Engines of Power: Electricity, AI, and General-Purpose Military Transformations

Major theories of military innovation focus on relatively narrow technological developments, such as nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers. Arguably the most profound military implications of technological change, however, come from more fundamental advances arising from general purpose technologies, such as the steam engine, electricity, and the computer. With few exceptions, political scientists have not theorized about GPTs. Drawing from the economics literature on GPTs, we distill several propositions on how and when GPTs affect military affairs. We call these effects general-purpose military transformations. In particular, we argue that the impacts of GMTs on military effectiveness are broad, delayed, and shaped by indirect productivity spillovers. Additionally, GMTs differentially advantage those militaries that can draw from a robust industrial base in the GPT. To illustrate the explanatory value of our theory, we conduct a case study of the military consequences of electricity, the prototypical GPT. Finally, we apply our findings to artificial intelligence, which will plausibly cause a profound general-purpose military transformation.

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