Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Ideas on the Revolution in Military Affairs and the Nature of Low-Intensity Conflict

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Ideas on the Revolution in Military Affairs and the Nature of Low-Intensity Conflict

Article excerpt


The aim of this article is to discuss and assess the tension between ideas that underpin the revolution in military affairs (RMA) and the changing nature of post-Cold War conflict with specific reference to the nature of low-intensity conflict (LIC). The United States' (US) view of an RMA is used as a point of departure as it forms part of the mainstream thinking on the debate. It is argued that the conventional and inter-state war paradigm in the current RMA-debate seems largely irrelevant to the nature of LIC, which is the most probable type of conflict strong powers will face in future. The terror attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 reinforced this critique of the RMA vision and indicated the rise of asymmetric strategies. Hence this article discusses the tension between RMA-thinking and the nature of LIC, also considering the impact of September 11. It addresses the preparation for certain scenarios, existing national values, operational thinking and the use of military instruments.


The success of the United States (US) military during the 1991 Gulf War and the performance of American high-technology weapons, as well as Respectively academic assistant and lecturer in the Faculty of Military Science, University of Stellenbosch. This article was written before the 2003 war in Iraq. the pace of innovation in computers and sensors have convinced many military analysts that the US is on the verge of a revolution in military affairs (RMA). (1) The US Department of Defence has, however, not embraced all the drastic changes proposed by some RMA-advocates to bring about revolutionary change. Therefore, change within the US military will most probably remain evolutionary in kind. (2) The optimism surrounding the RMA-thesis in the US is focused on advances in precision munitions, data processing and other modern technologies judged to transform the nature of future war. (3) Although many countries partake in the debate on RMA-issues, the US military is the leader in this field and continues to define the direction of mainstream thinking. (4) The RMA-thesis has however been questioned in terms of feasibility and its relevance in dealing with future security challenges (even in Europe). (5) The conventional military focus of the RMA-debate in the face of the remaining prominence of low-intensity conflict (LIC) after the Cold War became an object of criticism. The current RMA-debate acknowledges LIC, but it does not elaborate upon it. (6) This negation is the result of current strategic thinking and preparation for future inter-state wars whilst national values and other societal variables play a role as well.

The first section of the article discusses the changing nature of conflict in the post-Cold War era and highlights the prominence of LIC, especially within the Third World. The following section deals with the lack of consensus among scholars and states on the meaning of the concept RMA, and what qualifies as an RMA. In conclusion, the influence of the terror attacks on 11 September 2001 is assessed with specific reference to the tension between the ideas of an RMA and the realities of LIC.


According to Hippler, military conflicts can be ordered in a three tiered conflict spectrum. (7) The lowest level of conflict is the shortest in duration and has the lowest levels of force and input. The highest level of conflict is a strategic nuclear war. Total wars, such as the Second World War, are placed in the category of high-intensity conflict, while the Korean and Vietnam Wars are referred to as medium-intensity conflicts. The conflicts below the high and mid-level conventional wars are referred to as low-intensity conflicts. In this context, LIC is defined as "politico-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine peaceful competition among nations. …

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