Military theory is a critical and oft-neglected piece of any state’s national security strategy, and the United States is no exception. It is conceptual and abstract, making it all but anathema to the comfort and safety of quantifiable information and empirical methodologies that pair so effectively with the increasing might of technology and computational power. However, the absence of a theoretical framework for any state’s strategic process is always evident in hindsight of a security problem gone poorly. From Bernard Brodie’s iconic lamentation: “Soldiers usually are close students of tactics, but rarely are they students of strategy and practically never of war;” to Colin Gray’s amusement at the persisting “buzzword” culture of the U.S. security sector, the world’s greatest strategic scholars have consistently observed that there is something missing from U.S. security policy and scholarship which manifests in a consistent failure to develop effective strategy.[i]
One key but neglected analytical tool in crafting cohesive strategy is epistemology: “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from fiction.”[ii] Without a common theoretical system, a strategy’s validity conflates with its popularity, promoting a climate of catchy phrases and trendy ideas. There is no framework from which to gauge the merits and drawbacks of any given course of action until after it has most likely failed in execution.
This research inductively identifies the current U.S. strategic framework, assesses its effectiveness, and proposes a more effective paradigm for future use. Ultimately, this paper finds that the U.S. relies on a flawed understanding of Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMA) theory and suggests that identifying objectives based on environmental trends should dictate technological development efforts rather than trying to anticipate the next generation of evolution for existing defense platforms. This paper first provides the historiography of RMA theory and then presents two case studies which portray how it has influenced U.S. strategic history. Subsequently, the paper introduces a trend-based paradigm which would make better use of its resources.
A quick note on relevance: RMA theory was a lamentable casualty of buzzword fatigue in the greater U.S. military-industrial community. When its popularity peaked in the early 2000s, its original, rigorous meaning had already begun to lose significance due to its frequent, and often incorrect, usage. That said, although the community has moved on to different conversations, the lack of present discussion on RMA says nothing about its relevance or utility as a theoretical framework to aid in the crafting of effective strategy as this article endeavors to portray.
RMA Theory and History
The closest concept to a strategic paradigm employed by the United States is what some scholars call “techno-fetishism,” a unique interpretation of the well-known theory of Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMA).[iii] RMA theory first appeared in commentary literature toward the end of the Cold War. The United States originated from Soviet strategists observing U.S. military development in the early 1980s. While executing their Second Offset Strategy, the United States had developed advanced weaponry capable of overmatching any conventional assets and neutralizing the numerical advantage of the Soviet military: the M1 Abrams tank and AH-64 Apache helicopter are two prominent examples.[iv] The Russian observers saw these outputs and concluded that the Americans were in the middle of a “Military Technical Revolution.” Strategic scholars in America discovered these findings and co-opted the technical revolution into their own literature. By the mid-1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense would explicitly acknowledge the phenomenon as a Revolution in Military Affairs and has continued to use it as the basic framework for its strategic process.[v]
Derived from the chaos theory of the physical sciences, RMA purports to explain the sequence of alleged discontinuities in the practice of war throughout history. Its general argument is that there is an integral link between military advancement and decisive victory.[vi] In a survey of strategic history, Williamson Murray conversely found that, although RMAs have been a consistent phenomenon of war, technology and weaponry advances are linked to larger changes in society and warfare but do not necessarily cause them. More importantly, Murray’s survey found that these perceived disruptions were linear and cumulative; that is, war and warfare evolve in response to changing operational variables. By way of illustration, he pointed to the development of the phenomenon labelled Blitzkrieg during the interwar period, which was the result of the German military’s analysis of strategic history. The Germans identified a way to avoid the carnage of artillery and trench warfare of World War I (the last military revolution) and developed the technological means for their military to achieve it.[vii]
Murray’s insights notwithstanding, the U.S. military-industrial complex generally assumes a causal link between technical innovation and RMA. The United States relies heavily on superior technology not as part of its military strategy, but as the strategy itself. If discussing strategy in terms of the Lykke Model, superior technology serves as both the means and the way the United States achieves its ends.[viii] The last two decisive U.S. victories showcase this unique strategic approach. The first example was the atomic bomb: its pure destructive force broke the Japanese will to fight and ended World War II. More recently, innovations enabled the United States to defeat Iraq soundly during the Gulf War.
