The Revolution in Strategic Affairs

Freedman. Lawrence, Illustrated by:

Published by Oxford, 1998
ISBN 10: 0199223696 / ISBN 13: 9780199223695
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Rapid developments in information technology and precision weaponry are said to herald a 'revolution in military affairs' (RMA), making possible quick and decisive victories with minimal casualties and collateral damage. But has such a revolution taken place? The issues that drive conflict will persist, and many of the technical advances associated with the RMA will not necessarily produce a transformation in the nature of warfare. The end of the Cold War has highlighted another revolution one in political affairs. Major powers appear less likely to go to war with one another than they are to intervene in conflicts involving weak states, with potential opponents including militia groups, drug cartels and terrorists. RMA technology may be less suited to conflicts such as these.

If the cumulative effect of these changes has produced a revolution, it is a revolution in strategic, as much as military, affairs. This paper argues that:

  • the RMA is the practical expression of a 'Western Way of Warfare', the key features of which are: professional armed forces; intolerance of casualties; and intolerance of collateral damage
  • the key technological and conceptual components of the RMA were in place by the early 1970s. The trend has therefore been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. The significant difference is in the new political setting of the end of the Cold War, and the revolution in perceptions of Western particularly US conventional military strength brought about by the Gulf War of 1991
  • the Gulf conflict could mark the start of a true 'revolution' if future battles offer similar opportunities to exploit the RMA's technology. However, since the US and its allies appear unbeatable when fighting on their own terms, future opponents will fight differently
  • the West will therefore face opponents who will follow strategies that contradict the Western Way of Warfare. They will avoid pitched battles, will exploit the West's reluctance to inflict civilian suffering, and will target their opponent's domestic political base, as much as its forward troops.

The problem for the West is not how to prevail, but how to do so in an acceptable manner. The more warfare becomes entwined with civilian activity, the more difficult it is to respond with the type of decisive and overwhelming military means embodied in the RMA. The RMA does not create a situation in which information is the only commodity at stake, and so does not offer the prospect of a 'virtual war'. The new circumstances and capabilities do not prescribe one strategy, but extend the range of strategies available. The issue underlying the RMA is the ability of Western countries, in particular the US, to follow a line geared to their own interests and capabilities.

Review: From his London vantage point far from the Beltway, Professor Freeman is better placed to avoid that common Washington mistake of seeing defence issues in exclusively one-solution terms. - The Economist. 11/7/1998.

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Revolution in Strategic Affairs
Publisher: Oxford
Publication Date: 1998
Binding: Softcover
Book Condition: VG to VG-

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