"This book is about the interaction of technology and culture," says Thomas Mahnken in the introduction to this concise history of U.S. weapons development [End Page 739] in the last sixty years (p. 10). Mahnken, who served as assistant secretary of defense for policy planning from 2006 to 2009, argues that each service has its own culture, which shapes its relation to technology. He believes that "although the culture of the U.S. armed services both shaped and was shaped by technology, the services molded technology to suit their purposes more often than technology shaped them" (p. 219). His book provides some support for these claims, though the treatment is too brief and comprehensive to prove them in detail.
In six short chapters, Mahnken surveys U.S. weapons development from the nuclear revolution to what he calls "The Global War on Terrorism." Hardly a significant weapons system escapes his ken, from the Davy Crockett nuclear field mortar to the B-2 stealth bomber, with occasional excursions into other military technologies such as field radios and night-vision goggles. The sources are mostly secondary and the coverage often thin, but Mahnken is thorough, well-informed, and generally reliable in both his choices and his interpretations. This book offers something of a catalog of the American arsenal since World War II.
The forest, however, often disappears into the trees. Service culture, in practice, was just one of many variables shaping technological choices within the Department of Defense. Necessity dictated some choices, spy satellites for instance. The missions of the various services dictated others, such as silent-running submarines. Politics had as much impact on the nuclear-powered aircraft as did air force predilections. Economics drove development of the F-111 swing-wing fighter/attack aircraft, which secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara forced on a resistant navy and air force. Technological choice proved too complicated to be explained by any one variable, let alone by the notoriously vague concept of culture. Further-more, differences between service cultures become less easy to isolate as time passes, in part because we lack perspective on the recent past and in part because the services have been growing more "purple," i.e., homogeneous, since the 1980s. Indeed, Mahnken makes clear that the Office of the Secretary of Defense, at least since McNamara's time, has been a culture of its own, distinct from the collective and multiple cultures of the uniformed services, though he does not himself articulate this insight. The result is that service culture becomes something of an icon for the swirling confluence of forces that drove weapons development within the American military establishment.
Still, Mahnken arrives at some conclusions that complement his main thesis. He discerns, for example, two great revolutions in American military technology since World War II. Nuclear technology is the most important and the subject of his longest chapter. The information revolution is still under way and seems to be having a greater impact than the precision-guidance and stealth technologies that played such prominent roles in the two Gulf Wars. These are conventional judgments, but well-argued and -illustrated. [End Page 740] Mahnken also achieves a balance of sorts between the advocates and critics of the so-called "revolution in military affairs." He thinks that there has been a revolution, but he doubts that it trumps all military practice. He is harsh on the military reformers of the 1980s, harsher still on all experts. In his view, the rapid pace of change in military technology during the past half-century made the changing nature of conflict almost impossible to predict.
Mahnken does not escape political bias. He supports ballistic missile defense and finesses the failures of the Patriot in the first Gulf War. He drubs the Clinton administration for its pursuit of al-Qaeda and forgives the Bush administration, in which he served, for failing to run Osama bin Laden to ground. But for an author whose insights were gleaned in large part from hands-on experience with his...