Often argued as the definitive proof of a causal link between technology and RMAs, Operation Desert Storm portrayed the use of emergent capabilities for dominant battlespace knowledge (DBK) via information-led warfare, precision guided munitions (PGM), and dominant maneuver synergistically transforming the fundamental characteristics of modern warfare.[ix] However, while these innovations were tremendous assets which supported a decisive coalition victory, others argue that focusing on these assets ignores other critical changes which clearly contributed to the accepted revolution.
Marshall Beier points to an increasing “techno-fetishism” of the larger American society which drives fixation on technical innovations to the exclusion of other aspects of war and strategy.[x] Similarly, Colin Gray noted that, when one accepts technology as a causal link to warfare without understanding the historic context of RMA theory, then every new observation in the field of strategic studies is likely to receive a revolutionary label all of its own, creating a strategic climate driven by unvalidated buzz words.[xi] The drift from RMA into techno-fetishism was likely pushed by the large military-industrial complex which has consistently been vital to U.S. defense. The products of the complex became synonymous with strategy itself over time, displacing the RMA framework as the guiding principle. While this U.S. derivation of RMA theory has facilitated viable strategies in the past, that observation ignores other historic conditions which were part of the calculus for victory: superior technology alone was not sufficient then and will not be so now.
This article analyzes four case studies: the Joint Strike Fighter Program, the Defense Innovative Initiative (DII), Blitzkrieg, and the Gerasimov Doctrine. The first two case studies provide empirical evidence of the flaws in the U.S. understanding of the RMA framework and show that a technology-driven approach to strategy limits strategic options. The latter two provide evidence for the explanatory power of conditional variables for technological innovation as a strategic asset; that is, strategic demand and environmental variables drive technical revolutions to generate new strategic options.
Technology-Driven RMA Paradigm: U.S. Case Studies
The Joint Strike Fighter Program and the Defense Innovative Initiative (DII) illustrate the limitations of the current U.S. strategic framework. The Joint Strike Fighter Program, responsible for developing and manufacturing the F-35, is a multinational collaboration and a centerpiece of current U.S. strategy. The F-35 has been in development since 2001, and less than 850 platforms have since been put into service by the various stakeholder militaries.[xii] Built as a futuristic, long range stealth fighter to dominate airspace over land and sea, it was so ambitious at its launch that some planned technologies were not yet available.[xiii] Since the start of the program, the JSF has been unable to meet its original goal of replacing the majority of the U.S. military’s fighter fleet with a cost-effective combat platform generations ahead of what adversaries might field. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the program has missed every projected deadline, ran over budget by more than 70%, has required massive program restructuring three times, struggles to achieve adequate mission capability, and remains the single most expensive weapons program of the DoD. Furthermore, the project is only expected to continue to be an unsustainable resource drain if it is not overhauled again in the near future.[xiv]
Even if the JSF program proceeded as originally planned, it would have struggled to make a strategic impact. Its purpose was to be the best fighter platform available, but that presumes a strategic demand for this very specific weapon system in a global context. Since its application is only within an active battlespace, the F35 is inherently limited as an asset to operational and tactical use. Assuming strike fighters are a necessary component of airspace security, they are still not a sufficient variable; that is, an enemy can develop a plan to bypass the need to contend with the F35 (for instance, hypersonic weapons that defy interception). Phrased differently, is the JSF program worth the resources it is consuming when weighed against its strategic asset outputs? Also, consider that the U.S. Air Force has already announced the prototyping for its replacement, the Next Generation Air Dominance system (NGAD).[xv] The JSF has already begun a downward trend in utility as every preceding innovation has before in the history of revolutions in military affairs. This illustrates that technological superiority, particularly for tactical innovations, is a transient, unpredictable means of achieving strategic objectives and is unreliable in support of long-term goals.
