23 Aug 2016

Patterson's Dictum: On "technological casualties"

About fifty pages into John Bruce Medaris’s 1960 autobiography Countdown for Decision, there is an unsourced quote attributed to Col. C.G. Patterson, who in 1944 was in charge of Anti-Aircraft Artillery for the U.S. First Army, outlining the concept of a “technological casualty”:

“If a weapon costs more to build, in money, materials, and manpower, than it costs the enemy to repair the damage the weapon causes, the user has suffered a technological casualty. In any long-drawn-out struggle this might be the margin between victory and defeat.” 1

As far as I can tell, the term “technological casualty” never passed into general usage with that meaning, which is unfortunate. And although sources do confirm that Col. Patterson existed and by all accounts served admirably as the commander of air defense artillery for First Army in 1944, there doesn’t appear to be much record outside of Medaris’ book of the quote. Still, credit where it is most likely due; if ever a shorthand name for this idea is required, I might humbly suggest “Patterson’s Dictum”. (It also sounds good.)

I suspect, given Patterson’s role at the time, that the original context of the quote had to do with offensive or defensive air capability. Perhaps it referred to the attrition of German capability that was at that point ongoing. In Countdown, Medaris discusses it in the context of the V-2, which probably consumed more German war resources to create than they destroyed of Allied ones. But it is certainly applicable more broadly.

On its face, Patterson’s statement assumes a sort of attritative, clash-of-civilizations, total-commitment warfare, where all available resources of one side are stacked against all available resources of the other. One might contend that it doesn’t seem to have much applicability in the age of asymmetric warfare, now that we have a variety of examples of conflicts ending in a victory – in the classic Clausewitzian political sense – by parties who never possessed any sort of absolute advantage in money, materials, or manpower.

But I would counter that even in the case of a modern asymmetric war, or realpolitik-fueled ‘brushfire’ conflicts with limited aims, the fundamental calculus of war still exists, it just isn’t as straightforward. Beneath all the additional terms that get added to the equation is the essential fact that defeat is always possible if victory proves too expensive. Limited war doesn’t require you outspend your adversary’s entire society, only their ‘conflict budget’: their willingness to expend resources in that particular conflict.

Which makes Patterson’s point quite significant: if a modern weapons system can’t subtract as much from an adversary’s ‘conflict budget’ – either through actual destructive power, deterrence, or some other effect – as it subtracts from ours in order to field it (including the risk of loss), then it is essentially a casualty before it ever arrives.

1: Countdown for Decision (1960 ed.), page 51.

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