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In this story the low tech rebels on the outer worlds gradually win small peripheral battles, but at the centre the empire is initially unconcerned as it is about to roll out bigger and better weapons, but each of these has a small but fatal flaw and ultimately they are defeated by the low tech rebels.

It is at least 50 years old.

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This is almost certainly Arthur C. Clarke's "Superiority" (1951). It has been asked about on this site and successfully answered several times, for example at Process management and high technology weapon. Novel name and author?

The narrator of the story is highly-placed within the military command structure of the losing side. He describes several inventions that cause the high command to halt operations while they prepare to roll out a new superweapon. The first is a "Sphere of Annhiliation":

Norden proved his case less than a month later, when he demonstrated the Sphere of Annihilation, which produced complete disintegration of matter over a radius of several hundred meters. We were intoxicated by the power of the new weapon, and were quite prepared to overlook one fundamental defect - the fact that it was a sphere and hence destroyed its rather complicated generating equipment at the instant of formation. This meant, of course, that it could not be used on warships but only on guided missiles, and a great program was started to convert all homing torpedoes to carry the new weapon. For the time being all further offensives were suspended.

After this comes the "Battle Analyzer":

We now know that Research had been working on the Battle Analyzer for many years, but at the time it came as a revelation to us and perhaps we were too easily swept off our feet. Norden's argument, also, was seductively convincing. What did it matter, he said, if the enemy had twice as many ships as we - if the efficiency of ours could be doubled or even trebled? For decades the limiting factor in warfare had been not mechanical but biological - it had become more and more difficult for any single mind, or group of minds, to cope with the rapidly changing complexities of battle in three-dimensional space. Norden's mathematicians had analyzed some of the classic engagements of the past, and had shown that even when we had been victorious we had often operated our units at much less than half of their theoretical efficiency.

The third and final innovation is the "Exponential Field":

The final weapon was something so fantastic that even now it seems difficult to believe that it ever existed. Its innocent, noncommittal name - The Exponential Field - gave no hint of its real potentialities. Some of Norden's mathematicians had discovered it during a piece of entirely theoretical research into the properties of space, and to everyone's great surprise their results were found to be physically realizable.

It seems very difficult to explain the operation of the Field to the layman. According to the technical description, it "produces an exponential condition of space, so that a finite distance in normal, linear space may become infinite in pseudo-space." Norden gave an analogy which some of us found useful. It was as if one took a flat disk of rubber - representing a region of normal space - and then pulled its center out to infinity. The circumference of the disk would be unaltered - but its "diameter" would be infinite. That was the sort of thing the generator of the Field did to the space around it.

As an example, suppose that a ship carrying the generator was surrounded by a ring of hostile machines. If it switched on the Field, each of the enemy ships would think that it - and the ships on the far side of the circle - had suddenly receded into nothingness. Yet the circumference of the circle would be the same as before: only the journey to the center would be of infinite duration, for as one proceeded, distances would appear to become greater and greater as the "scale" of space altered.

In each case, the rush to deploy the new technology to the battlefield results in overlooked side effects and negative consequences. This, coupled with the fact that offensive operations are halted to prepare for each deployment, results in the enemy gaining the initiative and overwhelming them with "inferior" but far more plentiful ships and weapons.

The story can be read in its entirety online at Mayo Family.

The "asymptotic drive" that you mention in the question title is another fictional invention of Clarke's, from his novel Imperial Earth. It does not appear in this story, however. Possibly you read the novel and short story around the same time and your memory is conflating the two?

  • 2
    If this is the correct answer, querent, you can accept it by clicking on the checkmark by the voting buttons. – FuzzyBoots Jan 8 at 18:17

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