It is worth noting that this analysis comes close to arguing in favor of Colin Gray’s third fallacy of air power: that the development of airpower is driven by technology and not ideas. This research concurs with Gray’s findings that development has been driven by ideas, theory, and doctrine. [xvi] Where this analysis distinguishes itself is that rather than focusing on a strategic need keyed to geopolitical variable and future trends, JSF development has exclusively followed a regimen to enhance existing doctrine. As a result, its output can be anticipated and accounted for by competing strategies instead of decisively increasing U.S. advantages.
The DII mirrors the limitations of the JSF’s strategic utility in line with RMA theory. It focuses on apex weaponry in general, specifically leaning toward DBK and PGMs to re-obtain parity with China and Russia. More commonly referred to as the United States’ Third Offset Strategy (3OS), it is a crafted response to a perceived military-technical trend (possibly a new RMA) generally labelled anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) operations which aims to harden land, sea, air, and space terminal vulnerabilities while generating longer-range offensive assets.[xvii] Anticipating the next step in the evolution in existing military technology presents itself here in the continued pursuit of more advanced weaponry than any other state. However, 3OS hinges on two unvalidated assumptions. First, it assumes that a U.S. adversary will not develop a superior piece of technology that will negate U.S. advancement efforts. Second, it only addresses military capability and does not provide for integration with more elements of U.S. power, especially in terms of military actions below the threshold of war, a staple of the current Chinese playbook.[xviii] Given the propensity for U.S. adversaries to avoid direct engagement with the U.S. in their pursuit of strategic objectives, this begs the question of whether or not it is worth the investment based off the improbability that new 3OS platforms when compared with generating more immediately applicable options.
Situational Variables-Driven Paradigm: Blitzkrieg and Gerasimov Doctrine
Blitzkrieg, apropos of U.S. strategic culture, is a buzzword, popularized by U.S. and British journalists, used to describe the radical shift in German strategy and tactics leading into World War II.[xix] While the badging of ‘lightning warfare” is retrospectively applied to this case study as the first viable employment of mechanized military forces, this puts a lot more emphasis on the technical aspects than there was at the time of its dominance. After the high cost of trench warfare from World War I, German strategist turned back to history to identify ways to neutralize an entrenched enemy’s advantages.[xx] This brought the principle of decisive maneuver, a mainstay of the lauded Moltke the Elder, back into circulation.[xxi] This principle combined with the emergence of combined arms tactics that emerged at the end of World War I to create the archetype of modern warfare studied today.[xxii] Ultimately, “lightning warfare” was the culminating strategy from an intense analyses of tactical options, a study of the enemy strategy, and the incorporation of new technologies in order to enhance the strategy’s effectiveness exponentially.
Like Blitzkrieg, Gerasimov Doctrine is a buzzword popularized by journalists in the West. In its brief time, it was generally understood as Russia’s framework for future war, a hybridized approach between asymmetric and conventional military means to achieve political objectives. The origin of this phrase traces to a 2013 article written by then-Chief of the General Staff of the Army—General Valeiry Gerasimov. The purpose of the article was a call for military scientist to recommit to projecting future warfare, demanding innovations apart from the standard path of progress.[xxiii] Given the Russian strategy for its previous invasion of Ukraine in 2014 shortly after its publication, the article became the lens through which the West studied Russian strategy.[xxiv]
The phrase was short-lived, as it proved inaccurate and unhelpful in anticipating and accounting for future Russian actions and objectives.[xxv] Like the grievances with any other given buzzword, it failed to understand and identify its subject ontologically. However, there is still great value in studying both the Gerasimov article and related Russian activity. Gerasimov anticipated the need for Russia to develop hybrid warfare based on global strategic trends: he was not laying out a new strategy but rather calling for a new paradigm. As his title suggests, “The Value of Science is in Foresight,” Gerasimov wanted strategic minds to generate new options for Russia that would give it more options and advantages in future conflict, not advocating a new permanent military doctrine.[xxvi] Gerasimov was calling for an intellectual RMA to leverage available technologies synergistically to achieve political objectives efficiently and effectively.
