Air University Review - September-October 1976

Guarding Against Technological Surprise

Dr. George H. Heilmeier

Technological surprise is not a term that conforms to but one definition. It has many facets. There are at least five classes of technological surprise. Common to each, however, is something that suddenly thrusts itself on the scene--something that explodes on our consciousness rather than evolving in a predictable way. Perhaps the most vivid examples of technological surprise are those involving systems based on new technology. The classic example is, of course, the atomic bomb. But surprise may also be the result of systems based on the direct application of little known scientific principles. Another source might be some new chemical or biological agent. Yet technical surprise need not involve only new science or technology used in an entirely new system. It could involve the use of new technology to provide markedly upgraded performance in an existing system.

Such was the case with introduction of the jet engine fighter near the close of World War II. Technological surprise could also derive from a new system that utilizes a novel application of existing technology. However, some of the more decisive instances of technological surprise have involved the use of an old system in a new and novel way. A classic example is the German use of their 88-mm antiaircraft guns in an antitank role.

Obviously, then, there is more to technological surprise than new systems based on new science or new technology. New systems can also be based on existing technology; old systems can be markedly upgraded by new technology; or old systems can be used in a radically new mission.

But there is something more. The real difference between the surpriser and the surprised is usually not the unique ownership of a piece of new technology. The key difference is in the recognition or awareness of the impact of that technology and decisiveness in exploiting it. The system did not respond to early warnings of Sputnik I because we were too rigid to accommodate indications of impending surprise. As an aftermath, the Secretary of Defense formed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and gave it the charter of organizing America’s response.

Perhaps the situation was best described by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan in his classic study, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. This book has been a standard reference at the Naval Academy for over three-quarters of a century. Admiral Mahan noted that

changes in tactics have not only taken place after changes in weapons, which is necessarily the case, but the interval between such changes has been unduly long. This doubtless arises from the fact that an improvement in weapons is due to the energy of one or two men, while changes in tactics have to overcome the inertia of a conservative class; but it is a great evil. It can be remedied only by a candid recognition of each change, by careful study of the powers and limitations of the new ship or weapon, and by a consequent adaptation of the method of using it to the qualities it possesses, which constitutes its tactics. History shows that it is vain to hope that military men generally will be at the pains to do this, but that the one who does will go into battle with a great advantage--a lesson in itself of no mean value.

That passage should be read and reread. Those who ignore such lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Technological Surprise--A Historical Perspective

History provides us with many examples of situations where technology--some of it known, some of it unknown at the time-- coupled with tactics provided surprise that was decisive. David’s sling surprised and decisively defeated Goliath--90 percent tactics and 10 percent technology. The English longbow destroyed the flower of French knighthood at Crécy in 1346, inflicting casualties at a rate of 100:1--again, 90 percent tactics coupled with 10 percent technology. The longbow represented a triumph for mobile, standoff weaponry over a heavily armored, slow-moving adversary and marked the beginning of the end for cumbersomely armored knights. Henceforth, there would be a premium on speed and mobility. Heavy armor required big, slow-moving horses, and, as armor-penetration capability improved, the knights wore heavier armor and horses got bigger and slower. The longbow changed that, although it took two centuries for strategists to learn that it was more difficult to hit a moving target. Thus, the cavalry came to the fore. The surprise of the longbow and what it did to the armor warfare of its day have some interesting twentieth century parallels.

World War II saw technological surprise at work on several fronts. Early in the war, the Germans used a combination of shaped-charge warheads delivered by gliders to attack and destroy the concrete bunkers at Fort Eben Emael in Belgium and paved the way for German penetration through the low countries. There were two problems to be solved:

(1) A lightweight penetrator was needed to blast through reinforced concrete; (2) The attack had to be conducted from topside, and stealth was absolutely necessary. Eben Emael represented a classic marriage of technological and tactical surprise.

The Allies had their own technological surprises. Radar and the tactical superiority of the Spitfire enabled Britain to stave off the Luftwaffe and win the Battle of Britain. The advent of electrical intercept and code breaking technology once again demonstrated that mathematics was capable of providing technological surprises in direct and indirect ways. According to accounts recently made public, the ability to intercept and read German and Japanese codes may have played a far more decisive role in World War II than we had previously believed. But the use of mathematics in military applications is not at all new. Napoleon was the contracting officer for Laplace, Fourier, and Lagrange.

The 1973 October War saw several instances of technological surprise, most of them on the part of the Arabs. Electronic warfare was used extensively on the battlefield instead of above it. A new surface-to-air missile system, the SA-6, and a low-altitude antiaircraft gun system proved far more effective than previously thought. It was also learned that antitank weapons, such as the Sagger missile, could do their job under the right conditions. Fortunately for the Israelis, none of these surprises proved to be decisive, but, as their chief ally, we learned that technological surprise need not be based on new technology; knowing the technology is really quite different from recognizing its tactical or strategic importance and exploiting it.

Prevention of 
Technological Surprise

The key question remains. How does a democracy such as ours prevent technological surprise? The emphasis is on prevention because the nature of our open society and the present climate in the media make it very difficult for us to perpetrate technological surprise. Much of our advanced technology is already visible before it can become a force factor. One thinks particularly of the F-14, F-15, B-1, F-16, and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). How can these perpetrate technological surprise when their characteristics are openly discussed and debated?

