Revolution in Military Affairs—An Appraisal

Kapil Kak, Dy. Director, IDSA


The last decade of the 20th century has witnessed an unprecedented transformation in international security. An unexpected transition from a bipolar to a unipolar America—dominated world order, following the implosion of the former Soviet Union, trends toward a more 'polycentric' global dispensation and a crucial metamorphosis in the very character of warfare appear to be unleashing strong forces of strategic fluidity and uncertainty. The foremost global trend transforming the security framework is the dramatic growth in information technology and the revolution in military affairs (RMA) it has created.

Technological change may well revolutionise warfare in the 21st century. Countries that can exploit emerging technologies and synergise the same with innovative operational doctrines and organisational adaptation could doubtless achieve far higher levels of relative military effectiveness. It would be seen that, historically, leading countries, including the United States, had adequate time to adapt in the midst of war to military technologies that developed in peace time. Such a luxury is now precluded by the sheer pace of technological transformation and the paradigmatic change in warfare itself. In the coming years, it would be crucial for political leaders, military establishments, civil services and defence research scientists to stay alert to evolving and exploiting emerging technologies so that technological asymmetry can be sustained against competitors and adversaries.

In the historical context, there is also the view that the current RMA is not only one, but part of a series that evolved from the Middle Ages to the present day, enhancing in the 14th century and continuing with increasing frequency as one neared this century. This historical record appears to suggest that technological change represents a relatively small part of the equation, the crucial element in most RMAs being conceptual in nature. On the other hand, dramatic advances in information technology have begun to transform the very character of war and its conduct. The Gulf war was in many ways the prototype of the shape of wars to come. As a result of RMA, it marked the beginning of a demassification of soldiers in opposition to the Clautzwitzian principle of mass and concentration. In fact, there is only one example on the list of possible RMAs that is entirely technological: nuclear weapons. But even here, there is some ambiguity since the impact of nuclear weapons has been almost entirely political except for their first use against the Japanese.1

The question also arises as to what is the relevance of RMA in the context of developing countries like India? Are they ready for it? What is it that is essential, affordable and operationable? Do they have in place concepts, and organisational systems that can best evolve and exploit advanced technologies for greater effectiveness in warfighting on the ground, at sea, and in the air? This paper would broadly seek to examine and define the nature of the on-going technological revolution, its linkage with information technology, and importance of information dominance, future shape of warspaces and combat and the challenges politico-military leadership the world over would have to confront in the technology and information-driven 21st century.

Military Revolutions and Technological Change

The foremost question that needs to be answered is what precisely constitutes RMA in definitional terms? It could be averred that distinct historical phenomenon have brought about radical innovation and change which could really be called military revolution, in that they altered the nature of warfare in the West. Creation of the modern and effective nation state based on organised military power in the 17th century, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution beginning at the same time during the period 1789-1815 and World War I (1914-18) are cited as epochal events that brought in their wake such systematic changes in the political, social and cultural arenas as to be largely uncontrollable, unpredictable and above all, unforseeable.2

Throughout history nations have always pursued innovation to increase relative military effectiveness. It is the acceleration of evolutionary technological change combined with associated operational and organisational transformation that altered the character of war over the last two hundred years. Some of these developments which progressively shaped the eventual technological metamorphosis are:

l Railways, telegraph, steam-powered naval ironclad and rifle.

(Between Napoleonic Wars and American Civil War)

l Change over from wooden sailing ships to steam powered armoured hulls. (Latter half of 19th Century)

l Machine gun, aircraft, submarine, main battle tank and armoured fighting vehicles. (Prior to World War I)

l Internal combustion engine, improved aircraft, radio and radar. (Before World War II)

l Nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles. (World War II and after)

l Information Technology and micro-chip advances, laser, satellite applications (Latter quarter of 20th century)

It needs to be reiterated, however, that even as technological advancement would serve as a prerequisite for RMA, technology by itself cannot provide enhanced cutting, edge cost-effectiveness. In the bitzkrieg during World War II, for example, which struck a profound change in the very language and grammar of warfare, the Wehermact inflicted a quick shock defeat on a qualitatively comparable, numerically superior force through innovative exploitation of the triad of aircraft, tank and radio. By combining speed, surprise and deception with superior tactical and operational performance, the Germans attained a level of operational superiority to which the allies were unable to adapt in time. At another level, in a recent example, during the limited border war between India and Pakistan in the summer of 1999, the alacrity with which the Indian Air Force changed its operational strategy for strikes against Pakistan Army positions in the high Himalayan mountain tops (average height 15000-18000 feet) paid it rich dividends. Persistence with the initial direct attacks against extremely mobile, highly camouflaged, Stinger-equipped troops may have had questionable value.

