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5.1  US' Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)

1 April 2018

What is Revolution in Military Affairs?

In military theory, a revolution in military affairs (RMA) is the innovative application of new technologies, combined with changes in military doctrine and operational and organisational concepts, to fundamentally alter the character and conduct of military operations.[1] On a battlefield, those who understand the revolution and adopt the necessary changes to take advantage of it will enjoy a decisive advantage over their ignorant adversaries.


US’ RMA Driven by Advances in ICTs since the 1970s


RMA first emerged in the mid- to late-1970s during the Cold War when the advent of microprocessors led to the dawn of information and communication technologies (ICT). The Soviet identified an American-led ‘military-technical revolution’ involving the application of ICT to fundamental change the way warfare is being conducted. It was thought that, on the battlefield of the future, enemy forces could be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer assisted intelligence evaluation, and automated fire control.[2] This capability helps the US to achieve a ‘reconnaissance-strike complex’ (RSC) which in effect allows a small US force to infiltrate and target a larger Soviet forces based deep in the rear.


The Soviet military was profoundly threatened by such a prospect because of their country's inability to compete with the West in computer technology.  To warn his country’s political leaders of the military technology revolution brought about by computers, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the Soviet chief of staff at that time, wrote about how this "military technical revolution" would dramatically improve the lethality and capabilities of US’ conventional weapons.


The ideas discussed in the Soviet military literature eventually caught the attention of Andrew W. Marshall, the influential director who was running the Office of Net Assessment, a rather obscure Pentagon division focused on identifying emerging security threats to the US. Marshall, who advises the Defence Secretary directly, had developed a small but influential think tank within the Pentagon since 1973. He was known for his skepticism and criticism of traditional service-bound military priorities, such as large ships, elaborate aircraft and heavy tanks. Marshall became the leading proponent of revolution in military affairs and nurtured a long list of intellectual disciples including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney (also a former Secretary of Defense) and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Hence, by the time of the Senior Bush administration, Marshall’s conception of revolution in military affairs, driven by advances in information and telecommunication technologies (ICTs), was at the core of the administration's defense policy. The benefits from the revolution, which the Pentagon marketed as defense transformation, were first demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf War when American’s dominance through adoption of superior military technologies reduced the relative power of a respectable Iraqi military to insignificance.


The most powerful demonstration was that of precision strike. New guidance technologies have led to the development of munitions that can be delivered with remarkable precision. These include munitions delivered by aircraft, cruise missiles, and artillery. For instance, during the Gulf War, 6,250 tons of precision-guided munitions were used compared with 81,980 tons of "dumb" bombs. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the precision-guided munitions (PGMs) hit their targets compared with only about 25 per cent of dumb bombs. In addition to yielding logistic benefits and combat effectiveness, the PGMs enabled the Coalition forces to minimise collateral damage on the ground.


Since the Gulf War, rapid progress continues to be made. Great advances in computational power, decreases in the physical size of computer components, and lower costs have led to dramatic progress in military technologies. Today, thanks to integration of digital technology with communication technology (satellites), the range, volume, and speed of communications have increased exponentially. By making sure that adequate targeting information is available and distributed efficiently, military strategists profess that a co-ordinated attack can be mounted to destroy as many as 500 strategically important targets in the first minute of the campaign through precision strikes.[3]


Another area of advances today is in computer networking which makes possible a truly networked force that is integrated operationally and yet also distributed geographically.  The result is higher effectiveness but lower vulnerability.


Greater effectiveness comes because any node (i.e. unit, sensor, platform, weapon, or person) in the network located virtually anywhere will be able to work in conjunction with any and every other node. This unprecedented horizontal integration and flexibility is particularly beneficial to modern armies operating on a node-to-node (any-to-any) military command and control network as compared to the traditional hub-and-spoke network.


At the same time, networking also allows all services in all domains—naval, land, air, space, and cyber—to share data and operate jointly, thus multiplying their overall effectiveness. Meanwhile, vulnerability is reduced as enemy forces face greater complexity and expanse in targeting distributed forces. The longer the communication and weapon ranges, the more distributed yet still integrated the whole force can be.


Take naval warfare, for example. With ICTs, Mahan’s thesis on the need to concentrate the fleet to achieve concentrated offensive force has become outmoded and is now being replaced by doctrine of distributed forces.


Finally, developments in digital technology and satellites have also led to improvements in finding and tracking targets (sensing), in integrating data from diverse sensors (fusing), and in feeding the result to any weapon system (sensor-to-shooter). When networked with advanced command and control systems in which human decision making is enhanced by data-crunching and imaging, the result is improved targeting. In the end, greater accuracy at lower cost improves the expected payoff of every weapon used, which multiplies the strike potential of every weapon platform.


Because the purpose of advanced targeting is to weaken or destroy opposing forces, it competes with the networking of those forces, which is intended to make them more survivable. All else being equal, the force with the upper hand in both networking and targeting will have a decisive edge in both operational effectiveness and weapon system lethality, assuming its computer networks are not disrupted by cyber-war attacks.


