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Revolutions in Warfare

Summary and Keywords

The term “revolution in warfare” refers to a pronounced change or discontinuity in warfare that radically alters the way a military operates and improves relative military effectiveness. Revolutions in warfare emerged as a subject of considerable debate in the 1990s in the wake of the United States’s resounding victory over Iraqi military forces in the Persian Gulf War. These debates highlight three different concepts: military revolution, military-technical revolution, and revolution in military affairs. During this period, the idea of an “information technology” revolution in military affairs became deeply embedded in American defense planning and evolved into a call for “transformation,” or more precisely transformational innovation. Two lines of critique have been leveled against the revolution in warfare concept and the revolutionaries themselves. The first, advanced by Stephen Biddle, claims that an RMA is not currently under way. Rather, what we are witnessing is the continuation of a century-long increase in the importance of skill in managing complexity. The second insists that the RMA as a policy direction is a risky path for the United States to pursue because it will undermine the country’s power and influence. There are also two schools of thought that explain the causes of revolutions in warfare: the “economic determinist” school and the “contingent innovation” school. A number of questions remain unanswered that need further consideration in research, such as whether the United States and its allies should continue to prepare for a “long war” against violent extremists, or whether transformation is dead.

Keywords: revolution in warfare, military revolution, military-technical revolution, revolution in military affairs, information technology, economic determinist school, contingent innovation school, United States, defense planning, transformational innovation


The concept of a “revolution in warfare” refers to a radical change or discontinuity in warfare that fundamentally alters the way a military operates and which allows it to achieve a leap in relative military effectiveness. Most analysts and historians agree on this minimal definition but beyond that there is little consensus on the causes of revolutions, when they have taken place, how they occur, and whether we are in the midst of one now.

Warfare is constantly changing and evolving. Major discontinuities in the nature of warfare have occurred throughout history and these have resulted in dramatic increases in military effectiveness and shifts in the balance of power. Revolutions in warfare became a hot topic of debate in the 1990s in the wake of America’s rout of Iraqi military forces in the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War. US information supremacy, and the unprecedented integration of precision-guided munitions; command, control, communications, computers, and information (C4I); reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, and acquisition (RSTA); and long-range precision air and missile strikes suggested a revolution in warfare was under way (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1993; Cohen 1996; Nye and Owens 1996). Immediately skeptics began to challenge this technology based conception of a revolution in warfare as well as the claim that such a revolution was occurring (Freedman 1998).

Three different communities have participated in the discourse on revolutions in warfare and those debates have intersected only to a limited degree. Each provides its own terminology for these disruptive changes in warfare. Early modern historians wrote about “military revolution.” Soviet military theorists discussed a “militarytechnical revolution.” The US defense community adopted the Soviet term “revolution in military affairs” in the early 1990s but by the end of the decade the term “transformation” dominated the discourse. These communities have approached the topic from different vantage points and this has enriched debate and cross-fertilization of ideas, as has the fact that revolutions in warfare scholarship lies at the intersection of theory and practice, driven by the real world interests of practitioners as much as by the research and intellectual interests of academics.

Military Revolution

Early modern historians focused on the “military revolution” in early modern Europe. In a seminal article on the topic, Michael Roberts (1956/1995) argued that tactical reforms undertaken in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and his predecessor Maurice of Nassau transformed warfare and played a major role in reshaping the modern world. Roberts focused on the use of combined arms (pike, musket, cavalry, rapid-firing mobile artillery), linear tactics, and classical drill and discipline, which permitted Gustavus Adolphus to defeat the armies of Spain – an empire with vastly greater resources than Sweden’s. Tactical changes required more highly trained and disciplined soldiers organized into standardized units. The revolution in tactics spurred a revolution in strategy, and armies grew in size with consequent impact on military administration and the role of the state. Larger more permanent armies required vastly increased resources to sustain them. State authority grew and with it there developed centrally organized bureaucracies to manage and direct these resources and to fight on a vastly increased scale. For the historical community, Roberts’ thesis made the case for how military factors had produced significant political and social changes. Changes in warfare had effected momentous changes in society.

