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Another View of the Revolution in Military Affairs

Authored by Mr. Jeffrey R. Cooper. | July 1994

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Along with increased interest in the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) have come pressures to move out quickly with a Department of Defense (DoD) initiative despite different, if not divergent, views concerning the character and implications of an RMA on the part of many decision makers and analysts. In this observer's view, too much attention has been paid to identifying the key technologies for the RMA and too much time is still wasted on RMAs as technologically-driven phenomena, perhaps because of the original MTR terminology.1

Furthermore, far more emphasis than warranted has been placed on using the RMA to defeat another heavily mechanized regional hegemon like Iraq (and doing it better), rather than on preparing to address new challenges, including potential emerging major competitors.

These polestars for attention seem to represent a misunderstanding of the nature and phenomenology of RMAs as well as a fundamental misreading of the lessons from earlier RMAs on implementation and exploitation. RMAs are not merely more clever or even more elegant technological breakthroughs than are evolutionary military innovations; these revolutions are more profound in both their sources and implications. Moreover, while all revolutions are marked by discontinuous change, this RMA, fueled by the "Information Revolution," may have potential for more sweeping and fundamental changes than most of its historical cousins. The truly revolutionary implications of these deep changes must be recognized by decision makers in determining the content and course of an initiative to exploit the RMA.

Therefore, using an RMA initiative, intentionally or unintentionally, primarily to define a "technical legacy" makes three crucial errors:

  • It misdirects effort toward a probably fruitless search for "silver bullet" technology on which to build the RMA;
  • It misdirects attention away from the critical issues of, and relationships among purpose, strategy, doctrine, operational innovation, and organizational adaptation that are the essential issues for an RMA;
  • In committing the first two errors, it compounds the problem by being astrategic since it risks wasting very scarce defense resources on new programs that may be irrelevant to future security challenges.

This course would be particularly unfortunate since it would squander the rare opportunity presented by the changes in technological conditions to enable an RMA that could appropriately forge America's military for the evolving geostrategic environment, one that is also being reshaped by fundamental changes in the underlying political, economic, and socio-cultural conditions.

For DoD to successfully pursue an initiative to exploit the RMA, fundamental questions concerning the process of an RMA, the strategic objectives for this initiative, the specific technical and operational content to be pursued, its potential military utility on the battlefield, and the means for its implementation will all need to be answered. Moreover, before decision makers can properly proceed, they will also need to know:

  • What strategic benefits can be expected from the RMA;
  • How they can use this initiative to reform DoD internally in order to address future challenges;

  • What are the potential organizational and structural implications and consequences (not the least of which are the bureaucratic and budgetary impacts).

This monograph proposes some hypotheses for a number of these key issues concerning the RMA. It tries to illuminate key issues from the decision maker's perspective, focusing first on the potential role of an RMA in U.S. national security planning. By addressing these issues explicitly, we can clarify this critical set of questions: the strategic purpose and utility of an RMA and what is expected from the RMA initiative. Having addressed teleology, we can then turn to the second set of issues, defining the appropriate character of our implementation of the RMA and the content of its component elements to meet the spectrum of relevant military objectives at the operational and tactical levels. With the purpose and content of the RMA characterized, the third set of issues concerning the means of effective implementation and exploitation can be addressed. Finally, some of the more significant implications of these potential changes will be highlighted.


Since the subject was raised within the American defense community,2 the Revolution in Military Affairs has been the subject of at least three summer studies, many conferences, numerous papers and briefings, and a host of war-gaming exercises. As a result of these efforts, DoD is now investigating an RMA initiative. But while the community seems to agree on a number of important issues, concord on other critical points is lacking.

First, almost all participants in the debate now accept that RMAs are more than just new military technologies or systems and involve complex operational and organizational issues; but few agree on the priority among these four elements and identity of the key driver (if only one exists). Second, while there is agreement that this RMA is but the latest in a historical series of RMAs, little attention has been paid to the broad strategic implications that placing this RMA in its long-term historical context suggests for future changes in the conduct of warfare. Third, while the community largely agrees that there is an RMA to be pursued, whether it is already in progress, is about to start, or is mature and about to end all have adherents. Fourth, more problematically, there is no agreement concerning the character of this RMA--i.e., a specific definition of this RMA, not merely identification of constituent technical elements; and, therefore, there is no substantive roadmap for proceeding. Indeed, reviewing the current literature and debates, it appears that there may be several different RMAs that are being discussed (not unlike the parable of the blind men and the elephant). Fifth, agreement does exist that a focus on careful implementation will be needed since RMAs are, by nature of the potential operational and organizational changes, antithetical to existing cultural norms and bureaucratic structures. However, few agree on an overall approach to implementation, much less on the initiative's critical next steps needed for successful exploitation of the RMA--i.e., on the procedural roadmap.