History would appear to suggest that the synergistic effect of common preconditions of technological developments, doctrinal innovation and organisational adaptation alone could enable full realisation of RMA. It is the increasing recognition of the importance of the doctrinal and organisational elements that has led to the term RMA gaining currency over expressions such as military technical revolution (MTR) which implied that technology alone was the predominant factor. Also, mere invention of new technologies is not enough, these must be developed into practical military systems, or a system of systems as technologies become more complex. While the tank was introduced at Cambrai in 1917, it was years before it was reliable and robust enough to spearhead ground advances. Herein, also lies the need for creativity and innovative skills to harness military technology. Thus, while tanks and aircraft were the operational creations of countries other than Germany, it was Heinz Guderian of the German General Staff who integrated these as weapon components of the doctrine of blitzkreig. Its success required not only "technology of the tank and a coherent doctrine of armoured warfare but also substantial organisation and even cultural changes which got reflected in the new combined arms operations centred on the German Panzer Division."3

The stunning victory of the western armed forces and their allies in the Gulf War of 1991 could doubtless be ascribed to the efficacy, reach and lethality of air power which has taken a quantum jump through employment of significant force multipliers like Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), Joint Tactical Information Distribution system (JTIDS), in-flight refueling, satellite aided navigation, precision-force technologies etc. Revolutionary advances in some of these 'sensor', 'shooter' and range-extending technologies may also dramatically transform the capabilities of air power in long range strikes and in enhancing its role as the primary sword arm of a conventional deterrent. In the United States, the Air Force has a lead in major C4I2 effort in its JTIDS for providing single and joint data link network for high capacity information exchange among joint forces.

Intelligence gathering techniques are getting revolutionised, with the electronic eyes, ears and blindfolds moving from ground-based platforms to air based ones and finally to space. Detection and deception will be the key determinants of success or failure. Phase array radars and towed decoys are the two technologies which will not only make possible the simultaneous monitoring of a great number of tracks but also provide a totally unambiguous picture if deception is desired. A great quantum of strategic literature has emerged in recent years on the possible emergence of a new RMA which will lead to over-arching changes in the nature of conventional warfare. "Such a revolution may be driven by the rapidly developing technologies of information processing and stealthy, long-range precision strikes."4 Without intending to dilute the criticality of doctrinal innovation and organisational adaptability, the impact of information technology on RMA has the potential to alter the very character of battlespaces in the conventional context. Such a defining change warrants a comprehensive examination.

Information Technology and RMA

Accurate and timely information has always been eagerly sought by armed forces and defence planners throughout history. Two thousand years ago, salience of information management was extensively articulated by the Indian thinker and military strategist, Kautilya.5 Gengiz Khan, the Mongol conqueror, was the master of employing horse cavalry in outflanking forays against enemy dispositions for vital information gathering prior to the main offensive. Today, advances in technology have made vast amounts of information virtually available at the click of a mouse.

Alvin and Heidi Toffler's theory on three waves of warfare distinguishes between agrarian, industrial and information age societies.6 They postulate that societies wage war in the same way they make money, animals and labour were the valued resources of the agricultural age; machines and fossil fuels had the same impact for the industrial age, while information would be the crucial resource of the current third wave. A new type of warfare would seek to exploit the ongoing developments in knowledge-based information age warfare so as to enable armed forces of nations to attain their politico-military objectives. The beginnings of this trend are already upon us.

In evolutionary terms, the character of war, like all other forms of complex and collective human behaviour always changed gradually. Change-cycles of the industrial age were spread over hundreds of years; there was a ring of familiarity to changes, which served as markets for the future. But the sheer pace of mutation in information technology has compressed change cycles dramatically. Also, even as politically there is a trend of reduced motivation for developing military technologies, information technology having a bearing on conflict is, ironically galloping and has "transformed economic and social life in ways that hardly need elaboration. The variety and ever expanding capabilities of intelligence gathering machines, and the ability of computers to bring together and distribute to users the masses of information from these sources, stem essentially from the information revolution. Small wonder that a group of senior marine corps officers (in the United States) are reported to have studied the operations of the New York Exchange to see how brokers absorb, process and transmit the vast quantities of perishable information that are the life-blood of the financial markets.7

