In 2007, the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the deployment of MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) as a “highest priority” and spent over US$ 1 billion in 2007 alone acquiring these vehicles.  Five years later, the armed forces of the United States decided to put over half the force into long-term storage, marking a complete reversal in the importance of these vehicles over the course of over five years. The MRAP program is estimated to have cost nearly US $50 billion. The story of the MRAP is not solely a story of waste—these vehicles were necessary to protect US forces conducting missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from explosive devices planted by insurgents. Rather, it illustrates a growing trend in modern warfare: the incredible difficulty of deploying forces for any mission, given the dramatic specialization of technology required to perform any given mission. MRAPs were a critical tool for a very specific job—counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, in a manner increasingly consistent with modern conflict, they were a technology so specialized that they have little to no utility in other contexts.

Tools of war were not always hyper-specialized. When history began, warriors were alike in the ability to employ club or spear. As metalwork progressed, more types of specialization arose: archery, cavalry, infantry, and siege weaponry.  The increase in specialization of armed forces has paralleled the rise of technology. In World War Two, the German 88mm anti-aircraft gun was also used to great effect against armored vehicles. Now, anti-aircraft systems are largely in the form of missiles, a specialization that makes their use in other roles prohibitively expensive. To penetrate the armor of a tank now requires a specialized round to get through modern armor, rather than the less specialized shell of the German 88mm gun. In the contemporary technological age, specialization is more extreme than ever before, as the example of the MRAP illustrates. However, the impact of specialization in contemporary warfare goes beyond weapons procurement, impacting the course of entire conflicts.

The most apparent impact of specialization is its expense. No longer can an army be raised by the conscription of peasants—instead, technologies must be developed, refined, implemented, and deployed at extreme expense. As a result, an increasingly small amount of nations continue to field forces specialized to the point that they can independently engage in a wide array of operations. NATO illustrates this trend well. Prior to World War 2, the nations that would come to lead NATO—France, Germany, and the US—had armies intended to operate independently, capable of taking on a wide array of missions. However, the heavy tanks, jet fighters, and nuclear weapons that World War Two would introduce were exceedingly expensive, and so a new doctrine was adopted. Instead of trying to contest the USSR in every military realm, NATO would use superior nuclear forces to make up for a relative lack of investment in conventional forces. By 1950, even the victors of World War Two were forced to acknowledge that they did not have the resources to explore fully every technological path against the USSR. Today, members of NATO have further decreased their attempts to compete in increasingly specialized areas of warfare, as illustrated by the overwhelming American influence in NATO’s operations in Afghanistan. Given the high cost of contemporary warfare, NATO nations increasingly delegate responsibility towards US forces.  France’s recent operations in Mali illustrate this reliance on American military assets. Despite the absence of any formidable opposition to the French operation in the country last year, France required US air support to deploy forces to the area. The ability to deploy rapidly to any part of the world is incredibly resource-intensive, and thus France had to rely on the resources of the world’s largest economy to deploy to their former colony of Mali. Contemporary combat operations have become prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of nations, with profound geo-political ramifications.

The implication of the increasing financial cost of war is that the amount of nations that can go to war in an offensive way is substantially smaller than a century ago. One hundred years ago, the nations of Europe were caught in the binds of World War One, a war in which even small countries like Serbia were able to mount substantial operations. In Serbia’s case, they were able to fend off the powerful nation of Austria-Hungary, at the horrible cost of over half of the Serbian male population. A hundred years later, even France is unable to deploy to her former colony without logistical assistance. With Japan’s militarism subject to constitutional limitations and Chinese military capabilities still developing, the United States stands alone among the leading economies of the world in deployment capability.  Only the army of the former USSR is comparable to the US, but the Russian army is a shadow of its former self and lacks the deployment readiness of US forces.  While a century ago, many countries had significant military influence on world affairs, in modern times the global chessboard seems the property of a very small group of players. While many countries have conventional forces of some type, few have forces capable of lengthy counterinsurgency missions abroad, and fewer still have the ability to fight a highly-networked, modern opponent in the league of NATO, Russia, or China. Despite allusions to cooperation and multilateralism within diplomatic bodies, the strategic reality is that the costs of being able to deploy comprehensive military force against any opponent are so high that the world is dominated by the select group of countries who have both the resources and the willingness to do so.

One hundred years ago, as the powers of Europe prepared to go to war, tangled alliances drew countries of somewhat similar military capability towards mobilization and conflict. Today, the distribution of power is far less equal, and the power of nations like the United States only has a few rivals in the entire world. The world is now safer from the conflagration that erupted a century ago, but not because of a fundamental shift in the way world affairs are carried out. Rather, the world’s comparative peace one hundred years later has come due to the insurmountable expense of even preparing for the alternative.