The term Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) provokes interest and imagination. It implies the possibility of dramatic changes in the conduct of warfare. It evokes the hope of achieving the elusive holy grail of ‘decisive battle’. And for its proponents, the RMA offers much: lifting the Clausewitzian fog of war on the battlefield (Hewish 1994); enabling post-industrial mobilisation for total war (Wenger and Mason 2008); even changing the fundamental nature of war itself (Hoffman 2017). Despite these bold claims, RMAs are more analogous to sects than shortcuts to success.
Conceptually, the RMA remains an obscure phenomenon and its promises are largely illusory. Most significantly, the belief an RMA can ‘revolutionise’ anything above the tactical level is both misleading and problematic for statecraft now and in the future.
Before tackling the problems inherent in the RMA concept and how we should think differently about future war, it is necessary to define what is meant by a ‘revolution’ in the context of an RMA. The Oxford Dictionary defines a revolution as ‘a great change in conditions, ways of working, beliefs, etc. that affects large numbers of people’. It follows that an RMA can be defined as a great change in conditions, ways of working, beliefs, etc—military affairs—that affects a large number of combatants and, almost certainly, non-combatants.
There are three broad and interrelated problems with RMAs in the context of current and future war. The first is conceptual: there is wide disagreement about what kind of ‘affairs’ are associated with RMA. While technology is almost always cited, many other elements are argued as either being part of, or not part of, an RMA. These include forms of combat, organisational structure, doctrine, innovation, adaptation, the nature of command, culture, ethics, the power of states, and the system of world politics. Such breadth risks cherry-picking those elements most convenient or desired, rather than those most important. Conversely, adopting all elements means an RMA becomes all things to all people, making the concept meaningless.
If the concept is important at all—and revolutions must surely be important—then such lack of definitional clarity should not be acceptable. Further, as the name implies and as many scholars have argued, RMAs are the purview of military organisations only. However, many elements listed above are not specific to military affairs: they are affairs of society or the international system more broadly. Should we instead think in terms of human or societal affairs? It is misleading at best and strategically limiting at worst to credit the military as the only institution with agency to ‘revolutionise’ military affairs. It is widely recognised that whole-of-government action is essential to best manage competition in the current strategic environment.
One need only look at Russian and Chinese actions to challenge and disrupt the current world order, which include a range of non-military activities such as information warfare, political subversion, and economic coercion. While these methods are hardly revolutionary—an issue that will be addressed in detail below—they have proven highly successful and are arguably more effective than any military action could be when the aim is to avoid escalation above the threshold of armed conflict. The conceptual difficulties described above make it difficult to grasp what an RMA is and what it is not; sort important elements from their opposites; and ultimately know how an RMA should be operationalised for execution on the battlefield, and by whom. A concept is worthless if it cannot be clearly understood and employed to advantage.
The second problem is structural: not only is technology consistently cited as an element of RMA, it is often identified as the most fundamental driving force behind revolutionary change. This is reflected in the frequent classification of RMAs in technological terms (think ‘precision weapons’, ‘cyber’ and ‘artificial intelligence’) rather than in terms relating to non-technological affairs such as a ‘doctrinal’, ‘organisational’ or ‘cultural’ RMA. Crediting technology as the driving force behind RMA is a distorted and limiting perspective.
History has repeatedly shown the introduction of new technologies does not result in revolutionary changes in military affairs. While new technology can produce short-term tactical advantages, it is invariably countered (often quickly) or otherwise provokes unpredicted reactions which constrain any ongoing advantage well before it becomes revolutionary. For example, airpower theorists envisaged invulnerable strategic bombers delivering decisive effects by striking directly at the enemy’s homeland, destroying its means to wage war and crippling its people’s will to fight. But airpower has never accomplished these effects, in large part because of the employment of counter-technologies such as radar, interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons. Naturally, these advancements were not revolutionary in themselves.
Technological advances have and will continue to be important and change the character of war, but they are far more evolutionary than they are revolutionary. Most often, technological advances result in small-scale variations rather than radical and permanent step-changes. The introduction of the warhorse to the steppes of Eurasia prompted pastoralists to coalesce inside defensive fortifications, which in turn led to siege warfare and eventually mechanised manoeuvre warfare, making the horse obsolete. But this series of transformations occurred over thousands of years, and in different ways across the globe, influenced by factors such as culture and geography. Sailing ships were replaced by steamships, which were themselves replaced by motorships.
But these changes did not manifest as clearly-identifiable advancements, but as gradual evolutions of trial and error. Ships of earlier eras were modified to operate in successive eras: several navies operated sail-only ships in World War One, and the United States Navy retired its last sail-only warship after World War Two. And, since their unremarkable introduction in the early 20th century, tanks and other modern armoured vehicles have been subject to innumerable modifications in response to an array of counter-armour technologies. These examples clearly illustrate evolutions of slow and unsteady progress, not revolutions in military affairs. In many cases, the theoretical potential of a particular technology is also constrained by the need to evolve supporting technologies or other factors such as doctrine, logistics and culture: technology often requires a system of systems approach to be successful.
