The Unfinished Revolution in Military Affairs

In the early 1990s, the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) Office of Net Assessment concluded that the world was probably entering a period of military revolution, or “revolution in military affairs.” DOD’s leadership soon accepted that a military revolution was under way and that the U.S. military would need to transform itself into a different kind of fighting force in order to meet new kinds of challenges, as well as to exploit the potential of rapidly advancing information-related technologies that seemed to be driving dramatic change in so many other areas of human endeavor. A decade and a series of stunning U.S. military operations later, it would be easy to conclude that the revolution has arrived. A closer inspection of the evidence, however, indicates that such a conclusion is probably premature.

The Pentagon has tried to exploit the revolution in several ways. One is through precision strike, whose potential was revealed in the first Gulf War. Another involves forces operating as part of distributed networks that minimize their vulnerability, while still enabling their combat power to be concentrated when needed. These networks, it is anticipated, will include highly integrated reconnaissance, surveillance, and other elements that are capable of identifying a wide range of targets over a broad area and of allowing strikes on those targets in a greatly compressed period of time.

The U.S.’s remarkable military capabilities have yet to be tested against the very different kinds of threats that are emerging.

Of course, as strategists point out, “the enemy also gets a vote.” New U.S. capabilities must be viewed within the context of the challenges likely to be posed by future adversaries. After all, the goal in exploiting a military revolution is not to become more effective at the kinds of warfare that are passing into history but to dominate the military competitions that will define the emerging conflict environment.

U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq tell us a great deal about how the military is doing in realizing its goal of exploiting the military revolution. In some respects, the results are impressive. For example, the military has greatly increased its ability to wage precision warfare since the 1991 Gulf War. Then, only 7 percent of the bombs dropped in the air campaign against Iraq were precision-guided. Few aircraft were equipped to carry such weapons, and the capabilities of the precision-guided munitions (PGMs) were not advanced. Ten years later, nearly all U.S. combat aircraft are capable of carrying PGMs. Moreover, a veritable family of PGMs has been fielded, enabling U.S. air forces to strike under all weather conditions and with increased effectiveness against deeply buried targets. In the 1999 campaign against Yugoslavia, about 30 percent of the weapons dropped were precision-guided; in Afghanistan, roughly 60 percent. In Iraq, the figure reached 70 percent, or an order of magnitude increase over the first Gulf War.

The U.S. military’s improvement in its ability to compress the engagement cycle–the time between when a target is identified and when it is attacked–and to strike deeply buried targets such as command bunkers are extremely important capabilities in the new age of precision warfare. This is because U.S. adversaries seek to use target camouflage, cover, concealment, deception, mobility, and hardening to reduce the effectiveness of precision strikes.

In 1991, the military’s air tasking order, which designated targets for attack, required several days to develop and, because of the military services’ lack of interoperable communications systems, had to be flown to Navy carriers. By the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the engagement cycle had been compressed to hours, as in the case of the initial attacks on Saddam Hussein’s command bunker in Baghdad, or even minutes, as when intelligence believed Saddam had been seen at a restaurant in the city.

A key enabler in both the targeting and the strike process is the development of robotic aircraft, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the Predator and Global Hawk. These aircraft were used in Afghanistan and Iraq to scout for enemy targets and to relay information to strike elements. The Predator was also armed with air-to-surface missiles, enabling it to attack targets almost immediately once clearance was given. The UAVs’ ability to remain aloft for long periods and to provide persistent surveillance made it increasingly difficult for the enemy to make any moves of significance without being detected.

Moreover, Special Operations Forces (SOF), which had been an afterthought in the first Gulf War, became a central element of the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. These troops, inserted in small numbers in hostile territory, proved to be invaluable human sensors, identifying enemy locations and movements, relaying information back to headquarters, and directing strikes against enemy forces and facilities. The SOF also engaged in direct action on an unprecedented scale, striking an array of high-value targets and seizing key parts of the Iraqi economic infrastructure, including oil facilities and dams.

These improvements in an already dominant U.S. military capability yielded lopsided victories. A strong argument can be made that the widespread use of precision weapons in itself has transformed warfare. Still, military revolutions do not involve making improvements in the ability to prevail within an existing warfare regime; rather, they define a new regime. Although different in some significant respects, the Afghan War and the second Gulf War were more reflective of the warfare regime that has been dominant since the early days of World War II, when mechanization, aviation, and the use of radio and radar transformed warfare.