Framing Future Strategy
The U.S. strategic paradigm follows a technology-first approach, developing incredibly advanced assets without considering the needs for them first. This tends to beg the question with regard to future war planning; that is, there is a myopic focus on what battlefields and operational campaigns might look like with less attention paid to overall global context and strategic threat assessment.[xxvii] The drive for technological supremacy to achieve tactical overmatch conflates as both a way and means, institutionalizing what Colin Gray observed as the American military-industrial complex’s monomaniacal hunger for the “next big thing.”[xxviii]
While military supremacy has continued to fill a pivotal role in deterring war between major actors, it is not a fungible advantage and therefore offers limited utility; military innovations can be used only in the deterrence or application of the orthodox understandings of inter-state war. China, for example, is widely credited as a high-risk adversary, and while it has a substantial military, it has been making strategic gains through the indirect use of forceful means. China reached it strategic position of today through careful planning and steady buildup to avoid notice of stronger competitors, The United States in particular, demonstrating that the limited perspective of the U.S. strategic paradigm restricts its threat assessment to an unacceptably narrow population that is exclusively defined by the conventional military might of a state. [xxix]
Conversely, a different understanding of the relationship between technical advancement and RMA sets a different framework; both blitzkrieg and Gerasimov doctrine indicate that a contextualized planning process which starts from operational variable analysis (e.g., adversary strategic preferences, anticipated theater of war, available means, etc…) yields more effective strategy. Instead of a specific framework, planning is driven by the needs and projection of needs and not the projection of current capabilities. Within this context, the U.S. military-industrial complex could be re-directed toward disruptive innovations.
To craft cohesive strategy in a consistently effective manner, the United States needs to frame its operational variable analysis epistemologically. This requires identifying assumptions made for planning purposes: about the U.S. strategic process, the enemies, and unknown qualities of other environmental variables. Understanding why actors, including the U.S., operate the way they do is pivotal in anticipating future scenarios for which the United States must prepare. While there is a tendency to assume that strategy follows a rational pattern of logic, there is no objective rationale by which to gauge another’s plan; that is, the actions and objectives of actors are influenced by a host of socio-cultural considerations which influence strategic preferences for ends, ways, means, and even objectives.[xxx] Recognizing and validating assumptions in the planning process is an integral part of developing strategy which can account for the most likely and probable eventualities. From this foundation, the United States could then explore how it can effectively use its technological prowess to its advantage: namely, disruptively.
Disruptive innovations have massive impacts on one or more aspects of society. The concept was originally used to describe the phenomenon caused by a revolutionary innovation’s potential to fundamentally alter the competitive market space,[xxxi] but it applies just as well to the strategic climate. When applied to strategic history, the notion dovetails with pure RMA theory; that is, some change in society, physical or conceptual, catalyzed a change to the status quo, which some states used to their strategic advantage. Focusing research and development efforts on technical advancements with strategic advancements relevant to near future security scenario projections would be a more cost-effective approach than trying to maintain standing defense technologies one generation ahead of adversaries. As evidenced by A2/AD platforms and their ability to project force well beyond a distance at which they would be vulnerable to typical military assets, there is always a new way discovered to bypass accepted military means.
There are many example RMAs from which strategists might draw to test the assertions of this research or RMA theory in general. While there are undoubtedly examples in which technology did cause a specific RMA, that cannot be considered proof that all RMAs are caused by technological innovations. Therefore, it is imprudent to use a theoretical framework based on that assumption. A more conservative assessment of a strong correlation therefore serves as a better strategic framework.
In conclusion, understanding what shapes strategy at the conceptual level determines a lot of an actor’s strategic process. Consequently, it is difficult to develop innovations in strategy if there is no explicit epistemology for the process. Hopefully, the wider community finds this epistemology and its assessment valid, or at least an interesting enough topic to bring it to the forefront of the conversation.
[i] Brodie, Bernard. War and Politics. New York: Macmillan, 1973: 18. Gray, Colin S. “The American Way of War?” in Rethinking the Principles of War, ed. By Anthony D. McIver (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 15-16.
