Is War a Technological Boon?

People often say that war is a great boon for technological development.

They say that war accelerates the pace of technological development. And that some things might not exist if certain wars had not taken place. But is there any truth to this? Let us take a brief look.

War, or the threat of an upcoming war, is a great incentive to develop military technology.

For instance, during the start of the First World War, aircraft usage in war was relatively limited. The military aircraft that existed was fairly primitive. During the war, there was a rapid development of military aircraft.

Anti-aircraft guns were conceived of before the First World War. However, they underwent significant development in response to the use of aircraft in the war.

There are countless other examples of military technology being developed during times of war. From wire-cutters to code-cracking technology.

So, it is fair to say that wars are a great incentive for the development of military technology.

All sides of a war are frequently trying to develop new technologies. This has the tendency to lead to a technology arms race where the other side is racing to try to develop better still military technology.

So, when it comes to military technology, then war can be a boon to technological development.

Military technology is of course developed in times of peace. We see this all the time. After World War 2, many major powers continued to develop their air forces, develop better artillery forces and to research and develop better tank technology. A great deal of military technological development occurs during peacetime.

War is expensive.

The cost of deploying troops and the like often means less money is available for funding military research. But in peacetime, there is often much more money to spend on military research.

So we cannot say that military technology universally undergoes greater development during times of war. Some forms of military technology do but it is often true that even military technology develops at a faster pace during times of peace.

Yeap, war sure looks expensive to me…

And, what about non-military technology?

Wars tend to impair the development of non-military technologies. Why is this?

War tends to be a very expensive endeavor. It costs a lot of money to deploy troops and military hardware in a timely and effective manner.

Money has to come from somewhere.

Hopefully, the money spent does not exceed a reasonable military budget. However, sometimes war requires more money to be put aside and diverts it from other areas of the economy. We saw this during both World Wars and many wars since then.

During World War II America turned much of its economy over to wartime production. This impacted many industries. They had to tighten their belts so that America could turn a certain amount of its economy over to wartime production. As did many other countries involved in the war.

In some cases, military production takes over a certain amount of production and money.

Wars have to be won. Nobody expects to win wars for free.

This shift in investment means businesses have less money to research technology. It means they have less money to spend producing technology. Some businesses may never have the funds to get their technology off the ground.

Yes, the people making tanks and other military equipment might benefit. But companies like Microsoft lose out. They could have used the money that goes into producing tanks to develop some amazing new software.

Or invested in some genius to create something entirely new.

People tend to look at only the part of the economy that might be benefiting from wartime spending.

They look at the military contractors and industries creating wartime products and see those industries are doing better. They do not consider the fact that for every cent businesses invest in these industries, is one less cent they can invest in other technologies.

We also have to consider that some military technology arose as the result of non-military research. For instance, civilians invented planes which the military then adapted to their own purposes. Likewise, civilians invented automobiles which the military adapted for their purposes.

So then consider that war tends to impede technological development. Then it potentially impedes the development of technology that can be adopted for military purposes.

People like to counter that the computer industry might not exist if not for World War II accelerating the need for computer technology. People argue this about all kinds of technology that creates enormous economic benefit, including nuclear power.

But is it true that without World War II computer technology would not have continued to rapidly progress?

There is no evidence of this. The First World War was a massive incentive to have developed computer technology at a rapid pace.

But there were already massive incentives to do this. There was growing academic interest in computers from mathematicians and many others in academia. Many others were certainly interested in using early computers for scientific purposes.

Businesses had been using computers since the earliest days of computing.

That is not to say computers used for business back then were all that efficient or powerful…

So it seems highly improbable that without the world war, the development of computer technology would have remained stagnant. In fact, it is arguable that it may have developed at a similar or greater pace.

What about nuclear technology? The possibility of nuclear energy was not a foreign concept. It seems reasonable to assume that this would have been sufficient incentive to develop nuclear energy technology.

Wartime led to the research and development of many technologies with non-military applications. But it is highly probable that such research and development would have occurred anyway.

Military research often diverts research funds and personnel away from non-military research. If not for this fact, the same developments might have occurred sooner!

So it seems that overall, war is not such a great boon for non-military technology.

Yes, the pace of military technology frequently accelerates during wartime. But this is far from universally true. It is often easier to afford military research during times of peace, without the immense cost of military deployment to worry about.

And then add the fact that wars tend to direct investment from technological development to war purposes, only some of which will result in the development of technology, largely military technology.

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