A Soldier creeps through the woods, surveys a small open field, and cautiously edges into the open. He looks like a typical Soldier in many ways, camouflaged, exhausted, and bearing an assortment of weapons and other equipment. He quickly puts down a backpack, extracts a small case, and prepares for his next task. After another glance around, he launches the small drone into the sky and watches the screen to identify his target quickly. The drone camera focuses on armored vehicles on the road and allows the concealed Soldier to pass the location through a digital link that connects a drone swarm terminating at a missile battery miles away. Unheard from his location, a series of missiles are launched, and the vehicles are destroyed. The Soldier never saw the vehicles or the missile strike with his own eyes. The drone was launched at night, and the vehicles’ heat signatures were visible on the small screen of the smartphone the Soldier used as a controller. The same phone uses an app to send the location of the vehicles to the missile battery. After confirming the vehicles were destroyed, he repacks the drone, connects the cables to make sure the solar panels on his pack can charge the batteries, sends video footage to those who need it, and quietly moves on to the next mission.
To those who study military strategy and history, the term “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) has a lot of meaning. An RMA takes place when a combination of technology, manufacturing, tactics, strategy, and other capabilities transform how war is waged, even though the fundamentally brutal nature of war does not. A nature defined by death, bloodshed, and suffering. Outside actual conflict, an RMA is a theoretical exercise confined to think tanks and people like me who routinely analyze multiple areas of society, seeking to glimpse into a potential future where war could change so rapidly that those who adapt last, lose. RMAs are later acknowledged by looking back at what happened. I am attempting to provide evidence of one that has already started and will go on for a while. I will share a couple of quick examples of my work in support of my claims. The first is an article I wrote called “The Drone Wars,” based on predictions I made in 2010 concerning unmanned warfare. This article was published to numerous outlets and carried on RealClear Defense1. The second is “Planes, Tanks, and Ships,” which started a discussion about how technology and costs were changing enough to make large systems obsolete and how smaller countries with smaller armies could compete with larger armies. I wanted to get on record with both articles so I could continue to develop the argument that an RMA is ongoing, and Ukraine and other conflicts are proving this is true.
When conflict breaks out, the revolution accelerates. War creates rapid change out of the necessity for survival. Survival as a nation or a people in a large-scale conflict is often determined by which side innovates the most and the fastest. The inter-war years between World Wars I and II led to a revolution of this type. Combined arms maneuver, armor, strategic bombing, intercontinental capable missiles, medical science, and much more changed how wars were fought and won. The technology and capabilities of the individual systems combined with the manufacturing capacity of wealthy nations accelerated the change to industrial-scale warfare and tactics that were first hinted at during the Napoleonic wars. During this time and through World War II, the biggest tanks, longest guns, fastest planes, and the heaviest armor would often win the day. Bigger became better, and assembly lines, once building cars, began to build Sherman or Panzer tanks. America produced material in droves, driven not only by our general industrial capacity but also by the fact that we were left undisturbed in our homeland, free to manufacture and innovate without harassment.
After World War II the Cold War defined the world. The United States and Soviet Union continued to accelerate technological change while also fighting proxy wars and other conflicts. Korea and Vietnam are the best examples, but there were numerous other smaller actions and a general competition for influence and resources. Computers and televisions arrived en masse’, and so did a new domain for military operations, space. Space competition led to major changes in how intelligence is collected and disseminated, and GPS now rules the battlefield. GPS often dictates how militaries navigate and target each other and, in some cases, make secure communications possible. GPS is common now, and many nations seek an advantage over others by jamming GPS while maintaining their own access. The list of measures and countermeasures could go on.
The advantages the American military once enjoyed gradually disappeared. We used to own the night, and though our systems and training are still superior, while flying under night vision systems in Afghanistan, I knew that the Taliban could buy night vision goggles from Cabela’s and track me easily. Parity accelerated to the point where the wealthier nations all had similar technological capabilities, and the biggest differences and advantages were realized through leadership, structure, and cost. This article is not an examination of leadership or necessarily structure. Instead, I focus on microchips, explosives, and how lethality is becoming less expensive. I desire to make the argument that what we are seeing is the continuation of an ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs whose full potential is not yet fully realized.
