May 062008

It is indeed intriguing that a phenomenon that began in the eighties with the information technology revolution and has helped configure the US and other advanced militaries should, despite its costs, come up short in tackling the changed nature of the battlefield

The late eighties saw the emergence of what has come to be known as RMA (revolution in military affairs). The concept was, and remains, underpinned by the communications revolution and linked to technological and organisational changes and synergy.

Interestingly, the first soldier to identify this as the next step for the United States military and, by extension the threat it offered to the Soviet Union, was the Chief of the General Staff of the USSR, Nikolai Vasilievich Ogarkov (1977-84).

Marshal Ogarkov was concerned over the US military’s superiority in information technology and argued for increased defence spending in view of the upcoming military technical revolution (MTR). He was fired!

Broadly, RMA brings into harmony four features: precision targeting and standoff strike capabilities; dramatically improved command, control and communication capability which integrates the four levels — political, strategic, theatre and tactical — connecting the last two specifically through real-time data sharing; information warfare and, finally, non-lethality.

The fourth feature assumes that a force operating on the basis of such capabilities will be able to overcome the adversary without the kind of indiscriminate bombing the allies had to resort to in WWII against German and Japanese cities.

In some ways the US Iraq war plan, codenamed “Shock and Awe”, was underscored by these RMA features. The concept was based on a 1996 paper written by Harlan K Ullman and James P Wade (principal authors) and put out by the National Defence University Press.

The paper attempted to “explore alternative concepts for restructuring mission capability packages (MCPs)” and argued for “rapid dominance” to “impact the operational environment at all levels — tactical, strategic, political and, even, cultural” (see Ejaz Haider, “Tactical win, strategic loss”; The Friday Times; April 4-10, 2003; Vol XV, No 6).

The emergence of the concept of integrating technologies to enhance military capabilities is important to flag, in continuation of our argument that militaries trained and equipped to fight industrial, inter-state wars cannot, to use Rupert Smith’s phrase, fight among the people.

It is indeed intriguing that a phenomenon that began in the eighties with the information technology revolution and has helped configure the US and other advanced militaries should, despite its costs, come up short in tackling the changed nature of the battlefield.

When the US military went into its two recent wars — Afghanistan and Iraq — its equipment, organisational structure, war-fighting manuals and its entire approach to battle was based on the RMA features. To use Barry Posen’s phrase, it was unprepared for the “contested zone” even as it commanded the “commons”. And in the contested zone the adversary (and here the nature of the adversary has changed) relies on tactics that serve to blunt the technological superiority of an advanced military.

Posen argued: “The closer US military forces get to enemy-held territory, the more competitive the enemy will be. This arises from a combination of political, physical, and technological facts. These facts combine to create a contested zone — arenas of conventional combat where weak adversaries have a good chance of doing real damage to US forces (“Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of US Hegemony”; International Security, 2003).

It should be clear that as part of the paradigm of industrial, inter-state war, states with deeper pockets, the US being the world leader, have been moving from the labour- to the capital-intensive model.

This situation also helps states that comprise what Edward N Luttwak described as “post-heroic” societies (Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace) to maintain military supremacy without having to expose forces to the hazards of combat. If securing the force is an important political compulsion, as Smith concedes in his book, and if it can be equipped with weapon systems and platforms that can perpetrate violence through precision targeting and standoff capability then RMA would make eminent sense.

Only, while this may be helpful in destroying the adversary’s military capabilities (when the adversary is also fighting a conventional war — Iraqi army being a case in point in both Gulf Wars), it does not mean much when boots need to be put on the ground, when the front having fallen the entire country becomes a rear, when the adversary cannot be identified, when anyone can be a combatant, when internal lines of communication and kinship bonds work to the advantage of the insurgent who can move from the sanctuary to the preparation area to the operational area with relative ease, both in spatial and temporal senses, and when the contest relies on basic infantry weapons and tactics.

At such a moment, the nature of war changes. Militaries, still being employed in pursuit of a strategic objective, are required to fight at sub-strategic levels; the lines between the zones of peace and combat blur and disappear and soldiers have to fight never-ending wars.

Rupert Smith’s identification of six features of this new, irregular war are a good starting point for rethinking the entire concept of war-fighting and, of course, on that basis restructuring the forces as well as reviewing strategic objectives.

Smith says: The ends for which we fight are changing; we fight among the people; our conflicts tend to be timeless; we fight so as not to lose the force rather than fighting by using the force at any cost to achieve the aim; on each occasion new uses are found for old weapons; and finally, the sides are mostly non-state.

Smith is of course looking at the issue in terms of force projection. How, if at all, can western armies achieve the strategic objectives set for them by their governments? Those objectives can range from promoting democracy to peace-keeping to changing threatening regimes etc.

In a way, except for peace-keeping which can embroil even armies from such states as Pakistan (with the largest contribution to UN peace-keeping operations), India and Bangladesh, the other strategic objectives I have mentioned are essentially related to powerful states undertaking offensive military operations against weaker states or against non-state actors within failed states.

That is of course a problem of states with global outreach. But the issue of the changing nature of warfare becomes pressing even for states that are sucked into a conflict created by stronger states, Afghanistan and the turmoil in the tribal areas being one such example.

On both sides of the Durand Line we have armies created, trained, equipped and organised to fight inter-state wars; on both sides they are failing. This article began with RMA, a revolution that, despite its hi-tech potential, may have failed in the face of new realities where the strategic objective is being contested at sub-strategic levels. That requires a different force structure and a different approach to utilising force.

(For more info on MTR/RMA, see for instance, Steven Metz, James Kievit, Strategy and the Revolution in Military Affairs: From Theory to Policy; Michael J. Mazarr, Jeffrey Shaffer, and Benjamin Ederington, The Military Technical Revolution: A Structural Framework, final report of the CSIS Study Group on the MTR, Washington, DC: Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 1993; and UNIDIR publication, Disarmament Forum, “(R)evolution in Military Affairs”, 2001 no. 4, among other literature.)

Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and Consulting Editor of The Friday Times. This is the second of a three-part series. He can be reached at

Courtesy: Daily Times, 6/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:23 pm

Leave a Reply

en English
%d bloggers like this: