War Designed for One

By Freedman, Lawrence | The World Today, August/September 1997 | Go to article overview

War Designed for One


Freedman, Lawrence, The World Today


Supporters of the idea of a Revolution in Military Affairs suggest it will change warfare for ever. But, in assessing the impact of new technologies on armed conflict, the Revolution in Political Affairs has to be considered too. Nations need to prepare for the wars they may actually need to fight.

THE FULL-BLOWN REVOLUTION IN MILITARY AFFAIRS concept involves organisational changes and shifts in doctrine that may be just too revolutionary for the moment. It also requires resources for the development of the systems, which may mean that more traditional units will feel neglected and ill-prepared for conflicts which might erupt while this dream is being implemented. However, even without buying the full-blown concept, and accepting that the effects may fall short of the claims made on its behalf, we can recognise that new technologies are having a profound effect on the conduct of conventional military operations.

WEAPONS WHICH WORK

Many of the most memorable images from the 1991 Gulf War are of weapons hitting their targets with extraordinary precision. It became a familiar claim that coalition aircraft and cruise missiles were capable of destroying almost any target if it had been correctly identified. This meant that Iraq's central government and military structure could be taken apart without, it was hoped, inflicting great damage on civilian life. At first Iraqi forces were cut off from their home base, their communications disrupted and their supply lines blocked. Then tanks, artillery pieces and stores were systematically picked off so that by the time the ground attack came, Iraqi forces were unable to resist.

Even at the time it was evident that `collateral damage' was not so insignificant and that appropriate targets were not always either being found or destroyed. Nevertheless, the success of `Desert Storm' appeared to vindicate the basic thrust of American military planning. Moreover, new information technologies, which were just beginning to be exploited, seemed to offer an opportunity for American armed forces to be better informed about all aspects of the battlefield and far better able to communicate with each other.

Soon both military practitioners and commentators were proclaiming a `revolution in military affairs' (RMA). This was based on confidence that future opponents might fare even worse than Iraq, so long as the United States was ready to take full advantage of the new possibilities for intelligence, command, control, communications, surveillance and damage assessment associated with information technologies. By the start of this year the force structures associated with the RMA had become identified as one possible line of development for the American armed forces.

Very little of the current debate centres on feasibility. There are undoubtedly problems with systems integration and demands on software. However, we no longer need to be convinced that modem weapons have a high probability of hitting targets when sent in the right direction at the right time, and we are well aware of the impact of information technology in every area of our lives.

Even making allowances for the enthusiasts' hype, we can accept that the new systems will work. With other big ideas, such as Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative, the question of whether aspirations had leaped far ahead of technology, or even the laws of physics, was unavoidable. Not so in this case.

IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

This revolution is by no means universal. It is particular to the United States of America. Only the United States has the resources and the military establishment capable of following this path. Allies and enemies alike risk being left on the fringes of this revolutionary process. This leads to a large though obvious conclusion. The United States is designing a game that only it can play. It is putting itself in a league all on its own. At this level there may be no serious competition. …

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