Are Drones Revolutionary?

Andrew W. Marshall, the director of the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon. Photo Credit: Department of Defense
Andrew W. Marshall, the director of the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon. Photo Credit: Department of Defense

By Dan Gettinger

In late October, rumors started to circulate around Washington that the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment was about to fall victim to the sequester. The Office of Net Assessment is the military’s strategic think tank; it attempts to envision future threats as well as what the operating environment will look like in 20 or 30 years. Andrew W. Marshall has led the Office of Net Assessment since it was created by President Nixon in 1973. A famously mysterious figure within the national security establishment, the 92 year-old Marshall is known as the Pentagon’s “Yoda” or as the “futurist-in-chief.” In a 2003 interview with Wired Magazine, Marshall predicted the rise of drones as a part of the highly influential and controversial theory of a revolution in military affairs (RMA). Many military theoreticians and historians dispute the validity of RMA, arguing that it only fuels greater investment in expensive and unnecessary military hardware. With the development of cyberwar and drones, the RMA theory remains relevant, though not necessarily in the way that it was initially conceived.

The theory of RMA emphasizes the role that technology plays in winning wars. The theory posits that new technological capabilities combined with reformed military tactics to best exploit these new systems results in a revolution. The combination of new technologies and new tactics will render previous technologies and tactics obsolete. An oft-cited example of RMA is the German blitzkrieg. Thanks to improvements in radio communications and the internal combustion engine (epitomized by mechanized armored platforms such as the tank) that enabled combined arms tactics, German Wehrmacht units managed to overpower much of Western Europe by 1940.

In the early 1980s, a Soviet Marshal named Nikolai Ogarkov wrote a paper that laid the ground for the RMA theory. Ogarkov, the chief of the general staff from 1977 to 1984, feared that advances in American computers and microprocessors would reconfigure the battlefield and set the militaries of the West far ahead of the Soviet Union. He was particularly worried about American investment in precision-guided munitions (PGMs), a laser or radio guided munition he was afraid could render useless the massive Soviet buildup of mechanized units. PGMs were first developed in the 1960s and were tested during the Vietnam War. In 1970, two years before the invention of the microprocessor, the American General William Westmoreland acknowledged this vision in a statement to Congress:

“On the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer assisted intelligence evaluation, and automated fire control … I am confident the American people expect this country to take full advantage of its technology—to welcome and applaud the developments that will replace wherever possible the man with the machine.” (Congressional Record 1970).


When he was reviewing Soviet military literature in the mid-1980s, Andrew Marshall seized upon Ogarkov’s concept. Marshall directed the Office of Net Assessment to consider points in history when technological advances—such as the chariot or the longbow—brought about similar changes. For example, at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the large numbers of longbowmen used by the English hastened the coming demise of feudal warfare. This was not because the longbow was a wonderfully effective weapon, but because armies started to be structured in ways that favored masses of soldiers who were not bounded by the feudal code of combat. The integration of archers with dismounted men-at-arms led to what Andrew Krepinevich, a disciple of Marshall, called the “infantry revolution.” Inspired by the idea that technology could fuel broad changes in the ways of war, Marshall penned the theory that would influence the American military for the next two decades.

The Light of God by James Bridle features the laser used to guide Hellfire missiles from drones to their target.
The Light of God by James Bridle features the laser used to guide Hellfire missiles from drones to their target.

Advances in computer technology in the late 20th century promised a similar restructuring of forces that permitted “stand-off” capabilities. In the same way that the longbow led to the downfall of armored knights, Marshall predicted that weapons such as cruise missiles, long-range bombers and precision-guided munitions would trump masses of mechanized armor and infantry units. Marshall’s RMA theory envisions a military that is based on technologically superior platforms that can perform on the battlefield with fewer ground troops and that can win the battle from ever greater distances. Ever since laser-guided bombs were first used in Vietnam, the United States has invested heavily in long-range precision strike weapons. In the 1990’s they were a popular tool of President Bill Clinton who used cruise missiles against targets in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. Drones are the latest incarnation of a “stand-off” weapon, embodying the best of long-range precision strike and reconnaissance ideals. For 150 years, the Napoleonic-era levee en masse dictated military structuring. With the rise of the “information age,” many have argued that Marshall’s revolution in military affairs predicts a historic departure from the era of mass mobilization.

The First Gulf War put Marshall’s thesis to the test. Within 43 days of the start of the war, the allegedly powerful Iraqi military was crushed with very few allied losses. Allied air power emerged as the hero of the First Gulf War. However, unlike the hugely destructive Second World War air sorties, the air war of 1991 featured precision munitions, stealth aircraft and new command and control systems. Marshall and Krepinevich consider the combination of these three technological advances and their successful deployment in the First Gulf War to be a taste of the profound changes that the information age would bring to military affairs. “The Gulf War may be seen as a precursor war—an indication of the revolutionary potential of emerging technologies and new military systems,” wrote Krepinevich in his 1994 paper “Cavalry to Computer; The Pattern of Military Revolutions.” In the First Gulf War, the United States and its allies demonstrated what many believed to be the emerging warfighting paradigm, one that privileged technologically advanced platforms in attacks against valuable enemy targets as a means of coercing the opposition into capitulation.

