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

Fourth, the historical record suggests that war and revolution in warfare are quite separate entities. True, it took the test of World War II to convince the world's major army organizations (and, one might add, much of the German army itself) that Germany's blitzkrieg concept could produce great advantages for its practitioners. The war also convinced the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy that aircraft carriers would be the new centerpiece of battle fleets, and convinced everyone to recognize the revolution in naval warfare brought on by the use of submarines. But a confirming war is not essential for military organizations to seize opportunities. For instance, the revolution in naval warfare in the late nineteenth century, from wood, sail, and cannon to steel, turbines, and rifled guns, was widely accepted in the absence of war. The introduction of nuclear weapons is another obvious example of broad acceptance by military organizations that the competitive environment had changed radically.

Fifth, though most militaries will be quick to recognize a competitor's advantage, there are no certainties. Not even war will guarantee that all military organizations will recognize and exploit a military revolution, or understand a revolution in all its dimensions. Thus, in the American Civil War, both sides were relatively quick in exploiting the dramatic gains in strategic mobility and command, control, and communications made possible by the railroad and telegraph. But years passed before either side clearly realized how drastically the appearance of rifled guns and muskets in large numbers had invalidated the Napoleonic battlefield tactics. Again, despite the experience of World War I the world's major naval powers tended to discount the effectiveness of strategic warfare conducted by submarines. And even after the German campaign in Poland alerted the world to the potential of the blitzkrieg, the French army remained remarkably, indeed fatally, resistant to innovation.

More than anything else, it is perceptions of future contingencies and likely enemies that determine whether and when there is full exploitation of the advantages offered by the military revolution. Having a single enemy or challenger may ease a military organization's problem by making it more manageable. For instance, Britain had three major kinds of naval contingencies to prepare for in the interwar period: a war against a major continental power in Europe; a "small war" involving its imperial possessions; and a war against Japan. Conversely, the world's two other major maritime powers, the United States and Japan, saw each other as by far their most prominent challenger, and organized their naval forces around a single contingency--a Pacific war. As it turned out, the Americans and the Japanese exploited the revolution in naval aviation far more proficiently than did the British, in part because of their ability to focus more precisely. In competing during a period of military revolution it is clearly advantageous to be able to identify not only the nature of future conflict but specific contingencies and competitors. But if that is not possible, a premium should be placed on possessing both sufficient organizational agility and resources to adapt quickly if or when the picture clarifies.

A sixth lesson is that technologies that underwrite a military revolution are often originally developed outside the military sector, and then "imported" and exploited for their military applications. Thus, in the early fourteenth century, the Artillery Revolution was fueled by the discovery that the method being used to cast church bells could also be used for casting artillery--so that, as Bernard Brodie observes, "the early founders, whose task had been to fashion bells which tolled the message of eternal peace...contributed unintentionally to the discovery of one of man's most terrible weapons." The development of the railroad and telegraph, which helped to effect the Revolution in Land Warfare, and the rise of the commercial automotive and aircraft industry which led to the Interwar Revolution, are other obvious examples. Indeed, all the military revolutions of the last two centuries are in a real sense spinoffs from the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions that have been central, defining processes of modern Western history.

That said, having a substantially inferior economic and industrial base need not be an absolute barrier to competition in a military revolution. During the interwar period the Imperial Japanese Navy developed a first-rate naval aviation capability and modern amphibious forces, which they employed to devastating effect in the early months of their war with the United States. The Japanese accomplished this with a gross national product that was less than 20 percent (and perhaps closer to 10 percent) of that of the United States, its major naval competitor in the Pacific. Again, following World War II, the Soviet Union, despite a German invasion that destroyed much of its most productive areas, developed with relative speed a nuclear weapon strike force to rival that of the United States. This was accomplished even though the Soviet Union's gnp was much lower than that of the United States, and it was burdened by war reconstruction costs and the maintenance of a far larger conventional military force. However, in neither case could this competitive posture be sustained indefinitely against a wealthier, equally determined rival.

In a sense, military revolutions may offer major opportunities for relatively small or "medium-sized" powers to steal a march on greater powers, or even for one great power to challenge an array of its peers. They do so by making it possible to substitute intellectual breakthroughs and organizational innovations for material resources. Examples are plentiful: Flanders exploiting the Infantry Revolution to challenge giant France; the Napoleonic Revolution that allowed France to challenge all of Europe; Germany's innovations (in mechanized air-land operations) during the Interwar Revolution against France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States; and Japan exploiting the Interwar Revolution (in naval aviation) against the United States and Great Britain. Indeed, as Geoffrey Parker has argued, the West's global dominance from 1500-1800 is but an instance of this phenomenon writ large.

A seventh and last lesson is that a military revolution does not ineluctably imply a quantum leap in the cost of maintaining military forces. To take one example, the Infantry Revolution of the fourteenth century that replaced heavy cavalry with infantry archers and pikemen actually lowered the cost of maintaining forces. Also, the Nuclear Revolution has been comparatively cheap. While the ability to employ such weapons to achieve political ends has been much debated, the fact remains that nuclear weapons appeared to offer those who possess them considerable "bang for the buck."

