Information and Nuclear RMAs Compared

By Libicki, Martin C. | Strategic Forum, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Information and Nuclear RMAs Compared


Libicki, Martin C., Strategic Forum


Conclusions:

* In many respects the current information-based Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) echoes the earlier nuclear-based RMA. Both put conventional force structures at risk from more modern warfighting methods.

* Yet the Nuclear RMA did not make conventional forces obsolete. In the end, the nuclear RMA was unusable in a military context; thus conventional superiority reemerged as important. By contrast, the Information RMA--with its ability to support precision warfare--is eminently usable. Moreover, the entry fee for getting into the game is very low; innovations in warfighting may emerge from anywhere.

* Both RMAs were initially considered adjuncts to war. But the nuclear RMA transformed global politics (by reinforcing the bipolar stalemate). Might the Information RMA do so? A capability, for instance, to make the world transparent for one's own or other forces could alter the nature of presence, force projection, or coalition formation.

Parallels to the Nuclear RMA

It is difficult to return to the historic literature on nuclear strategy (e.g., Lawrence Freedman's, "The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy") without the eerie feeling that much of what is now predicted to result from the current information-based Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) echoes predictions made a half-century earlier for an earlier RMA, based on nuclear weapons.

Theorists of the 1940s and 1950s who speculated on the impact of nuclear weapons on conventional forces were forced to conclude that most elements of the conventional forces were rendered suddenly obsolete. It was difficult to see what a surface Navy would do if complete ships, and even battle groups, could be vaporized by any nuclear weapon that landed near it. After launching an initial nuclear strike, airfields would become quickly useless. Ground forces, trained on the principle of concentration of force, would find such concentrations to be excellent targets for mass annihilation and therefore would have to disperse to survive--hence the (ill-fated) Pentomic divisions. Traditional military virtues necessary for unit cohesion and effectiveness would rapidly become irrelevant. In an era of "push-button" operations, where civilian strategists at places like RAND, rather than the military, were presumed to be at the leading edge of thought, it was not clear what purpose most of the military would serve anyway.

Yet 50 years later, the United States (and other nations as well) still possess surface ships, airfields, and ground divisions. Not only that, but virtually every platform has been modernized several times over in competition with enemies both real, and now, hypothesized.

What happened to yesterday's future? As Bernard Brodie had originally understood, it is difficult to imagine military operations with nuclear weapons that can lead to desirable outcomes in any traditional sense. From roughly 1960 on, the Services returned to the belief that conventional defense against the Soviets mattered because it might be sustained without resort to all-out nuclear warfare; preferably without resort to nuclear weapons whatsoever. If the United States abjured below some firebreak line--be it the conventional nuclear line or the tactical-strategic line--perhaps the Soviets would do the same. As Korea and Vietnam showed, U.S. forces and arms would also have to compete with forces with Soviet-supplied arms in scenarios that lacked credible nuclear options. Thankfully, whether two modern adversaries could clash short of Armageddon was never tested. The remaining technological competition gave birth to the current, Information RMA.

A few observations on the Information RMA are in order:

* The RMA is about precision weaponry linked with knowledge, and not knowledge per se. There is a world of difference, operationally, between knowing that an enemy column is sitting over the hill so that forces can be prepared, and knowing the latitude and longitude of every enemy tank to within the kill radius of one's weapons. …

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