The advent of top-end reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) technologies, satellites for navigation, communication and surveillance with optronics, synthetic aperture radars (that see through clouds) and sub metre resolution (perhaps now openly available) would provide military leaders with startling capabilities to garner highly accurate intelligence. India's limitations on this count, during the limited border war thrust upon her by Pakistan in Kargil during the summer of 1999, are now sought to be addressed on the highest priority. The Indian Air Force is said to have initiated a 12-day long reconnaissance campaign to identity Pakistan Army locations before effective battlefield strikes could be undertaken. Significantly, ninety percent of these technologies are really commercially driven and available off the shelf provided one is not on the wrong side of the export sanctions list! It has perhaps rightly been said that an ounce of silicon and effective information exploitation may be worth more than a ton of uranium!

Shape of Warspaces and Combat Scenario

It would not be an exaggeration to state that the RMA may well change the basic relationship between offence and defence, space and time and fire and manoeuvre. RSTA capabilities offered by the new technologies enhance situational awareness by several orders of magnitude. It has been said that the industrial revolution affected a hundred fold improvement in productivity. The micro-electronic technological transformation has enhanced productivity in informational applications perhaps by a factor of about a million. How would this impact conventional operations? Transparency of warspaces in real time, made possible by continuous control, communications computers, intelligence and interoperability (C4I2) spectrum, compresses the time factor, substantially. Time as a resource also gets transformed: there is obvious compression of time and expansion of space. War fighting in the fifth dimension of time would compel the armed forces leader to exploit the activity cycle of information, decision and action far more quickly, effectively and precisely than the adversary if he has to emerge successful. Digital situational awareness compresses detection-to-engagement or sensor-to-shooter time scales and provides opportunity to synergise employment of joint combat power of the Army, Navy and the Air Force against precisely focussed elements of the enemy's centres of gravity.

Improved information processing techniques and pattern recognition may soon provide highly effective and automated decision support systems. Combined with technologies that provide dominant battlefield knowledge, such systems offer to the military commander exactly what he seeks: a high degree of asymmetry against his adversary. "The introduction of long range precision weapons, delivered by aircraft or missile, together with the development of intelligent mines that can be actuated from a remote location means that sophisticated armies can inflict unprecedented levels of destruction on any large armoured force on the move."8 Masking large scale armoured movements or building up safe rear areas chock-a-block with ammunition dumps and truck convoys will become increasingly difficult as countries gain access to space-based reconnaissance, unmanned aerial vehicles and accurate strikes by combat aircraft. It is these techno-combat paradigmatic shifts that have placed major limitations on conduct of conventional operations and brought to the fore the concept of 'limited' border wars. Nuclear weapons in the hands of adversaries and the fear of escalation of a conventional war provide further justification to attain political objectives through limited border conflicts.

Doctrinally too RMA has a major impact. In the West, technologies have invariably tended to drive doctrine. But for developing countries, doctrines would have to fit onto available technologies until they are able to develop the same for specific military applications. Another distinct trend is that platforms like aircraft, ships, tanks and guns etc will be less reflective of military power than the quality of what it carries by way of sensors, munitions, avionic suites, communications etc. The first long-range precision strike may prove decisive as happened to the Iraqi air defence system during the Gulf War. With the growing possibility of pre-emption as an incentive, information war and sabotage of computers, and perhaps even non lethal warfare may be the new combat elements in the future.

RMA and Information Dominance

Information War is a vast subject and only a few salient issues are being addressed. As a radically new form of conflict, it is an important adjunct to RMA and implies any action taken to delay, exploit, corrupt or destroy the enemy's information and its functions and protecting own side against those actions. Each side would endeavour to shape enemy action by manipulating the flow of intelligence and information. The adversary could also be swamped with data or information he believes true, altered drastically. An overpowering success in information war would provide the side which has attained its "information dominance." There may be need to create a relative "information dominance" before one embarks on a venture against the adversary even as precautions are simultaneously in place against information overload. The latter, resulting from a desire to know everything can have a highly deleterious impact on ones decision to act towards an end result. Also, carefully selected images and information can be broadcast to targeted group of individuals-generally policy makers, opinion shapers, armed forces leadership etc. President Saddam Hussein's retreat order to his troops in 1991 and evacuation of 118 aircraft to Iran is an example of how an information campaign phase of future conflict can virtually win an entire war before the first weapon has been fired.

