Seeking an Edge
It’s an old story: A breakthrough weapon can redefine warfare for decades — or ages — to come.

The belief that gaining a technological edge over a wartime opponent can provide the margin of victory is an old belief. The chariot, for instance, may have been decisive in the Hyksos’ conquest of Egypt around 1700 BC. And Hernando Cortes’ steel swords and armor, horses, harquebuses and culverins allowed the Spaniards in 1519 to hold their own against the numerically superior Aztecs.

Battlefield triumph is not guaranteed by superior weapons, as other factors come into play, including numbers, training, terrain, intelligence, tactical brilliance, and the courage of the combatants. But it is surely true that on occasion a technological advantage has proven decisive, and that’s been enough to propel the belief in, and search for, that technological edge — thus allowing historians to praise devices from the chariot to the P-51 Mustang as “The widget that won the war.” And some technological advances have been so decisive that they redefined strategic and political thinking about war itself — the atomic bomb, for one.

World War II is sometimes seen as a conflict in which advantages shifted back and forth as technologically superior devices appeared on one side or the other. The German 88 gun was a nasty surprise to U.S. armored forces; the British “computer” that broke the Germans’ Enigma codes would have been a nasty surprise to the Germans, had they learned of it.

Another World War II weapon that came as a nasty surprise to the citizens of Belgium and England was Germany’s V-2 rocket. The supersonic V-2 was too fast to intercept with the aircraft or antiaircraft guns of the era, and it struck without warning with a ton of high explosives. There were drawbacks: It was complex and expensive, its inertial guidance system was inaccurate, and it became operational too late to make a difference in that war. But Allied strategists could see its potential as a delivery system for the next war, and indeed its many progeny defined the strategies and fears of the subsequent Cold War.

So it is no wonder that the World War II Allies raced to capture the V-2s, their manufacturing facilities, and above all the scientists and technicians who brought those breakthrough rockets into being. Over 100 of them ended up in the U.S., many to work in the nascent space program. A similar number went to the Soviet Union. The Allies believed the German V-2 represented a real technological edge, and subsequent events proved them right.