Roberts’ argument spurred debate among military historians about the cause of large professional standing armies that had led to the fundamental systemic changes in warfare that all conceded had occurred. Geoffrey Parker (1976) traced the surge of military manpower to the trace italienne, a type of fortress that resisted bombardment and infantry assault and which had emerged thirty years prior to the reforms of Maurice of Nassau. Cities and states protected by the trace italienne with its angular bastion could withstand long sieges against traditional methods of battery and assault, tipping the balance in warfare in favor of the defensive. Siege warfare required unprecedented amounts of money and manpower. Parker’s alternative explanation had important implications not only for military historiography but also for conceptual debates about military revolution. Whereas Roberts had emphasized the causal role of tactical factors, Parker traced causality to military technology.

The debate continued in the 1980s with David Parrott’s (1995) essay that traced the development of massive armed forces in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to logistical and political influences, and John Lynn’s (1995) critique of Parker’s technologically based argument in favor of macro-social influences, chiefly the growing population and wealth of Europe.

The military revolution debate among historians addressed not only the causes of disruptive change but also the very nature of the disruption. Jeremy Black (1991) challenged the entire military revolution thesis by arguing that the history of warfare displays more continuity than change. Change is incremental, not revolutionary. Clifford Rogers (1995) hypothesized that the paradigm of “punctuated equilibrium,” a theory proposed by paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould (1972), which challenged Darwin’s gradual evolutionary paradigm, more accurately characterized changes in warfare than did the concept of revolution. Military revolutions are preceded by long periods of near stasis until a discontinuity event erupts that compels a rapid change in the system. Because the military dimension of warfare is causally linked to the social, political, and economic environment in which the military exists, a sudden change in one of these environments, historically driven by sociopolitical events, will force the military into a period of rapid change. Rogers’ punctuated equilibrium approach distinguished macro-social disruption from the more incremental adaptations in the military domain that follow.

Military-Technical Revolution

Soviet military theorists had a tradition of studying discontinuities in warfare. They had closely examined the impact of World War I on military operational art and, having experienced the German blitzkrieg of World War II, accepted the idea of revolutionary changes in warfare (Knox and Murray 2001:2–4). Steeped in Marxist ideology, Soviet thinkers were comfortable with the idea that history is driven by revolutions.

The Soviets became concerned in the mid-1970s with what they saw as a military-technical revolution under way in the US armed forces. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, US attention shifted back to the European theater and to the strategic challenge posed by a numerically superior Soviet adversary. The Soviets had adopted the technique of echelonment of forces, which allowed them both to reduce their vulnerability to nuclear attack by deploying forces in several echelons in the rear, as well as to mass forces where needed to break through NATO defenses. To overcome the conventional superiority afforded by the echelonment technique, the West sought remedy through emerging technologies (Adamsky 2008). The US responded with the deep attack doctrine of air land battle, attacking Soviet second echelons deep in the rear with standoff precision fire. NATO responded with follow-on forces attack doctrine, which also called for attacking the enemy as far in the rear as possible. The threat that smart high-technology weapons posed to Soviet armored masses promised a way for NATO forces, seriously outnumbered, to nevertheless defeat a far more numerous yet technologically less sophisticated adversary.

While the West saw emerging technologies as a means to develop doctrinal countermeasures to the enemy’s second echelons on the central front, the Soviets foresaw that these evolutionary adaptations represented a true revolution. The advent of new technologies such as precision-guided munitions, cruise missiles, and stealth, argued Soviet Chief of the General Staff Marshal Nikolay Ogarkov in 1984, had sharply increased by an order of magnitude the destructive potential of conventional weapons and brought them closer in effectiveness to weapons of mass destruction (Herspring 1987).

With their materialist ideology, Soviet military theorists focused on how technological developments were laying the groundwork for a major change in warfare. The Soviets coined the term “military-technical revolution” in the 1980s as they observed a more technologically advanced United States develop and incorporate new technologies into military systems. They asserted that information technologies and precision-guided weapons, when integrated into a reconnaissance-strike complex and employed at extended ranges with unprecedented accuracy and lethality, would revolutionize warfare and make quality more important than quantity. Even more advanced technologies such as lasers, particle beams, and robotics would usher in a second stage of revolution. In the Soviet view, these developments would blur the distinction between front lines and rear areas, and operations would become near simultaneous against the entire array of enemy targets rather than the traditional sequential nature of operations. There would no longer be clear lines between tactics, operational art, and strategy (Krepinevich 2002).

