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Land Warfare in the 21st Century

Authored by Colonel James M. Dubik, General Gordon R. Sullivan. | February 1993

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The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war have given rise to a national debate unmatched since the end of World War II. Dramatic changes in the international system have forced policymakers to reevaluate old strategies and look for new focal points amidst the still unsettled debris of the bipolar world. At issue is the role of the United States in a new world order and its capabilities to defend and promote its national interests in a new environment where threats are both diffuse and uncertain and where conflict is inherent yet unpredictable. The degree of uncertainty in the global security environment parallels revolutionary changes in military technology and in the traditional concepts of how we employ military forces. Together, these trends require greater flexibility in U.S. military strategy and significant departures from cold war concepts of deterrence and war fighting. This paper examines their cumulative effect on land warfare of the future. Only by dealing with these questions today will we be able to make the investment and force structure decisions to best position ourselves for tomorrow.

These are times of both continuity and change, and must be understood as such. Complex changes are never complete breaks from the past;1 evolutionary and revolutionary changes coexist, each shaping the other. This relationship between continuity and change is discussed in the introduction to A.T. Mahan's famous work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. There he tells strategists, "While many of the conditions of war vary from age to age with the progress of weapons, there are certain teachings in the school of history which remain constant."2 Then he cautions: "It is wise to observe things that are alike, it is also wise to look for things that differ."3

This paper follows Mahan's advice. It will describe how much in the realm of warfare is changing and where those changes are headed. The essay is developed in three steps: changes in the context within which war is fought; technological changes in the conduct of land combat; and, continuities in the nature of warfare. Change and continuity, when taken together, provide a foundation for examining 21st century warfare.


1. Maurice Mandelbaum, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, pp. 138, 140.

2. A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, twelfth edition, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1980, p. 2.

3. Ibid., p. 2.