The Revolution in Military Affairs: 4-Dimensional Warfare

-Ajay Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA


The revolution in military affairs (RMA) debate has been quite intense amongst military and academic specialists concerned with military affairs. There is a strong belief that there is an RMA taking place in the world, particularly in the technologically advanced military forces. A common theory put forward ascribed the origin of the RMA debate to Russsian writings, in particular those of Marshal N. V. Ogarkov on a military-technology revolution in the early 1980s, thereby giving the RMA a technical colour. This was natural as much of these writings referred to the impact of modern technologies on the battlefield. Soviet literature in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that the use of technologies such as those for reconnaissance could enable destruction bordering on annihilation of armoured formations at depths of hundreds of kilometres in periods less than an hour.1 These writings, which had been translated by Americans in the mid-1980s, suggested that a new era of warfare had dawned wherein conventional weapons would have the military effects of tactical weapons, without the side effects of nuclear explosions. This military-technical revolution as visualised by the Soviets did not find willing acceptance in the West till the Gulf War of 1991, which saw the virtual collapse of Iraqi military power. This war also enhanced the notion that weapons of war that were high technology, high cost, and, hence, less in numbers were more effective. The quality versus quantity balance shifted significantly towards the former, which has continued to be reinforced through statistical data regarding such weapons being quoted since the war. The post-Gulf War period has seen an amalgamation of the military-technical revolution theory and the high-tech war approach to form what is now a highly discussed subject, although not as clearly understood, and is termed as the RMA.

Part of the current debate about the RMA looks at the RMA from a "system of systems" approach, and perhaps the most well known in the West is Admiral William Owens, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US. The system of systems approach is heavily draped in high technology weapon and surveillance systems of the battlefield and focusses on the integration of three sets of technologies that relate to precision strikes, communications, and sensors on the battlefield.2 The system of systems approach is pegged on the application of information technologies to warfare with a view to integrate or network existing and emerging technologies that can look, shoot, and communicate. This interpretation of the RMA is the one most frequently articulated by Americans, who believe that given the military's superior technological capabilities and if the integration of the system of systems is accomplished, the US should be able to achieve "dominant battlefieldd knowledge" over any 200 mile by 200 mile area of the earth's surface, and consequently victory over any opponent.

Another perspective of the current RMA sees it as being characterised by four types of changes: precise stand-off strikes, dramatically improved command, control, and intelligence, information warfare and non-lethal warfare.3 There are some similarities between this and the system of systems approach, with the addition of information warfare and non-lethality. There is a fair amount of debate that has been generated about information warfare and some see information warfare as a system of existing systems itself. In essence, there is not much difference between the incorporation of information technology in warfare and information warfare as far as the military commander in the battlefield is concerned. Non-lethality, on the other hand, relates to a range of new technologies that through design (and employment) are aimed at reducing casualties and collateral damage (both manpower and material) and are visualised to find increasing use in low intensity conflict situations. There are other variations of the interpretation regarding the current RMA as well, and some analysts even question whether an RMA is indeed taking place (which also follows the natural reaction to any revolution). Every action has an equal and opposite reaction according to Newton and it may be said that every revolution has an anti-revolution movement. In order to understand the subject and view it in the correct perspective, there is a need to define what constitutes an RMA at the outset.


The ultimate aim of any military commander in war is victory over the enemy's forces. While this victory might be achieved in different ways, the essence of military endeavour is the creation of asymmetries in capabilities and action. These asymmetries can be created as a result of differentials in technology, doctrine, or organisation, either singly or as a combination. Throughout history, there have been technological innovations in the military sphere that have changed the methods of war-fighting to varying degrees such as with the invention of the crossbow, stirrup, gunpowder, etc. The Industrial Revolution increased the pace and intensity of war that led to greater lethality and also to the industrialisation of war. The tank was introduced in World War I and it included the elements of firepower and mobility in a single vehicle but the impact was only felt two decades later in World War II when combat became more violent and rapid. Although there were changes in methods of war-fighting with such weapon systems, they were basically only deeper shades of the evolution that takes place in any activity including warfare, and, therefore, would at its maximum be more accurately termed as micro-revolutions. A revolution in military affairs, on the other hand, occurs when there are essential changes in the nature of war requiring reassessment of the way we think, plan and conduct warfare. In other words, an RMA alters the very nature of the way war is conducted.