The technological seeds of this revolution had been laid by the Americans in the 1970s and matured throughout the 1980s as the US sought to offset Soviet numerical superiority and shift the realm of competition to the technological arena. But American theorizing about the operational and organizational implications of these developments lagged far behind Soviet thinking. It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the 1991 Gulf War experience behind them, that US defense analysts came to a similar conclusion as the Soviets – that a revolution in warfare was under way and that its consequences could be as profound as those ushered in by nuclear weapons.

Revolution in Military Affairs

The term “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), which also derives from Soviet writings, was adopted by the third community that has shaped the debate on revolutions in warfare – the US defense community – in order to move away from the technology centric approach of the Soviets. The intellectual stimulus came from Andrew W. Marshall, Director of the Office of Net Assessment in the US Department of Defense. Marshall was one of the first to appreciate the debates occurring among Soviet military theorists in the late 1970s, and from the mid-1980s through the 1990s Marshall sponsored studies and research in the defense and academic communities to examine whether Soviet claims of a major change in warfare were correct. The most influential study was the seminal report written by Andrew Krepinevich in 1992 on The Military-Technical Revolution (2002), sponsored by Marshall, to explore whether a major shift in the character of military competition was under way. Marshall noted that historically military organizations were surprised by these transformations and he wanted to ensure that the United States at a minimum was not surprised and ideally could shape the revolution to its advantage. Looking back at the period between 1917 and 1939, Krepinevich (2002:3) noted that many political and military elites had recognized that momentous changes in land and naval warfare were occurring and “those countries whose leaders realized the possibilities of these changes and acted upon them by adapting operationally and organizationally accrued major advantages in the conflict that followed.”

Marshall emphasized the conceptual and doctrinal as distinct from purely technological roots of military change. He argued that the United States in the 1990s was in an analogous position to the mid-1920s when the British were just beginning to experiment with mechanized warfare and the Americans with carrier aviation (Murray and Millett 1996). He and his small band of analysts believed an RMA had been under way since the 1960s with the emergence of the first generation of long-range precision strike systems. However, this RMA, like previous ones, would take time to reach fruition because RMAs are not the product of technology alone. Marshall emphasized the doctrinal and organizational underpinnings too. He argued it takes time to develop new concepts of operations, to create new military organizations to execute them, for militaries to acquire new skills, and for new military career tracks and specialties to be created. Stephen Peter Rosen’s (1991) work on military innovation suggested that it may even require a generational change for new ideas and new fighting methods to take root. What is distinct about the current period, Marshall argued, is that we are more self-aware than previous generations that we are in the midst of a revolution.


The idea of an “information technology” revolution in military affairs (IT-RMA) became deeply embedded in American defense planning during the 1990s and evolved into a call for “transformation” or more precisely transformational innovation (Berkowitz 2003; Dombrowski and Ross 2003; Macgregor 2003; Metz 2006; O’Rourke 2006; Adams 2008). The existing rate of change with which the military had become comfortable was incremental and gradual. It fit the strategic context since the end of World War II. Transformation advocates called for radical and rapid change to fit a future that was far less predictable. The key to military success in the future would not be military mass but information superiority. Overwhelming force would be less important than decisive force. Military operations would emphasize agility and speed, and occur concurrently rather than sequentially, challenging the linear operational concepts that had shaped training, doctrine, and equipment since the Civil War (Blaker 2007:14).

Transformation was exclusively futuristic oriented, focused on “creating” the future. It was intimately linked to the changed geopolitical environment, which had deprived the US defense establishment of a Soviet threat. Rather than waiting for others to thrust a future upon the United States, the effort was focused on preparing for the emergence of a future peer or near-peer competitor, or even a coalition of challengers. The language of revolution and transformation began to emerge in all of the military’s post–Cold War planning documents. In 1996 the Joint Chiefs of Staff published Joint Vision 2010 (JV2010), a conceptual template built on four operational concepts – dominant maneuver, precision engagement, focused logistics, and full dimensional protection – and the assumption that information technology and precision strike had brought about a basic change in how wars would be fought on land, sea, and in the air. Joint Vision 2020, released in June 2000, built upon JV2010 to guide the continuing transformation of US armed forces. It moved beyond technological innovation to address innovation in all aspects of the force. JV2020 projected a military that would dominate the full spectrum of military operations, from low-intensity conflicts to major theater wars, with information superiority.

