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Recognizing and Understanding Revolutionary Change in Warfare: The Sovereignty of Context

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | February 2006

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Since 1993 at the latest, when Andrew W. Marshall and his Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) introduced into public debate the concept of a Revolution in Military affairs (RMA), the idea of revolutionary change in warfare has gripped the official U.S. strategic imagination. All such master notions, or meta narratives, have lengthy antecedents. The provenance of RMA can be traced in the use of laser-guided bombs in Vietnam; in the 1970s ?Assault Breaker? project to develop rocket-delivered smart bomblets to target Soviet armor far behind the front; in Soviet speculation about a Military-Technical Revolution (MTR) and the feasibility of ?reconnaissance-strike complexes?; in the Discriminate Deterrence reports of the late 1980s (sponsored by then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr. Fred Ikle, and inspired by Dr. Albert Wohlstetter); by the dramatic effects of stealth and precision in the Gulf War of 1991; and, ?off piste? as it were, by a rising argument among academic historians of early-modern Europe.

U.S. debate evolved into official commitment. RMA was to be realized as transformation or, for a scarcely less ambitious expression, as revolutionary change in the way American forces would fight. The fascination with revolutionary change persisted through the 1990s, survived, indeed was given ?gravity assists? by the newly mandated Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs), by a change in administration in 2001, and was scarcely dented as the dominant defense concept by September 11, 2001 (9/11). Truly it seems to be a big idea for all seasons: for the no-name post-Cold War decade, now for the Age of Terror, and prospectively for whatever the decades ahead will bring.

This monograph provides an audit, a not-unfriendly critical review, of the concept of revolutionary military change. It offers a review of what those who theorize about, and those who are committed by policy to execute, such a revolution ought to know about their subject. As the subtitle of the analysis announces, the leading edge of the argument is the potency, indeed the sovereign importance, of warfare?s contexts.

The monograph strives to clarify the confusion over definitions. It points out that the concept of RMA, though less so the even grander idea of military revolution (MR), is eminently and irreducibly contestable. The RMA debate has provided a happy hunting ground for academic historians to wage protracted internecine combat. All definitions of RMA present problems, a fact which is of some practical consequence for a U.S. military now firmly taking what is intended to be a revolutionary path. This author prefers a truly minimalist definition: an RMA is a radical change in the conduct and character of war. The more detail one adds to the definition, the more hostages are offered to reasonable objection.

The first of the three major sections poses and answers the most basic of questions, the ones that really matter most, about revolutionary change in warfare. It asks: Does the RMA concept make sense? Is it useful? Does it much matter? Is not military change more a product of evolution than revolution? Are not continuities at least as important as changes in their relative contribution to military effectiveness? And, is revolutionary change the high road to victory? By and large, though not without some rough handling, the RMA concept, the notion of transformation, or simply the descriptive idea of revolutionary change, survive the ordeal of question and answer.

The second major section, the heart of the monograph, seeks to advance understanding of revolutionary change in warfare, the core purpose of this enterprise, by explaining that war (and its conduct in warfare) is dominated by, indeed what it really is all about?its contexts. To the best of this author?s knowledge, to date no other analysis has taken such a holistic view of warfare?s contexts with reference to RMA. This analysis breaks new ground. The thesis here is that context provides the key to recognizing and understanding revolutionary change in warfare. The argument is presented through the explanation of the significance of six contexts: the political, the strategic, the social-cultural, the economic, the technological, and the geographical. While each context is vitally significant, the occurrence of war, as well as its course in warfare, its outcome, and its consequences, derive their meaning only from politics. As this author argued in a recent monograph for the Strategic Studies Institute, Transformation and Strategic Surprise, American strategicperformance is apt to disappoint on occasions because the strategic bridge between military behavior and the political context is not always in good enough repair.

The concluding, yet substantial, section assembles the arguments and insights from the previous discussions into seven broad findings, and it draws out the implications of each for the U.S. Armed Forces in general, and the Army in particular. The seven findings are effectively self-explanatory.

  1. Contexts rule!
  2. Revolutionary change in warfare may be less important than revolutionary change in social attitudes to war and the military.
  3. Historical research shows that there are vital conditions for success in carrying through revolutionary changes in warfare.
  4. Recognition of change in warfare is one thing, but understanding the character, relevance, and implications of change is something else entirely, given the sovereignty of the political and strategic contexts.
  5. When we effect a revolutionary change in the way we fight, we must do so adaptably and flexibly. If we fail the adaptability test, we are begging to be caught out by the diversity and complexity of future warfare. If we lock ourselves into a way of war that is highly potent only across a narrow range of strategic and military contexts, and hence operational taskings, we will wound our ability to recognize and understand other varieties of radical change in warfare. Moreover, we will be slow, if able at all in a relevant time span, to respond effectively to them.
  6. Revolutionary change in warfare always triggers a search for antidotes. Eventually the antidotes triumph. They can take any or all of tactical, operational, strategic, or political forms. The solution, in principle if not always in practice, is to carry through an RMA that is adaptable, flexible, and dynamic as recommended in 5. above.
  7. Revolutionary change in warfare is only revealed by the ?audit of war,? and not necessarily reliably even then. And if it is to be conducted competently, review of that audit must take full account of war?s complex nature.


