Nothing New: Why the 'Revolution' in Military Affairs Is the Same as the Old One

September 2, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWarJetsNuclear Weapons

Nothing New: Why the 'Revolution' in Military Affairs Is the Same as the Old One

Only the technology has changed.


The technology-driven revolution in military affairs (RMA), first begun during America’s dominating performance in the First Gulf War, is upon us. This argument has come to be accepted essentially as common knowledge. Christian Brose recently argued in Foreign Affairs that, “a military made up of small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned, and hard-to-replace systems will not survive on future battlefields, where swarms of intelligent machines will deliver violence at a greater volume and higher velocity than ever before.” This same old argument has been presented, and repeatedly repackaged, countless times since the United States’ impressive military performance in the 1990s. It was then that the term Revolution in Military Affairs was thrust to the front pages of foreign policy publications and it refuses to go away, even as we continue to wait for a revolution to actually occur. The debate has been given a renewed immediacy in the United States as a result of the shift in focus to great power competition. These proclamations of a technology-driven RMA are fundamentally flawed, however. 

There is no theoretical foundation or empirical evidence that the changes we are witnessing rise to the level of a revolution. Proclamations of an RMA caused by technological changes to the tools of war are alarmist, misunderstand the long history of military revolutions, and fundamentally mischaracterize the nature of war, which is both a military and a political endeavor.


Actual Revolutions in Military Affairs

Strategic theorist Colin S. Gray said, “in common with war, strategy has an enduring nature but an ever shape-shifting character.” Changes in some of the tools of war may have various impacts, but this does not by itself constitute a revolution. The world has seen a vast array of technological developments in the tools of war in just the past century; submarines, tanks, poisonous gas, nuclear weapons, and aircraft carriers, among countless others. Some of these tools had a major impact on warfare; some had no impact at all. Since the 1300s, however, only five RMAs have actually occurred, and only one was primarily driven by technological changes to the tools of war alone.

The first revolution in this time period came in the seventeenth-century with the rise of the modern nation-state. The nation-state placed order and organization over the conduct of war and brought it out of the Dark Ages. The second was the French Revolution. The rise of mass politics allowed the state to field nationalistic armies larger and more disciplined than before. The industrial revolution was the third and allowed these nationalistic states to field and maintain logistics for armies numbering in the multiple millions. The fourth occurred during the latter parts of the First World War when militaries developed the modern system of small unit maneuvers and combined arms to reduce the enemy’s lethality and increase survivability. This set the pattern for all future conventional wars. The Fifth, and final, revolution was the adoption of nuclear weapons. Current arguments for a new RMA say technological changes to the tools of war will revolutionize how it is fought. However, historically, only once in more than 600 years was an RMA caused by a technological change to the tools of war alone—during the nuclear revolution.

Technological-deterministic arguments that view technology as the sole driver of the conduct of war and its outcomes grossly oversimplifies one of the most complex endeavors humans can engage in. Scholars of military revolutions have said that, “the mastery seemingly demonstrated in the Gulf revived the very worst feature of U.S. defense culture: the recurring delusion that war can be understood and controlled in the mechanized top-down fashion of Robert Strange McNamara and his entourage in the 1960s.” Essentially, war is more complex than the tools used to fight it, and the conduct and outcome depend on myriad factors.

With Measures, Come Counter-Measures

The early promise of new technology is frequently inflated, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. When new tools with new capabilities are developed, new counter-measures are created shortly after to undermine their effectiveness. Tank development was paralleled by anti-tank advances and tactics designed to exploit the tank’s weaknesses. This type of standard innovation is constantly occurring within militaries, and thus, does not constitute anything new or revolutionary. With aircraft came radar and anti-aircraft guns. With submarines came depth charges. With poisonous gas came gas masks. With the prospect of drone swarms in future warfare comes the U.S. Air Force’s development of the THOR system, among others, designed to destroy drone swarms. It’s unreasonable to think that technology will develop new tools that increase the pace and lethality of the battlefield and to simultaneously think that counter-measures to those new tools won’t also be developed.

Social and financial factors also drive war outcomes, regardless of technological disparities. Cathal J. Nolan showed that wars are not, contrary to popular narratives, won by spectacular victories in decisive battles. Rather, great power wars are won through attrition by the ability to divert more resources towards the war effort than the adversary. For instance, Rosella Cappella Zielinski showed the importance of war financing. Most of these factors operate independent of the specific technological tools of war and will continue to do so.

More Than a Misnomer

Disciples of the technological RMA should be honest about the potential dangers that could come from what they’re asking of the U.S. Military. Very smart people have preached of a technology-driven RMA frequently in the past and the force structure and doctrinal changes that have occurred as a result have, at times, actually undermined military effectiveness. Interwar strategists believed the pace and strength of the tank was revolutionary. However, when pure British tank divisions tried to break out of the Normandy beachheads during Operation Goodwood they were cut down by small units of German infantry armed with anti-tank weapons and employing the modern system of small unit maneuvers and combined arms.

An overreaction to new technology’s impact on warfare could actually result in ineffective strategies and force structures. The narrative of an RMA could also lead to unnecessary crisis instability. Numerous scholars and authors have highlighted the impact that AI and hypersonic weapons will have on first mover advantages. Doctrine in the lead-up to WWI was also conditioned by the assumption that new technology gave a decisive advantage to the country that mobilized first and fastest. The first movers, however, did not have a decisive advantage. This belief could thrust the United States into a war based on a mistaken assumption that never actually results in a decisive victory. At least the current believers in the technological RMA are in good (or bad) historical company.

Technology’s Most Likely Impact

To criticize the exaggeration of technology’s impact is one thing, actually assessing what that impact will be is another. If new technological tools of war will not revolutionize the conduct of war, what will its actual impact be?

Recent history suggests some of these tools will fade into irrelevance and never really be adopted by the world’s militaries. Chemical weapons were once thought to be the future of warfare. However, they never really proved particularly effective, especially relative to already available tools. They’re difficult to deploy, nearly impossible to control, and today are rarely implemented. Militaries maintain some counter-measures in case they do face such weapons, but few militaries would ever stake their futures on the weapon. 

Similarly, the feasibility of some future weapons have been questioned recently. Rail guns have been heralded as the future of naval platforms, but achieving a functional and effective prototype is proving difficult. States seem convinced that hypersonics will become viable and are investing heavily in them. Promising research, however, doesn’t always result in functional weapons and some have indicated that the primary driver of U.S. research into the weapon system is simply that other states are also researching them.

Recent history also suggests that those weapons that are capable tools of war will be incorporated into the existing force structure under the precepts of combined arms. Some of these new tools will prove to have great strengths, but no weapon is free of weaknesses, vulnerabilities, or limitations—not even the multi-billion dollar and ultra-advanced F-35 jet. Thus, they will need to be incorporated into a larger operational system that combines their actions with other, existing, tools that offset these weaknesses. For example, tanks are well protected and have great firepower, but they have low visibility and maneuverability making them vulnerable in rough and urban terrain. Moreover, they are uniquely exposed to small, hard to see, infantry units. Thus, armored units are paired with infantry and close air support to eliminate these limitations.

Emerging tools of war will only be effective if paired with the larger operational system to offset weaknesses. Drone swarms will be great at overwhelming air defenses in the early stages of a conflict when attempting to establish air dominance, but they are vulnerable to cyber and directed energy weapons that can disable the drones or inhibit their ability to communicate with each other. Combining them with multi-domain operations in which cyber operations precede the swarm to limit the ability of the adversary to mount their own cyber operation will maximize their utility.