The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) declared transformation to be at the heart of a new strategic approach (Department of Defense 2001). The backbone of information technology that had fueled dramatic changes in business and society would transform the military as well. But technology did not refer to a silver bullet, like smart weapons, which unfortunately became its symbol in the popular imagination. Rather, as explained by Admiral William Owens, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1994 to 1996, success required the ability to integrate several kinds of information technology into a “system of systems” (Owens 1995). The first set of technologies gathers information. Intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) provides battlespace awareness. The second set of technologies transfers information and correlates evidence – command, control, communications, and computers (C4). The third set of technologies – smart munitions – provides the ability to apply force with precision and accuracy.

It was left to Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, tapped to be the first Director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Force Transformation (OFT), which he held from the office’s inception in 2001 until 2005, to develop and promote a conceptual framework for transformation (Office of Force Transformation 2003). OFT’s October 2004 publication Elements of Defense Transformation examined the key elements of defense transformation, its scope, urgency, and requirements. Cebrowski envisioned transformation as the coevolution of concepts, processes, organizations, and technology (Cebrowski and Garstka 1998). His key doctrinal innovation, “network centric warfare,” explained how the military could most effectively exploit the technological capabilities that the information revolution had made available. Technology offered more information but military organizations could choose how to use the information. Those choices have important consequences for military organization, authority, and structure. Technology could provide central decision makers with better and timelier information; or it could spread the information laterally throughout the organization at the same time that it passed the information upward. The first approach reflected the organizational structure and command and control model of the Industrial Age. The second approach – what Cebrowski called “network centric warfare” – would undermine the Industrial Age hierarchical structure, particularly if decision authority flowed outward along with information. Cebrowski argued that a common understanding based on sharing the same information coupled with well-trained personnel would allow military forces to self-synchronize their actions faster. This would dramatically increase military effectiveness over a command and control model that depended upon forces responding to central direction (Blaker 2007:48–50).

Cebrowski argued that the vertical and compartmentalized organizational structures of the Industrial Age could not take full advantage of what information technologies offered. They channel information upward, which requires more time to correlate across different perspectives. Network centric warfare offered a different organization, structure, and way of thinking about warfare that Cebrowski had observed in the commercial sector in the 1990s. Companies had come to see that the power of computers was less in their numbers than in the extent to which they were linked together through networks. “Military power in the Information Age would come from the networks that linked military units, turning a military force into something that was more powerful than the sum of its parts” (Blaker 2007:51). Cebrowski saw network centric warfare as a theory of war.

The Revolutionaries and their Critics

The “revolutionaries” in the US defense establishment – Andrew Marshall, GEN John Shalikashvili, VADM William Owens, VADM Arthur Cebrowski, and SECDEF Donald Rumsfeld – all believed that the military systems, operations, organizations, and force structures that dominated major military establishments during the Cold War would be superseded by new, far more capable means and methods of warfare and by greatly modified military organizations (Owens with Offley 2001; Rumsfeld 2002). Because these changes would alter the nature of the military competition in peace and war, there would be profound consequences for global and regional military balances. History suggested that commensurate changes in the past had led to the rapid decline of dominant military organizations that could not or would not adapt to their changing environment. Exploiting these changes had to be an integral part of the US military’s planning and operations.

For its proponents, the revolution in military affairs seemed to promise solutions to many post–Cold War strategic dilemmas. Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the enduring realities of the fog of war, at the Cold War’s end, the IT-RMA promised to increase military strength while cutting costs in weapon systems and overseas deployments, an immensely attractive option for a military undergoing downsizing and cost reductions. It offered a way to guarantee military superiority for the foreseeable future and to delay the emergence of a peer competitor by making it too costly for others to catch up and keep pace. The most important benefit could be the rejuvenation of the political utility of military power (Metz and Kievit 1995:6) given low American tolerance for casualties. Nonlethal weapons and surgical strikes promised a way to reduce the risk to American troops and to innocent civilians. Finally, the end of the Cold War had not ushered in an era of order and stability but rather confronted the United States with a whole host of challenges including “rogue” states, international crime syndicates, terrorists, civil wars, and ethnic conflicts. The United States needed a force that was flexible, adaptable, and deployable enough to deal with any contingency anywhere in this new uncertain world. Information superiority offered a way for the United States to prevail across the spectrum of conflict from major war to low-intensity conflict to peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. The attractiveness of the RMA was its promise of increased military effectiveness at reduced cost and risk, a solution to the post–Cold War paradox of ill-defined threats, growing operational demands, and limited resources.