This shows a wide range of factors must be addressed before any meaningful evolution—let alone any revolution—in military affairs can occur. While it may be a step too far to suggest technology should not be considered an element of RMA at all, any focus on technology as a fundamental driver is misplaced. History demonstrates technology has less influence than idealogues argue, and for it to be influential at all it must be supported by a range of other elements.
The two problems described above lead to a third, even more significant problem with RMAs: substance. If we cannot consistently discern the elements that make up an RMA, it is unlikely those elements are important or able to produce revolutionary outcomes. And if the only element consistently associated with an RMA—technology—is also not able to produce revolutionary change, it follows that no element of an RMA is revolutionary. Consequently, the most significant problem with the concept of RMA is one of substance: the so-called RMA cannot actually produce revolutions.
This empirical conclusion can be arrived at intuitively if one considers RMAs in the context of the nature of war. As Carl von Clausewitz argued, war is a contest of opposing wills. Its enduring nature in this regard is therefore paradoxical: war moves dynamically, unpredictably, and non-linearly through cycles of action, reaction, over-extension, and reversal. What works today will likely not work tomorrow, precisely because it worked today. Intuitively therefore, revolutions in military affairs are not possible because the nature of war itself precludes them: anything that tends towards achieving a great change in warfare will, by virtue of its initial success, be countered.
The impossibility of revolutionary military action is most noticeable—and is most important—at the strategic level. At the tactical level, changes (evolutions) in the character of war often occur. These changes do not automatically produce strategically significant results, because it is the consequences of military action that are important at the strategic level. For example, the introduction of air warfare brought significant evolutionary change to how wars were fought at the tactical level, as militaries sought to apply force in a new third dimension.
But airpower has not revolutionised war at the strategic level because—like all other forms of military affairs—it is unable to produce revolutionary strategic consequences. War remains a contest of wills and airpower simply opened up a new domain in which humans could fight. Even the advent of nuclear weapons has not revolutionised war by making it obsolete, as was once prophesised by RMA advocates. Rather, the Cold War period saw an evolution in which great power war became less likely, and other forms of conflict dominated. We may be in the midst of an evolution away from that era today. Tellingly, we see no discernible revolutionary changes. Because the nature of war is unchanging, the same will be true for the emerging cyber and space domains.
Where does this lead us in terms of future war? We must evolve our thinking. The concept of RMA is not fit for purpose. It is not useful today and it will continue to mislead us tomorrow. We must instead think in terms of Evolutions in Human Competition (EHC). Shifting our thinking from RMA to EHC largely addresses the problems of concept, structure and substance discussed above.
A construct that recognises evolutions—the gradual process of change and development—rather than revolutions allows us to better prepare for future conflict by accepting revolution is impossible but continuing evolution is almost certain. Reframing the subject from military affairs to human competition more broadly allows military affairs to be situated into a grand-strategic context, as one of several tools that must be used cohesively to manage the contest of wills across not just ‘war’, but a spectrum of competition spanning traditional western notions of war and peace and all other forms of contest between.
Granted, the elements that make up EHC remain to be defined, but conceiving of EHC rather than an RMA paves the way to deemphasise technology as a driving force and credit more important influences of change such as national will, societal resilience, culture, ethics and strategic leadership.
Evolving our thinking through the lens of EHC also provides additional benefits. It deemphasises military solutions as necessarily being the best or only option for managing grand-strategic problems: EHC reminds us that many tools of statecraft exist and some may be used in conjunction with, or preferentially to, military power. Further, because an evolutionary approach rejects the notion of momentous and permanent change through large discontinuities, it encourages strategists to take a more long-term view, as opposed to placing unwarranted faith in revolutionary ‘silver bullet’ solutions which purport to decisively resolve problems in the short term.
In essence, it allows strategists to view future competition as the next phase of a continuous stream of history which is fed by the competitions of the past and present. The essential task of strategy can therefore be viewed as managing currently evolving competition(s) to enable speculated futures to be shaped in favour of our long-term strategic objectives. Applying the lessons of past competitions provides the best mechanism to inform such shaping.
While the future is not foreseeable, few activities are more important than preparing for future conflict. To do this, appropriate concepts must be used. While the RMA has a strong following in some circles, it is not fit for purpose and it will not best prepare militaries, societies and states for future competition.
A more appropriate way to view how war—and competition more generally—will change over the course of future history is through the EHC lens.
Competition undergoes evolution, not revolution, and that evolution occurs across a broad spectrum of human competition, not just the far narrower domain of ‘military affairs’.
Still believe in Revolutions in Military Affairs? Time to evolve your thinking.
Group Captain David Hood is an Aeronautical Engineer working for the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Master of Gas Turbine Technology (Cranfield, UK), Master of Military and Defence Studies (Australian National University), and a Master of International Relations (Deakin University). Group Captain Hood is currently Program Director for Projects AIR6500-1 (Joint Air Battle Management System) and AIR7004-1 (Theatre Air Control System – Air Operations Centre).
This was published by Central Blue on 5 March 2023.