I will organize the major points into simple categories.
1. Cost. The measure of the price of war is in blood and treasure. War is expensive. For a time, wealthy nations commanded the world’s attention because war was something they could afford to invest in and train for year-round. They could also spend the funds necessary to have the equipment and tech of which other nations could only dream. But technology is getting smaller, cheaper, easier to produce, and less exclusive. Less wealthy nations can compete with the wealthy because they find ways to accomplish a lot with little funding. The cost becomes a liability to wealthier nations as they spend far more money than they should on tech that might be found at Best Buy while also trying to maintain the systems in which they have already invested. In this case, sunk costs can sink a budget.
2. Lethality. Small things can pack a big punch. The headlines on April 15, 2022, highlighted the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva by harpoon anti-ship missiles. Like the sinking of the Royal Oak or Graf Spee in World War II, the Moskva was a symbol of power for the Russian confederation. This $750,000,000 symbol sits at the bottom of the Black Sea at the cost of $3,000,000. Stingers, SA-7s, Javelins, and Harpoons are a few examples of small, easy-to-employ, lethal, and inexpensive weapons on the modern battlefield. There are also “kamikaze drones,” or other drone systems that launch munitions or help identify targets for long-range artillery. Most recently, we witnessed drones dropping bombs on Israeli tanks on the Gaza border.
3. Size. Bigger is not necessarily better. Bigger today means more expensive, less agile, more logistics and training, and no greater lethality. The war in Ukraine might prove that tanks should be a museum piece. It might be time to consider quantity over size.
4. Wars without Borders. War was once land and sea, then land, sea, and air. With the addition and growth of the domains of space and cyber, war is even more multi-dimensional and multi-domain. What this means is the borders of our nations are a mild inconvenience to hackers. Space assets do not care about lines on the map, either. At a time when America is suffering an “immigration invasion,” a person is right to question if borders mean much at all. Imagine a scenario where China decides to invade Taiwan. Their main concern is U.S. interference, so they first hack our power grid and cause chaos at home. Simultaneously, they destroy or disable key communications and intelligence satellite systems. While this is happening, the thousands of Chinese infiltrating the U.S. across our open Southern border begin to attack critical command, control, and essential community structures. The U.S. is in turmoil, and responding to any invasion of Taiwan is difficult at best. We allowed the enemy to cross our border for years. If we are also engaged in Europe and the Middle East, it is easy to see how being stretched so thin could lead to America’s demise.
5. Grasping at the “singularity.” The singularity is a term used to describe a hypothetical future where technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable consequences for human civilization. Cybernetic organisms (Cyborgs), robots, AI-inspired writing applications, drones, etc., are all a part of or a result of that process. One example is the ADA2 drone system. This stands for All Domain Attributable Autonomy. The idea is based on the “replicator initiative,” where thousands of disposable networked drones are fielded to all services and function like a swarm. Drones are only one example, and it is easy to imagine a future battlefield of networked vehicles and other systems using Artificial Intelligence. During the Beijing Olympics, we were all provided a glimpse into this future when 1,200 drones formed the Olympic rings.
The battlefield of the future is one where technology makes it possible to create swarms of vehicles and aircraft, linked together through Artificial Intelligence. This will not be a capability exclusive to wealthier nations. The cost and size of these systems are also reducing, making it possible for them to proliferate rapidly and in large quantities. Ukraine already has sixty small drone companies. Technology also provides for inexpensive, lethal munitions deployed via smaller systems unseen until it is too late. Battlefields will also have no real boundaries.
The conclusions I’m providing in this article started their formation while I was still on active duty in the U.S. Army, and specifically around the year 2007. This was the year I started at the National Training Center. While there, I argued against an overreliance on expensive computers and similar systems. I also failed to make many friends when I started to make the case for several solutions to problems that would minimize the role of contractors and other specialists and impact their bottom line. Their concern was profit; my concern was winning wars. This is not the end of my argument either; it is a continuation of the work I have already produced and will lead to more articles in the future as predictions come true or fail to.2
History teaches harsh lessons, and a revolution is occurring. Will we adapt in time?