The revolution in warfare concept and the revolutionaries themselves inspired a range of critiques. Two chief lines of criticism are worth noting. Both reject the most dramatic version of twenty-first century conflict – that improvements in existing core technologies constitute the foundation for a fundamentally new way of war which the United States can marshal to retain its position of preeminence in the international system (O’Hanlon 2000).

The first line of critique, advanced by Stephen Biddle (1998; 2004), is an existential one and asserts that an RMA is not currently under way. Rather, what we are witnessing is the continuation of a century-long increase in the importance of skill in managing complexity. Military organizations vary in their ability to reduce vulnerability. Recent wars have revealed a widening of the gap in skill levels between those combatants that can reduce their exposure to increasingly potent weapons and those that cannot. Wars between skilled and less skilled militaries, like the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War, have become more lopsided over time but this does not mean a revolution is under way. Previous revolutions typically have been identified when a first class power is defeated by new warfare methods. Iraq was not a first class power. Biddle argues that the impact of technology on military outcomes is greatly reduced in a contest between highly skilled opponents.

For Biddle, the key is not technology per se but the ability to skillfully use it. It was not so much the technologies of the tank and radio that produced blitzkrieg as the Germans’ emphasis on training, education, and adaptation. The dominant technological fact of the modern battlefield has been increasing lethality, rendering mass movement in the open suicidal. Vulnerability to increasing lethal technologies can be minimized with cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit independent maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level – what Biddle calls the “modern system.” But this is difficult to master. With increasing lethality, the inability to apply countermeasures means that full exposure produces increasingly severe consequences for those who are less skilled, resulting in greater disparities in military outcomes. “The net result has thus been a growing gap in the real military power of states that can and cannot implement the modern system, but surprisingly little change over time in outcomes between mutually modern-system opponents” (Biddle 2004). To the extent that we identify revolutionary discontinuities in warfare by their effects, we risk misdiagnosing the causal forces at work, particularly if we look at confrontations between those with vastly different skill levels. Such disparities in outcomes would disappear if fought between equally skilled opponents.

From Biddle’s perspective, the complex of technologies that are purported to underwrite the current revolution in warfare merely serve to increase the lethality of modern armed forces and hence the disparity in outcomes when modern militaries engage with less capable opponents who have not yet mastered the skill set necessary to counter effectively. Force employment, not technology, is what is transformative. And that can only be assessed between similarly skilled adversaries.

Frederick Kagan levels a related critique in Finding the Target (2006). Kagan attributes the current troubles facing the US military and the debacle in Iraq to efforts to transform the armed forces without any consideration for real threats or the realities of war. Military transformation requires the existence of a threat and efforts to solve real tactical, operational, and strategic problems. Transformation that is focused only on one’s own capabilities is false transformation. Real transformation occurred in the years after the Vietnam War: when confronted with a serious Soviet threat, the United States adopted the all-volunteer army and upgraded its personnel and weapons. Rumsfeld’s technology-based transformation, which was launched during the strategic pause when the Soviet threat had disappeared, lost sight of the nature of warfare, particularly the human dimension, a critique that dovetails with Biddle’s more theoretically rigorous discuss of human skill levels.

The second line of critique is a practical one, namely that the RMA as a policy direction is a risky path for the United States to pursue because it will undermine US power and influence. There will be few benefits for the missions the US military is most likely to face, and it will encourage balancing by adversaries and unease among friends.

