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Armed Conflict in the 21st Century: The Information Revolution and Post-Modern Warfare

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | March 2000

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The German philosopher Hegel held that revolutions are the locomotive of history. According to his theory, every social, political, and economic system builds up tensions and contradictions over time. Eventually these explode in revolution. Taking the argument one step further, Lenin held that a revolutionary did not have to wait for the explosion, but could speed it up, manipulate it, and control it. But Lenin was wrong. One cannot create a revolution in the way that an architect designs a building. Nor is it possible to control revolutions like a conductor leads an orchestra. Revolutions are much too big and complex for that. Those who live in revolutionary times can only make a thousand small decisions and hope that they move history forward in the desired direction. This holds as much for military revolutions as for any other kind.

A ?revolution-centric? perspective on the development of war emerged among American strategic thinkers in the 1990s. Now security analysts, military leaders, and defense policymakers, not only in the United States, but around the world, accept the idea that some sort of revolution in military affairs is underway.1 Its nature and eventual outcome, though, are less clear. One thing is certain: the United States has a greater stake in the revolution in military affairs than any other nation. By definition, revolutions upset existing relationships and hierarchies. Since the current configuration of global political, economic, and military power is favorable to the United States, the chances are that fundamental strategic change will prove deleterious to the American position. Washington is thus faced with the difficult task of modulating, directing, or controlling the revolution in military affairs.

History has seen two types of military revolutions. Operational and tactical revolutions occurred when new technology, operational concepts, or military organizations combined to generate a substantial increase in the effectiveness of military organizations. The revolution of the 1920s and 1930s that led to mechanized land warfare, strategic air war, and carrier war at sea is one example. Strategic revolutions have been much rarer. Alvin and Heidi Toffler suggest that strategic revolutions occur when a much broader shift in the method of production changes the entire panoply of human relationships, thus altering not only how militaries fight, but who fights and why they fight.2 Today American strategic thinkers assume that the world is in the midst of an operational or technological military revolution and plan accordingly. In fact, a strategic revolution may be under way, spawned by and reflecting the information revolution.

Underestimating the extent of the ongoing revolution in military affairs and failing to understand its intricacies and second order effects can endanger American security. The need to think broadly and holistically is pressing. In simple terms, the information revolution is increasing interconnectedness and escalating the pace of change in nearly every dimension of life. This, in turn, shapes the evolution of armed conflict. Whether in economics, politics, or warfighting, those who are able to grasp the magnitude of this will be the best prepared to deal with it.

The architects of the 21st century American military must understand the broad political, economic, social, and ethical changes brought by the information revolution and by its manifestations?interconnectedness and an escalated pace of change. They must understand the effect these changes are having or might have on the evolution of armed conflict. Then, most importantly, they must develop some notion of what characteristics the future

American military must have to prosper in the new strategic environment. The better an individual, an organization, or a state understands the nature of a revolution, the better its chances of emerging a winner. By examining the ongoing changes in the nature of armed conflict and thinking expansively, looking for wider implications and relationships, and exploring cross-cutting connections between technology, ethics, social trends, politics, and strategy, the architects of the future U.S. military can increase the chances of ultimate success. This study provides some suggestions on how this might be done.


Historians will see the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade or two of the 21st century as a turning point in the evolution of armed conflict. At this point we know fundamental change is underway but can only guess its ultimate outcome. Having assumed responsibility for encouraging and sustaining security around the world, the United States has a huge stake in this shift. To a large extent, the ability of the U.S. military to adapt to changes in the nature of armed conflict will determine whether the result is a more stable world or a more dangerous one. So far, the U.S. military has undertaken substantial efforts to understand and master the changes underway in the nature of armed conflict. But all these remain encumbered by the historic successes of the 1980s and 1990s. If the future wars which the U.S. military thinks about and plans for continue to look like reprises of the Gulf

War or an updated version of a Warsaw Pact strike to the west, the American military may face 21st century war unprepared.

No nation has ever undertaken a full revolution in military affairs unless it is responding to perceived risk or recent disaster. The paralysis of victory is great and vested interests always powerful. If historical patterns hold, the U.S. military may not be able to make the leap into the future on its own. It often seems that the Pentagon?s plans for the future, including systems acquisitions, are based on ?bygone battles.?154 Even the prestigious Defense Science Board has questioned whether Pentagon leaders are willing take the risks necessary to transform the military. 155 Ultimately, firm prodding may be necessary. This could come from one of two directions. One is direct and persistent intervention by its political masters. This might come from Congress. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act established a precedent for congressional intervention in the armed forces. Congress felt that after years of cajoling, the U.S. military was not taking jointness as seriously as it should. Legislation was used to change this.

Outside intervention could also come from the President and Secretary of Defense if they were reform minded and willing to fight the inertia in the military and in the wider defense community. The second possible motive for revolutionary transformation, though, might be battlefield defeat. Just as the Battle of Jena led Prussia to serious military reform and defeat in World War I led Germany toward blitzkrieg, a bloody fiasco?if it did not cause an American withdrawal from global engagement? might fuel a revolutionary transformation within the military. If the nation is lucky, visionary leadership rather than American blood will inspire the necessary changes.


1. See, for instance, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Annual Report to the President and the Congress, Washington, DC: The Pentagon, 1999, (henceforth Annual Report 1999), Chapter 10; Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century, Report of the National Defense Panel, December 1997, p. iii; Keith Thomas, ed., The Revolution in Military Affairs: Warfare in the Information Age, Canberra: Australian Defence Studies Centre, 1997; Lawrence Freedman, ?Britain and the Revolution in Military Affairs,? Defense Analysis, Vol. 14, No.1, April 1998, pp. 55-66; Yves Boyer, Une Révolution dans les Affaires Militaires?, Paris: Fondation pour les Etudes de Défense, 1998; Robbin F. Laird and Holger H. Mey, The Revolution in Military Affairs: Allied Perspectives, Washington, DC: National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, 1999; and The Future Security Environment, Kingston, Ontario: Canadian Army Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts, 1999. The author has given presentations on the revolution in military affairs in Australia, Canada, Belgium, France, Singapore, Germany, Japan, and South Africa. This suggests the extent of interest in the topic.

2. Alvin and Heidi Toffl er, War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

154. Bradley Graham, ?Pentagon?s Wish List: Based on Bygone Battles?? Washington Post, August 25, 1999, p. A3.