The idea that technological innovation can be a driver of both winning armies and growing economies is at least as old as the Appian Way. A transportation network very sophisticated for its time, the Appian Way was an accelerator for Roman military prowess and commerce. It allowed Romans to move armies quickly and with better command and control, and it facilitated commerce—fueling a growing economy that sustained the Republic and later the Empire. It was, literally, an early information superhighway.
For nearly the next two millennia the example of the Appian Way inspired imitation. Libraries are full of books that discuss the history of science and technology, and virtually all of them have one thing in common: the conviction that innovation matters, sometimes decisively, in the economic, social, military and political affairs of mankind.
True enough, but something important happened on the way to the 21st century. Even as military technology grew in lethality, it was still very rarely decisive in military or political outcomes. In theory at least, Julius Caesar and George Patton could have sat discussing tactics for desert warfare or crossing the Rhine and understood one another tolerably well. Weapons mattered, but not necessarily more than soldiers’ skill, morale, leadership, planning, training, weather and luck. That began to change during World War II, when it first became apparent that new technology by itself—not just more sophisticated implements in the hands of competent soldiers—could win wars. The foremost examples were microwave radar and proximity fuse advances, which emerged from MIT’s Radiation Laboratory and, of course, the atom bomb from Los Alamos. These were war-winning technologies from which we learned that applied science had reached a stage where it could transform war, and geopolitics with it, in ways heretofore barely imaginable.
The evolution of late-20th-century military technology was part of a much bigger picture of innovation transformation. Carlotta Perez has argued persuasively that, starting with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in 1770, an industrial transformation has occurred roughly every half century.11. Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (Edward Elgar, 2002). See also Robert D. Atkinson, The Past and Future of America’s Economy—Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth (Edward Elgar, 2004). Technology-based innovation cycles have flowed out in long, multi-decadal waves, transforming economies and the way we organize societies around them. Military innovation and power have spun out from these waves in such a way that world military leadership has tended to parallel leadership in technological innovation.
The United States has led the last three innovation cycles, with information technology at the epicenter of the latest wave. As with the Appian Way, the core techniques of the present innovation wave...