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Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions

September 1, 1994 Topic: Security Tags: MuslimYugoslavia

Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions

Mini Teaser: The lessons of earlier revolutions seem to contradict much of the conventional wisdom with respect to the United States' prospective competitive military position. In a revolutionary epoch, long-term U.S. military dominance is not preordained

by Author(s): Andrew F. Krepinevich

Toward that war's end, however, new operational concepts were developed to mitigate the effects of the dominant military systems and operational concepts. On land, massed frontal assaults preceded by long artillery preparations gave way to brief artillery preparation fires, infiltration tactics, and the use of the light machine gun as the dominant weapon of the German storm trooper assault. At sea, Great Britain and the United States established elaborate convoy operations to counter the U-boat threat that had transformed the nature of commerce raiding.

World War I both represented the mature stage of one military epoch, and presaged the rise of the Interwar Revolutions in Mechanization, Aviation, and Information. As the war progressed, the land forces of both the Allied and the Central powers found themselves employing new military systems based on dramatic advances in the fields of mechanization and radio. Following the war, improvements in internal combustion engines, aircraft design, and the exploitation of radio and radar made possible the blitzkrieg, carrier aviation, modern amphibious warfare, and strategic aerial bombardment. Entirely new kinds of military formations appeared, such as the panzer division, the carrier battlegroup, and the long-range bomber force. After a scant twenty years, the nature of conflict had changed dramatically, and those--like the British and the French--who failed to adapt suffered grievously.

Finally, in the mid-twentieth century, the Nuclear Revolution (especially after the coupling of nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles), brought the prospect of near-instantaneous and complete destruction of a state's economic and political fabric into the strategic equation. Here was a shift in technology so radical it convinced nearly all observers that a fundamental change in the character of warfare was at hand. Indeed, in the eyes of some observers, once nuclear weapons were stockpiled in significant numbers by the superpowers, they could no longer be employed effectively. Their only utility was in deterring war. Nevertheless, one also sees here the emergence of very different warfighting doctrines and military organizations among nuclear states (e.g., the U.S. nuclear submarine force; Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces).

Seven Lessons

Reflecting on this record extending over seven centuries, it is possible to make some general observations about the character of military revolutions.

First, and to reiterate a point made earlier, emerging technologies only make military revolutions possible. To realize their full potential, these technologies typically must be incorporated within new processes and executed by new organizational structures. In the cases outlined above, all major military organizations fairly rapidly gained access to the emerging technologies. Failure to realize a great increase in military effectiveness typically resulted not so much from ignoring technological change as from a failure to create new operational concepts and build new organizations.

Perhaps the clearest example of the importance of organizational innovation occurred early in World War II. On the Western Front in 1940, British and French armored forces were roughly equal to the Germans' in size, and in quality. Both the allies and the Germans had modern aircraft and radios. In the interwar years, however, it was the German military that had identified both the operational concept to best integrate these new military systems and the organization needed to activate that concept. The result was a major increase in military effectiveness and the acquisition of a decisive comparative advantage. Germany defeated the allied forces and conquered France in six weeks. That victory was primarily due to the intellectual breakthroughs that led to new operational concepts and the organizational flexibility that allowed them to exploit these concepts.

A second lesson is that the competitive advantages of a military revolution are increasingly short-lived. Military organizations typically recognize the potentially great penalties for failing to maintain their competitive position. In early periods of military revolution, it was possible to maintain dominance for a relatively long period (witness the sluggish response of France to the Infantry Revolution and much of Europe to the Napoleonic Revolution). But since the Napoleonic era, it has been true that if a major military organization is to derive an advantage by having first access to new technologies it has to exploit those technologies quickly, before its major competitors copy or offset the advantage.

For example, the French innovations that sparked the nineteenth century Naval Revolution stimulated a furious British response that matched and then exceeded the French effort. Although the British were loath to introduce radical changes in ship design, they felt compelled to when faced with the French initiative, and retained a major advantage. What gave Britain its competitive advantage was its economic strength, its ability to tap into that strength through its financial system, and its ability to concentrate its resources on a naval competition in a way that France, a continental power, never could. As the revolution matured, France's fleeting opportunities evaporated.

