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A Military Revolution?

Ted Crawford

IN THE 19th century a series of interlocking military and industrial innovations came together in the short space of thirty years, from 1865 to 1895. These were the rifled barrel, the breech-loading mechanism, smokeless powder, magazine rifles and recoil mechanisms for artillery, together with barbed wire. Previous to that time armies had paraded on the battlefield in dense masses with eye-catching uniforms, so that soldiers in the armies of Louvois and Louis XIV and those of the American Civil War nearly three hundred years later would have instantly recognised what was happening, even if the weapons of the later period were much improved and the armies far more effective.

It was precisely in this thirty-year period too that the savage tribes who had hitherto heroically resisted western military advances were swept away with ease by the new technology, whether they were Zulu impis, American Indian horseman, Sioux on the prairies or Araucanians on the pampas, Achin Muslims in the jungles of northern Sumatra or the Sudanese spearmen of the Mahdi. Of course, at the start of this process, before a reliable machine-gun was perfected, there were occasional setbacks, whether at Little Big Horn in 1876, at Isandhlwana in 1879, or at Abu Klea in 1885 where the Gatling jammed and Col. Burnaby was killed;1 but, with the slaughter at Omdurman in 1898, the military triumph of the new Western technology was complete. A postscript occurred in Uruguay in 1904 where Aparacio Saravia’s gaucho lancers charged the machine guns of Batlle at Masoller and the pseudo-feudal mode on the pampas came to an abrupt end.2

This was summed up at the time in Hilaire Belloc’s acid and biting satire about Cecil Rhodes in 1898, at the time of the conquest of the Matabele and annexation of what became known as Rhodesia:

"He stood upon a little mound
Cast his lethargic eyes around
And said beneath his breath:
‘Whatever happens we have got
The maxim gun – And they have not’."

But towards the end of this period some peoples on the receiving end of the European expansion started to get the hang of things and, thanks to gun-running of modern weapons, the Italians were beaten at Adowa in 1896, while the British suddenly found that the North-West frontier of India was much more difficult to subdue.3

Thereafter, in the 20th century, whether crouched in the trenches of the Modder River during the Boer War in 1899, Mukden in 1905 or attacking at night in the mountains round Port Stanley in 1982, soldiers were doing a recognisably similar job, even if the weapons of the later period were far more deadly. It is true that there had been huge technical changes – the use of air power, the immense improvement in team weapons generally, such as artillery, and the introduction of armoured vehicles. Yet the miserable experience of those in the front line, clothed in uniforms the colour of dirt so as to minimise their appearance as targets, crouched in smelly foxholes, deafened by explosives hurled in their direction by unseen enemies, unable to run away – all that was recognisably the same experience at the end of the 19th century as it was 83 years later and would have been instantly understood.

It seems that we are now on the verge of a new revolution in warfare and, though we can see some of its components and predict some technical improvements, it is as difficult to foresee all the consequences as it was in 1900. Hindsight is a marvellous thing, and we can now easily perceive that the mounted horseman was obsolete and that the odd successes – the death ride of von Bredow’s dragoons at Mars-la-Tour (1870), or the charges of Kemp’s burghers at Vlakfontein and Botha’s at Bakenlaagte (1901) – were simply flukes or occurred in quite exceptional circumstances. Will the manned aircraft suffer the same fate? We do not know, but we can guess that the "Biggles" types will resist this as passionately as the Lancers and the "Blues" did the abolition of the lance and sword at the beginning of the 20th century.4

What has happened is that in a series of wars against very inferior opponents, in Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia/Kosova and finally Afghanistan, the United States has overwhelmed its enemies with gradually improving technology. Each war was short. In each one, weaknesses in technique and management could be corrected as they were revealed, and improvements could be secured in time for the next encounter. The Nazis only had one Spanish Civil War from which to learn lessons; the Americans have had four little struggles over a ten-year period. It may be that, just as in Spain, some wrong lessons have been learnt, but the general effect has undoubtedly been to raise the effectiveness of the new methods.

