When a nation has a big technological lead over its potential military rivals, how long can that lead be expected to last?
The United States enjoys such an edge today, with no other nation either willing or able to compete in firepower, communications or mobility. Other nations, at other times, have occupied similarly advanced positions.
History suggests these advantages don’t last long, and pursuing them can lead to unexpected places[…] It was in search of just such a long-lived war-fighting advantage that Great Britain set out in 1905 to build what was then the most extraordinary weapon in the world, the great battleship HMS Dreadnought.
In fairness, there’s a pretty big difference between the technological advantage displayed by Dreadnought and the advantage displayed by, for example, the Zumwalt class destroyer. Dreadnought represented the synthesis of a number of different developments (turbines, long range gunnery, etc.) that were widely available and that had been used, in isolation, by most of the other navies in the world. Both Japan and the United States had been working on designs (Satsuma and South Carolina) that would have accomplished the revolution that Dreadnought precipitated. Consequently, the construction of Dreadnought didn’t represent technological primacy on the part of the Royal Navy (indeed, the American design was more advanced in some respects) but rather an advanced understanding of how to synthesize and employ extant technologies. The Royal Navy couldn’t exclude other navies from this understanding, however.
The Zumwalt destroyer is a bit different, because it includes genuine technological advances that are simply unavailable to countries that aren’t the United States. In fifteen years somebody may be able to build a ship similar to a Zumwalt, but right now it just can’t be done. Similarly, the F-22 is a generation ahead of any fighter in any other country in the world. Now, the existence of a Zumwalt or an F-22 can generate both symmetrical and asymmetrical responses. A symmetrical response would be additional effort to develop the necessary technologies to produce a comparable plane. An asymmetrical response would be the development of alternatives ways of fighting an F-22, including better SAMs, better techniques for avoiding air attack, and so forth.
I suspect that Dreadnought and the race she inspired was a rather unique development; I can’t think of a similar manifestation of technological advance, while the Zumwalt and F-22 cases seem more common. To be sure, the gap between major powers isn’t usually as large as it is right now. Of course, it’s because of this gap both in technology and in size of current force that both the Zumwalt and the F-22 seem uncompelling as defense acquisitions.