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In just over 50 years Earth military aircraft advanced from those that hardly could stay in the air at a mere 70 MPH, to a vessel that set a record of 2,193.2 MPH. Not only did simple speed increase by orders of magnitude, but various other aspects of aviation also surged ahead at exponential rates, and warfare technology elsewhere blossomed at rates possibly not as impressive as Aircraft's early days, but still extremely worthy of note. The growth of warfare has been so fast over the last hundred years or so that a difference of by a couple of decades would mean absolute suicide for one side for traditional warfare in almost all cases.

Despite this apparent fact in our real world, many soft-science fiction worlds, such as Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Warhammer 40k, or even Star Trek at times don't seem to suffer from this effect. Sure, when centuries separate technology sometimes that's an issue, but even then typically the warfare as the viewer sees sees hasn't advanced meaningfully; newer ships still buzz around more or less as fast, and generations of personal armament don't seem particularly more or less effective. Star Wars with the lack-of-apparent-change Old Republic to the original Star Wars trilogy being a particularly bad example of this, as thousands of years separate the two, yet warfare seems by-and-large just different flavors of one another.

While sometimes authors of such settings include mention that warfare has advanced over the years, but they typically have it as a footnote without real proof. Instead of hand waving such advancements in place, what if we desire this lack of Earth-like advancement in warfare?

In a setting of a galaxy's worth of different cultures and societies and where war isn't a scarcity or oddity, how could one explain a lack of scientific advancement over the years as it applies to warfare?

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    $\begingroup$ In the Warhammer 40k universe then science has regressed from the golden age of humanity. The Adeptus Mechanicus are building equipment that they barely understand by rote and ritual there is little real understand of what makes the 'machine spirits' work. $\endgroup$ – Sarriesfan Sep 29 '16 at 19:24
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Science advances in at least two ways, vertically and laterally.

Vertical advancement involves the discovery and "proving" of new theories about the nature of the universe.

Lateral advancement involves applying the ramification of discovered theories to different problem domains throughout our culture and our warfare methods.

Vertical advancement can be sporadic. The amount of time between significant discoveries within any given field can range from moments to eons. If no obvious clues can be found to point to the next discovery, then progress in that field must wait for an adequately intuitive or creative mind to breach the abyss between current knowledge and what remains to be learned.

Lateral advancement may appear more consistent (and therefore more efficient and profitable) on the surface, but ultimately it is dependent on vertical advancement to provide new technologies to apply.

Your galactic community may be suffering from an overexertion in lateral advancement with a simultaneous deficiency in vertical advancement. Across the galaxy, someone may have already found the most effective method for applying every potentially destructive technology which is known to the art of war. Then if no new technologies are being discovered (because the war mongers are too short sighted to fund pure research), then at some point, both types of scientific advancement would effectively stall.

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You have to have nations step back from TOTAL WAR. Only recently (since Napoleon, give or take) have nations been able to devote virtually ALL of their resources into military conflict and conversely, MUST DO SO, less they be completely overrun and wiped out. Previously most of the population was tied to the land and could not be professional soldiers, or rulers simply didn't have access to the money necessary to raise large armies and drive lots of military technological advancement. Industrialization and factory manufacturing is what allows for lots of precise weapons and ammunition to be manufactured, but this ties up a LOT of a nations GDP.

So what you need is a social change that forces a large decrease in military-industrial expenditure. This will effectively stagnate military development. This can come about in several ways.

  1. There is an overwhelming powerful superpower. So everyone else is fairly safe from conquest and can relax on military development. This is sort of the situation here on Earth, where the US is so dominant that there is little military development by anyone else. How many ballistic subs, aircraft carriers, heavy lift bombers, advanced stealth fighters, or tanks have been developed recently? Very few. Or if they have been designed, they haven't been built in large numbers, even by the US.

  2. People, across the globe, (or solar system or whatever) agree to deny governments the resources to field large armies. Obviously this is unlikely to be a grass roots movement, more like global corporations bend governments to their will in order to prevent conflict, which is over-all bad for business (assuming the MIC corps like Halliburton are put to rest). Without the money, you can't fund the development. So military tech is stagnant, and remains so due to explicit treaty (kind of like how NBC warfare is pretty stagnant) or simply due to lack of resources/interest.