Not surprisingly, a Chinese analyst9 perceives a 'peoples war' in the context of information warfare being carried out by "hundreds of million of people using open-type modern information systems. He asserts that political mobilisation of war must rely on information technology to become effective, for example, by generating and distributing 'political mobilisation' software via the internet, sending patriotic e-mail messages, and setting up databases for traditional education. Openness and diffusion effect of the Internet can be expanded to help political mobilisation exert its subtle influence".

The Gulf War also demonstrated how information could be both a weapon and a target. Right at the start, 78 pre-selected command and control nodes were the first ones to be struck with missiles and bombs, and it was clear that 30 minutes later Iraqi units were shut off from higher echelons without intelligence or direction. It is more than possible that such operations in future may instead use information as a weapon and strike by means of 'computer viruses', 'logic bombs' or 'Trojan horses' bringing to the fore the question of informational vulnerabilities.

As 21st century societies become increasingly information dependent, their vulnerability to manipulation of information would also be correspondingly enhanced. Countries may choose to directly attack each others communication and computer networks through subversion rather than the traditional route of destruction. This type of warfare takes place on a level battlefield. For example, the design, development and manufacture of an advanced high technology aircraft many involve a huge investment but the production of a devastating computer virus to wreck it could be affordable even by the most impoverished government. There has to be a determination to see through the seller's gimmickry on hardware and employ non-standard communication protocols. All these are considered mandatory to ensure redundancies and minimise vulnerabilities to the extent feasible.

During the Spring '99 conflict with Yugoslavia "the Pentagon considered hacking into Serbian computer networks to disrupt military operations and basic civilian services. But it refrained from doing so…because of continuing uncertainties and limitations in the emerging field of cyberwarfare".10 The belief persisted that by penetrating computer systems that control communications, transportation, ports, airfields, energy and other services in a foreign country, cyber weapons may not only impact military operations but have the cascading effect of disrupting civilian life as well and thereby raising nettlesome, legal, ethical and practical problems. In Yugoslavia, the US defence department is said to have advised commanders to apply the same "law of war" principle to computer attacks that they do to the use of bombs and missiles. Conceptually, cyberwar is still at a nascent stage even in the United States though an Information Warfare Centre, a Battle Laboratory and a dedicated Information Warfare Squadron have already been established in its Air Force and many other such centres are in the offing.

China's efforts to develop "all conquering technology" for internet offensives against finance, commerce, telecommunications and military networks and software counter-measures in information deception addressed in an article in the Liberation Daily elicited a predictable response. Commenting on this, Richard Allen, the former National Security Adviser said "the Chinese obviously were trying to send a message…and possibly overstating their capabilities, but it indicates a potential adversary's intent."11 In another Chinese view on future warfare, Maj Gen. Wang Pufeng avers "in the information age it will be necessary not only to eliminate the enemy's war making "material base" but also to control and destroy the enemy's information systems which will be the primary assault targets. Limits of war will be expanded into outer space because the key information war systems of space monitoring positioning, guidance and communications systems will all be deployed there…Information war will shorten the time of battle, make combat more integrated, change the substance of force concentration, with precision strike and stealth being dominant. In the balance of army, naval and air force might, the ratio of army troops will decline, while that of naval and air force troops will grow."12 The Chinese assertions on RMA, heavily influenced by Western concepts, are being translated into a national priority to building up across the board missile, aircraft and ship-based power projection capabilities.

Related Challenges Ahead

High Technology and Nation States

RMA and Information War are perceived to have awesome implications for politico-military, socio-economic and cultural dimensions of nation states, more so for those in the developing world. "There is an overarching phenomenon in the international situation where technological and scientific developments are affecting the political structure of inter societal relations."13 Information revolution, speed of telecommunications and advances in satellite and laser technology with their wide ranging applications are bringing into question the permanence or likely continuity of the nation state. The offshoot is a scenario of conflict between the current pattern of nation states trying to forge strengthened relations between themselves while holding on to their geo-territorial identities." On the other hand the emerging technological forces are tending to destroy these boundaries. This would constitute a major challenge to countries, which are highly sensitive to the concept of territorial national sovereignty.

