Every game in the Fallout series opens with a monologue about the immutable nature of war:
“War never changes,” the narrator growls before describing a war unlike any that has happened so far in human history. If you abstract the essence of war far enough, then you get unchanging constants: fallible & temperamental human nature, friction, a duel dragged until one side is unwilling or unable to resist. The background dynamics of war are unchanging, but the specifics of war vary a great deal.
These specifics have spilt into a recent rhetorical conflict over the ideal size of the US Naval Fleet, with concern expressed that the US fleet is smaller now than it was in 1916. In response to this public back-and-forth
Navy officials argue that just one or two of the Navy’s modern destroyers and submarines could take out the entire 1916 fleet with ease.
I am no naval historian, but I have played one in video games, so let me offer up an abstracted cross-era perspective.
In the RTS game Empire Earth, players guide a nation through 14 ages, starting at prehistory and ending a century in the future, with mech-warrior-esque machines. Despite the fanciful end, the game does a good job representing change in conflict, showing gradual improvements in the sword-and-spear era until the advent of gunpowder radically changes military structure, and then again showing a transition from pike-and-cannon to armor, machine guns, and airpower. Naval combat similarly experiences a transition, from its first appearance in the stone age with war rafts to an end state involving attack submarines, aircraft carriers, ICBM transporting submarines, cruisers, and a strange continuance of battleships.
For an idea of the scale of that change, here is the first frigate compared against a modern-era Warrington:
In the interest of game balance and mechanics, the disparity is less than reality (where a modern frigate could just sail over the war raft and call it a day). Even in constrained game logic, the frigate hits 5.7 times as hard and has 7.25 times the HP, all for the same cost. That’s another game world quirk – upgrades are paid for at once, across a class of unit, and available immediately upon reaching a new era; such is simplification in the service of gameplay. The broader point still holds: at least 6 War Rafts are needed to perform the job of a single Warrington, so it makes sense that one could reduce fleet size while still increasing the power of the fleet. Such is the advantage of technological progress.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a Stone Age ship to a modern vessel. (Okay, it’s definitely unfair). Here, then, let’s look at a couple of Battleships and a modern submarine.
In Empire Earth, the changes in warship effectiveness between a single era are very modest. While unaided the Dreadnought would fall to the Bismarck, if a single allied ship supported the Dreadnought it would probably be a fair fight, and if it was two Dreadnoughts against the Bismarck they would both probably survive. The Nautilus, however, would be able to defeat either battleship on its own, as the game limits anti-submarine attacks to a few units, none of which is a battleship. (A U-Boat would also win for this reason). So by this simulation, a pair of Nautilus submarines could in sequence defeat all WWI-era frigates before proceeding to wreak havoc against any number of battleships unchecked.
This might stretch the realism of analysis one expects from a science fiction blog weighing in on a debate soundbite. Fair. Let us instead turn to a case where WWI equipment is actually in service against a modern force. As C.J. Chivers observed in his Foreign Affairs article on the small arms trade, infantry rifles have a striking durability.
One of the Lee-Enfields captured by the marines in Marjah bore a date stamp from 1915. This was a rifle that was manufactured as Kitchener’s Army was massing for service on the western front, using ammunition made for service against the Third Reich, and now firing on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
It helps, of course, that infantry rifles are as a rule made in large quantities and with durability in mind. This surplus of parts is on a scale unavailable to naval vessels, which are significantly more complex and can be rendered obsolete in the way that a reasonably good rifle never will be. This is the fundamental contrast at work here – naval power needs change in different ways than infantry combat. As has been noted, the quip that “we have less bayonets and horses now, too” ignores that the US Marines still train with bayonets (while the US Army
only stopped in 2010 ED 10/23/12: removed bayonet training from basic training in 2010), that the UK had a bayonet charge in Afghanistan in 2011, and that horses were used in 2001 by special forces fighting against the Taliban. In naval affairs, technological advance has enabled the US to field fewer ships while still increasing combat effectiveness, while in Afghanistan armies & insurgents incorporate both durable technologies & modern weaponry, as (unlike in naval combat) one does not necessarily exclude the other.
Of course, there may be times (in fiction, at least) where technological disparity is so great that evolutionary changes in equipment suddenly are of no use. Take, for example, the scenario explored in “Rome Sweet Rome”, the reddit-originated flash fiction that is slated to become a Warner Bros movie. The 35th Marine Expeditionary Unit finds itself transported back in time to face off against the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar. Some equipment becomes immediately useless, like anything designed for electronic warfare. Most everything else becomes limited by the finite supply of fuel and ammunition available. Divorcing a fighting unit from its logistical support, and indeed the whole era capable of manufacturing more fuel & ammunition, radically alters that way that unit operates. Of course, the Romans lack anything with the killing power of an assault rifle; an M-16 out-ranges a Roman ballista by at least 100m. This strange asymmetric relationship between two conventional armed forces makes for great fiction (and hopefully a great film), but it also illustrates the limits in how far back technological disparities matter.
Tools for war fighting are designed, improvised, improved, and evolved through each era of combat, but they are fundamentally a product of their era, designed for use against relatively similar foes. Within an era, number & quality of combatants matters greatly, but between eras? Just another statistic for fantasy wargamers.