There are seven steps which a free society can take to prevent technological surprise:

The Future

As we look to the future, technological surprise is more dangerous than ever before. In a very real sense, the world has become smaller so that it is easier to deliver surprises to our doorstep. As I see it, in future conflict there will be a premium on fast response. Modern weapons may make the first battle the last battle. This means that forces inbeing are more important than force potential and deterrence more important than inherent capability. The manufacturing base which was critical to the United States in past wars will be of little use to us in future conflicts that are quite likely to be short, violent, and dominated by advanced technology. There simply will not be time to mobilize an entire nation and its manufacturing base. There will be no time for bond drives, gearing up, mobilization, and determined national production.

These are sobering thoughts, but if we are more vulnerable to technological surprise in an increasing technological world, what are the areas in the future from which such surprises may come? Engineers and scientists have perfect 20--20 hindsight but continually demonstrate an appalling lack of foresight. They tend to overestimate what can be done in the short-term and underestimate what will be done in the long-term.

In 1878, Friedrich Engels indicated that the weapons used in the Franco-Prussian War had reached such a state of perfection that further progress which might have revolutionizing influence was no longer possible. Yet thirty years later, the following unforeseen systems were used in World War I: aircraft, tanks, chemical warfare, trucks, submarines, and radio communications. A 1937 study entitled "Technological Trends and National Policy" failed to foresee the following systems, all of which were operational by 1957: helicopters, jet engines, radar, inertial navigators, nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, rocket power missiles, electronic computers, and cruise missiles. The 1945 von Kármán study entitled "New Horizons" missed ICBM’s, man in space, and solid-state electronics--all of which were operational within 15 years.

Thus, it is with a sense of humility and perhaps even a bit of lunacy that I outline ten areas in which technological surprise may be critical or even decisive.

1. Space Defense--Both the United States and Russia depend heavily on space assets. Ponder the consequences of a system that could protect satellite resources while possessing the capability to destroy enemy satellites in a surgical and timely manner.

2. Antisubmarine Warfare--Ponder the consequences of an ability not only to detect but to localize and track quiet submarines at long range.

3. Undersea Vehicle--Ponder the consequences of undersea vehicles capable of conducting themselves in a manner similar to airborne remotely piloted vehicles.

4. Passive Surveillance-- Ponder the consequences of an air defense system that has no radars to reveal its presence.

5."Really Smart" Weapons--Ponder the consequences of weapons that seek out and destroy specific targets such as tanks and surface-to-air missile sites without the need for a designator; weapons that are patient and can pursue goals over time; preplaced weapons that can wait for their specific targets to appear.

6. Threat-intensive Electronic Warfare--Ponder the consequences of electronic warfare suites that are independent of the threat. There would be no more SA-6 surprises. A threat is evaluated and the appropriate response is generated on the spot, not after the force is attrited.

7. Submarine-launched Surface-to-Air Missile--Ponder the consequences of giving the submariner the ability to defend himself, while still submerged, against airborne surveillance threats.

8. Armor--Ponder the consequences of tank armor that could counter both the shaped-charge warheads of antitank missiles and kinetic energy penetrators from guns.

9. Ballistic Missile Defense--Ponder the consequences of a leak-proof ballistic missile defense, one that could not be overcome by numbers.

10. Soviet Technological Expertise-- Ponder the consequences of whether a surprise could come from technical areas where we have a funding asymmetry with the Soviets? There are several areas of Soviet science and technology in which their effort, we believe, is much larger than ours: Areas such as high--pressure physics, ocean wave theory, chemistry relating to high explosives, magnetohydrodynamic power production, inductive storage and switching systems for pulsed power control, satellite-borne radar, and chemical and biological warfare. We do not know why the Soviet efforts are as large as they seem to be. We simply do not understand their investment strategy in these areas.

I think I will stop at ten areas where technological surprise might be critical in the future though there are undoubtedly many others. Potential areas of technological surprise are not difficult to formulate. What is unique about the time in which we live is that, unlike any time within the past decade, there are technological initiatives on the horizon that could dramatically influence national security. Difficult technical problems remain, but these initiatives just might make our list of areas of potential technological surprise more than science fiction.

Unfortunately, we Americans have no monopoly on advanced technology. Soviet efforts are characterized by a massive commitment of resources--people, facilities, and capital--and it is not clear that we can get there ahead of them.

Yet make no mistake about it. It is essential that we get there first because of the inherent disadvantage that a free society has when competing against a secretive and closed society. We do not have a choice. We must compete. Technological change will no longer wait on our initiative alone, nor is it possible to turn back the clock as some modern-day Luddites have suggested. In this our Bicentennial year, we must rededicate ourselves to a policy of peace through strength and with a resource commitment to match.

Arlington, Virginia


Dr. George H. Heilmeier (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). With four earned degrees in science and engineering, he worked for a decade on the technical staff of RCA Laboratories; there he discovered several electro-optic effects in liquid crystals, leading to the first liquid crystal displays for calculators, watches, etc. Appointed a White House Fellow for 1970-71, he served as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. As Assistant Director of Defense Research and Engineering (1971-75), he was in charge of DOD research and exploratory development in electronics and physical sciences. In 1975 he went to DARPA. Dr. Heilmeier has received numerous honors, including two David Sarnoff awards in science, the Arthur Flemming Award for Outstanding Young Man in Government, and the DOD Distinguished Civilian Service Medal. He is holder on 15 U. S. patents.


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.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor