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Strategy and the Revolution in Military Affairs: From Theory to Policy

Authored by LTC James Kievit, Dr. Steven Metz. | June 1995

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American combat effectiveness in the Gulf War suggested that a historic revolution in military affairs (RMA) is underway, possibly solving many of the strategic dilemmas the United States faces in the post-Cold War world. Inspired by this notion, a small group of RMA analysts has emerged. So far they have concentrated on defining and describing military revolutions. Now broader theoretical and policy issues must be addressed.


The notion of military revolutions grew from Soviet writing of the 1970s and 1980s. Early studies talked of a ?military technical revolution? (MTR), but this quickly evolved into the more holistic concept of revolutions in military affairs. Most analysts define a RMA as a ?discontinuous increase in military capability and effectiveness? arising from simultaneous and mutually supportive change in technology, systems, operational methods, and military organizations. The current RMA is characterized by four types of changes:

  • extremely precise, stand-off strikes;
  • dramatically improved command, control, and intelligence;
  • information warfare; and
  • nonlethality.

Analysts see a number of benefits from harnessing the current revolution in military affairs and using it to build 21st century U.S. armed forces:

  • rejuvenating the political utility of military power;
  • delaying the emergence of a peer competitor;
  • providing a blueprint for technology acquisition and force reorganization; and,
  • inspiring conceptual, forward-looking thinking.

Most analysts believe the current RMA will have at least two stages. The first is based on stand-off platforms, stealth, precision, information dominance, improved communications, computers, global positioning systems, digitization, ?smart? weapons systems, jointness, and use of ad hoc coalitions. The second may be based on robotics, nonlethality, pyscho-technology, cyberdefense, nanotechnology, ?brilliant? weapons systems, hyperflexible organizations, and ?fire ant warfare.? If this idea is correct, change that has occurred so far will soon be dwarfed by even more fundamental transformation.


Strategists who seek to understand and use the revolution in military affairs do not have a mature theory to work from, but need one. The raw materials of theory are hypotheses which can be tested, debated, confirmed, or rejected. Examination of history and the current RMA suggests a number of hypotheses concerning the configuration and process of military revolutions.


Key policy decisions made now will affect both the pace of revolution and the shape of the 21st century U.S. military that emerges from it. Perhaps the most fundamental choice of all concerns the enthusiasm with which the United States should pursue the current ?minor? RMA and the extent to which it should shape force development.

A case can be made that the costs and risks of vigorous pursuit of the current RMA outweigh the expected benefits. These include risk that:

  • the current RMA will not generate increased combat effectiveness against the most likely or most dangerous future opponents;
  • American pursuit of the RMA will encourage opponents or potential opponents to seek countermeasures;
  • the current RMA might lead the United States toward overreliance on military power; and,
  • vigorous pursuit of the current RMA might increase problems with friends and allies.

There are even more pressing reasons supporting U.S. pursuit of the current RMA:

  • it should bring significant increases in combat effectiveness against some mid-level opponents;
  • a force built around stand-off, precision weapons and disruptive information warfare capabilities would be more politically usable than a traditional force-projection military;
  • the RMA could augment deterrence; and,
  • the United States may need to pursue the current RMA to avoid stumbling into strategic inferiority.

If policymakers decide to pursue the revolution in military affairs, strategy, rather than technological capability should guide force development. The key question is: What do we want the future U.S. military to be able to do?" The answer depends on broad strategic objectives and expected opponents.

In terms of strategic objectives, the more the United States stresses active engagement and the promulgation of open economies and political systems, the more the U.S. military must be able to project power and sustain protracted operations. The more that the United States pursues political and military disengagement, the less the need for power projection or sustained operations. At this end of the spectrum, the appropriate military force would be configured for defense and short deterrent strikes.

Force development must also be driven by some projected priority among the threat types. Most current programs, including the Army?s Force XXI, focus on conventional regional aggressors and, to a lesser extent, subnational enemies. From this perspective, stress on precision, stand-off strikes, stealth, and coherent operations is logical. But if the future threat set changes, these characteristics might not be the most important ones for the future U.S. military.

A peer competitor with armed forces as advanced as the U.S. military (although perhaps not in precisely the same way) could pose entirely different problems. To attempt projection of conventional forces against a peer competitor would be exceedingly dangerous, perhaps impossible. Under conditions of direct confrontation with a peer competitor, the United States should concentrate on projection of effects rather than objects. Against a peer competitor, the United States would certainly need a tightly integrated military-scientific-technological- economic policy aimed at limiting the proliferation of military-relevant knowledge.

A U.S. military configured for use against subnational or nonmilitary enemies would be composed of small but very flexible units (but the force as a whole might not be small). The entire combat arms component of the Army might be composed of Special Forces. High-tech policemen and scientists, whether computer experts, ecologists, or something similar would be the most vital parts of the security force with soldiers as adjuncts. Personal protection technology including individual armor and counterterror technology would be essential. Psychotechnology to manipulate perceptions, beliefs and attitudes would also be central.


The RMA is at a crossroads. In the broadest sense, there are three options:

  • push further along the road of precision, stand-off strikes and disruptive information warfare aimed primarily at conventionally-armed regional aggressors;
  • put a brake on the RMA and stand pat in order to consolidate existing advantages; or,
  • push the revolution in a different direction.

To structure the choice among these options, the U.S. military must inspire and lead continued refinement of the theory of military revolutions, cultivate internal creativity, and expand debate on the RMA outside the military and defensecommunity. It is particularly important to consider the normative dimension of strategy. American leaders must decide not only what the United States can do with a more effective military force, but also what it should do. Only then will the RMA lead to progress rather than simply change.