Cavalry to Computer; the Pattern of Military Revolutions

By Krepinevich, Andrew F. | The National Interest, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Cavalry to Computer; the Pattern of Military Revolutions


Krepinevich, Andrew F., The National Interest


OVER THE NEXT several decades, the world is destined to experience a revolution in the character of warfare. Indeed, the way in which the United States and its allies won a quick and overwhelming victory in the Gulf War suggests to many that we are already in the early stages of such a military revolution. But if so, there is much more to come.

As it progresses, this revolution will have profound consequences for global and regional military balances, and thus for U.S. defense planning. In the past, military revolutions have induced major changes in both the nature of the peacetime competition between states and their military organizations, as well as in the ways wars are deterred, fought, and resolved. By changing radically the nature of the military competition in peace and war, military revolutions have changed the "rules of the game." In so doing, they have often dramatically devalued formerly dominant elements of military power, including weaponry, weapons platforms, and doctrines. Military organizations that did not adapt in a rapidly changing, highly competitive environment have declined, often quite quickly.

What is a military revolution? It is what occurs when the application of new technologies into a significant number of military systems combines with innovative operational concepts and organizational adaptation in a way that fundamentally alters the character and conduct of conflict. It does so by producing a dramatic increase--often an order of magnitude or greater--in the combat potential and military effectiveness of armed forces.

Military revolutions comprise four elements: technological change, systems development, operational innovation, and organizational adaptation. Each of these elements is in itself a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for realizing the large gains in military effectiveness that characterize military revolutions. In particular, while advances in technology typically underwrite a military revolution, they alone do not constitute the revolution. The phenomenon is much broader in scope and consequence than technological innovation, however dramatic.

The transition from the Cold War period of warfare to a new military era that is now anticipated may take several decades--or it may arrive within the next ten or fifteen years. There is no common transition period from one military regime to another: the naval transition from wood and sail to the all big-gun dreadnoughts with their steel hulls and turbine engines took roughly half a century; the emergence of nuclear weapons, ballistic missile delivery systems, and associated doctrine and organizational structures took roughly fifteen years. The rate of transition is typically a function not only of the four elements noted above, but of the level of competition among the international system's major players, and the strategies the competitors choose to pursue in exploiting the potential of the emerging military revolution.

It may be argued that with recent transition periods of ten to twenty years, we are discussing a continuous military evolution rather than a revolution. But what is revolutionary is not the speed with which the entire shift from one military regime to another occurs, but rather the recognition, over some relatively brief period, that the character of conflict has changed dramatically, requiring equally dramatic--if not radical--changes in military doctrine and organizations. Just as water changes to ice only when the falling temperature reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit, at some critical point the cumulative effects of technological advances and military innovation will invalidate former conceptual frameworks and demand a fundamental change in the accepted definitions and measurement of military effectiveness. When this occurs, military organizations will either move to adapt rapidly or find themselves at a severe competitive disadvantage.

Ten Revolutions

THERE APPEAR TO have been as many as ten military revolutions since the fourteenth century. …

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Cavalry to Computer; the Pattern of Military Revolutions
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