Elon Musk Thinks Wars Are Won With Superior Engineering

Whether you're Napoleon, or on the wrong end of a space laser.
Chris Young

Elon Musk might not be known for his historical expertise, but the Tesla and SpaceX CEO recently sat down with Hardcore History podcaster Dan Carlin and SpaceX Engineer Bill Riley to talk about the role of engineering in wars throughout history.

Before going into details on the podcast (which you can listen to below) it is worth noting that it is somewhat of a loose, open-ended conversation — Musk has since tweeted "apologies for any errors in this podcast."

Still, there are some interesting tidbits about the way engineering has shaped history, as well as some of the machines from ages past that Elon Musk admires today.

The side with the space laser always wins

The podcast episode mainly goes into detail on engineering in the Napoleonic Wars and onwards, though Musk does also delve a little into the role that engineering and technology played in the time of the Ancient Romans. Musk explains how the Romans were good at metallurgy, meaning they developed strong martensite swords. This gave them a technological advantage over opponents, whose swords could "bend like a noodle" when coming up against the Romans in battle. 

"A lot of books on strategy and on war actually don't address technology or [they] address it in a tangential manner," Musk says. "But obviously if there is an overwhelming technology advantage that side will win, even if the odds are dramatically stacked against them from a numerical standpoint."

"Even if the other side has a better generalship and is very smart," he continues, "if there is a big technology discontinuity then the side with the advanced technology will win." Nowhere is this more evident than in the development of the atomic bomb, the SpaceX CEO explains. It is the most striking example of a side winning a war through the development of technology. Another example, Musk points out, is the development of rifles by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, giving them a great advantage, as their firearms could shoot over a longer range than those of the French military.

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And of course, it wouldn't be an Elon Musk segment if he didn't mention space. Musk uses the "extreme" hypothetical example of a laser that can be shot from space to any location on Earth. According to Musk, it doesn't matter if you're a master tactician such as Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte if "you're lasered from space." That might not be the most groundbreaking of observations, but it's interesting nonetheless in an era where the military is expanding into space via the likes of the U.S. Space Force, and amid recent reports that China sent a hypersonic missile into orbit using technologies that mystified U.S. officials.

Some of Musk's favorite historical machines

Though the podcast doesn't reveal much in the way of Elon Musk and Bill Riley's work at SpaceX, it does give listeners some interesting insight into some of the historic engineering creations that Musk admires. Interestingly, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO has previously stated that his true passion is engineering and that he "rather hate[s]" being a CEO.

Musk mentions the North American P-51 Mustang's turbo supercharged Merlin engine, which he describes as "such a kick-ass engine it's insane." The P-51 Mustang had its original Allison engine replaced by the Rolls-Royce-designed Merlin engine during World War II, and some historians refer to the Merlin-fitted Mustang as the plane that won the war.

Elon Musk Thinks Wars Are Won With Superior Engineering
A P-51 Mustang at the Chino Airshow in California, 2014. Source: Airwolfhound/Wikimedia Commons

Musk also refers to the Grumman F6F Hellcat as a "crushingly good" aircraft, stating that it was the most effective fighter plane during WWII due to its kill ratio of almost 10:1. Since the podcast was uploaded on YouTube, Musk has also taken to Twitter to say he "forgot to mention the Mosquito, which was arguably the most innovative airframe design." The de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito is indeed a unique combat aircraft. Introduced during WWII, its frame was constructed mostly of wood, leading to it being nicknamed the "Wooden Wonder". As a fan of the P-51 Mustang and unique designs, we're also a little surprised that Musk didn't mention that P-82 Twin Mustang that went on sale for a cool $12 million last year.

Give the podcast a listen via the embedded video above to learn more on the thoughts of the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, and newly awarded Time Person of the Year, when it comes to all things war and engineering.

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