The terms “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) and “transformation” were all the rage in defense circles during the 1990s and early 2000s. The idea was that advances in information technologies—such as improved sensors, communications, combined with precision munitions—would usher in a new era in warfare. By exploiting these advantages, the U.S. military could lift the proverbial “fog of war,” see the entire battlefield, and rapidly destroy enemy forces. However, RMA technologies proved wanting against low-tech adversaries — insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — while political forces within the Department of Defense, as well as his own brusque leadership style, stymied the transformation of the force Donald Rumsfeld promised on becoming secretary of defense for President George W. Bush in 2001.
The story of the RMA is well known among defense analysts, but it was raised again last week in an essay at War on the Rocks. The author, Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha, argues that the Department of Defense should be seeking a new RMA but has been too focused on technological advances. He says greater emphasis should be placed on professional military education and experimentation within the force to generate new operational concepts, rather than waiting for a technological “silver bullet” to arrive.
But is that enough?
Col. Pietrucha is right when he says, “RMAs are generally few and far between, but they do provide an exploitable advantage, at least until potential adversaries catch up.” This is true of most innovations, but it is often difficult to know when one will occur. As Nassim Taleb notes in his book on dealing with improbability, The Black Swan, innovation is “fundamentally unpredictable.” But just because it is unpredictable does not mean conditions cannot improve the chances for innovation. While better professional military education, development of new operational concepts, and experimentation are all helpful ideas, it is unlikely they are sufficient to produce a military revolution.
Pietracha is also right that searching for a technological “silver bullet” will not be enough. When an RMA does occur, it usually entails large-scale organizational transformations—such as when artillery made fortresses obsolete in the sixteenth century or the emergence of mass armies in 18th century. The information-technology revolution that was supposed to usher in the next military revolution was largely underwhelming. Instead, new technologies were incorporated into the U.S. military’s existing force structure and organizational arrangements. Besides the lack of an external threat after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Harvey Sapolsky, Benjamin Friedman, and Brendan Green suggest at least two reasons for this lack of organizational transformation. First, the post-Cold War reduction in defense spending, while real, was relatively modest and gradual. There was no shock that forced the military to rethink its basic concepts. And second, the budgets of the individual military services decreased in a roughly equivalent manner—meaning no individual service had to innovate to compete for budget share or missions.
Transforming military organizations due to a supposed RMA can have negative consequences that need to be taken into account. As Brookings Institution scholar Jeremy Shapiro has written,
False revolutions also impose a severe cost in terms of wasted effort, chaotic disruptions of routine, and inappropriate innovations…. Complete reorganizations, in particular, impose large costs and should not be made prematurely…. Inappropriate or even premature adaptations can be as wasteful and as detrimental to effectiveness as a failure to innovate.
These arguments taken together suggest a way forward, if the RMA Col. Pietrucha advocates is desirable: maintain caps on the defense budget, have the services compete, and build in redundancy. Increasing the defense budget will ensure that familiar organizational arrangement stay in place. Resource scarcity will not guarantee innovation, but it will provide incentive for change. Competition for missions is more likely to force the services to experiment with new operational concepts and organizational forms. And finally, redundancy will help ensure readiness when an experiment in one service inevitably fails. That the United States has multiple infantries, air forces, and navies serves this process well and should provide a foundation for performing experiments and comparing results. Redundancy also provides backup forces if the type of negative consequences Shapiro describes occur. Similarly, keeping the budget caps in place also limits the amount of resources lost in failed experiments—thus facilitating the ability to gather information from them at a lower cost.