Unfortunately, even less agreement exists on two other important, higher-level questions; and these questions carry divergent implications for those issues on which seeming agreement is in hand. The first of these concerns the relevance of the RMA to the evolving U.S. national security problem, and as specific aspects of this question:

  • The relevance of the RMA to a broad spectrum of conflict types and intensities that the United States may face;
  • The military benefits, at both the operational and tactical levels, across this spectrum of conflict;
  • An assessment of whether the RMA is the most appropriate instrument for addressing these evolving problems;
  • The strategic implications and consequences (both intended and unintended) of pursuing this initiative; and finally,
  • A determination as to whether this RMA is in our long-term national interest.

The second question concerns the role and utility of the RMA as a potential organizing principle for future defense policy, programs and bureaucratic relationships. In particular, what are potential implications of the RMA, with its probable stress on greater force integration and joint command of operations, for future roles and missions of the Services, and what are the divergent implications for each of the Services?

By clearly identifying the key issues for resolution, it is hoped that DoD can (1) define the strategic purpose of the RMA initiative; (2) refine what is expected from the RMA in terms of strategic, operational, and tactical objectives; and (3) assess what is the most appropriate content of this RMA to meet this spectrum of military need. Only with the purpose and content of the RMA accurately characterized can understanding the phenomenology of previous RMAs then assist in determining the most effective means for implementation and exploitation of this revolution. Thus, the two most critical questions that must be answered before agreement can be reached to pursue an RMA (and the concomitant issue of how best to do so) are the purpose and the nature of the RMA to be pursued--what are the character and the core elements of this revolution. This monograph is not intended to provide definitive answers to these important questions, a treatment worthy of volumes; but it does propose hypotheses for these important RMA-related issues that can serve to frame the debate for decision makers.


Despite the difficult definitional issues in characterizing this RMA, the most important determinations that must be made concerning the RMA initiative are not analytical (epistemology), but of purpose (teleology). Decision makers have three problems, all of which involve crucial choices. First is the strategic purpose of the RMA, which depends on the perception of the nature of the future strategic environment. Second is its role in U.S. defense planning, which flows from that prior determination of purpose. Third is to ask what is the best way to exploit our particular implementation of this RMA?

First, while it appears that an RMA based on DESERT STORM would fulfill Ogarkov's search for an operationally decisive instrument for TVD-level planning and operations over the IGB contested by NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, it is not apparent that this strategic problem remains relevant. What is not answered is whether that RMA also would be an appropriate and effective instrument for achieving strategic objectives other than the military dominance of a theater of war, for operations at levels below a theater of war, or for conflicts with nonmechanized, non-Soviet-style opponents. A new strategic synthesis is needed to translate the relevance of the RMA beyond our traditional cold war problem. Consistency of means and ends is important. A revolution in military effectiveness may succeed, and may even be dominant at the tactical and operational levels, but may not produce strategically decisive results unless it is exactly and appropriately related to strategic purpose. While the German Blitzkrieg was an appropriate operational solution to the problem of waging a rapid campaign in Europe to avoid getting bogged down in a two-front war as in World War I, it would not have been a relevant response to either the Japanese or U.S. strategic problems in the Pacific theater. More importantly, Blitzkrieg may well have been an appropriate operational concept in service of an inappropriate strategy. The real German strategic problem, however, may have been the prospect of a two-front war, an event they themselves guaranteed by their attack on the Soviet Union. Completing the new strategic synthesis is essential if the RMA is to be appropriately linked to the strategic purposes relevant to the evolving geostrategic environment.

Second, as an internal instrument, the RMA can serve many different roles. Among them are: a screen for budgetary control, a process for institutionalizing change, a tool for assuring that the Department of Defense is structured to fight future wars, and a lever for changes in roles and missions. However, these key roles depend less on the specific internal details of the RMA (deciding between technologies, systems, innovations, and organizational changes) than on correctly capturing the Gestalt of this RMA.

In addition to the changing nature of the strategic problems that the United States will face, design of U.S. forces must also address operational and tactical level problems that will certainly change in scale, if not in intensity and duration. While the advanced technologies coupled to largely existing operational concepts and organizational structures were used with great success in DESERT STORM, the Gulf War displayed many idiosyncratic features; and it may well represent the final act of the old strategic environment in which massed, armor-heavy forces represented the critical component of the threat. Although DESERT STORM focused on a major regional challenge, the fact that Iraqi forces were equipped and largely trained along classic Soviet lines, as well as the extended period in which the United States was able to put in place an extensive infrastructure, stockpile huge amounts of logistics, and deploy a diverse array of extremely large combat forces, made this campaign perhaps resemble more traditional cold war contingencies than potential uncertain regional contingencies occurring on short notice into largely unprepared theaters of operations.