The components of the new revolution thus far are, first, precision guided missiles (hereafter PGMs),5 secondly global positioning systems (hereafter GPS), and thirdly unmanned air vehicles (hereafter UAVs), all tied together by elaborate satellite communications. GPS enable vehicles, ships, individuals or weapons to locate themselves to within ten feet of any spot on the globe, and with more satellites and improved electronics this will probably be even more precise. In any case the ability of PGMs to recognise targets is also improving fast with advances in processing and software intelligence, so to bring the weapon to within ten feet of a stationary target may enable it to get within six inches through its own autonomous search. What is more, after a certain point this will be achieved at lower and lower cost in both financial and weight terms for the missile. The satellite communications and GPS are also improving, and massive capacity will increasingly enable those with access to satellites to monitor and aim weapons from the other side of the globe almost exactly like an arcade game. This has already happened to some extent in Afghanistan.

UAVs are small planes, since they do not need to carry a pilot and the elaborate life support components required for him; indeed, if in the reconnaissance role, then all they need is their TV "eye", miniaturised radar or infra-red detector. They can move at low altitudes where their own observational abilities can be maximised. They can be made of materials either transparent to, or capable of absorbing, radar. With small engines and exhausts pointed skywards, they have very low noise and infra-red signatures. And, since they are often so small, they can be difficult to detect visually. In Afghanistan, for the first time, they were used to carry PGMs, while other reconnaissance UAVs pinpointed the target – all under the direction of controllers in Florida who communicated instantly with them via satellites. In both Kosova and Afghanistan the manned US war planes stayed at over altitudes of 15,000 feet, which severely limited their capability against targets of opportunity. The UAVs had no such shortcomings, and the identification of targets could in principle occur in real time on another continent from the observations made by a series of different UAVs with separate and different sorts of sensors.

The UAVs that carry PGMs need to be larger than the reconnaissance models, as the bigger the missile, the greater the chemical energy, the bigger the bang and/or the greater the range, while the observational technologies are steadily miniaturising. However, to some extent, accuracy can substitute for explosive force. The use of these systems may in future be, or perhaps already is, capable of identifying individuals, and this may account for the success of the Israeli government’s assassination efforts in the occupied territories (which, though technically effective and tempting to use, may mean that future prosecutions before war crimes tribunals will be launched against the perpetrators). In principle such PGMs and UAVs can be launched from mobile air bases in the oceans, far from politically awkward allies in countries near to the scene of operations, but in that case the UAV may need to have much longer range, so it will be a larger machine. Thus it will be more easily identified and countered, so there is both a financial and military cost to independence from allies. In any event, for some considerable time the ship platforms that will have to used will be the existing American carriers.

But these systems still have their limitations, and the orthodox and conventional war fighting doctrines of the last 200 years can throw light on this. It has always been insisted that bombardment, whether of artillery or the air equivalent, are by themselves indecisive. Given time, damage can always be repaired, and the enemy need not expose himself if he does not have to defend himself against attack. Bombardments must be followed up and ground occupied by other forces. (Of course, mass destruction by nuclear bombardment is in a sense decisive, but cannot be considered as having any rational objective except as a threat to prevent being bombarded or overrun yourself. You cannot "win" a nuclear war in any real sense.)

In the Gulf War the Americans and their allies deployed considerable armies, who sustained minimal casualties, as they were supported by massive air attacks, many of them with precision weapons; and the Iraqis had to resist, since the war was about their seizure of Kuwait. In Bosnia the Croat forces were used to clear the Serbs after the latter had been softened up by the airforces. In the war over Kosova the weight of air power brought down on the Serbs forced a capitulation, and, crucially, there was a ground force, the "Kosova Liberation Army". Though the KLA had very limited effectiveness, the Serbs had to eliminate it to achieve any political objective. If they had tried to do so, their tanks and heavy weapons would have had to come out of hiding and would have been struck by overwhelming fire power. The KLA had simply to remain in being. Thus in each little war the contribution of the conventional forces in pressing the enemy became less and less of a problem as the bombardment became more and more effective.

