Le’ Notes #24: Models of the Revolution in Military Affairs

Continuing from the previous post (Note #23), this post introduces the major models of the RMA.

The previous post discussed the historical origins and the definitions of the revolution in military affairs. Now, let us take a look at the major models that seek to explain the RMA. The theories introduced range from Alvin and Heidi Tofflers’ “Wave theory” to the business-as-usual model.

Tofflers’ Waves of RMA

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First, we start with the Tofflers’ wave theory, which was expounded in their book (which is now available as a digital archive), The Third Wave. Alvin and Heidi Toffler were both futurists, i.e. historians who sought to predict future trends. Think of it as Asimovian “psychohistory” albeit with less precision. The Tofflers’ posit that history has consisted of three great waves — agriculture, industrial, and knowledge. These waves tend to determine the structure of our lives, from economic activity to how we fight wars.

For instance, during the agriculture wave, the agricultural revolution led to people leaving their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favour of a sedentary lifestyle so they can tend crops. Farming was slower, but it guaranteed a constant supply of food. However, settling down in a place attracted both predators and marauders. People needed to defend themselves, and thus, the warrior class was born. Later on, there would be fights among other settlements (later, kingdoms). Warfighting in during the agricultural wave was sporadic and simple.

Later, in the industrial wave, mass production became the norm. Manufacturing was at an all-time high and societies have evolved to become permanent nation-states capable of housing standing armies. Obtaining political clout became an obsession for state leaders and armies were used to overpower other nations. The means of fighting also became standardised and more sophisticated, such as rifles, tanks, and aircraft.

Currently, we are living — or so the Tofflers’ say — in the knowledge wave, where our economic activity is structured around the acquisition of knowledge. To put it in simple terms, “knowledge is power”. Those who are capable of amassing knowledge can use that knowledge to stay ahead of the competition. This particular structure then affects the way people fight wars as well, as seen in the advent of “smart bombs” (precision-guided munitions) and global surveillance capabilities like the U-2 spy plane.

This particular theory is simple, in a sense that it explains the RMA in the simplest terms possible. However, at some points, Wave Theory tends to be over-general, in a way that it lumps together societies into one overarching frame. In other words, in its attempt to be an all-encompassing theory, it disregards the unique societies out there that may have developed differently. Furthermore, the model itself supposes that societies learn to fight based on the structures of which they are built upon. This would mean that a slow process is involved and not the “abrupt” changes that we are led to believe when discussing RMAs.

Murray and Knox’s military revolution

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Murray and Knox, in their book The Dynamics of Military Revolution [book], propose that RMAs are simply a smaller part in a larger military revolution (MR). A military revolution is when large societal and to a certain extent, technological forces, cause abrupt and systemic changes in society (they likened MRs as earthquakes). In their words,

Military revolutions recast society and the state as well as military organisations. They alter the capacity of states to create and project military power. And their effects are additive. States that have missed the early military revolutions cannot easily leap-frog to success in war by adopting the trappings of Western technology. (p. 7)

Murray and Knox note that five different MRs have occurred throughout the history of humankind:

  1. The birth of the modern nation-state in the 17th century which gave birth to the professional army
  2. The French Revolution which blended politics and warfare
  3. The Industrial Revolution which made mass production available
  4. World War I, which set the pattern for mechanised warfare
  5. The Cold War with its nuclear weapons and ideological differences

Currently, we are also in the middle of a potential sixth MR i.e. the IT-RMA, which is expected to be propelled by rapid advances in technology and the potential decay of the nation-state and the possibility of world government.

If MRs are major earthquakes that could change the face of society as we know it, then Murray and Knox believe that RMAs are smaller versions of MRs that can be directed by humans. In their words, RMAs are

…lesser transformations, susceptible to human direction and can be used to a military’s advantage. (p. 12)

In some cases, some RMAs become military revolutions; however, the process is a rigorous one. Technology is not the only driving force in a military revolution (albeit being a highly influential one), and for an RMA to become an MR, it needs to be able to be implemented in both a conceptual and operational manner, and then fit the necessary societal conditions that would propel it to the level of MR.

Murray and Knox’s theory indeed is more rigorous than the Tofflers’ wave theory. However, with increased rigor comes increased complexity. For instance, it is puzzling to understand which one is more influential: the MR or the RMA? Perhaps an RMA only happened due to a previous MR which provided the circumstances for the RMA to occur, either through the availability of technology or the willingness of the society to accept such a revolution. Or it could be the other way around, that an MR could have only happened because a crucial piece of technology was in use during an RMA. It then becomes a challenge to identify the origins of both.

Rogers’ punctuated equilibrium


Clifford Rogers, in his seminal treatise, The Military Revolution Debate [book], observed that each military revolution was accompanied by a long period of near-stasis. This view particularly borrows from evolution theory, where an organism, upon acquiring a befitting evolution, would tend not to evolve any further unless drastic environmental changes require the organism to evolve. Similarly, societies act similarly.

It can be argued that although gunpowder had already been present since the 14th century, it was only during the 17th century that it reached peak effectiveness with the advent of the musket and Gustavus Adolphus’ volley line. After that, gunpowder has not “changed” in a sense that we still use firearms. A modern assault rifle still operates on the same concept as a breech-loading rifle in the 17th century: gunpowder ignites and launches a metal projectile. In other words, gunpowder had reached a state of near-stasis, in a sense that its use can only be improved upon. Unless we find a more potent form of dispersing kinetic force, such as weaponised lasers or Star Trek phasers, gunpowder alone will unlikely evolve, let alone revolutionise warfare. This particular stasis is what Rogers referred to: we have finally mastered the use of gunpowder after a long period of time.

A series of action-reaction cycles force RMAs to happen. The above gunpowder example could be applied to the development of weapons and also military formations as well. For example, the Greek sarissa was the most potent weapon of its time, made further effective by the deployment of the phalanx. Later, the phalanx was rendered ineffective by long-range bowmen. The entire military structure began to favour the archer. The archer would later be countered by the musketeer, who could deliver more destruction, along with artillery. In World War I, carpet bombing and trench warfare was introduced, rendering previous formations obsolete. Maneuver warfare then became the preferred operational art to break through enemy lines. Ever since, we’ve only perfected operational arts we learned during the World Wars, which would be overshadowed by nuclear weapons.

So, as we can see, as long as a certain RMA is comfortable as it is, it is less likely to be as revolutionary as it was when it was first introduced, and we would stick with it longer to fully master its use.

This theory blends parsimony and rigour quite well, and it is one of the theories which I prefer. However, there is also a particular drawback with this theory. In its framework, innovation happens quite sporadically, which kind of defeats the entire “revolution” idea behind it.


The business-as-usual (BAU) model emerged as a critique to the existing RMA models. It insists that the RMA is a construct that is applied post-hoc by historians trying to make sense of the changes in warfare. The BAU stream tends to argue that innovation occurs incrementally (such as in Civilization V) and continuously, and that some innovations just happen to be big and cause changes, but these changes are not that abrupt.

This stream seems intuitively correct: many of the so-called RMAs were indeed results of prolonged innovation and continuous development. Also, history is not linear and tends to be messy, so the artifical construct that is the RMA is an attempt to put historical events in conceptual boxes to make sense of it. However, this particular model is theoretically unsatisfying, as it does not explain how we are currently engaging the first self-conscious RMA.

Those are the major models (or theories, if you may) around the RMA. At the moment, there have also been improvements on the models, especially the Wave Theory. However, that will be discussed in a later post. For now, we have covered the basics of the RMA. Later, we’ll see how these models can be applied.


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