By the end of the Naval Revolution, the tables were again turned. When the British launched H.M.S. Dreadnought, Germany quickly took up the British challenge, leading to the Anglo-German dreadnought arms race. Thus, the Royal Navy's lead in applying technologies to launch the first all-big-gun battleship designed to make all others "obsolete" produced only an ephemeral competitive advantage over Germany, and the other major navies of the world, which quickly constructed their own "dreadnoughts."

Indeed, in the last two centuries there do not seem to be any prolonged "monopolies" exercised by a single competitor in periods of military revolution. Fairly quickly, major powers who can afford the technology and who understand how to employ it, have it if they want it. Of course, one is immediately led to ask the question: Is "fairly quickly" quickly enough? After all, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who directed Germany's naval buildup, viewed with alarm the period from 1906, when Britain launched Dreadnought, to 1910, when Germany's naval building program was able to offset partially the British advantage. It may be that although the period of competitive advantage appears to be fairly short there may be a potentially great advantage from being first, as the French discovered to their dismay and the Germans to their elation in the spring of 1940.

Having the initial competitive advantage in a period of military revolution--even if that advantage is considerable--is no guarantee of continued dominance, or even competitiveness. The list of military organizations that established an early lead, only to fall behind later, is long. Consider the history of the submarine: the French navy made much of the early progress in submarines in the late nineteenth century, but it was the Kaiser's navy that employed the new system to such devastating effect in World War I. In World War II, the United States quickly adopted many of Germany's innovations in mechanized air-land operations and in submarine commerce raiding. Or take military aircraft: the Americans were in the forefront of aviation in the first years of the twentieth century, but by the time of their entry into World War I had fallen substantially behind many European states. Or tanks: an American tank designed in the 1920s was adapted by the Soviets in the process of developing the T-34, one of the most effective tanks to emerge during World War II. The U.S. Army, on the other hand, was equipped during the war primarily with the inferior Sherman tank.

Even though monopolies may be fleeting, they are real and often decisive in war. The early years of World War II--in some respects like the Napoleonic era revolution in land warfare during the late eighteenth century--demonstrate what can happen when only one power is innovative and adaptive. In the run-up to that war, Germany proved far more adept than France, Britain, and Soviet Russia at operational and organizational innovation on land. Although the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States caught up to Germany's blitzkrieg in the span of a few years, France was unable to adapt quickly enough in 1940 to avoid disaster, while Soviet Russia suffered enormous devastation at the hands of the German war machine.

A third lesson of history is that asymmetries in national objectives and strategic cultures, as well as limitations on resources and the potential number and strength of enemies, allow for niche, or specialist, competitors. This phenomenon seems to be characteristic of recent periods of military revolution, where technological change has been broadening and accelerating, offering a potentially rich menu of military innovation. Furthermore, the cost of competing imposes strong limitations on how a military organization will pursue the competition. Again, the best example of this phenomenon occurred during the Interwar Revolutions in Mechanization, Aviation, and Information. With one exception, the period was characterized by selective competition among the military organizations of the great powers. For example, for a time Germany, traditionally a land power, became dominant in mechanized air-land operations. Soviet Russia quickly joined that competition to survive. Japan, an island nation, competed in naval aviation and modern amphibious operations, while the British developed strong capabilities in strategic aerial bombardment, strategic defenses, and (arguably) modern amphibious operations. Only the United States had the resources to compete in every major area of the interwar military revolution (save strategic defenses, for which it had no need), while simultaneously positioning itself to exploit the coming military revolution in nuclear weapons. Clearly the level and sophistication of human and material assets, and the unique strategic circumstances faced by each competitor, shape how competitors approach and attempt to exploit the opportunities inherent in military revolutions.

Essay Types: Essay