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«Chapter Four AN INFORMATION-BASED REVOLUTION IN MILITARY AFFAIRS* Major Norman C. Davis, USMC The world is on the cusp of an epochal shift from an ...»

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Chapter Four



Major Norman C. Davis, USMC

The world is on the cusp of an epochal shift from an industrial- to an

information-based society. History demonstrates that changes of

this magnitude do not occur without being accompanied by fundamental change in the way war is conducted.1 This “Information

Revolution” is a product of advances in computerized information

and telecommunications technologies and related innovations in management and organizational theory.

Today, rapid and far-reaching changes are occurring in how information is collected, stored, processed, and disseminated, and in how organizations are designed to take advantage of this increased availability of information. 2 The Information Revolution is setting in motion forces that challenge the design of many institutions. It disrupts the hierarchies around which modern institutions—particularly military institutions—traditionally have been designed. It diffuses and redistributes power, often to the benefit of those that once may have been considered lesser actors. These changes will inevitably have a profound impact on the means and ends of armed conflict.3 *Norman Davis, “An Information-Based Revolution in Military Affairs,” Strategic Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 43–53. U.S. Strategic Institute. Used by permission.

80 In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age


Following the Persian Gulf War, many authors focused on the impressive array of high-technology weapons that allowed the U.S.-led coalition to overwhelm the world’s fourth largest army in a remarkably short time. They used this conflict as evidence that a MilitaryTechnical Revolution (MTR) had occurred.4 Unfortunately, use of the term MTR denotes an inordinate emphasis on the importance of technology at the expense of other elements of revolutionary change.5 For this reason, revolution in military affairs (RMA) is the preferable term as it places the focus on the revolution, and implicitly assigns technology a supporting role.


There are, by definition, significant differences between evolutionary and revolutionary change. In the security context, these differences

can be described as follows:

Evolution is the logical progression of an existing system or framework, while revolution connotes a fundamental break with precedent.... Performance improvements which signal tactical revolutions very rarely justify revolution at the operational or strategic level. A truly revolutionary strategic development alters perceptions of the relationship of means to ends and, most importantly, dictates a reformulation of warfighting doctrine—the codified precepts that govern [military] operations.6 Accordingly, revolutions are not merely more clever technological (or organizational) breakthroughs than ordinary evolutionary innovations; these revolutions are more profound in both their sources and implications.7 They involve fundamental discontinuities, i.e., dramatic breaks with the existing status quo. It is important to recognize that a revolution is not simply an existential condition—i.e., created simply by the appearance of new technological capabilities.

Without recognition and exploitation, both requiring positive action, there can be no revolution. Creating a revolution is, therefore, more than pushing the limits of military technology; it is an active process that requires effective adaptation by individuals and organizations for successful exploitation to occur.8 An Information-Based Revolution in Military Affairs 81 Implications of a revolutionary new technology are often not widely recognized at first. Frequently, organizations try to fit the innovative technology into established ways of doing things, and these innovations are expected to prove themselves in terms of existing measures of effectiveness.9 It may take time to realize that inserting new technology into old systems and organizations may create new inefficiencies, even as some current activities become more efficient or effective. It may take even more time to realize that the activity itself—in both its operational and organizational dimensions—should be restructured, even transformed, to realize the full potential of the new technology.10 Truly revolutionary developments often do not merely enhance the ability to fulfill existing missions, but rather are best suited to perform new functions or meet previously unidentified requirements.

Unless, however, these new functions are captured in the accepted methods of assessment, innovative developments may not appear to offer significant operational enhancements. Thus, as the environment is changed by revolutionary innovation, the old measures of effectiveness may no longer be appropriate to measure the new modes of operation, and may no longer be relevant to altered objectives. 11 With revolutionary military innovation, fundamental change to the existing warfighting paradigm is guaranteed.


While the notion of periodic and fundamental change in the conduct of war is not a new one, the systematic study of technology’s impact on war is a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps the definitive

work on the subject is Martin van Creveld’s Technology and War:

From 2000 B.C. to the Present. In this book, van Creveld divides military history into four eras: the “Age of Tools,” the “Age of the Machine,” the “Age of Systems,” and the “Age of Automation.”12 This is not to suggest that there have not been significant changes in the conduct of war within these eras—these certainly have occurred— but rather is intended to provide a conceptual framework for exploration of the subject.

During the “Age of Tools,” which lasted until approximately 1500 A.D., most technology was driven primarily by energy from the muscles of men and animals. Following the appearance of a few basic inIn Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age ventions (e.g., bronze and iron weapons, the stirrup, and wheeled vehicles), for the two millennia up to c. 1500 A.D. technological change had remarkably little impact on how wars were fought.

