In journalism and media portrayals innovation is all about visionaries and technology (think Steve Jobs). Like David with his sling, a company with a visionary will create cool technology and slay Goliath (think Apple).
Books like Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory challenge those popular preconceptions. Take for example, the experience of Italy in World War Two.
Giulio Douhet was one of the earliest and most influential theorists of airpower and strategic bombing. Italy designed and developed some of the most advanced aircraft in the world in the 1920s and 1930s. Her pilots won international competitions and set world records.
So the Regia Aeronautica had visionaries and the cool technology. Yet Italy lost campaign after campaign between 1940 and 1943.
A key reason, as Kennedy points out, is that Italy lacked the natural resources, economic capacity, and industrial technology to support a modern war against a European Great Power. Vision and a few good ideas could not make up for this systemic weakness.
Resources aren’t everything but they do weigh heavily in the strategic and competitive balance. Vision and advanced technology if used in an astute manner can offset some inferiority in material resources. For Italy between 1940 and 1943, the gap was too great and her strategy too inept. Catastrophic defeat was almost inevitable.
Williamson Murray reminds us that cool technology is often useful but is rarely the decisive factor in victory or defeat:
Britain’s crushing defeats in Malaya and Burma in 1942 are a reminder that strategic context matters when it comes to the value of cutting edge technology. The British built the first fully motorized army. It pioneered tank warfare and tank development. Japan’s Army moved on foot and on bicycles. By European standards, their tanks were a joke--- little more than toys.
But technological superiority by itself has never guaranteed success. The Germans had technologically inferior tanks and artillery in 1940; nevertheless, they won one of the greatest operational victories in the history of the twentieth century. In the 1944-1945 campaigns, the Germans possessed by far and away the most sophisticated fighter aircraft, the most sophisticated heavy tank, the most sophisticated medium tank, the most sophisticated submarine, and the best machine gun. And they went down to catastrophic defeat.
In the jungles of Asia (strategic context) Japan’s “primitive” army enjoyed superior tactical and operation mobility versus the “advanced” British. They were able to outflank British positions and routed the road-bound British time and again.
“Cutting edge technology” ended up hamstringing British commanders.