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A Brief History of Modern Warfare Technology: From Gunpowder to Drones

Posted January 30, 2018

Image credit: U.S. Army, David McNally, ARL

In the near future, United States military vehicles will be driven by robots, says Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley. Milley recently sketched a vision of a high-tech military centered around next-generation vehicles, future vertical lift, long-range precision fires, soldier lethality and a sophisticated command network powered by artificial intelligence. Milley stressed the need for the U.S. military to modernize its capabilities on these fronts to keep up with other countries already pursuing these technologies.

The automated army Milley envisions represents the latest stage of a long process of development in military technology. Here’s a brief look back at how military technology has advanced since the invention of gunpowder.

The Impact of Gunpowder

The history of gunpowder traces back to medieval China, where experiments with medical saltpeter prompted the invention of the fire lance, a pole arm attached to a bamboo tube filled with gunpowder and ignited by a slow match, capable of one or two shots at a range of up to about 10 feet. Gunpowder reached Europe by the 13 century, when its formula was documented by Roger Bacon, who probably obtained it from an ambassador to the Mongols, William of Rubruck. Cannons subsequently became a part of siege warfare, entering the battlefield during the Hundred Years War. Guns spread rapidly through Europe during the 14th century, and by the 16th century muskets had emerged. This transformed the nature of the battlefield, allowing infantry formations to engage cavalry without having to engage directly in close-quarter combat, supported by pikes for cover between rounds.

The first muskets were firelocks, which used a trigger attached to a rod which moved a burning wick to the touchhole. This enabled a rifleman to fire a round every two to three minutes by aiming with both hands, in contrast to earlier matchlocks which used a hand-held burning wick. The firelock progressed through the wheel lock into the flintlock, only to be replaced in the 19th century by percussion caps. Meanwhile powder storage and cartridge design improved, which together with the introduction of rifled barrels through the American Longrifle increased the range of firearms, while rifling also increased accuracy. The early 19th century also saw muzzle-loading replaced by breech-loading and single-shot weapons being upstaged by Samuel Colt’s revolver, increasing firing speed.

By the American Civil War, machine guns had begun to emerge, paving the way for the fully-automatic rifles, sub-machine guns, battle rifles and assault rifles that dominated 20th-century battlefields. The design of handguns also improved during this period, with Smith and Wesson introducing metallic rimfire cartridges and Magnum revolvers and Mauser popularizing semi-automatic pistols. Despite such advances, some older gun models such as the Colt Single Action Army revolver are still in production due to demand from collectors.

The Dawn of Mechanized Warfare

Machine guns dominated action during World War I, but the war accelerated technological advances in military vehicles that would radically transform the nature of battle. The British rolled the first tanks into battle during the Battle of the Somme. The first tanks were slow, but by World War II, advances in vehicle design enabled Hitler to overrun France using blitzkrieg tactics borrowed from Civil War General William T. Sherman.

Submarines and airplanes also revolutionized the battlefield during World War I. Submarines had been used in war since the American Revolution, but they did not become an effective military weapon until John Holland revolutionized submarine design in 1898 by introducing a gasoline engine and electric batteries. This enabled submarines to play a vital role in the World Wars, setting the stage for today’s nuclear submarines.

The World Wars also accelerated the development of military aircraft. Balloons had been used for reconnaissance since the 18th century, but in World War I the Germans transformed zeppelins into bombers, paving the way for the first fighter bomber planes. Bombers had become massively more sophisticated and destructive by World War II, and firebombing cities became a major tactic. During the Cold War, high-flying strategic bombers and spy planes became a focus of innovation, while armored helicopters brought the equivalent of flying tanks to the battlefield.

The Manhattan Project

The most dramatic event in the history of warfare was the invention of nuclear weapons during World War II. Inspired by Albert Einstein’s discovery that mass can be converted into energy, the nuclear arms race began when Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt warning him about the potential of the Nazis building an atomic bomb. The Germans, Japanese and Americans raced to acquire nuclear capability first, and the war ended with the Americans dropping the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By this time, the Soviets had already infiltrated America’s nuclear program, and the testing of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 triggered an arms race. Nuclear weapons became progressively more powerful through the development of the hydrogen bomb, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines. Innovation turned toward methods of countering nuclear weapons, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile system and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The Drone Wars

Robotics and artificial intelligence are poised to propel the next stage of military technology development. The first step toward military robots was taken in 1898 by Nikola Tesla, who demonstrated a radio-controlled boat which he proposed as a model for delivering radio-controlled torpedoes. The Soviets and Nazis first used radio-controlled tanks and landmines during World War II.

Unmanned aerial vehicles were initially developed for anti-aircraft training during World War I, and began to be used for reconnaissance in the 1960s. Today at least 30 countries have or are developing armed drones.

Firearms, military vehicles and military robotics have been three of the most significant game-changers in the history of warfare. As military technology continues to advance, robotics and AI look likely to play an increasingly central role in future warfare.


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