Monday, September 06, 2004


Defense Transformation, Continued: The Revolution in Military Affairs.

In a follow-up to my previous posting, I intend to write a continuing series about the Department of Defense's, and in particular, the Army's plans to transform their capabilities. Again, I write this as an informed observer, and not as an active participant-- but I hope I can provide some helpful illumination for any interested readers.

Today, I'd like to take a few paragraphs to briefly establish terminology, namely the Revolution in Military Affairs and its close cousin, transformation.

Unfortunately, transformation has so many different definitions that I'm not altogether happy with most of them. The easiest way to understand what transformation is, and is not, is to understand the related concept of a Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA for short.

RMA as a concept is not a recent one, either in its occurrence or its professional understanding. Revolutions have happened countless times in military history. Sometimes they were driven by pure technological changes, such as gunpowder, or nuclear weapons. At other times, RMA occurred after changes in the conduct of war at the tactical, operational, or even strategic levels. In addition, it must be remembered that RMA doesn't always involve traditional "military" fields. Railroads, mass production and the guerilla had as much impact on warfare, if not sometimes more, as the introduction of the machine gun, poison gas, or submarines.

Often these revolutions were driven primarily by one particular combatant seeking advantage over others: for example, the German development of blitzkrieg prior to the Second World War. Many times, however, no one nation or actor drove the revolution. The gunpowder revolution, for instance, made its impact felt most everywhere at once, at least in Europe (to the Aztecs, gunpowder in the hands of the conquistador certainly represented RMA).

Also, these periods of change tend to overlap, especially as the pace of technological development has increased. For example, whereas mastery of the longbow was enough to allow the English to dominate many battlefields during the Hundred Year's War, in the First World War there were literally thousands of technological changes, each bringing with it new opportunities and challenges alike. History shows, however, that those actors that were unable to keep pace with change fell behind, and actors that fell far enough behind faced defeat.

Which brings me back to a useful definition of RMA: RMA occurs when a combination of technological, organizational, social, doctrinal and political-economic changes take place in conjunction, and affect the way militaries plan, equip, train, and ultimately wage war.

Are we in an RMA today? It would be hard to argue that we aren't. Today's information technology allows for better communications, improved knowledge of where you and your enemy are located, and the precision strike of any targets you find. The qualitative and quantitative increase in information available to advanced militaries represents a fundamental shift from the way wars were fought before.

The commencement of the current generation of RMA is typically dated to the 1991 Gulf War, but in practice it's been going on ever since the computer was invented. In fact, the Soviets General Staff wrote extensively on the subject as early as the 1970s, repeatedly questioning what impact the "digital revolution" would have on military affairs, and in particular, their ability to fight and win a war against the more advanced nations of NATO. The United States military, however, only began to fully come to grips with these changes as the post-Vietnam generation of military officers rose up through the ranks and brought their ideas for change with them. The most obvious example of their success prior to the 1991 Gulf War being the acceptance of the Air-Land Battle doctrine in the early 1980s, which shifted the United States military away from its traditionally attrition-based military strategy towards one based on gaining advantage through flexible combined air and land operations across the entire spectrum of the battlefield.

Critics of the RMA concept frequently argue that we've all been promised the benefits of technology before, only to witness these "wonder weapons" fail to live up to their hype when deployed on the muddy, bloody battlefield. They argue that today's RMA concept is just an excuse to buy ever more expensive weaponry, lining the pockets of defense contractors instead of deploying "what's proven to work." They also tend to argue that not only is such experimentation expensive, it is also risky, especially given how the United States military is by all current measures far superior to any military force either able or willing to stand up and fight. If we bet on the wrong technology, our men and women could die, and even face defeat.

The above points are all valid. RMA *has* been used as a marketing tool by contractors desperate to appear on the "cutting edge," even when their weapons are not. New technologies and tactics haven't always been thoroughly tested before they appeared on the battlefield, leading to costly lessons paid in the price of blood. And the 2004 United States military is indeed far superior to the that of any current or near-term "peer competitor."

What this argument fails to appreciate, however, is that RMA is not a new concept, limited purely to the information age RMA. Again, RMA happens all the time, for a variety of reasons, to a plethora of actors. History has shown that the actors that master the implications of RMA before their opponents are most often the ones who succeed on the battlefield.

This does not mean that anyone ever fully grasps the implications of change. For example, Nazi Germany understood tank warfare in 1940, but they certainly did not grasp the importance of the atomic bomb, or something even more relevant to their ultimate defeat, the concept of total industrial war. Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 with a six-to-one disadvantage in tanks; they still nearly came close to victory, as tactical/operational performance proved more important than sheer numbers. However, once the gamble of Operation Barbarossa failed in the depths of European Russia, and the campaign shifted from operational blitzkrieg to a strategic war of attrition, Germany failed to fully harness its industrial superiority, while the Soviet Union (and the Western Allies) began a complete mobilization of their workforce.

Until the end, Hitler felt that the production of luxury goods and the call for women to remain at home to care for the children of the Reich were necessary in order to maintain the morale of the German people. Eventually, such a policy led to the gradual wearing down of the Nazi war machine as their production never kept pace with that of their adversaries. While often ignored by people fascinated with arrows on the maps, Rosie the Riveter (or her comrade Raisa) was perhaps the greatest contributor to Allied victory in the Second World War.

Like Germany's example in the Second World War, nations do not have to grasp every implication of the RMA in order to succeed in battle. Nations must, however, be sure to grasp the right implications at the right times, and be able to adapt and evolve as necessary.

Today, the United States is in one of those periods. We think that things like stealth, integrated Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), computerized logistics, and most dramatically, precision-guided munitions represent the major components of this current revolution. In the end, however, this is all an educated guess, and even when/if we get most of the RMA right, we may find ourselves getting critically important parts of it wrong. Later, I'll discuss how the United States military's view of RMA appears to be changing in light of our experiences in the Global War on Terrorism. So far, a lot of our assumptions have proven remarkably accurate, but we've also had our fair share of unpleasant surprises.

So, that's RMA. Next up: Transformation.

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