This post introduces the origins of the revolution in military affairs.
We are said to be in the middle of a self-conscious revolution in military affairs, or RMA for short. This assumption is grounded in the breakneck pace of technological advancement that’s happening almost on a daily basis. Every now and then, someone in Silicon Valley or DARPA or some whiz kid somewhere comes up with a new thing that promises to shake up or “disrupt” the entire world as we know it. Tesla Motors, for example, is trying out driverless cars. The South Korean military showcased their LEXO exoskeleton systems, which they had been developing since 2013. Suidobashi Heavy Industries have already marketed their Kurata robot, which was unveiled in 2012. The robot, which is basically just a bigger and capable exoskeleton, can be fitted with rapid-firing weapons. Although Suidobashi claims the Kurata only comes with BB guns, in the future, that may change to live ammo. However, the RMA is not just about technology. In the US.
However, the RMA is not just about technology. In the US, the Department of Defence has been constantly trying to implement their Third Offset Strategy, which (at the risk of oversimplifying) basically wants to use a combination of technology and operational art to gain an edge over America’s adversaries and maintain their alliances. With President Trump in office, America might just be great again, although the alliances part might not be.
Sure, the future looks amazing. And bleak at the same time, considering we’re developing weapons of war. But, let’s step back for a moment and reflect on this RMA phenomenon. What is it? How did it start? How did we get here?
What is an RMA?
This is the first question that we need to get over with. And as usual, there’s no one universal definition of what an RMA is. However, from different experts, we can extract the similarities in their definitions and understand the general characteristics of what an RMA is.
First, I like Colin S. Gray’s definition in Strategy for Chaos [book], who keeps it simple:
…a radical change in the character or conduct of war. (p. 4)
However, Gray falls short on explaining how RMAs occur and how they exactly influence the character or conduct of war.
Another definition comes from Krepinevich, in his seminal article, From Cavalry to Computer [paywall]. Krepinevich describes a military revolution as:
It is what occurs when the application of new technologies into a significant number of military systems combines with innovative operational concepts and organizational adaptation in a way that fundamentally alters the character and conduct of conflict. It does so by producing a dramatic increase—often an order of magnitude or greater—in the combat potential and military effectiveness of armed forces.
Notice the phrases highlighted in bold. From Krepinevich, we now understand that an RMA is not solely concerned with simply new technology. Operational concepts and organisational adaptation are also important. This is what I like to call the “human factor” in RMAs. Okay sure, we have new and better guns and ships and planes. They all have Wi-Fi, GPS, run on the latest iOS, and have almost 100% accuracy missiles. But at the same time, if these weapons operate without operational and organisational concepts that put these awesome toys into the entire military framework (i.e. your soldiers doesn’t know when and how to fire a missile on enemy aircraft OR their role in the fleet and operation altogether), then they’re just useless expensive toys.
However, notice how Krepinevich underlines the necessity for an RMA to bring about a “dramatic increase”. Sure, some RMAs were quite advantageous for a party. The invention of gunpowder and subsequently the musket volley line followed with standardisation of equipment and infantry equipment highly benefitted Gustavus Adolphus. However, the “dramatic increase” should be thought of in relative terms, as in, how it compares with your enemies.
Another view of the RMA comes from Hundley’s Past Revolutions, Future Transformation [PDF]. Hundley, who’s with RAND Corporation, describes an RMA as the following:
An RMA involves a paradigm shift in the nature and conduct of military operations which either renders obsolete or irrelevant one or more core competencies of a dominant player, or creates one or more new competencies in some new dimension of warfare, or both.
Hundley’s description of an RMA emphasises the relativeness of the RMA, i.e. you only need to be better than your enemies, not the best. Furthermore, Hundley also notes the “revolutionary” element of the RMA, as it involves a paradigm shift in the conduct of military operations.
Finally, we have Michael Vickers definition as cited in Gray’s Strategy for Chaos, which kinda sums up everything:
Military revolutions are major discontinuities in military affairs. They are brought about by changes in militarily relevant technologies, concepts of operations, methods of organisation, and/or resources available. Relatively abruptly – most typically over two or three decades – they transform the conduct of war and make possible order-of-magnitude (or greater) gains in military effectiveness. They sharpen the advantage held by the strategic/operational offence and create enormous intertemporal differentials of capability between military regimes. A hierarchy of change links these revolutions with broader social, economic, and scientific transformations. (cited in Gray, p. 55-56)
So now, we can say that an RMA has to be “revolutionary” or as they say in the tech industry, a “disruption”. These revolutions are fuelled by societal, economic, and scientific factors. It has to create a rip in space-time, rendering everything that came before it obsolete and thus, granting major power to the ones who can ride the wave of the RMA.