Yet 12 years after the First Gulf War demonstrated the promise of RMA, a second war in Iraq dampened the enthusiasm. One compelling argument against RMA is that the efforts by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to remake the military into a highly mobile and precise attack force resulted in a military that was unprepared for the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a 2006 article for The New Yorker, Peter J. Boyle argues that Rumsfeld, enamored with Marshall’s RMA vision, initiated reforms in order to create a “lighter, more agile, more readily useful force that would be able to leverage new technology to project lethal power over great distances.” Throughout the 1990s, the military had continued a Cold War-style buildup of forces that many within the Bush administration considered to be out of date. According to Frederick Kagan, “Bush was (and remains) a firm believer in the idea of an RMA; he had proclaimed it a priority as early as 1999…” However, Rumsfeld initiated reforms to create a force that would prove unsuitable for the counterinsurgency wars to come. It was too focused on the lightning war–the “shock and awe”–and ignored the possibility of a protracted campaign in Iraq. Rumsfeld compounded the problem by refusing to acknowledge the devolving situation in Iraq and by denying pleas to increase the number of troops deployed to Iraq. The consequences are a familiar story: an insurgency that spiraled out of control, soldiers returning for multiple in-theater tours of duty and a country that was wrecked by American mismanagement in the early months of the war.

”Looking at what was overwhelming force a decade or two decades ago, today you can have overwhelming force, conceivably, with lesser numbers because the lethality is equal to or greater than before,” said then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he announced a new direction for the military in October, 2002.

The Iraq case illustrates the dangers of placing too much faith in the theory of a revolution in military affairs. Successful counterinsurgencies depend more on the deployment of large numbers of troops than on advanced stealth bombers. However, just as the Iraq War appeared to solidify the case against RMA, it also witnessed the introduction of a host of new technologies that influenced the composition of the modern American military. The proliferation of robotic unmanned systems convinced the author and journalist Peter W. Singer of the validity of RMA. In Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century, Singer argues that the birth of network-centric warfare and the large-scale integration of robots into the American military has the potential to initiate a wholesale shift in the organization of the military. However, he acknowledges that the claims by proponents of network-centric warfare like Admiral Owens and Admiral Arthur Cebrowski of near-omniscience on the battlefield were premature. While it is perhaps a little too easy to be persuaded that the magnificence of new technology will revolutionize the ways of war, it is also undeniable that drones are taking on more and more roles within the military.

There is a middle path to be taken on the theory of RMA, but it has less to do with investing in advanced military platforms than with the ways that new technologies are being exploited by participants within a particular conflict. In My Share of the Task: A Memoir, retired General Stanley McChrystal describes how special operations forces were transformed during the Iraq War from specializing in kinetic action to intelligence collectors and analysts. “They became better operators by learning to think like analysts and by acquiring vast knowledge about the enemy,” writes McChrystal. By learning to operate in the style of a horizontal network instead of the traditional military hierarchy, the special forces were able to unravel the network of insurgents more effectively. Intelligence platforms such as drones were incorporated into a reformed way of fighting; one that was shaped by structural and operational changes initiated by the soldiers on the ground rather than strictly by advances in technology.

Wars are increasingly fought remotely, and not only by drones. In the internet age, global networked connectivity allows civilians with no obvious connection to a particular conflict to participate remotely and influence events taking place on the ground. During the Libyan civil war, a number of civilians in Europe and the United States provided support by setting up media outlets, coordinating operations via Twitter, organizing aid convoys, creating Arabic weapons manuals and more. International activists from the group Anonymous also played a role in the Arab Spring conflicts by attacking the virtual networks of Tunisia and Egypt. In a 1998 report titled “The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico,” RAND Corporation analysts David Ronfeldt, John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller and Melissa Fuller argued that “The rise of networks, in which every node is connected to every other node means that power is migrating to non-state actors, who are able to organize into sprawling multi-organizational networks more readily than traditional, hierarchical, state actors can.” The internet is facilitating a meltdown in the geographical boundaries of conflict, allowing global participation.

The keyword in these transformations is “networks.” Soldiers and civilians alike are organizing in ways that challenge traditional military and battlefield structures. Remote access is provided by the democratization of certain technologies such as long-range communications. It is likewise foreseeable that individuals without any military connections will have access to sophisticated unmanned platforms in the near future. It is tempting to call this a “revolution,” though it has little to do with the techno-centric RMA theory. If one considers the social and military upheavals produced by international mass mobilization prior to the First World War, the influence of the tank or the machine gun on warfare is relatively minor in comparison since these technologies were incorporated into an existing tactical paradigm. A revolution in military affairs cannot be constrained to the development of some new species of aircraft. Rather than emphasizing the role of technology, an RMA should prioritize developments in the ways that individuals gain access to and organize within warfare.


“In order to deploy energies of such proportion, fitting one’s sword-arm no longer suffices; for this is a mobilization … that requires extension to the deepest marrow, life’s finest nerve,” writes Ernst Junger.

In his 1930 essay “Total Mobilization,” Ernst Junger writes that the First World War was a “historical event superior in significance to the French Revolution.” Gripped with nationalistic fervor, whole societies were mobilized for the war effort in a way that enabled the production of previously unimaginable quantities of war material. Total mobilization broke from the partial mobilization of the 19th century in which civilian populations remained relatively removed from the consequences of war. For Junger, it was not the introduction of the tank or the machine gun that revolutionized war, but the calling up of entire societies to supply the war effort. A revolution in military affairs in this century might follow the predictions of Marshall McLuhan who, in his 1970 essay Culture is our Business, wrote, “World War III will be a guerrilla information war, with no division between military and civilian participation.” In the wealth of Twitter operations such as the Spanish #15M or the Libyan #OpLibya and in the broad adoption of unmanned technologies, there are hints of a shift in the character of war, though it is far too early to call this a revolution.

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