The most extreme example was in Afghanistan where the fairly hopeless Northern Alliance was suddenly able to walk all over the country as the opposition were killed by air attack, fled or changed sides. As Engels said of the country’s inhabitants in 1857: "The Afghans are divided into clans, over which the various chiefs exercise a sort of feudal supremacy.... this very irregularity and uncertainty of action makes them dangerous neighbours, liable to be blown about by the wind of caprice, or to be stirred up by political intriguers, who artfully excite their passions." Plus ça change. But the air attack was ferocious. It has been estimated, with what truth I do not know, that as many civilians were killed in Afghanistan as died in the World Trade Center, but if this is so the number of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters killed must have been very considerable indeed in view of the undoubted accuracy of the American weapons.

From recent experience it is absolutely clear that in order to minimise the killing and wounding of non-combatants, or "collateral damage" as it is cantingly known, targeting has to be done by reliable humans close to the enemy targets. If you do not wish to suffer any casualties yourself this is difficult, but the commitment of what are called "Special Forces" to illuminate targets by laser beam seems an absolute necessity for effective bombardment, as Afghanistan has shown. "Special Forces" are the minimum, and in Afghanistan the commitment of a small ground force of a few thousand men early on who would have sustained a few casualties might have made this militarily still more effective, even if the diplomatic complications inhibited such action. Indeed, in Kosova the killing of many civilians happened because of both fear of risking lives from the imperialist countries and unwillingness to be too committed to the KLA. (The latter diplomatic reservation seems wholly rational.) If the superpower or developed country with these weapon systems is unwilling to risk the lives of such "tough guys", then it will certainly slay many quite innocent people and there will (at the least) be a very difficult PR problem.

There remain three questions about the effectiveness of this new form of warfare. The first is that, so far, the opponents attacked have been technically very inferior antagonists. I feel sure than in abstract such methods could be used against more powerful (but non-nuclear) foes with equal success, but the quantity of munitions needed would be far greater and the process, with all the political uncertainties, would take far longer. What are the stocks of these weapons? That is a secret, and I do not know any more than I know the production rates of the supply of replacements and the plans to increase stocks. So North Korea could be pulverised but perhaps not China.

The second problem is one of financial expense. The new weapons, in great numbers, together with the enormous R&D effort to improve them, do not come cheap. If the attacks are launched from sea bases, such as aircraft carriers (which will not always be possible as the UAVs are often relatively short ranged), then this too is enormously expensive. If the United States is seeking to do all this and to develop an Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence System (hereafter ABMDS), then it will be faced with huge costs which may be more than Congress is willing to raise in taxes. In the Iraq war, the biggest so far of these operations, the USA succeeded in extracting huge sums from Saudi, Kuwait and the Gulf States for its services and lesser amounts from Japan and Germany.

The third problem is that there has to be some kind of credible conventional force to take over, however unappealing and incompetent. The odoriferous gangs of heroin producers that made up the Northern Alliance (and its Taliban opponents) may not have been very effective in military terms, but some criminal detritus to play that role can probably be raked up by the United States almost anywhere in the world. That in itself can create problems, certainly, if the stated objective is the creation of a long-term stable state of affairs post-conflict. Not that this seems to be a matter that bothers the present US administration in Afghanistan today. Statements of aims are simply to fool the multitude and the Reverend Tony Blair rather than anything else.

That brings us to the political consequences of this military revolution. This is not merely a technological development but is compounded by the fact that there is only one power that is in possession of a full set of the new weapons – the United States. The previous military revolution that took place over a hundred years ago was not confined to one power but occurred almost simultaneously among the five great European continental powers plus Britain and the United States. No one power was ever in a position to dominate. Thus the world was divided up between them, except for those indigenous states that could balance between one or more of the great powers – China, Iran, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, for example. The explosive difference today is that one imperial power has a monopoly of the newest technologies, a monopoly that can be expected to strengthen rather than weaken in the immediate future.

If the ABMDS is put in place and is effective (or at any rate believed to be), then Britain, France and Russia as well as China and India will be open to American nuclear strikes without the possibility of retaliation. Effectively any country going into an even limited war has to do so with the permission or neutrality of the United States. By its intervention the United States can overcome any minor military power with minimal cost in casualties to itself, if not to its ally or allies.

