I saw this piece (Warfare of the Future) on RCP today and it got me to thinking about the Nature of Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMAs) in general. I dont think there are a whole lot of people out there that are not in the military in into to military history that are very conversant with the idea of a RMA. The idea was first proposed by historian Michael Roberts in a series of lectures in England in 1955. It has gained currency among the current crop of thinkers in the worldwide defense community, especially think-tanks and weapon makers. The RMA is the current killer-app of defense thinking.
Essentially the central idea of the RMA is that occasionally an organizational idea, operational method, or technology comes along whose impact on warfare is such that it is revolutionary(i.e. that it makes all that came before it either irrelevant or insignificant). Revolutionary in the sense that armies that do not adopt these methods or technology cannot prevail in combat against an opponent that does. Some examples of these regulations would the introduction of the compound bow, Roman manipular infantry, and of course the introduction of gunpowder and the invention of the gun itself.
The article I reference at the head of this article posits that we are on the cusp of another RMA right now in terms of weapons systems that can destroy command nodes or systems of an opponent. He is really talking about Buck Rogers type weapons such as high-energy lasers, MASERS, particle beam weapons, electro-magnetic rail guns, etc. The thought apparently is that these weapons are so powerful and more importantly, fast-acting that given the current state of technology they cannot be adequately defended against. Currently he is correct; they cannot be defended against, but then again, none of these weapons exists as more than prototypes either.
The idea is that in an RMA the side that introduces it first will be victorious. That is good as far as it goes. Of course, the French Revolutionary Nation-in-Arms was supposed to represent an RMA too. The problem is that apparently the French and Napoleon himself were out RMAâ€™d by their dynastic, monarchical opponents of Prussia, Russia, Austria, and Britain none of whom had to resort to a true nation-in-arms on the French model. They did enact reforms but they maintained dynastic Europe, indeed the dynastic structure of Europe exists to this day even if hereditary monarchs are largely figureheads. There is a good list of potential RMAs in the Summer 1997 issue of Joint Forces Quarterly.
As you can no doubt guess, I am not a huge fan of RMAs; I think they are a somewhat simplistic explanation for a very complex phenomenon. If you examine the above referenced list and read the accompanying article you should be able to see what I am getting at. Saying that such things as RMAs exist is not a stretch, but the examples provided are not totally convincing in my book. I am of the evolutionist school when it comes to developments in warfare. Ways and methods of war do not advance in fits and starts they evolve. The supposed Gunpowder Revolution occurred over a period of 400+ years. Henry II used cannons at the battle of Harfleur in the Hundred Year’s War and as little as 100 years ago, American soldiers were still carrying sabers into battle and using them. The polish did indeed have units of lancers in 1939. They did not have them because they thought they were neat, they had them because they thought they could be effective.
Another way of putting it is thinking about it like this. If RMAs were so revolutionary, why do ancient texts still apply in the age of modern combat? I would be willing to bet that just about every general officer in the world worth his salt owns or has read the world’s oldest military text; Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This book is considered still applicable despite the fact that it was written almost 2,500 years ago in an age when the very idea that man could fly to the moon was considered preposterous and it was not even known that the earth was a globe. Despite that, The Art of War is still considered required reading for any serious student of the military art.
The question to my mind if RMAs are so decisive is why an ancient text like Sun Tzu is still so relevant? What is the common thread? My answer, of course I have an answer, is that the common thread throughout the history of warfare is mankind. The basic instrument of war, the individual soldier, is still the same. I would bet that a Roman Legionnaire could sit down with a group of American grunts in Afghanistan today and they could trade stories about shit details, jerk NCO/Officers, and get along quite well together. They would probably even have a commonality of viewpoint towards the enemy. The basic differences are in the methods by which we fight and the implements we use, not the mindset of the soldier. If you really think about it, what is modern fire and movement techniques other than a variation on the Roman maniple that recognizes the reality that ranged weapons are deadlier than melee weapons on the modern battlefield? What is a rifle but a more powerful bow in effect, if not in operation? What is a tank but modern armored cavalry? Archer Jones makes a very good point about archetypes in combat in his The Art of War in the Western World. The commonalities between ancient and modern combat are more striking to me than their differences. This is a probably a topic that could bear much more in the way of discussion.
In the final anlysis, I am led to the conclusion that the RMA itself is a sexy theory that simply cannot hold up under the glare of focused scrutiny. it is good for getting decisionmakers to spend obscene amounts of money pursuing wepons that change the “paradigm” of warfare as their proponents put it. Almost everything I have read about RMA is full of power words, like leverage, paradigm, enhancing,Â game-changin, and other such drivel that immediatley makes me suspicious. I just think that if you cannot express a compelling idea in plain language then it is probably not compelling in the first place.
The old saying always applies, “if you cannot blind them brilliance then dazzle them with bullshit.”Â I do not find the theory behind RMAs blinding in the slightest.
Here are some other resources on Revolution in Military Affairs theory:
The RMA Debate, another JFQ article, a report to Congress by Theodor W. Galdi,Â There is a wealth of information about both RMAs and the debate on the ideas validity; simply type Revolution in Military Affairs into any search engine and plenty of results will pop up.