Saturday, 13 August 2011

Revolutions in Military Affairs

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but modern military theorists, occasional generals and historians are currently debating the revolution in military affairs which is supposed to be happening at the moment. Quite what this is, I’m not sure. I suppose that it is related to the demise of the Cold War, the reduction in the perceived threat of mutual nuclear annihilation and the emergence of the United States as the military superpower, at least in so far a global projection of force is concerned. A few other factors, such as the emergence of global terrorism, the deployment of pilotless aircraft and the huge asymmetry in firepower deployed probably also make an impact.

So why are historians interested and involved? I think it is because they have a role in identifying previous revolutions in military affairs and, thus, are firstly sensitized to them and, secondly, hope to find something useful that may illuminate our current tactical and strategic situation.

When you start to look at the historiography, though, military revolutions proliferate. Leaving aside (probably foolishly) the twentieth century, there are still a fair number. Napoleon, it is said sparked one. So did Frederick the Great, although that is arguable. Gustavus Adolfus of Sweden was the original military revolutionary, with Maurice of Nassau coming up hard behind. Edward III of England is described as another, and, much further in the past, Iphicrates is another.

With so many military revolutions, it is perhaps hardly suprising that some sceptics have emerged, as well. The first issue is to as ‘what makes a military revolution?’ A number of suggestions have been made, such as advances in technology, for example the use of muskets or longbows over what came before, and of tactics, such as charging cavalry rather than caracoling cuirassiers. I’ve tackled the caracole issue before, I think, so I won’t rehash it here.

The problem is that what looks like a revolution from one perspective doesn’t from another. Muskets, for example, had been of increasing use over a century before Gustav Adolf appeared on the scene. I’d guess the Swiss pikemen at Biocca (1522) and Pavia (1525) would probably have conceded that firearms were quite useful. The sudden appearance of successful Swedish armies in the 1630’s seems to be less due to a military revolution and more to do with a funded, disciplined force under a commander of talent appearing in something of a power vacuum.

Another claimant for the title of military revolutionary is Iphicrates. It is claimed that he invented a whole new style of warfare when his peltasts mauled a Spartan more near Corinth in 390 BC. Now, granted, Iphicrates won great fame for this exploit, and based a career as a major military and political figure on it, but it was hardly unprecedented. Peltasts had been around since at least Pylos, according to Thucydides, in 425 BC, where they had proved their worth against Spartan hoplites. Indeed, assorted lighter troops, some of which may well have been peltasts, are often hanging around of the edge of Thucydides’ forces, but he only names peltasts specifically at this point. Did Iphicrates cause a military revolution? It would seem not, on balance.

So, was there ever a military revolution?

I can’t really think of one, and the problem, of course, lies in the definition of the word ‘revolution’. From some perspectives, a decade or so can be revolutionary. But actually, as lived reality, a decade is quite a long time. Things seen from the perspective of a century can make a decade seem rapid, but not to those involved.

I suppose the most obvious candidates for military revolutions are the coming of gunpowder, and the tank. However, the first cannon were around from about the 14th century, but did not really become effective enough, in England at least, to displace the bow until the mid-sixteenth century. 250 years of evolution does not make a revolution.

The tank is perhaps more interesting. There is little doubt that the blitzkrieg tactics of 1939-40 caught everyone by surprise, including the Germans. As you probably know, however, they had been anticipated in military theory of the 1920s, and also tested in battle at Cambari (1917) and in the allied advance in late 1918. While the evolution of tank tactics was more rapid than that of gunpowder, 20 years or so is a fair time, so from the perspective of a single life, it was hardly a revolution.

In fact, the most likely cause of anyone crying ‘military revolution’ is ignorance of what passed before. Histoprians of the 17th century come over all vague when it comes to sixteenth century armies, while those of the sixteenth century are equally bemused by that fifteenth and so on. Therefore, the cry of revolution goes up whenever something that looks new appears on the battlefield. I have little doubt that the users of said technology or tactics would be bemused by the label.

So, as wargamers, where does this leave us? I’ve already grumbled extensively about excessive periodization and trying to pitch thousands of years into one rule set. The above may well sound like an argument to the contrary. I’m not sure it does, but we need not to look for revolutions, but to see how far evolution has gone. The British army in 1914, for example, was very different from that in 1916, and that was different from 1918. The royal army in 1642 was different from that in 1645. So we need to keep an eye on this, and not try to stretch our rule sets too far, while accepting that they can, and must be able to stretch a little as the armies of our period evolve.


  1. My own nomination for an RMA is WW1, with the following aspects:

    1. Infantry tactics by 1918 bear no resemblance at all to those of 1913, from a combination of grenades, trench mortars (infantry controls its on fire support for the first time), effective machineguns etc.

    2. Artillery has changed from fundamentally a direct fire weapon to an indirect fire weapon.

    3. The military aircraft changes reconnaissance forever. It also changes the 'depth' of the battle by factors. It enables the first strategic air campaign.

    4. Unrestricted submarine warfare.

    5. Command by telephone, changing the way everyone thinks of what a HQ is.

    6. The scale of it changing what we think of as a war.

    7. Signal intelligence.

    You get the idea...

    As far as I can tell, every aspect of today's warfare has an ancestor in WW1, which is not true of say, the Boer War or the FPW.



  2. Good call John. To me developments in WWII represent a refinement of the WWI revolution. Not much new in terms of the fundamental approach - save the cul-de-sac of parachute tactics and the development of "special forces" (which in hindsight pre-figured the most recent revolution).

    If anything, I think any recent military revolution is the return to preponderance of the professional army. To my mind this is what has enabled the US and others to take full advantage of new technology and the teachings of John Boyd. The agility and responsiveness demanded by Boyd's theories would have been much harder to implement with conscript armies. The 1991 Gulf War would be the first sizeable manifestation of this revolution.

    West European countries seem to have stepped away from 19th and 20th century scale of conscript armies. More and more young Europeans can do their national service in non-military settings. This trend too seems to have been around for 20-30 years.

    As for Frederick the Great - Old Fritz was the military conservative par-excellence. I don't think he can be credited with one innovation. Those he did adopt were borrowed from the Austrians (attacks by independant columns) and the Russian (horse artillery). Once the Seven Years War was over he reverted to pre-War methods.

  3. Thanks both for comments.

    I'm not a great expert on Fred the Great, but he did use cadenced marching in innovative ways, although he didn't invent it, I'll grant.

    I think I'd regard WWI as a transition. just to pick up on one point, I'm not sure military aircraft were fully exploited until WW2. On the other hand, special forces were certainly in the offing by the German 1918 Spring Offensives.

    Perhaps the intensity of the war was different, even though the actual length was relatively short. I know historians refer to the 20th century as the era of total war (although they then argue about what that means!). Maybe the organisation of production to satisfy the demands of war could be another criterion, but then what of the German economy in 1940-1?


  4. I think with talking about RMA then the key thing is to have a tight definition. The definition would probably determine whether there had been many RMA, a few or none.


  5. I fear that you are right - lots of these problems come down to definitions. In this case, 'what is a revolution?' and probably also 'what are military affairs?'

    At which point most sane people stop caring....