But this power is not totally unconstrained. The world is a more open place, communications are swift and, even if the United States has great military power, it would be only too easy to miscalculate. America does not like body-bags. Opportunities for other social forces and forms will undoubtedly arise, especially if they can get an echo in the heartland of capitalism, which is not at all impossible. The problem of politics is central. Class politics in the developed world are the key to progress, as Kidron and Cliff consistently pointed out nearly half a century ago. How that challenge is to be taken up by the left cannot be foreseen by me. If these conclusions seem – well, inconclusive – they are.

There are interesting and, from a left wing point of view, worrying social side effects. If the United States goes down this route of rearming and preparing for a new type of war, then it can only do so, as Rumsfeld has made clear, by changing the balance within the US armed forces. This will certainly mean a large cut in Army budgets and a corresponding rise in those of the Air Force and Naval Air Force. There will have to be overall very large cuts in infantry and armour numbers, which will affect the black population disproportionately, since they make up a very large section of the rank and file and junior officers in these sectors, while for educational reasons the technicians who will provide the new personnel for the air force and navy will be largely white. The infantry, composed of the least well educated – therefore black in the USA today – has always suffered in battle far more than other sectors.6 This is what tended to happen in Vietnam, after all. In the last half-century because they had to do this dirty work, which consequently offered compensations, the US Army has been seen by blacks as a real vehicle of upward social mobility. This role will thus be reduced. I would suggest – I have not seen it mentioned elsewhere – that disproportionate casualties among the minorities would be politically unpopular with them and might have rendered the armed forces rather unreliable, so a technical "fix" with the new technology would solve two problems – that of casualties in general and the political accusation that blacks had to die for their country rather than whites.

Finally, there is one other tendency that is very important and related to, though not quite the same as, the change in tactics and weaponry. This is the trend in many countries for armies to move from being mass conscript bodies to being much smaller regular professional forces armed with high tech weaponry. Crucially, too, such armies will also be more reliable against any local disaffection. This is not much appreciated in Britain where National Service came to an end in 1961, forty years ago, or in the United States, but is a striking phenomenon in Europe.7 At last count the continental European states with no conscription or shortly to abolish conscription (the dates in brackets are when it ended or will end) were: Luxembourg (has never adopted conscription), Belgium (1994), Netherlands (1996), France (2001), Spain (2002), Portugal (2003), Italy (2006) and Czechia (2007), while Austria and Greece have also begun discussions about phasing out conscription. (Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries plan to continue the practice of conscription and have no plans to end the call-up system.) Other countries with totally professional armed forces include Japan, Canada, India and Pakistan as well as the United States, and with this military fashion well established the rest of the world may well follow. This is not just a military but an immense social change. Its implications for any revolutionary programme to overthrow the existing capitalist order are very serious indeed, though unnoticed by most of the left.


1. "The sand of the desert is sodden red / Red with the wreck of the square that broke, / The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel’s dead / And the regiment blind with the dust and smoke..." – Henry Newbolt.

2. See accounts of these in Col. Callwell, Small Wars, Their Principles and Practice, HMSO, 1906. For Uruguay see José Vanger, Batlle y Ordonez of Uruguay 1903-1907, Cambridge Mass., 1963.

3. A first cousin of my grandfather, Alfred Crawford RA, Indian mountain artillery, was killed in August 1897 on the Frontier. See Callwell, p.377, for problems of artillery under rifle fire then.

4. The cavalry were spectacularly socially archaic. I was told recently at a party (December 2001) by an ex-officer of the 12th Lancers that when he was commissioned in 1953 they had to have a private income of £2,000 pa for their polo ponies etc. For comparison, a teacher starting then earned about £400 pa.

5. They first appeared in primitive form in the early 1970s, and there was much discussion in military journals at the time, mainly focusing on their use in stopping a Russian armoured assault in Europe.

6. In World War II the infantry lost twice as much proportionately as armoured troops who in turn lost twice the casualties of the artillery and engineers. There were a few engagements in the western desert in 1941-42 where the gunners suffered more than the infantry, but this was quite exceptional.

7. In the 1930s, General de Gaulle (then Colonel) was bitterly denounced for proposing a professional army. This was seen as a right wing plot.