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The Revolution in Military Affairs: Prospects and Cautions

Authored by Dr. Earl H. Tilford Jr.. | June 1995

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A characteristic of the American way of war is our fascination with technology and the search for that technological "silver bullet" that will deliver victory quickly and with a minimum of loss of life. The current Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is driven by rapid technological advance fostered by the advent of the microprocessor and by decreased defense spending. It operates against the background of a historical watershed brought about by the end of the Cold War.

The RMA has been embraced by all the United States' military services; especially the Air Force and the Army. As the Army downsizes it is seeking to change itself into Force XXI; a strategic force, trained and ready, to fight and win the nation's wars in the 21st century. That we are in the midst of a true revolution in military affairs is evident. What it may mean for the Army and the nation is not so evident.

This monograph outlines where the Army is going as it seeks to define change rather than be defined by change. It also looks to the past to ask what have been the results of change during past RMAs? Accelerated interservice rivalries and over-reliance on management systems marked the last RMA, one driven by the advent of atomic weapons at the end of World War II and the relatively stable and sparse defense budgets of the 1950s. The author argues that the consequence of interservice rivalry and the institutionalization of the managerial ethos was defeat in Vietnam.

Finally, the author warns against becoming so entranced with the sophisticated technologies of the RMA that we lose both our grounding in strategic thinking and our basic warrior skills. To do so could be potentially disastrous when two peer competitor forces meet on the 21st century battlefield and, quite possibly, cancel each other out electronically. Then, it will be the side which is able to fight at the lower "gut level" of warfare that will prevail.


Discussions of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), the Military-Technical Revolution (MTR), and Information Age Warfare often develop along technological lines. The Department of Defense's Office of Net Assessment defines an RMA as a major change in the nature of warfare brought about by the innovative application of technologies which, combined with dramatic changes in military doctrine, and operational concepts, fundamentally alters the character and conduct of operations. What is lost in this definition and in subsequent discussions is the nature of war, which remains a complex interaction of political objectives, human emotions, cultural and ethnic factors, and military skills. In pursuit of a political objective, warfare is violence articulated through strategy which is a balance of ends, ways and means. Technology and technological innovations, while affecting the way wars are or might be fought, remain means to an end.1

The Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, occurring as they did almost simultaneously, marked an historical watershed. Ironically, the Gulf War, with its vision of a high-tech and extremely potent U.S. military, coincided with the end of an era in which just such a force is most viable. One might postulate that the Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union, taken together, constitute a bookend to one end of an era of Western political and military history that is bounded at the other end by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. One might then argue that the West was engaged in a second Hundred Years War between 1870 and 1989.2 But the era which is dawning, the post-Cold War era, is not the end of history nor is it so radically different from all that came before that the study of the past has no relevancy.

The end of the Cold War and the dawning of what Alvin and Heidi Toffler have termed "the Information Age" are the two powerful conditions that define the environment in which the United States Army and its sister services operate today.3 In the Information Age, one can argue that a military-technical revolution, brought about by the advent of the microprocessor andprecision-guided munitions, is fostering a revolution in military affairs. That may be so, but RMAs and rapid advances in technology are not always related. The armies of Napoleon, for instance, were part of a revolution in military affairs that derived from the social and political upheavals of the French Revolution. While the armies of the French Revolution coincided with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the incorporation of the people into the war effort through the levee en masse was more important than anything issuing from the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, the weapons used by the armies of 1815 were basically the same as those available in 1789 or, for that matter, in 1715. Conversely, the military-technical revolution that issued from the maturing Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century did not translate into a true RMA until after the First World War, although all the technological elements were available during the war: the railroad, machine guns, tanks, long-range and rifled artillery, rapid-fire rifles, electronic means of communication, and airplanes .4


1. General Gordon R. Sullivan and Lieutenant Colonel James M. Dubik, Land Warfare in the 21st Century, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, February 1993, pp. 22-24.

2. A similar argument is made by John Lukacs in The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age, New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993, pp. 4-9. Lukacs, however, claims that the 20th century lasted only 75 years, from 1914 to 1989. I would suggest that World War I was the inevitable result of the Franco-Prussian War, much as World War II was historically determined by the First World War and the Versailles Treaty.

3. See Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993, pp. 15-17.

4. See Richard A. Preston and Sidney F. Wise, Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and its Interrelationships with Western Society, 4th edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979, pp. 238-250; and Andrew F. Krepinevich, "The Military-Technical Revolution: A Preliminary Assessment," Office of Net Assessment unpublished manuscript, July 1992, pp. 2-5.