For example, the Afghan War saw SOF directing U.S. precision air strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda forces to devastating effect. This combination of a small SOF force on the ground, their communications links with manned and unmanned aircraft, and the use of precision weapons to minimize collateral damage was indeed impressive, even when the feeble capabilities of U.S. enemies are taken into consideration. Yet, a similar and perhaps even more impressive feat of arms came in 1972, when small numbers of U.S. advisors to the South Vietnamese military employed air power to stop the Easter Offensive by the North Vietnamese Army, a formidable foe.

Similarly, the remarkable U.S.-led campaign in the second Gulf War was essentially waged against an Iraqi force whose composition would have been familiar to the German Army that introduced blitzkrieg to the world. In fact, the Iraqi military took a step back from blitzkrieg, employing old tanks without air support. The Iraqi capabilities that concerned the coalition forces–missiles and weapons of mass destruction–were employed, respectively, in small numbers or not at all. In sum, the Iraqi military may not have been a match for the Wehrmacht, circa 1940, let alone the U.S. military juggernaut of today.

A measure of just how far the U. S. military has to go in terms of transforming itself to meet emerging threats can be seen in the findings of recent independent blue-ribbon panels on defense, as well as the Pentagon’s own strategy review. These reviews raised the concern that the proliferation of ballistic and cruise missile technology would enable even small states to destroy the forward air bases and the major ports used to resupply U.S. troops. Such an anti-access threat would be even more acute if the enemy had weapons of mass destruction. It is a problem that exists in nascent form today in North Korea. Revealingly, the Bush administration is not discussing a military solution against this new kind of threat.

The Pentagon’s 2001 strategy review called on the military to address what is known as the area-denial challenge: the problem of seizing control of littoral waters in the face of land-based military forces such as missiles and aircraft and coastal forces such as advanced antiship mines, submarines, and small combatant vessels (perhaps masquerading as commercial vessels) equipped with lethal high-speed antiship cruise missiles. In a major U.S. joint field exercise held in the summer of 2002, more than a dozen ships in a Navy battle group were damaged or destroyed by a minor adversary equipped with area-denial capabilities. The problem of securing narrow waters is potentially most acute in the Persian Gulf, through which passes much of the world’s oil supply.

In 2000, the Hart-Rudman Commission, echoing the concerns of the National Defense Panel, warned of the threat of catastrophic terrorism to the U.S. homeland. Today, the “democratization of destruction” enables even small groups to bring about enormous destruction and loss of life, as the United States and the world discovered to their horror on September 11, 2001. Yet, the United States is still in the early stages of determining which mix of military capabilities can preempt terrorist strikes, defend effectively against those under way, and limit the damage from those that occur despite efforts to prevent them.

There are still other challenges reflecting an era of revolutionary change in the conduct of warfare. Access to space is becoming ubiquitous. How will the U.S. military deny an enemy this access in the event of crisis or conflict? The United States has the world’s most advanced information infrastructure and, by some accounts, apparently one of the most vulnerable. How will it be defended?

The Pentagon is making progress, albeit unevenly, in addressing these challenges. For example, the Army is trying to transform itself from a heavy, mechanized-dominated force to a lighter, yet still highly lethal, force by exploiting information technologies to field a distributed networked force whose success relies more heavily on information, speed of action, and mobility. Such troops could operate independently of major forward bases, frustrating enemy anti-access strategies. Similarly, the Navy is seeking to deploy a networked battle fleet that will include clusters of small, littoral combat ships, unmanned underwater vessels, and sensor arrays as key elements in defeating the area-denial threat. On the other hand, in areas such as long-range precision-strike air forces, curiously little effort is being made, despite the growing risk to forward air bases.

In the final analysis, the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq offer some tantalizing hints about where the military is headed as it tries to transform itself. Yet, both wars were waged against unimposing adversaries that fought in ways that would have been quite familiar to Cold War­era militaries. Remarkable as the recent developments in U.S. military capabilities have been, they have yet to be tested against the very different kinds of threats that are emerging. Despite its recent successes, the Pentagon’s motto should be: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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Cite this Article

Krepinevich, Andrew F. “The Unfinished Revolution in Military Affairs.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003