If part of the overall effectiveness of this RMA depends on the impact of overloading the enemy's command system, will these advantages still pertain as the operational venue is reduced in scope and scale?52 Another facet of this issue is whether effective operations at lower echelons employing the constituent tools of the RMA remain a military technical revolution. Finally, a third facet is how much of the impact of this RMA will be due to effective execution which is, in turn, highly dependent on realistic training and exercises. This latter question is exceptionally important for resource allocation decisions between force size, quality, and readiness; and it is also important to our understanding of how to preserve our present competitive advantage.

Finally, in light of the real costs of fundamental organizational change needed to accommodate new operational concepts, the third critical problem is to define an implementation concept that allows this fundamental alteration to both the existing warfare as well as the command and control paradigms; this course must maximize the likelihood of the change being adopted and internalized by the military institutionally, not simply grafted onto old stock. Perhaps more importantly, coupled with the very real fiscal pressures, the success itself of DESERT STORM may accelerate demands to reshape and restructure the American military; and real questions arise whether the potential of an RMA can be seized simply by appliquéing new technologies and systems onto existing structures and concepts or can even be understood and appreciated with the analytical tools developed for the previous environment.

It may be that a dual focus and, therefore, a two phase RMA is required, one that addresses both near-term and far-term strategic problems. Accepting that an RMA is composed not only of technologies and evolving military systems, but also of operational innovation and organizational adaptation, it may be that the major focus for this RMA in the near- to mid-term should lie in these two latter areas so that a common base of technologies and military systems may be able to serve the needs of both the high and low ends of the conflict spectrum-- without draining already stressed budgets. And in light of three issues identified in this monograph--relevance to future U.S. strategic problems, the likely challenges to be presented by future opponents, and maturity of this RMA--a case can be made that a major focus of an RMA initiative should be not only to exploit fully the current technical capabilities by creating an appropriate operational and organizational matrix with the next RMA. To identify and allocate sufficient resources to forging an RMA beyond that is more appropriate to the evolving set of challenges only now dimly perceived on the strategic horizon.

Given the increasing globalization of technology sources, it is probably self-evident that over the longer-term (but more debatable in the near-term) the United States will lose the asymmetric advantages we now hold in the underlying technologies needed for this RMA. Improved intelligence collection and analysis in these areas (especially against allies and potential suppliers of the critical technologies) should yield significantly better understanding of these rates of change to allow us to better gauge our relative competitive position. The possibility that challengers may develop totally new operational concepts is clearly speculative, but "gray design bureau" and "plan orange" type games may be extremely useful to explore the possibilities.53 The degree to which challengers may absorb, or develop on their own, the critical operational innovations and organizational adaptations that are key to the RMA may be the most difficult questions to resolve since they will require both an exceptionally good understanding of the dynamics of an RMA (which is not yet in evidence) and careful analysis of the complex relationships between an RMA and the socio-cultural and economic factors of a wide range of potential competitors. Recent history suggests that these questions will seriously stress our intelligence and analytical communities.

How the operational and tactical levels of warfare are conducted (disregarding politics for the moment) determines roles and missions, the traditional focus of the military services; and an RMA would undoubtedly bring about substantial changes in the current alignment of roles and missions among the services. However, without the benefit of a completed strategic synthesis, current attempts to redefine roles and missions appear too early to have useful impact; these changes appear to be elements that should occur only in the second phase of the revolution--when the operational approach has been determined and the path for exploitation has been clarified.

In summation, using an RMA initiative, intentionally or unintentionally, primarily to define a "technical legacy" makes three crucial errors. First, it misdirects effort toward a probably fruitless search for "silver bullet" technology on which to build the RMA. Second, it misdirects attention away from the critical issues of, and relationships among: purpose, strategy, doctrine, operational innovation, and organizational adaptation that are the essential issues for an RMA. Third, in committing the first two errors, it compounds the problem by being astrategic since it risks wasting very scarce defense resources on new programs that may be irrelevant to future security challenges. This course would be particularly unfortunate since it would squander the rare opportunity presented by the changes in technological conditions to enable an RMA that could appropriately forge America's military for the evolving geostrategic environment; one that is also being reshaped by fundamental changes in the underlying political, economic, and socio-cultural conditions.


1 When exploration of this subject by the American defense community first began, the term commonly employed was the "Military Technical Revolution" (MTR). Unfortunately, MTR denotes too great an emphasis on technology. Therefore, much of the interested community now uses the term Revolution in Military Affairs, which focuses on revolution, and clearly places technology in a supporting role.

2 The U.S. defense community owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Andrew Marshall, the Director of Net Assessment, OSD, for identifying this important subject and pressing efforts to have the community begin an RMA initiative.

52 A useful study would be to analyze the relationships between combat tempo, scope, and parallelism on the one hand, and the number and pace of command decisions on the other; while this smacks of previous Soviet interest in command norms and cybernetic control theory, they may well have intuitively understood this element as an important component of the emerging RMA.