It is 12 years since Andrew W. Marshall lent his formidable personal authority, as well as the weight of his small but influential Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), to the proposition that a revolution in military affairs (RMA) might or could be underway.4 The history of the ?great RMA debate? of the 1990s and beyond remains to be written, though preferably, one hopes, not until many more years have elapsed. At present the story is unduly incomplete, and too many commentator-historians would find themselves employing their versions of recent history in the service of contemporary argument. That granted, national security policy, grand strategy, military strategy, doctrine, and force structure cannot be put on hold pending properly scholarly assay. As war is conducted in a climate of uncertainty, so those who aspire to offer strategic advice must do their best with imperfect information and the unavoidable biases bequeathed by the time and place of their writing.

The purpose of this monograph is to provide answers to the questions that are both explicit and implicit in its title. The analysis can be viewed as an assessment of the RMA debate at the 12-year mark by a participant-observer.5 It is not, however, primarily an exercise in history. It is, rather, an attempt to corral and make intelligible for potential use by policymakers and military professionals, ?findings? from the years of often heated debate on RMA. Strategic knowledge needs to be useful knowledge. It is in the very nature and purpose of strategic studies for it to be a pragmatic enterprise.

For every fashionable concept there is a season, and inevitably so it has proved for RMA. However, the RMA concept has demonstrated an exceptional potency and longevity, facts plainly attributable both to the attractions of the promise in the idea and to its strong appeal in American culture. Revolutionary change in warfare is a notion that cannot be dismissed with a yawn. Unlike, say, network-centricity or effects-based operations, revolutionary change is not a cliché that conceals rediscovery of the long familiar and well-appreciated.6 Whatever one?s thoughts about the RMA hypothesis, be they positive or negative on balance, there can be no denying, on the one hand, the appeal of riding the wave of revolutionary change, or, on the other, the fear that one might be the victim of some other polity riding that wave. Now that the RMA debate of the 1990s by and large has matured into argument about the realization of RMA in a lengthy process of ?transformation,? the follow-on magic concept, what do we think we know about recognizing and understanding revolutionary change in warfare? No less to the point, what are the practical implications of that knowledge for national security, strategy, and defense planning?

The mission of this monograph is to provide some answers to these questions. The trajectory of the analysis proceeds through three sections. The first offers definitions and discusses the most significant theoretical matters. I do this without apology to the historians among my readers. As a controversial British historian, John Vincent, has noted, ?historians themselves . . . were never ones for concepts, let alone rigour.?7 That is too sweeping a judgment, but it is true enough to be distinctly relevant to the course of the RMA debate, past and present. The next section, the core of the work, also is somewhat theoretical in that it strives to explain the structure of the subject of warfare with reference to the most vital contexts, albeit without downplaying the vital role of human agency and plain old accident and luck. In its concluding section, the monograph provides a set of ?findings and implications? concerning the most important of the challenges posed by revolutionary change in warfare, with a view to separating the dross from the gold. Particular attention is paid to the authoritative roles of warfare?s several contexts.

The use of history, or should one say the past, is controversial, but it is the only potential evidence available.8 If we deny the past, the result has to be analysis and prognosis resting entirely upon current concerns and the nostrums of today. That might be good enough, but it would seem to this theorist to be a gratuitously reckless self-impoverishment.


4 Andrew W. Marshall, Statement on ?Revolutions in ?Military Affairs?,? before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Acquisition and Technology, May 5, 1995. In a letter to the author dated August 24, 1995, Dr. Marshall wrote to say that ?I think the period we are in has a lot of similarities to the 20s and 30s and that we are in the early 20s. We have only the beginnings of the ideas about the appropriate concepts of operations and organizations. The innovations will be harder this time because there appear to be few new distinctive platforms.? A key early document was Andrew W. Marshall, Some Thoughts on Military Revolutions, Memorandum for the Record, Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), Office of Net Assessment, July 27, 1993. Marshall sponsored the research which led to an outstanding collection of case studies on the 1920s and 1930s. See Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

5 For some of my earlier assessments, see Colin S. Gray, The American Revolution in Military Affairs: An Interim Assessment, Occasional Paper 28, Camberley, UK: The Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, 1997; and Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History, London: Frank Cass, 2002.

6 For the record, let it be understood that this author is not hostile to the concepts of NCW and EBO. He thinks that they are excellent ideas, and, indeed, that they always have been. The problem with them is that there is a danger that these commonsensical notions have become canonized by high official blessing, and now have the status more of articles of faith than as vital and useful principles for guidance.

7 John Vincent, History, London: Continuum, 2005, p. 168.

8 History is ambiguous as a concept. It can refer to what happened, whether or not we are well-informed about it. But also it can refer to what historians have written. Modern intellectual fashion has tended to dismiss history as an accessible past. Instead, we are invited to have only low expectations of the veracity in historical writing. In a recent essay, Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria characteristically corners the ?the trouble with history.? He tells us that, ?[t]he problem is not so much that history is a ?fable agreed upon,? as Napoleon reportedly said, but that except for those accounts that blatantly contradict or disregard the available facts, the reader cannot determine objectively which history is more accurate than another. Ultimately, historical truth, like beauty, remains in the eye of the beholder.? ?The Trouble with History,? Parameters, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer 2005, p. 81 (emphasis in the original). Echevarria is right with his post-modern view. Nonetheless, I decline to be intimidated by his formidable logic, and I persist in regarding historical study as a practicable search for truth. Perhaps I should say for a plausible approach to truth. The trouble with ?The Trouble with History,? is that it will be read and cited to confirm anti-historical bias in a U.S. defense community not overly inclined to respect the past.