The objective of any sea power is thus to make own forces less vulnerable and more effective by advanced networking while making opposing forces more vulnerable and less effective by advanced targeting. The advent of advanced networking and advanced targeting has far-reaching implications on today’s naval strategy.

How Evolving Technologies Are Changing the Naval Warfare


There are two ways a maritime superpower can exercise its sea power:

  • Sea control is the defensive ability to assure continuous freedom to navigate in any important waters of choice. To exert control, the maritime power needs a sizable force to be able to patrol the waters.

  • Sea denial, on the other hand, is the offensive ability or action at least temporarily to deny others access to waters considered important. The ability of a sea power to impose access denial is dependent more on the strike potential of its weapon systems.


In other words, even without a grand fleet to maintain sea control, a country can still exert sea denial by using ICTs to develop new anti-naval capabilities that operate under the sea, over the sea, from land, from space, and through “cyber-space” to keep hostile foreign vessels from entering an area of water. With advanced targeting, for example, surface warships can be tracked as targets from space and then trumped by anti-surface capabilities (such as long-range missiles) from submarines, aircrafts or land-based missile units and guided from space to hit their targets. In addition, sea power may also be endangered or even redefined by cyber power, targeting computerized command and control systems.


In short, unlike in the past when sea power was defined predominantly by size of guns and battle fleets, changing technology has made possible new capabilities, including anti-naval ones, to make sea control harder but denial easier, thus fundamentally altering the relationship between offense and defense in the process.


The Superiority of US Naval Forces


US is the indisputable maritime power since the WWII. It is the only naval force today that has not only sizable fleets but also weapon systems with the advance targeting capability and strike potential to carry out both sea control and sea denial in any stretch of water around the globe.


Even so, in term of size, the US Navy has steadily declined over the past 20 years, from 590 ships in 1990 to 318 in 2000 to 288 in 2010.[4] The absence of a major blue-water rival has weakened the case for maintaining a large US fleet while the need for post 9/11 large-scale ground occupations and operations dictated that the US shifted priority to maintenance of larger ground forces.[5] Notwithstanding, the US navy is still the largest around. Its unrivalled sea power today allows it to control whatever maritime choke-points it is tasked to secure.


More importantly, US is far ahead in exploiting advances in ICTs to enhance its dual advantage of networking and targeting.[6] For its operations in the Western Pacific, for example, the naval, land, and air forces at the disposal of US Pacific Command (PACOM) can be integrated, regardless of location, through the joint command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems. Networked sensors with wide coverage provide fine resolution data that are fused, analyzed, and shared with forces for targeting their weapons with pin-point accuracy and immediacy. The combined effect is that US strike and expeditionary forces have unmatched speed, reach, and lethality, and thus operational superiority. Because of the ability to call on the whole joint force, every US service is superior in its domain.[7]


The current superiority of the US Navy, in the Western Pacific and globally, is therefore the result not only of its relative size, but of the strike potential of each platform, the lethality of each weapon, the power of each sensor, and the integration of all these elements. If the Royal Navy of Mahan’s day was more than a match for the next two strongest navies combined, today’s networked US Navy has more strike power than all other navies combined.


This brings to fore one of the criticisms associated with US’ revolution in military affairs.[8] With the asymmetric military capabilities it enjoys as a result of its RMA, US could be more prone to pursue a risky course of unilateral hegemonic interventions, as it did with Iraq in 2003 when the civilian leaders in Pentagon assessed that, with its superiority in military power relative to the Iraqi army, the US could not only proceed with the invasion without the support of its traditional allies but also to commit a lesser force of 130,000 rather than the 200,000 troops recommended by military commanders. Evolving events later proved that Junior Bush and the neocons miscalculated. The level of troop deployment was enough to win the war but not enough to maintain security and prevent looting.


US probably enjoyed significant military superiority over China at the time when the pivot to Asia initiative was announced. Since then, however, China has embarked on its own revolution in military affairs and accelerated its pace of modernizing its PLA. The gaps between the two militaries are closing fast. Given that PLA is many times the size of Iraqi military and that China has nuclear weapons, any miscalculation by the US can lead to not just costly but catastrophic outcomes.

PREVIOUS : 4.4  Emergence of China as a Sea-Power Nation

NEXT : 5.2  Xi's RMA & New Goals for People's Liberation Army (PLA)



[1] See Jeffrey McKitrick & James Blackwell et. al. (1998). Pg. 65.

[2] See Gary Chapman. (2003). “An Introduction to the Revolution in Military Affairs.” University of Texas at Austin.

[3] See Jeffrey McKitrick & James Blackwell et. al. (1998). "The Battlefield of the Future" - 21st Century Warfare Issues." Air University.

[4] Naval History and Heritage Command, 2011.

[5] See Gompert, David C. (2013). p. 91.

[6] See Gompert, David C. (2013). p. 122.

[7] See Gompert, David C. (2013). p. 123.

[8] See Gary Chapman. (2010).

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