  3. Tech hits a wall. We are seeing this with things like the F-22 and F-35. The cost of development, paired with the costs of building and maintaining advanced weapons, simply grows too large. A F-22 (120+ million) is not the same cost as a F-15 Strike Eagle (20-30 million) or P51 Mustang ($662K in adjusted dollars). So clearly this growth can not continue, lest a nation be able to only afford 1 plane that it then can not risk in conflict.

Of course drone warfare is the new explosive growth area, a true military revolution that will most likely be a check point in future military history books (much like nuclear weapons, machine guns, tanks, and aircraft carriers are now) that delineate a change in the entire military mindset.

Naturally, if your future setting involves constant warfare, some of these stipulations won't apply, unless the warfare is LIMITED, i.e. only concerning regional areas, private affairs, or amongst very localized powers.

Settings like WH40K or Battletech postulate that extended warfare has led to an inability to reproduce earlier technological marvels, so every one is sort of running on the fumes of an earlier golden age. This explains the flat tech curve across years of conflict. This is only partially acceptable (I find it hard to believe you can maintain a war machine without the ability to build and innovate said war machine) but does sort of mirror what happened to the US space program (we can't build rockets like we used to).

I think the lack of tech development in sci-fi media is driven due to budget and designer choice. Plus I think there is a general lack of appreciation for how much historical cultures change over time. I bet most folks think a Roman army with Julius Caesar would look identical to one during the fall of Rome (400+ years later).

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How has military technology advanced over the last 50 years? In 1966 we had nuclear powered aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, mach-2 fighter aircraft, main battle tanks, ICBMs, and the exact same infantry rifle.

So far as I can tell, during my service (in the Navy), the only things that were mission critical that were not available in 1966 were GPS and satellite internet. Even the GPS bombs we use aren't much more accurate than the Walleye TV guided bombs dropped on Hanoi.

Compare that to the difference in 50 years between the Civil War and WWI, or Spanish American war and WWII, or even WWI and 1966. Really puts the current military stagnation in perspective.

So what happened in the last 50 years to stop military technology? Well, nukes happened. Nuclear weapons mean you either a. Don't have wars or b. Start a dark ages.

Sure there are still wars, if you call that overblown police action in Iraq a war, but those wars don't spur the development of chemical weapons, motor vehicles, airplanes, rockets, or the Manhattan project, like a proper war would.

I'd like to point out that the world is plenty different from 1966, just weapons aren't. So general technology doesn't have to stagnate. Big differences in American life since then include the use of Internet and mobile phones, the universal availability of mortgages and home ownership, the distribution of almost half of Americans from dense city centers and small towns to suburbs of big cities, and most importantly, tripled workforce participation by women. Most of those changes are pretty fundamental to your everyday existence, but pretty marginal from a military standpoint. Even the internet is pretty useless, unless you like giving information and control to hackers.

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As a math person I need to warn people that somethings that look like exponential growth are actually logistic growth and as such have a ceiling. Let's look at two examples of human weapon development.

It is true that airplane technology advanced greatly during the course of WW1 and on to the jet age. Yet we had a Mach 2 fighter in 1960 (the F104) and fighter jets haven't gotten much faster in 50 years. So due the limits placed on chemical fuel, human endurance, material strength and air resistance, there is an upper limit on aircraft design.

If you look at firearm development over its history there were long periods of slow development, such as the musket which was invented in the early 16th century and was used up to the American Revolution. There was the "exponential growth" period in the 1800's with the inventions of the Minie ball, smokeless powder and metal cartridge. At the end of that growth was the Maxim Machine Gun invented in 1886. The M2 Browning Machine Gun was designed in 1933 and is still used today. It would require fantastic new materials for the barrel, bullet and propellant to make another exponential like leap in gun technology.

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I assume that it's because it's borderline impossible to predict the future, and that if your goal is to write entertaining fiction it makes sense to create a relatively fixed set of technologies and focus on building characters and stories.

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Historically, necessity is the hardest drive behind advancement in warfare. When two sides are fighting tooth and nail, and the stakes are total annihilation, every advantage is taken into account. If you have a universe where war is so common and frequent, that cultures and societies don’t spend a 1/10 of a percent of their time and energy on it, than more than likely no advancements would be made. They only way I see to naturally make a universes military tech stagnate is to create an universe that’s antipathetic to it.

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