The Shrinking Utility of War

The Shrinking Utility of War. By Walter Starck.

Until quite recently war has been one of the most profitable of human activities, at least for the winners. The necessary investment in men and equipment was only modest. Women and children did most of the domestic work, leaving underemployed young men to be recruited for minimal wages, a promise of adventure, and the potential fringe benefits of rape and pillage. For most of that era a warrior’s basic equipment was minimal. A spear or sword, a shield and a pair of sandals were all that was needed for foot soldiers. It was a winner-takes-all contest and the profit to be had in territory gained, resources, treasure, slaves and women was substantial. …

Technology has changed everything, making a fundamental rethink necessary.

The key fact is that war is becoming too costly and too destructive to pursue, even for the winners. The equipment, training, maintenance and ongoing technological development required by a modern military has become ruinously expensive. Worse yet, the destructive capacity of modern weaponry has become so effective that even a moderate war can cost hundreds of billions of dollars (and hundreds of thousands of lives) while a major superpower conflict involving a nuclear exchange would be in the incomprehensible range of trillions in cost and hundreds of millions of lives.

Russia in Ukraine:

The current war in Ukraine is a prime example. It was expected to result in a rapid and overwhelming victory for Russia. Now, after more than a year of heavy fighting, the Russian military has suffered well over a hundred thousand deaths, the loss of several thousand tanks worth billions of dollars, plus myriad more military losses and expenses in addition to multiple other national economic costs stemming from the war. And all for what? Ukraine was no threat to Russia and has nothing that Russia needs. Putin simply thought Ukraine would be a quick and easy victory, a simple step on the road to re-establishing even more of the former Soviet empire. He and his nation are paying dearly for this mistake. …

Bakhmut, captured by Russia May 2023

Meanwhile, the population of Russia was already in decline, and this has been accelerated by a wave of war-inspired emigration that has seen the brightest and best of the country’s young professionals take their talents elsewhere. Compounding the consequences of the narcissistic insanity of Putin’s leadership is Russia’s awesome potential, which has gone begging. Russia has the largest land area and richest reserves of undeveloped natural resources of any nation.

The wealth currently being literally blown away in an obscene war can only obtain what amounts to an ongoing and massive liability — if Russia were to win, how many more lives and how much treasure would be needed to occupy and pacify? Had that expenditure been directed to development of what is known and already possessed, Russia might have been well on the way to achieving one of the world’s highest standards of living. Instead, most of its population daily confronts a near Third World existence.

The US in the Middle East:

The cost of modern warfare has simply become prohibitive for winners as well as losers. The recent experiences of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan are further telling examples. With the most advanced military in the world confronting a Third World rabble there was never a risk of overall US defeat on the battlefield. However, in the final reckoning, a cost of more than a trillion dollars and the lives of several hundred thousand civilians for little or no achievement amounts to a defeat.

Technology will drive this trend further in the foreseeable future:

The expense of maintaining both a large standing military and an ongoing lead in technology is never ending and unsustainable. Where technology is concerned, catching up is always cheaper than finding and developing the next big advance. The herd of lesser powers will follow as closely as they can afford, so the leading armies will always need to keep running if they are to stay ahead. To exit from such a rat race is difficult. …

Soon manned aircraft and submarines will begin to be replaced by drones. Surface ships, long since trackable by satellite, will become sitting ducks indefensible against long range hypersonic missiles. All vehicles of all types anywhere will be open to serve as shooting gallery targets for controllers and targeters at military consoles thousands of miles away.

Looming over all this is the undeniable reality that all of the major powers face a growing affliction of politico-economic imbalances, and all would benefit greatly from a reduction in military costs to enable an increased focus on their own development.

Expect an outbreak of long-lasting peace as defense becomes cheaper in the age of missiles, and the pointlessness and ruinous expense of invading becomes more obvious.

But watch out for AI, which could upset the trend.