Over the years, the micro-revolutions, most of which have been driven by technology, have increased the mobility or firepower (or both) in a manner that led to a dynamic relationship between time and space on the battlefield . While time and space have been traded in battle for centuries, with the passage of years, increasing firepower and mobility had led to an expansion of space and compression of time on the battlefield. Although the expansion of space and compression of time have been inter-related, the degree of change in magnitude has not been a direct relationship or zero-sum game. While spatial expansion directly affected the military forces (and civil population) by enlarging the scope of the battlefield, the pace of warfare did not change to a similar degree and, therefore, military forces were hardly affected by whatever compression of time took place. Though time increasingly became an important consideration, it was rarely critical in war. The emphasis was more on the timing of operations than the timeliness of operations which had more to do with the strategic aspects of undertaking military operations at a certain stage rather than attempting to undertake operations in short time-frames. In fact, the timing of operations was largely dependent on the time of the year as technology did not allow anything more than that . The concept of time in war basically related to the need for effecting surprise and avoiding being surprised.

Despite the numerous micro-revolutions that took place, the underlying fundamental that war was fought in two dimensions of breadth and length and required the forces of one nation to defeat those of another to impose its will, did not change till the advent of air power in the early part of this century. With air power, warfare was lifted into the third dimension (of height or elevation) and together with it the potential for creation of asymmetry in this dimension. Although a gap existed between technology and expectations arising out of air power doctrines in the early years, this was overcome, and it became possible to target a nation and its will directly without the hitherto pre-requisite of having to engage the surface forces. The advent of air power constituted an RMA that shifted the centre of gravity of military activity to the third dimension. The early recognition of the RMA of the third dimension and its impact on warfare can actually be traced to the last century, when the aerial bombardment from Austrian balloons during the siege of Venice in 1849 led to calls for a permanent ban "on the discharge of any kind of projectile or explosive from balloons or by similar means" at The Hague in 1899.4 Around the same time, J.D. Fullerton of the British Army's Royal Engineers spoke of a "revolution in the art of war" while referring to the significance of the third dimension.5

While air power may not have won wars by itself, no major war could be won without air power, and, therefore, the third dimension consituted a revolution in warfare. Air power expanded the battlefield further while compressing time by virtue of its speed, reach and destructive capability. Compared to the existing methods of warfare, air power led to far greater compression of time and expansion of space primarily due to the higher mobility that resulted from employment of aerial systems. The inclusion of space into military activities in the third dimension enhanced the options available to military commanders in exploitation of the time-space paradigm. More specifically, if one were to identify what was the actual RMA, then it may be surmised that it was, in fact the exploitation of the third dimension in warfare that represented the true character of the RMA. In this equation, air power represents the tool for exploitation of the third dimension.

Information-Decision-Action Cycle

The basic element of military activity on the battlefield is the Information-Decision-Action (IDA) cycle, and it would be useful to guage the impact of the RMA of the third dimension on this cycle. The information part of the cycle is carried out by sensors and associated systems responsible for generation of information. This activity is followed by decision and action, in a cyclical fashion till the specific activity is completed. An activity might require more than one cycle for completion or a number of cycles before the action reaches finality. The probability of a single-cycle task is very low, considering that some cycle overrun would be needed for a reasonable degree of task achievement. The objective should be to complete the IDA cycle as economically as possible.


This basic cycle can be looked at in many ways, ranging from the physical resources required for each stage of the cycle to the planning and doctrinal aspects. One way to view this cycle is in terms of time needed for completion of the cycle. In that context, the size of the IDA cycle would represent the magnitude of time required for achieving a particular task. The smaller the cycle, the greater is the compression of time, or the faster is the completion of the IDA cycle. It needs to be kept in mind that each segment of the IDA will have its own sub-cycle that elapses before the specific segment (information, decision, or action) is completed allowing transition to the subsequent segments of the IDA cycle. The time taken for the entire IDA cycle would, therefore, be the sum total of all these sub-cycle timings together with the transition time from one segment to another .

Time-Space Paradigm

The technological advancements in aerial vehicles and weapons that moved warfare into an envelope made up of high accuracy of force application and high speed of warfare in turn led to compression of time on the battlefield. It is important to note that the time compression essentially took place in the action segment of the cycle as it shrunk the time required to deliver weapons on targets compared to the surface forces by virtue of greater mobility and accuracy. Greater mobility translated into greater reach and better accuracy meant that the number of attacks (and hence time) required to destroy a target reduced. In fact, the rationale of precision guided munitions that are delivered by airborne platforms may be linked to the time dimension, though they also reduce the exposure of own forces to the enemy's defensive weapon systems. The employment of sensors for reconnaissance and surveillance in the third dimension certainly reduced time in the information segment as well, but this did not contribute to time compression by itself . The reduction in time required to gather, analyse, and disseminate information reduced by employing sensors in the third dimension essentially because of the fact that the transport time needed to deploy these sensors to cover areas far away reduced. The overall IDA cycle did undergo compression, but not to critical values that would push warriors to their limits.

