmillan, 1987

Freedman, Lawrence, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, London: Macmillan, 1989

Goldstein, Joshua, International Relations, New York: Longman, 1999

Gray, Colin, The Second Nuclear Age, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999

Waltz, Kenneth, Man, the State and War, New York: Colombia University Press, 1959


1 Buzan, Barry, Strategic Studies: Military Technology and International Relations, London: Macmillan, 1987

2 http://www.phoenixpress.co.uk/articles/events/somme-battle-of-pp.asp

3 Freedman, Lawrence, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, London: Macmillan, 1989, p4

4 Steiner, Barry, Arms Races, Diplomacy and Recurring Behaviour: Lessons from Two Cases, Beverly Hills: Sage, 1973

5 Rathjens, G. W., The Dynamics of the Arms Race, in Herbert York (ed.), Arms Control, San Francisco: Freeman, 1973

6 www.thebulletin.org

7 Grey, Edward, Twenty Five Years, New York: Frederick A Stokes Co., 1925, p285

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