The Revolution in Military Affairs: The Historian’s Perspective

The Revolution in Military Affairs: The Historian’s Perspective

By Jeremy Black

Journal of Military and Strategic Relations, Vol 9, No 2 (2007)

Introduction: The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), a phrase much employed over the last decade, is at once description, analysis, prospectus and mission; and much of the confusion surrounding the use of the term reflects a failure to distinguish between these aspects of the situation. As such, the treatment of the RMA is an aspect of the more general discussion of revolutions in military affairs, a discussion pushed forward by interest in the RMA, although their very existence is problematic and it might, instead, be suggested that we are dealing with simply one variant of a more or less usual evolution.

Discussion of military revolutions has a long genesis, not least with reference to the contemporary European treatment of the impact of firearms. Nevertheless, it has become more common over the last half­century, in response to the success of the concept of an early­modern European military revolution advanced by Michael Roberts in 1955 when he applied it to the period 1560-­1660, with specific reference to the Dutch and to Sweden. The success of this concept, at least in helping to define debate for early­modern European military history, ensured that it was then applied to other periods. This, however, had a somewhat problematic character, not least because a questioning of the notion of the Roberts revolution, in terms of both content and chronology, coincided with this application.

Furthermore, the definitions of military revolution offered in applications of the theory varied greatly, not least in terms of duration, content and impact, as well as variations in their use between the tactical, operational and strategic scales of war, and between military and non­military dimensions. Technological changes are only part of the story, which can indeed be understood by putting these changes in a social-­organisational context. This provides a context, more generally, for assessing readings of the RMA which focus on technology, although, a strand of RMA though argues that this technology is a key aspect of the context, specifically that information technology creates change in learning, knowledge and organisational behaviour, and is as important as precision weapons in the RMA. In short, an ‘information age’ transforming command, society and all forms of technology are discerned. The variation in definitions of military revolution should induce caution, but military revolution became like the rise of the middle classes, at once a thesis of infinite applicability and a process that was always occurring and always incomplete.

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See also our feature: Jeremy Black and the War of 1812

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