The Current Revolution

Where are we now? Some believe that a revolution in warfare has already occurred, and cite the recent Gulf War as evidence. American military operations in that war, however, do not meet the historical criteria for revolutionary change. United States forces did not display any dramatic doctrinal changes in that war, nor any major new force structures or military organizations. One indication of how continuous with earlier practice the U.S. performance was is that during the U.S. "Linebacker" air operations in 1972, some nine thousand laser-guided bombs were dropped on Southeast Asia--roughly the same number as were dropped during the Gulf War. We are in a military revolution--but in its early stages.

What the Gulf War did was show us a glimpse of the potential influence of this revolution on military effectiveness. The Gulf War may be seen as a precursor war--an indication of the revolutionary potential of emerging technologies and new military systems. In this respect, it may be similar to the battle of Cambrai that took place on the Western Front in November 1917. There the British, for the first time, employed large numbers of planes and tanks in concert. They tried to integrate their operations, and those of the infantry and artillery, through the use of wireless communications. The British attack, spearheaded by nearly five hundred tanks, broke the German lines on a twelve kilometer front within hours.

This breakthrough was as surprising to the senior British leaders as the one-sided Desert Storm operation was to senior American commanders. Indeed, the British had made no plans to exploit such a rapid rupture of the German front. In retrospect, one also realizes that the potential for far greater success at Cambrai was compromised by the immaturity of the new technologies and systems employed (tank breakdowns, limitations on aircraft bomb loads, and on wireless range, portability and reliability). To extend the analogy, we may be in the "early 1920s" with respect to this military revolution.

Where are we going? While precise prediction is out of the question, it is possible to speculate with some confidence on the current revolution's general path and nature. It appears certain that it will involve great increases in the ability of military organizations to detect, identify, track, and engage with a high degree of precision and lethality far more targets, over a far greater area, in a far shorter period of time, than was possible in the Cold War era. (No doubt it also will lead to systems and operations designed to degrade or offset these capabilities.) This aspect of the revolution will probably involve an improved ability to understand target systems and their relationship to operational and strategic objectives. The leverage obtained from such a capability is potentially enormous, since knowing which subset of targets to strike out of the many identified will be crucial to the effective employment of large numbers of precision weapons.

Furthermore, the growing importance of simulations--from computer-assisted design and manufacturing (cad-cam), to individual training simulators, to simulations of complex military operations involving high levels of systems and architecture integration--may witness a major increase in the ability of military organizations to extract the full potential of the human and material resources at their disposal.

The transition rate to this revolution's mature stage will be a function of the level of military competition in the international system, the strategies for competition pursued by the competitors, and the four elements comprising a military revolution. It should also be appreciated that, as long as there are multiple competitors exploiting the potential of the emerging military revolution, the revolution itself will be likely to take several paths, if only because of the competitors' varying strategic goals, access to relevant resources, and strategic culture.

What It Means For Us

Perhaps, as many believe, the United States and the world's other great powers have an opportunity unparalleled in this century to construct an international system that will provide a stable, enduring era of relative peace. Even if there is time and even if the opportunity is grasped, the question will remain: Will it last? Is it possible to avoid, or even forestall, a resumption of the great power competition that has been a staple of the international system since the rise of nation-states? If history is any indicator, the United States will, at some point, find itself again in a military competition, in the midst of both a geopolitical and a military revolution. What can the world's dominant military power learn from the general lessons of the West's prior military revolutions?

First, the United States should anticipate that one or more competitors seeking to exploit the coming rapid and dramatic increases in military potential may soon arise. Remembering that monopolies are transient, the United States should ponder how to avoid such a competition, or how to postpone it for as long as possible. Or how to win it if necessary.

Second, continued American technological and operational leadership is by no means assured. During the Interwar Revolution, Great Britain held an initial dominant position in mechanized air-land and naval aviation operations that was quickly forfeited. Even when countries will not be able to compete in the full spectrum of military capabilities, some of them, by specializing, will become formidable niche competitors.

Third, it is by no means certain that competitors will follow the same path as the United States. Different security requirements and objectives, strategic cultures, geostrategic postures, and economic situations will likely lead different competitors in different directions. While there are those who believe that, given our current advantage, this military revolution will only progress at a pace and direction that the United States decides to give it, history suggests that this is a dangerous delusion.

Fourth, it is not clear that the United States can rely on the cost of competition acting as an effective barrier to others. Although most military revolutions have raised the cost of "doing business," sometimes dramatically, there have been significant exceptions--and in terms of direct and initial costs the Nuclear Revolution is one of them, and, with proliferation very much at issue, this revolution is still very much with us. If much of the increase in military effectiveness in this emerging revolution stems from the so-called Information Revolution, which has dramatically lowered the cost of information-related technologies, competitors may find the barriers to competition relatively low. And given the history of military organizations adapting technologies initially developed in the commercial sector, the United States' ability to restrict access to these technologies, in the manner it attempted with nuclear fission and missile technologies, may be marginal at best.

In summary, 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. Indeed, one could argue that the prospects for continued U.S. dominance would be greater in a military regime that was entering early maturity, rather than in its early, most dynamic stages. If America wants to avoid or delay a resumption of military competition, it will have to identify a strategy for that purpose and pursue it energetically. If a competition cannot be avoided, the United States will begin with strong competitive advantages in terms of technology and military systems. As we have seen, however, it is typically those military organizations that are highly innovative and adaptive that seem to compete best in periods of military revolution. In those terms, it has yet to be clearly demonstrated that the United States military should be sanguine regarding its ability to respond effectively to the challenge that this revolution will likely pose.

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