RMA and Media

There is merit in the view that Information Warfare through the widespread reach of the high technology media is a powerful force multiplier. A case in point is how the United States during the Gulf War through telematic campaign of CNN practically won over world opinion against Iraq. The world believed in what it saw through this network, as no other form of information was forthcoming. "The most outstanding feature of that conflict had nothing to do with weapons, strategy, tactics and combat skills. It has everything to do with management, news blackouts, propaganda and disinformation!14 It would appear that political and military leadership must endeavour to shape the global, regional and military environment in its favour. Simultaneously, governing elites and opinion-makers, notably in developing countries, would need to guard against opinion manipulation at the hands of influential new agencies working at the behest of powerful States.

Organisational Change

Meeting the challenge of RMA may demand substantial changes in doctrine, organisations, maintenance philosophies and most of all, attitudes. Concepts and organisational structures for exploitation of RMA cannot be imported, these would need to emanate from within as the inevitable move towards greater use of high technologies takes place. Qualities of independent thinking, creativity and innovation need to be inculcated and encouraged with far more vigour than before. For armed forces of developing countries like India, a far more widespread training and education with the focus on faster transition to a new high technology mindset may be a vital necessity. China is reported to have organised many dedicated task forces of hundreds of experts, armed forces specialists and technologists towards this objective.

Leadership Challenge

The new technologies present a great dilemma: real time horizontal and vertical connectivity could offer temptations to centralise leadership. In contrast, information networks lend themselves to flatter structures. Therefore, primacy of hierarchy in military affairs may require to be modified and replaced with a new command culture. Layers of middle management may need to be removed in the armed forces. Not surprisingly, there is even talk in many countries to do away with the concept of the traditional Army Division. The nature of command itself may need a fresh look in the years ahead as RMA will bring to the fore missile warfare experts, electronic warfare specialists and the so-called space warriors—none of them combat specialists in the traditional sense. Some percentage of them at a later stage would perhaps be women. This may compel a fresh look at operational employment and career progression profiles.


A revolution, Mao Ze Dong is once said to have written" is not the same as inviting people to dinner, or writing an essay or painting a picture. It is nothing so refined." Mao was thinking of class warfare but the revolution in military affairs is equally unrefined, as harnessing on-going revolutionary changes in information technologies to warfare on land, at sea and in the air would be the foremost challenge. Sweeping away the idea of war being fought at a recognisable front-line these technologies potentially blend land, sea and air power to create warspaces that stretch backwards and forward in space and time. Warspaces would be dominated by real time information, instant communications, on-line command and control, lethal long range precision strikes and dramatically fast changing situations. In compressed decision cycles, information dominance may perhaps be as crucial an objective as air superiority or favourable air situation has continued to be for decades.



1. William A Owens, "Introduction to Dominant Battle—space Knowledge: The Winning Edge", edited by Stuart E Johnson and Martin C Libicki (Washington: National Defence University Press, 1995), pp. 3-17 quoted in "Thinking About Revolutions in Military Affairs", Joint Forces Quarterly Summer 1997, p. 104.

2. Ibid., p. 105.

3. James R Fitzsimonds and Jan M. Van Tol in their essay "Revolution in Military Affairs" (Joint Forces Quarterly, Spring 1994 p. 91.) have succinctly summarised the three preconditions for RMA to attain full realisation.

4. Ibid., p. 93.

5. Kautilya, 'Arthashashtra' edited and translated by LN Rangarajan (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1987) p.p. 497-501.

6. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, "War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of 21st Century" (New York: Warner Books, 1995).

7. Eliot A Cohen, "A Revolution in Warfare," Foreign Affairs March/April, 1999, p. 43.

8. Ibid., p. 44

9. Wei Jincheng, "New Form of People's War", Liberation Army Daily, June 25, 1996, p. 6.

10. Bradley Graham, "Cyberwar: Pandora's Box", International Herald Tribune, November 4, 1999.

11. "China's Internet Warfare Plans Worry US", The Indian Express, November 21, 1999.

12. Major General Wang Pufeng, "Chinese Views of Future Warfare, Part Four: The Challenge of Info War" http:www.

13. JN Dixit "Challenges from the Geo-Strategic Environment", Proceedings of a Seminar on "Command and Staff Challenges in the 21st Century" held at Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, (India) April 14-15, 1998, p. 1.

14. Air Marshal VK Bhatia, "Expected Salient Changes in the Land, Sea and Air War". See Proceedings of Seminar at Note 13 above, p. 61.