Signs of a Revolution

Aug. 1, 1995

Over the years, there have been periodic innovations leading to wholesale changes in the ways that wars were fought. Generally accorded to have been among these developments were the longbow, the cannon, the airplane, and the ballistic missile.

In a few instances, change was immediate. From the moment the atomic bomb was introduced in 1945, all nonnuclear warfare has automatically been regarded as “limited war.” Most changes took effect gradually, though. The rifle was in everyday use for more than a hundred years as a sporting arm before it replaced the musket as the standard military shoulder weapon.

The popular term for such a change, a “Revolution in Military Affairs,” was invented in 1982 by Marshal N. V. Ogarkov of the Soviet General Staff, who held that the precision and effectiveness of advanced conventional weapons represented a benchmark in the history of warfare. Marshal Ogarkov’s term has been borrowed and broadened by Western theorists to describe a basic shift they believe to be under way.

“The Office of Net Assessment and others are investigating the hypothesis that over the next twenty to fifty years, a military revolution will transform the ways wars are fought,” Andrew W. Marshall, the Pentagon’s director of Net Assessment, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May.

The change, as he described it, has two dimensions. The first is that “long-range precision strike weapons coupled to very effective sensors and command-and-control systems will come to dominate much of warfare. Rather than closing with an opponent, the major mode will be destroying him at a distance.”

The second aspect is the emergence of “information warfare,” Mr. Marshall said. “Much as over the last sixty to seventy years one wished to obtain air superiority in order to better conduct all other military operations, in the future, obtaining early superiority in the information area may become central to doing well in warfare.”

“Revolution” is an awkward term for a trend that could take fifty years or more to play out, but it does seem that something is happening that transcends the routine march of technology. For example, the combination of precision and information in the Persian Gulf War made it possible for coalition airpower to hit 150 individual targets the first day. By contrast, Eighth Air Force during World War II struck only about fifty target sets in all of 1943. In the not-too-distant future, it may be possible to strike 1,500 targets in the first hour of combat.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, US Air Force Chief of Staff, believes that information operations should be regarded as “the fifth dimension of warfare,” extending beyond the previous dimensions of land, sea, air, and space. The change, he says, is driven in considerable part by exploding computational technology. Computers are doubling their operating speed every eighteen months, and there’s no end in sight. General Fogleman sees “tremendous potential for breakthrough,” particularly in the closely coupled areas of “the ability to exploit and exchange information and the ability to detect, fix, and target objectives on a battlefield.”

The US will not have a monopoly on emerging technology. The proliferation of advanced sensors, computers, and highly accurate weapons is unavoidable and has already begun. Much will depend on the relative capability of our own systems to look deep, reach far, penetrate hostile territory, and strike with precision. More often than not, the combat advantage-if we can hold it-will derive from systems operating in air and space.

At the same time, the threat to national security will most likely break free of traditional boundaries. In its recent report, the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces warned that a future adversary adept at information warfare might be able to cripple all of the important financial, transportation, and communications functions of the US without even entering the country. Another haunting vision of the future is captured in the title of a briefing-the specific contents are classified-making the rounds in Washington: “What Two Smart Guys Can Do With a Computer and a Modem.”

Nevertheless, the “Revolution in Military Affairs” suffers from a definite credibility problem. The first reason is that the name is misleading. “Revolution” implies a suddenness that isn’t there. Change has not come as a bolt out of the blue but rather from the maturation and application of technology that was pioneered years ago. Second, some of the prophets of the Revolution get carried away and exaggerate. No “Revolution in Military Affairs,” including this one, sweeps away all that went before or renders previous weapons and forces completely obsolete. Fifty years into the nuclear age, battles still turn on the stealthiness of fighter aircraft, and despite the spread of ballistic missiles, people still get shot with old-fashioned bullets.

On one point, however, nearly everyone agrees. Technology alone does not revolutionize the way wars are fought. It must be adapted, incorporated, and blended with strategy and operational concepts. Good thinking is at least as important as good technology. According to published reports, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory predict that, on the basis of current trends in information technology, the weapons of the 2030s will approximate the intelligence of chickens. The trick, it would seem, is to apply technology wisely and stay one jump ahead of the chicken.