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Document created: 20 November 02
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2002

The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050 edited by MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray. Cambridge University Press (http://www. us.cambridge.org/titles/catalogue.asp?isbn=052180079X), 110 Midland Avenue, Port Chester, New York 10573-4930, 2001, 218 pages, $28.00 (hardcover).

In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, Department of Defense (DOD) officials debated implications of the technological and operational changes manifested in that conflict, using terms such as military-technical revolution, revolution in military affairs (RMA), or simply military revolution. Current DOD fashion dictates transformation as the preferred moniker for describing revolutionary change. Like the originators of past dialogue regarding revolutions, however, “transformationalists” engaged in the current conversation regarding military change would do well to spend time studying lessons from history to guide them in their quest for decisive military advantage.

In The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050, editors MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray join six distinguished historians who have made it their professional business to think and write about how social, political, organizational, and technological change can produce shocking asymmetrical battlefield results. This volume carries on in the tradition of such military classics as the three-volume Military Effectiveness (Unwin Hyman, 1988), Calculations: Net Assessment and the Coming of World War II (Free Press, 1992), and Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge University Press, 1996)- all efforts supported by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. The separate chapters contain some of the best examples of analytical history available- the authors understand the importance of military revolutions and have the depth in their chosen subject areas to evaluate how such events occurred in the past. Taken as a whole, this book offers a cautionary tale for both military professionals and policy makers- no matter what era one chooses, history reveals that relying solely upon technological advances rarely guarantees revolutionary change (or even lasting battlefield success). Moreover, revolutions tend to destroy as much as they create; as such, revolutionary change may not be something that every generation should pursue- especially in an age of strategic, operational, and tactical ambiguity.

One characteristic of the debate surrounding revolutionary change in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries concerns settling on an accepted definition of what constitutes a military revolution or RMA- and what distinguishes one from the other. This work places military revolutions within a broad context of “radical military innovation . . . that fundamentally changes the framework of war” (p. 6). By fundamental change, the authors mean that social, political, and military cultures and organizations become swept up in “uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unforeseeable” patterns of change that render former systems and methods obsolete or irrelevant (p. 7). Because they are truly cataclysmic events, they tend to occur infrequently- societies resist allowing such genies out of their bottles for obvious reasons. On the other hand, RMAs can occur either separately or within the context of a larger military revolution. As the authors argue, these “lesser transformations . . . appear susceptible to human direction, and in fostering them, military institutions that are intellectually alert can gain significant advantage” (p. 12).

Given these definitions, it comes as no surprise that of the eight cases chosen by the authors, only three- the French Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War I- qualify as military revolutions. The remaining cases- Edward III’s military accomplishments in the fourteenth century; Louis XIV’s operational and institutional reforms in seventeenth-century France; Prussia’s adaptation of the Dreyse needle gun, railroads, and expanded armies in the eighteenth century; the pre-World War I battle-fleet arms race between Great Britain and Germany; and the German quest to learn from defeat after World War I- all represent RMAs that conferred at least temporary advantages upon those who sought to incorporate new technologies, doctrines, and institutional reforms in eras of technological change and strategic uncertainty.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention a significant gap in the coverage of the subject in an otherwise excellent work- the omission of a chapter on the air and space power RMA. To be sure, Brig Jonathan B. A. Bailey briefly discusses the importance of aerial observation and reconnaissance to the artillery revolution that occurred during World War I. Likewise, Williamson Murray employs his masterful familiarity with German combined-arms methods and doctrine to discuss how the Third Reich’s failure to link revolutionary tactical and operational successes to overarching strategies for winning the war gave the Allies time to turn the RMA back on the Wehrmacht and Göring’s Luftwaffe. The editors discount air and space power developments as an RMA, based upon the assertion that operations in the third dimension represent evolutionary developments rather than revolutionary changes in the conduct of war. In Brigadier Bailey’s words, “The tumultuous development of armor and air power in 1939-45 and the advent of the information age in the decades that followed amount to no more than complementary and incremental improvements upon the conceptual model laid down in 1917-18” (p. 132).

The editors also dismiss efforts by the Royal Air Force and US Army Air Corps to find a war-winning formula based upon unescorted strategic bombing. Nonetheless, post-World War II perceptions of air and space power’s dominating character permanently recast political and military perceptions regarding the utility and use of military power to accomplish national strategic aims. Conventional strategic air attack, nuclear strike forces, satellite surveillance and reconnaissance, rapid global air mobility, precision air-to-ground weapons innovations, and, finally, the integration of sensor and shooter systems previewed during the Gulf War could easily represent individual RMAs under the constructs advanced in this book. Viewed as a whole, air and space power certainly deserves at least equal treatment to that granted fourteenth-century longbows and seventeenth-century “modern military communities” in a discussion of RMAs.

The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 is a first-class work that should be on every professional’s reading list. It clearly describes conceptual boundaries of revolutions, tests hypotheses by applying concepts to relevant cases, and projects conclusions about revolutions into the future to provoke thought about the best course of action for planners and policy makers. Perhaps the editors omitted air and space power from their survey because few authors are willing to tackle the subject. If so, the ongoing quest to transform US military institutions affords an unparalleled opportunity for air and space power professionals to step up to the plate and place their profession within the historical context it deserves.

Lt Col Anthony C. Cain, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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