The technologies of weapons and vehicles of air power are being developed in a manner that will continue to shorten time cycles for action along with the other segments of IDA. In fact, a significant portion of technological progress being made in the military sphere deals with reconnaisance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) systems. The employment of RSTA technologies is moving warfare further towards greater utilisation of aeriel (including space) assets for gathering of information, greater range of striking power through long-range offensive systems, and higher accuracy through availability of better target information. It is useful to remember, however, that RSTA technologies gather information and this information requires filtering, analysing, and dissemination to the users through communications technologies. If viewed holistically, then RSTA with communications give military forces the ability to locate targets with accuracy, carry out designation and cueing of weapon systems that significantly enhances combat power. The impact of RSTA on the battlefield is not very different from the system of systems approach that is part of the current RMA debate. Actually, RSTA and communication technologies are a sub-set of the area that falls under information technologies. Although airborne sensors have been used effectively in the past, a more recent example was the Bekaa Valley conflict of 1982 where the Israeli armed forces achieved a high degree of favourable asymmetry in the opening stages itself. At a larger scale, the Gulf War of 1991 saw the use of RSTA and communication technologies that multipled the combat power of the allies while degrading that of the Iraqis. The use of these technologies in this war led to far greater compression of time than before and to that extent, this war may be seen as an overlap in which signs of a new RMA emerged.6

The world is witnessing an Information Revolution that many ascribe as being the new revolution after the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. Most technologies of information have a dual use, that is, for both the civil and military spheres. The military, of course, is dealing with a higher level of sophistication and specialisation of systems. The impact of information technologies on warfare promises to make a big difference to the nature of the future war. Each





2-D warfare 3-D warfare 4-D warfare






part of the IDA cycle requires information technology in one form or another, whether for information processing, decision making or action. In fact, information technologies operate in all segments of the IDA cycle as catalysts since they hasten the individual segments, which in turn leads to dramatic compression of time. This is particularly true of the information and decision segments, which rely heavily on information systems and, therefore, stand to benefit most from advances in information technology or the Information Revolution. The application of these technologies to the military sphere promises delivery of more accurate and timely information to users on the battlefield than before. It may be useful to note that at the heart of the advances in information technology is the microprocessor that has made two basic aspects possible. One is that the speed of processing information has increased exponentially leading to shortening of time cycles. The second aspect is that small size (and cost) allows it to be incorporated in practically all battlefield weapons systems and sensors, making widespread use possible . The net result of these two aspects is that the pace of information processing and decision making has increased tremendously at all levels of warfare.

Time cycles are being compressed to critical levels that challenge not only military commanders, but all those who are in the loop for application of military force, from the political leadership to the soldier on the front. The pace of war no longer allows slow and deliberate interpretation of inputs before reaching decisions. There is no time for detailed appreciation of a situation to be carried out before taking a decision and acting upon it. On the one hand, information technology is an enabling tool for conducting warfare more effectively and efficiently, but, on the other, it also reduces the reaction time for action. An example is the impact of satellite television broadcasts that may force political leaders into acting much faster than would be the case if the report were to come in through traditional sources. With reduction in reaction time for action, action needs to be seen in the context of time, in that it is has become more time-critical and time-sensitive than ever before. At the same time, information, which is really the means for an end, has also been affected in a similar manner. It is not sufficient having information, but it is in fact critical to have timely (and accurate) information. Delayed information leads to delayed decision, which in turn leads to delayed action, the sum of which is sub-optimal military activity.

The Fourth Dimension

The expansion of space and reduction/compression of time on the battlefield may be represented graphically to indicate the impact of the RMAs of the third and fourth dimensions. Over the years, the expansion of space and reduction of time in warfare was on account of micro-revolutions, and war was confined to two dimensions. The advent of air power ushered in three-dimensional warfare and with it greater expansion of space and compression of time. This constituted an RMA that changed the way war was fought. The introduction of information technology in warfare will lead to much greater compression of time and with it the ability to manipulate this compression. The heightened importance of time in warfare has brought in a new RMA that necessitates thinking, planning and conducting warfare in four dimensions—length, breadth, elevation, and time.

The fourth dimension represents the true RMA that we are witnessing. Although time has always been an important factor in war, it is the incorporation of information technology in warfare that has led to time attaining crucial importance. In fact, just as air power technologies ushered in the third dimension as an RMA, information technologies are giving shape to the RMA of the fourth dimension, which is time. Air power allowed exploitation of the third dimension, and it may be expected that information technologies will be instrumental in exploitation of the fourth dimension.While the recognition of time as the new dimension of war may satisfy the war theorist, the commander on the battlefield needs to create asymmetries that translate into victory. The advent of the fourth dimension in warfare also brings along the possibility of creation of asymmetries in this dimension that could prove to be decisive, in the manner in which creation of asymmetries in the third dimension was decisive. It is with exploitation of the time factor and creation of asymmetries in time cycles, therefore, that the real worth of the RMA will be realised.

