Academic journal article Military Review

The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea

Academic journal article Military Review

The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea

Article excerpt


AS A RALLYING cry for changing the U.S. military, the concept of a "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) has had a good run. From the middle of the 1990s into the beginning of the 21st century, the Pentagon used it to justify rewriting doctrine, overhauling organizational structures, and spending vast amounts of money on new weapons systems. Although the concept of a revolution in military affairs owed its lineage largely to historians (the "military revolution" of the 17th century) and Soviet theoreticians (the "military-technological revolution"), civilian and uniformed leaders in the U.S. military found the idea created a powerful resonance among politicians, pundits, and academics. For a while, one could not open a military journal such as Joint Force Quarterly, Parameters, or Proceedings without encountering an analytical piece measuring the role the then-current RMA played in shaping future warfare. (1)

Today, the rallying cry is dead. One would have difficulty in pinpointing the exact time and place of RMA's demise. The exciting synergy of Special Forces and B-52s blasting the Taliban in 2001 seemed to renew its vogue. However, with the beginning of a full-blown insurgency in Iraq in late 2003, the use of "RMA" as a Pentagon mantra came to an abrupt end. The exact location of the phrase's collapse is open to speculation, but one place to look for it might be along Route Irish, between the Green Zone and the Baghdad International Airport. Near the shell of a burned out Humvee one might also find the detritus of RMA's associated concepts such as "perfect situational awareness" and "full spectrum dominance." Our painful experience in Iraq destroyed most of the cherished (and banal) buzzwords the U.S. military carried blithely into the new century. (2) While historians may continue to find utility in the idea of revolutionary change in warfare, the U.S. military appears more than willing to let the RMA and its conceptual brood lie where they fell.

However, before we consign this ostensibly dead revolution to the dustbin of history and delete our PowerPoint references to the idea, we really ought to consider what we might retrieve from the idea of a sudden, dramatic change in the way wars and warfare are conducted. After all, the RMA idea helped inspire a long-running dialogue between academia and the U.S. defense establishment over the origins of innovation and adaptation in military organizations. Iraq discredited our celebration of a unique, technology-based, "American RMA," but the utility of the original concept endured challenges without the debunking of the core idea. The fad may have fallen out of fashion, but we should not forget its genesis as myopically as we embraced its gospel.

There are at least a dozen ways in which the RMA concept might still be useful in examining U.S national security problems in the 21st century. The RMA idea is not likely to reappear as a catchy slogan, but the conceptual skeleton can still serve as a useful framework for analysis, especially when a historical perspective informs that analysis. Based on that belief, this discussion offers 12 assertions built on the out-of-fashion idea of a modern RMA and on historical examples. We can draw inferences from history that illuminate probable relevancy, but we cannot make prognostications. As strategist Colin Gray reminds us, "The future has not happened." (3) History may be an imperfect tool in predicting the future, but it's the best tool we have.

In making these 12 assertions, I seek a level of theoretical clarity by using the definitions offered by Williamson Murray and MacGregor Knox in their 2001 book, The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050. In describing the phenomenon of dramatic discontinuities in military history, Knox and Murray distinguish between a "revolution in military affairs" and a "military revolution." They describe the latter as an "uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unforeseeable" event which "fundamentally changes the framework of war" through seismic changes in both societies and military organization. …

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