By Harlan Ullman
Towards the end of the Cold War, Soviet military thinkers coined the phrase “Military-Technical Revolution (MTR).” Based on a combination of extraordinary advances in precision strike and in information and surveillance technologies, the MTR was successfully transformed by the Pentagon into the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” Meant to defeat the Red Army, the RMA was a real military revolution proven in the first Iraq War in 1991 when U.S. arms pulverized Saddam Hussein’s Army; in Afghanistan quickly routing the Taliban in 2001; and again smashing Iraq two years later.
Today, American and certain allied militaries are exhausted by a decade of war. All face large and looming defense cuts meaning far less money for defense. Under these circumstances, readiness and morale become early casualties.
With the exception of North Korea (or to some states in Europe, Russia), few hostile armies are currently around to fight in a conventional conflict making the case for defense more diaphanous. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that while military force may have been necessary, it could not make either country more governable, hardly the best argument for defense spending.
How can militaries deal with these facts of life? The answer is that a new revolution is desperately needed. Given the bleak funding outlook, this revolution can only be accomplished through intellect and rejuvenating strategic thinking.
General Sir Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force skillfully interpreted war in the 21st century to be about and over people—to protect and defend them or to defeat or disrupt them rather than as modern armies squaring off against one and other. Some fifteen years earlier, the concept of “shock and awe” was created in which the goal was to affect, influence and ultimately control the will and perception of an adversary (hence Smith’s “people”) with the use or threat of military force. Shock and awe were inspired by the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu eons ago when he wrote that the really brilliant general wins without having to fight a battle.
Shock and awe posited four criteria: control of the environment; rapidity, (near) perfect knowledge and brilliance in execution. The last two, combined with the realities and uncertainties of today’s international environment, form the foundations for this much needed intellectual revolution in strategic thinking. No one can be certain about the nature of future conflicts as the requirements for defense, once equated in largely military terms, have expanded to cover security with a far broader aperture extending well beyond armies, navies and air forces. In future conflict, military force may or may not be necessary. But they have not been sufficient to achieve the strategic and political aims of bringing stability and security to Iraq, Afghanistan and so far Libya for example.
Further, given defense cuts, preparations for major conventional operations will be severely curtailed as both weapons and systems for those engagements as well as training will likewise be reduced, possibly dramatically. The strategic question that forms the heart of an intellectual revolution rests on how militaries can prepare for a future so filled with uncertainty while preserving traditional war fighting skills with far less money.
First, militaries and strategic thinking must be oriented about obtaining (near) perfect knowledge not merely about traditional operations and employing weapons systems with far greater creativity. There must be far more learning about other, non-military tools and other regions and states round the world of import or interest to assuring national security.
Second, new means and methods must be created or strengthened that contribute to maintaining fighting skills that enable brilliance in operations. For example, as the Royal Navy and Air Force lose both carrier and anti-submarine capacities for an interim period, units should be assigned to the U.S. or French navies that will employ these weapons systems. The British Army could deploy units to serve in Korea or Pakistan and India where conventional combat is central to those forces to maintain these skills. And new generations of war games and simulators must be invented and fielded so that many scenarios can be played out to keep skills at acceptable levels of readiness.
Third, to achieve these aims, a further revolution in military education from bottom to top is essential. Officers and troops must be prepared intellectually in order to obtain near perfect knowledge about a future that at best is opaque. And simultaneously, keeping combat skills sharp in an era of austerity when weapons and training will be in shorter supply is best done as Bobby Jones, perhaps the greatest golfer ever observed about that game—-it is played in the six inch space between the ears!
Militaries will be reluctant to accept new or any revolutions when they are fighting for subsistence. Politicians find governing hard enough. And few are prepared to impose a revolution let alone make tough decisions.
If an intellectual revolution is to be wrought, it must come from within. But who will listen? And who will lead?
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council; and a member of the group that invented “shock and awe.” This column summarizes a lecture to be presented at the Royal United Services Institute’s June conference on the future of land warfare.