History is replete with examples of revolutions in military affairs, or RMAs, the name for changes in warfare wrought by a combination of technological breakthroughs, organizational adaptations, and doctrinal innovations that lead to new and more effective methods of conducting military operations. Examples include the adoption of firearms and the socket bayonet, which when combined with linear infantry formations, overcame the armored knight and unwieldy formations of archers and pikemen of the early modern era; the dreadnaught battleship revolution in the early twentieth century, which briefly revolutionized sea warfare until surpassed by carrier aviation several decades later; and the adoption of armored combat vehicles and motorized combined arms formations that made “blitzkrieg” a household word during World War II. Militaries that have adopted and perfected these revolutions have won impressive victories, at least until their adversaries copied their methods and evened the playing field once again.
For the past 75 years a new revolution in military affairs has unfolded, one that has featured guided munitions coupled with sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Although in the popular imagination the Gulf War of 1991 was the debut for precision guided munitions, in fact they were part of the battlefield at least as early as 1943, when a German radio-guided bomb, the Fritz X, heavily damaged the U.S. Navy cruiser Savannah off the coast of Salerno. Since then tens of thousands of radio, radar, laser, and GPS guided munitions have been dropped in combat, altering battlefields spanning the globe, from Vietnam to Kuwait and from Kosovo to Iraq. Advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems have made drone warfare an effective military tool, at least in areas bereft of effective air defense systems. The United States as well as its NATO and Pacific Rim allies has fully embraced guided munitions, and Russia and China have likewise developed sophisticated technologies in this regard. Although organizational and doctrinal adaptation has lagged behind technological evolution, there is little doubt but that the information-precision RMA, although it still has room to run, is getting long in the tooth.
The question is what comes next? Predicting the next great leap forward in military effectiveness is no idle exercise, especially given the rewards accruing to early adopters and the consequences that await those militaries that fail to adapt in a timely manner. There are a number of candidates. Cyber technologies are already being used in the world of espionage, but as an instrument of warfare, they will likely be employed as an adjunct to other forms of combat. The digital revolution has made satellite communications a vital aspect of command and control, so the militarization of space will proceed apace. One of the most promising new technological advances is the robotics revolution. Autonomous or semi-autonomous systems may come to dominate future battlefields as robotic technology evolves. This evolution will bring with it significant military developments as well as challenging ethical issues, especially concerning fully autonomous robotic weapons that lack a human in the decision-making loop when it comes time to pull the trigger. Weapons that lack spaces for humans (with their attendant life-support needs) can be made smaller, faster, more heavily armed and armored, and cheaper than today’s weapons such as the F-35 fighter, M1A2 main battle tank, and the Seawolf-class submarine. Future battlefields may feature swarms of robots battling one another, with their human commanders controlling the action online but offsite.
Such advances will do little to affect irregular warfare, however. We would do well to remember that no matter how technology evolves, the weapons of the weak—hybrid war, guerrilla war, insurgencies, and terrorism—will remain largely unchanged. While preparing for war against future major state adversaries, therefore, the U.S. military must not jettison the hard-won lessons learned in the past fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.