The overarching trend during the “Age of the Machine” was toward the requirement for progressively greater professional skills which led to a growing demand for harnessing military potential in an increasingly organized, even institutionalized, manner. The art of war in the “Age of the Machine” was perfected by Napoleon’s France, which harnessed, for the first time, the vast resources of a newly industrializing nation to equip and support a mass army. This revolution coincided with three other significant upheavals: a political revolution that led to the rise of the republican nation-state; a socioeconomic upheaval resulting from the Agricultural Revolution; and economic changes produced by the spread of the Industrial Revolution to France. The “nation in arms”—the levée en masse— enabled the conduct of military operations across vast distances and marked the start of a continuing trend toward the substitution of firepower mass for manpower mass in warfare. 13 In the “Age of Systems,” the emphasis shifted to the integration of technology into complex networks, with the individual elements of technology becoming integrated with the other elements, first by the railway, then the telegraph, and then through other increasingly complex technologies. This era culminated in World War II with the innovative application of mechanization, aviation, and communications technology to military use in the Blitzkrieg, which enabled the German army to re-introduce the strategic and operational mobility, maneuver, and initiative that were conspicuously absent from the Western Front during World War I. 14 The importance of systems has taken a further leap forward since

1945. According to van Creveld, the unifying theme of this era is not nuclear technology, as one might expect, but rather the “Age of Automation.” The real story of the post–World War II era is that “... the cardinal result of the invention of invention, and the accelerated pace of technological innovation, was a vast increase in the amount of information needed to ‘run’ any military unit, make any decision, carry out any mission, conduct any operation, campaign, or war.”15 The increase in the amount of information that must be digested for these purposes has become so overwhelming that only the automaAn Information-Based Revolution in Military Affairs 83 tion, usually the computerization, of the information gathering and distributing process has permitted military headquarters to keep pace with the expanded volume of data.

In each of these cases, revolutionary change in the conduct of war required the introduction or maturation of new military technologies (e.g., the internal combustion engine and armor), their integration into new military systems (e.g., the tank and the intercontinental ballistic missile), the adoption of appropriate operational concepts (e.g., the armored breakthrough and strategic bombing), and, finally, the requisite organizational adaptation (e.g., the Panzer division and the Strategic Rocket Forces). Technology alone is not sufficient to produce a military revolution; how military organizations adapt and shape new technology, military systems, and operational concepts is much more important.


The Information Revolution is based primarily on significant technological advances that have increased our ability to collect vast quantities of precise data; to convert that data into intelligible information by removing extraneous “noise”; to rapidly and accurately transmit this large quantity of information; to convert this information through responsive, flexible processing into near-complete situational awareness; and, at the limit, to allow accurate predictions of the implications of decision that may be made or actions that may be taken.16 This revolution, and the change to a post-industrial world,17 also seems to imply significant changes not only for the means of warfare, but for its objectives as well.

The Information Revolution is also having an impact on organizations of all kinds as traditional hierarchies are increasingly being replaced by amorphous networks. While institutions are traditionally built around hierarchies and seek to act autonomously, multi-organizational networks consist of often small organizations, sub-elements of existing institutions, and even individuals that have been linked together—often on an ad hoc basis. The Information Revolution favors the growth of such networks by making it possible for diverse, dispersed actors to communicate, coordinate, and operate together across greater distances and on the basis of more timely and higher quality information than ever before possible.18 84 In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age


The desire to substitute firepower for manpower, or what General Van Fleet during the Korean War termed the desire “to expend fire and steel, not men,”19 has been a focus of U.S. defense policy for many decades. This basic American value led ultimately to an effort to develop a new way of waging war that depended less and less on quantitative material superiority and attrition to ensure victory.

Conceived in the 1970s, this approach was part of what former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown called the “offset strategy,” which was based on the need to counter the overwhelming quantitative superiority of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. The aim was not simply to field better weapons than the Soviet Union; rather, the offset strategy was intended to give American weapons a systems advantage by supporting them on the battlefield in a manner that greatly multiplied their combat effectiveness.20 The Soviets recognized and appreciated the potential impact of these technological developments and the resultant change in American strategy. This appreciation was developed in concepts first put forward in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the series of papers by Soviet Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, including his seminal 1982 paper.21 Ogarkov worried about how to conduct decisive operations in the European theater, a theater that was dense with heavily-armored mechanized forces and supported by tactical and theater nuclear force on both sides. His concern was that, by the early 1980s, the U.S. may have solved its strategic problem by synthesizing new technologies, evolving military systems, operational innovation, and organizational adaptation into a whole that was more powerful than the parts.

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