The manipulation of time with the idea of creating an asymmetry might be understood by reference to differential IDA cycles.








In operations of the fourth dimension, the aim must be to reduce the time taken for one's own IDA cycles to the bare minimum practicable within the limits of the technological and human factors for management of information, decision and action. This can be done by reducing each of the segments (in terms of time) and it needs reinforcement that each segment will have its own sub-cycle, the sum total of the IDA cycle being the sum of individual sub-cycles and transition time between the segments. While this would maximise one's effectiveness, what is really needed is a relative advantage over the adversary. From that angle, efforts should be made to slow down the adversary's IDA cycle by targetting the weak links in the cycle. Concurrently, efforts should be made or rather care taken that enemy action does not affect one's own time cycles.

Of the three segments of the IDA cycle, while information gives the maximum time compression, the flip side is that it also opens the largest window of vulnerability to enemy actions. The denial, manupulation, degradation, or disruption of information can lead to time dilation or even a timeless situation for the adversary to the extent that the rest of the cycle becomes irrelevant. An example is the action taken by the coalition forces against Iraqi forces in the Gulf War of 1991, where the Iraqis were virtually denied any meaningful information within the time-frame of the war, and therefore, they could not take appropriate decisions or actions, even though other components of military power were available. This attack on the information segment is also known as information warfare, which may be seen as contributing to the dimension, either positively or negatively. The other segments of decision and action may be also be targetted with the idea of introducing asymmetries in the cycle of IDA, but the promise appears to be greatest in the information segment.

A concept that needs comprehension is that of friction and its use in warfare. The contribution of Clausewitz in identifying friction in warfare was perhaps his greatest one. But even he may not have realised the value of his postulation once time could be manipulated in war. Clausewitz had explained that friction in war arose from (besides other factors) uncertainty and misinformation. Some contemporary theorists who identify the RMA as arising out of technologies that make the battlefield transparent are of the view that Clausewitzian friction is a thing of the past, and will not be a factor in future war. This is only partly true, and can be clearly understood if we look at the concept in the light of the RMA caused by the fourth dimension.

If the battlefield can be made transparent, and, therefore, situational awareness (SA) increased, the reverse should also be accepted as possible. The battlefield will continue to give opportunities to create fog (reduced SA) for the enemy, and, therefore, fog and friction will remain, albeit in a more relative sense than before. While adversaries may strive for reducing the absolute level of fog and friction, what will be crucial is the relative level of fog and friction. To exploit the RMA of time, the aim should be to create relative friction vis-a-vis the adversary where his level of friction is higher than one's own. Another point that needs to be borne in mind is that fog and friction are not directly related. While high fog means high friction, lesser fog will not automatically mean lesser friction. When de-fogging operations are carried out and a low fog situation achieved, it results in high SA. This situation of high SA can in fact be linked to either end of the friction spectrum. The linkage is dependent on the factor of time in warfare. It is possible to have high SA, but if it is achieved at a late stage in war or battle, then there are practically no options available, and this leads to high friction. An example is that of fighter crews shot down by enemy fighters who became aware of their attacker just before they were shot, but were too late to take defensive action. They had high SA during the final moments but also high friction. 7 On the other hand, if high SA is attained early enough, then there will be low friction, and greater number of options. This only reinforces the criticality of time in warfare. From this flows an issue of strategic importance, which is that if degradation of SA is looked at from the point of view of the fourth dimension and applied early in conflict, the pay-offs are much geater. The targetting of Saddam's IDA cycle in the early hours of the Gulf War is an example, where high friction rendered his response totally ineffective.



1. Eliot A. Cohen, "American View of the Revolution in Military Affairs" Advanced Technology and Future Warfare, (Ramat Gan: BESA Security and Policy Studies, Bar-IIan University, November 28, 1996, p 3.

2. Ibid., p. 5.

3. See Steve Metz and James Kievit, Strategy and the Revolution in Military Affairs: From Theory to Policy, (Carlisle Barracks: US Army War College, 1995).

4. Jasjit Singh, "Evolution of Politico-Military Doctrines," in Jasjit Singh and Vatroslav Vekaric, ed., Non-Provocative Defence, (New Delhi: Lancer Press, 1990), pp. 17-18.

5. David Maclsaac, "Voices From the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists," in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton University Press, 1986, p. 627.

6. Ajay Singh, "Time : The New Dimension in War", Joint Forces Quarterly, (Washington D.C: National Defense University, Winter 1995-96), p 59.

7. Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, (Washington D.C.: National Defense University, 1996), pp. 94-95.