Though that sounds appealing, it’s often easier said than done, as the US has been trying to do with network-centric warfare.
How did we get here?
You would think that an RMA is a heavily American concept. It’s actually not, although it was heavily cultivated in America. It’s just like the hamburger: it came from Germany, but it grew up in the United States and since the US has no original culture, it stole the hamburger and appropriated it as part of its ‘Murican culture.
Dima Adamsky wrote a fine book titled The Culture of Military Innovation that traced the historical roots of the RMA back to the Soviets in the 1960s. If the book isn’t available, Adamsky also wrote an earlier draft titled Soviet Military-Technical Revolution and American Revolution in Military Affairs [paywall].
The Soviets were the first to actually put a lot of thought about the military-technical revolution (MTR). The MTR would later be “stolen” by the Americans to become the RMA. In the 1960s, the Soviets were faced with two challenges. The first was NATO’s nuclear weapons. The second was the potential outbreak of war. Soviet troops faced a dilemma: they had to be dispersed enough to withstand a long-range nuclear strike, but they also couldn’t be dispersed too far away so that they could converge and deliver a retaliatory strike against NATO. This was called “echelonment”, where Soviet troops would stay far behind the front lines, dispersed, to mitigate nuclear strikes – and when the nukes fell and NATO was reloading, they would quickly close distance so NATO couldn’t use their bombs anymore.
To counter Soviet echelonment, US and NATO came up with AirLand Battle (ALB) and Follow-on Force Attack (FOFA). Both operational arts were similar, as in, they both advocated a “deep strike” on Soviet forces. The US version called for ground deployment supported by long-range guided missile strikes.
Seeing that their strategy was in danger, the Soviets then attempted to identify operational arts that could help them gain an advantage over the Americans. So, during the 1970s through 1980s, the Soviet Union theorized about military-technical revolutions. The overarching strategic theme was to reduce the desirability of nuclear war, while focusing on the advantage that the Soviets had over NATO: sheer numbers and conventional weapons. Unlike the Americans, the Soviets were, to an extent, technologically behind. The leader of this movement was Nikolai Ogarkov, who wrote extensively about the MTR. Through the MTR, Ogarkov sought to modernise the Soviet army by using a combination of both operational art and new technology, although the technology was limited to what the Communist government could provide at that time. In a way, one could interpret the Soviet MTR as focusing more on how operational art could be supported by technology and not the other way around.
These concepts emerged as a counter for ALB and FOFA. RUK and ROK was the precursor of the “system of systems” concept in the US, which operated an integrated system of ground, air, and space reconnaissance platforms; added with direct fire and deep-strike weapons; and added with advanced command and control. This would also become the inspiration for network-centric warfare. The OMG was an upgrade to the previous echelonment system. Basically, OMGs were small units (combination of armour, mechanised infantry, and airborne assault and support) that could quickly break enemy lines and cause command and control chaos.
The writings of Ogarkov would then be studied by the Americans in the 1970s. They then sought to start their own “revolution in military affairs” to counter the Soviets. However, the American way was to compete on a technological level; quality over quantity. This would later be known as an offset strategy, where technological power would be believed to trump over sheer numbers. Studies on the RMA began to accelerate following the formation of the Office of Net Assessment in the 1990s and later the Office of Force Transformation in 2001. And that’s how we arrived at the current RMA discourse.
The bells ring…
So here’s a quick recap on the RMA:
- A revolution in military affairs is a “disruptive” event that increases the fighting effectiveness of militaries and at the same time, may render other enemy capabilities obsolete. It doesn’t necessarily need to be technological; it could be in the form of improved operational arts.
- It should be remembered that RMAs are relative and easy come, easy go. As history tells us, the novelty of new stuff quickly fades off and that losers learn to adapt.
- The RMA was initially a Soviet concept, which was then stolen by the Americans and then later adapted into the RMA we know today.