Weapon of choice: small arms and the culture of military innovation

Over the past decade, the study of change and transformation in military organizations has become a major and very productive subfield of security and strategic studies. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have led researchers to explore mechanisms of military change beyond the ‘major transformations’ studied in the 1990s, in particular bottom-up adaptation. One of the contemporary challenges for the field is to reconcile the study of top-down innovation, including the introduction of major weapon systems that have had a structuring effect on the armed forces, with the analysis of small-scale, incremental change. In particular, there is a need for more studies exploring how adaptation can become institutionalized as this subject is currently under-researched.


Matthew Ford’s book helps fill this gap in a creative and well-researched manner, which makes it an important point of reference for future work in the field. First, Ford correctly identifies that innovation studies are usually overly focused on major weapon systems at the expense of smaller innovations. Second, instead of seeing culture as a barrier to the institutionalization of bottom-up adaptation, he contends that an approach rooted in the social shaping of technology (SST) yields more explanatory power. Indeed, there is an ontological problem in treating culture as an independent or intervening variable. An approach weaving together technological practices and their cultural environment helps capture the struggles for power, status and authority between competing individuals and groups, which shape weapon design, production and adoption.

To illustrate his claims, Ford examines a number of debates related to small arms since 1900, gradually adding layers of complexity to his analysis. He begins with an intramilitary debate in the United Kingdom and the United States on the ideal design of the assault rifle, which reveals different conceptions of military professionalism. The following chapter introduces readers to the role played by civilian engineers in defining weapon requirements when the professional community—the armed forces—is divided on what constitutes the ideal weapon. He then traces a scientific debate on the definition and measurement of ‘lethality’, which took place between the 1940s and the 1960s, and illustrates that the ‘science of killing’ was hotly contested and thus easily used by various groups to promote their preferred technological solutions. The next chapter deals with the influence of bureaucratic infighting on weapon adoption, which can favour some actors (such as weapons producers) at the expense of others, before turning to the importance of a supranational bureaucracy, such as NATO, as a standardization mechanism. Interestingly, he notes that despite its political primacy, the US is far from always getting its way in terms of approved standards within the alliance and was forced to adopt a Belgian design for ammunition in the 1970s. Finally, the last chapter explores the ways industries can play with ‘warrior envy’ and the competition for social status between military units, where elite units are emulated by standard infantry, possibly at the expense of weapon design.

The way Ford gradually introduces more complexity to his analysis—which may be surprising to readers used to the ‘theory-testing’ standard of writing regularly employed in security and strategic studies—is one of the strengths of the book and means that the author is not a prisoner of his theoretical approach. For example, in addition to SST, he borrows from the literature on bureaucratic and alliance politics, which allows him to capture the variety of factors that influence small arms design and production. The author must also be commended for his mastery of the technical details of small arms functioning and design, which he manages to integrate into his narrative without overwhelming the reader: he masterfully goes back and forth between technology and politics, thus making what could have been a dry work an easy read.

Two limitations must, however, be noted. First, Ford could have referenced the existing literature on applying SST approaches to armament policies in more detail. While he correctly identifies gaps in the innovation and adaptation literature, it could also have been useful for readers to see how his focus on small arms compares with existing studies applying SST to major weapon systems, such as nuclear capabilities. Second, the author could have further developed the implications of his approach for future research on military adaptation and innovation, as this is unfortunately limited to a few pages in the conclusion. However, those minor criticisms should not discourage readers interested in military change from engaging with this fine book.

Olivier Schmitt (Center for War Studies)

Cette recension a été publiée dans International Affairs, 94/1, 2018, pp. 196-197.

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