[ii] Lexico.com, Oxford Press. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/epistemology. Accessed August 4, 2022.
[iii] Beier, Marshall J. "Outsmarting Technologies: Rhetoric, Revolutions in Military Affairs, and the Social Depth of Warfare." International Politics 43, no. 2 (04, 2006): 266-280. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800144
[iv] Louth, John, and Trevor Taylor, “The US Third Offset Strategy,” The RUSI Journal 161, no.3 (June, 2006).
[v] Matthew Mowthorpe, "The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA): The United States, Russian and Chinese Views." The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies 30, no. 2 (Summer, 2005): 146. See also Louth and Taylor, “The US Third Offset Strategy.”
[vi] Colin S. Gray, Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History (London: Routledge, 2003), 3.
[vii] Williamson Murray, “Thinking About Revolutions in Military Affairs,” Joint Forces Quarterly unk. (Summer, 1997).
[viii] Yarger, Harry R. “Toward a Theory of Strategy.” Chapter 8 in Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy, 2nd edition (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2006): 107-113.
[ix] Mowthorpe, “RMA.”
[x] Beier, “Outsmarting Technologies.”
[xi] Gray, “The American Way of War?”
[xii] Lockheed Martin. “F-35 Lightning II Fast Facts.” https://www.lockheedmartin.com/f35/about/fast-facts.html. Accessed August 4, 2022.
[xiii] United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), “F-35 Sustainment: DOD Needs to Cut Billions in Estimated Costs to Achieve Affordability,” Report to the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives (July, 2021).
[xiv] GAO, “F35.”
[xv] Jeremiah Gertler, Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance Program: An Introduction (Congressional Research Service, October 2020) (NGAD).
[xvi] Gray, Colin S. “Understanding Airpower: Bonfire of the Fallacies.” Alabama: Air Force Research Institute, 2009.
[xvii] Louth and Taylor, “The US Third Offset Strategy.”
[xviii] Hsiao, Anne Hsiu-An. "China and the South China Sea ‘Lawfare.’” Issues and Studies 52 (2) (2016): 1-42. https://doi.org/10.1142/S1013251116500089.
[xix] Newland, Samuel J. "Blitzkrieg in Retrospect." Military Review, July-August 2004, 86+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed August 8, 2022). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A121416842/AONE?u=west10360&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=95310897. He includes a fascinating quote from Adolph Hitler attesting to the fact that the Germans did not use the term themselves: “"I have never used the word blitzkrieg because it is a totally nonsensical word." Similarly, Commander in Chief of the German Army Hans von Seeckt stated: “Catchwords…are necessary for those who are unable to think for themselves.”
[xx] Murray, Williamson. "May 1940: Contingency and Fragility of the German RMA." In The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050, edited by MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, 154-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511817335.009.
[xxii] Bailey, Jonathan B. A. "The First World War and the Birth of Modern Warfare." In The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050, edited by MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, 132-53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511817335.008.
[xxiii] McDermott, Roger N. "Does Russia have a Gerasimov doctrine?" Parameters, Spring 2016, 97+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed August 8, 2022). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A458916158/AONE?u=west10360&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=fcaed033.
[xxiv] Galeotti, Mark. “I’m Sorry for Creating the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.’” Foreign Policy, March 5, 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-the-gerasimov-doctrine/
[xxv] Fridman, Ofer. “On the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’: Why the West Fails to Beat Russia to the Punch.” PRISM 8, no. 2 (2019): 100–113. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26803233.
[xxvi] McDermot, “Gerasimov Doctrine.”
[xxvii] J. Marshall Beier, "Outsmarting Technologies: Rhetoric, Revolutions in Military Affairs, and the Social Depth of Warfare," International Politics 43, no. 2 (04, 2006): 266.
[xxviii] Gray, Colin S. Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History. London: Frank Cass, 2002: 2.
[xxix] Doshi, Rush. The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press USA - OSO, 2021.
[xxx] Booth, Ken. Strategy and Ethnocentrism. London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1979.
[xxxi] Scott Madry, Disruptive Space Technologies and Innovations: The Next Chapter (Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2020), 4.