Politically, translating uncontested military superiority into political influence is not automatic. The quest for military preeminence is rarely viewed as benign and risks triggering a backlash against US foreign policy, even among allies. Technological superiority of the alliance leader also increases the difficulty of coordinating military efforts with allies as the capability gap grows (Mitchell 2006). A significant gap between US and European allied military capabilities was already evident in Kosovo operations (Terriff et al. 2009). Allies had fallen so far behind the United States in the use of precision-guided weapons, satellite reconnaissance, and other modern technologies that they were no longer equipped to fight the same way. Lack of interoperability not only causes problems on the battlefield but also in efforts to forge political consensus about how to execute military operations with less technologically advanced partners confined to “boots on the ground” roles.

Strategically, the chance of securing a decisive advantage is also questionable. History shows that military leaders rarely sustain their lead without a challenge; and leadership invites challengers (Layne 1993). Competition creates a powerful incentive for states to respond to the military practices of the most successful states in the system because states fear the disadvantages that arise from being less competitively organized and equipped, particularly where military capabilities are concerned (Resende-Santos 1996).

New technologies and ideas also diffuse over time and this natural process undermines military preeminence (Goldman and Eliason 2003). Transformation leaders do not long monopolize “their” transformations, leaders are frequently surpassed by followers, and the advantage often goes to followers. Leadership in effecting a military transformation is no guarantee of victory while wholesale replication of innovations by followers is not necessary for success. Limited, selective emulation and adaptation can be sufficient to shift the balance of power and influence. Military revolutions are nearly impossible to steer and control, if only because their roots are typically nonmilitary (Goldman and Ross 2003; Vickers and Martinage 2004).

Operationally, transformation of the sort envisioned by RMA visionaries could create significant vulnerabilities that do not currently exist. The United States would be sacrificing mass and diversity, which provide insurance against the unforeseen, for information systems that are vulnerable to attack and disruption. Defense of information systems is possible but defenses compromise the ability of the network to function as envisioned (Harknett and the JCISS Study Group 2000). Networked systems are also more vulnerable than are hierarchical structures to malign individuals.

Finally, the post-conventional combat phase of the war in Iraq shows that RMA transformation is not helpful for the threats the United States currently faces and most likely will continue to face (Boot 2005). Information technology may contribute the most added value for major theater wars, for which the United States already possesses overwhelming capabilities (Boot 2006a). For the range of scenarios that fall under the rubric of “irregular warfare,” conflict is likely to occur in urban settings with opponents who are indistinguishable from the civilian population. The surge in Iraq showed that “boots on the ground” and human intelligence rather than high technology systems were critical to altering the local balance of power.

Defining Revolutions in Warfare

Scholars and policy analysts agree that revolutions in warfare dramatically increase combat effectiveness through changes in technology, supporting systems, doctrine, and organization. The relative priority among these different elements of change can vary from revolution to revolution. Although there is a tendency to focus on the technical capabilities that underwrite military advances and increase the lethality, range, and/or defensive capability of the military units that employ them, historically, the doctrinal, organizational, and macro-social dimensions have been as – if not more – significant for enhancing military performance (Boot 2006b).

Technical advances have seldom been sufficient to produce a revolution in warfare. Profound changes in war-making have occurred during periods of static technology, and what may appear to be extraordinary change in the tools of war may have little political or military significance. While the invention of the atom bomb was sufficient to launch its own military revolution, in the twelfth century the small Mongol nation needed no new technology to create one of the most effective war fighting methods the world has ever seen.

Military revolutions usually require changes in how militaries are organized and operate. Examples include Mongol mobile archery tactics, the Swiss pike square, English integration of pike, longbow, and cavalry, the use of drill by Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus, and Napoleon’s general staff system. But just like technological innovations, organizational innovations may be highly significant but insufficient to produce a revolution. Some doctrinal and organizational innovations would not be possible without technological advances. Blitzkrieg, for example, relied on dive-bombers, high-velocity antitank guns, and tanks.

A number of macro-level social, political, and economic transformations in society as a whole have dramatically increased military effectiveness. In the seventeenth century, Prussia surmounted local opposition to centralized taxation and this allowed the state to maintain an army of great size. In 1694, the British founded the Bank of England, a centralized source of credit for financing war that allowed them to underwrite expansive naval efforts which the French, who lacked a comparable credit mechanism, were never able to match. In the early eighteenth century, the fusion of the Prussian nobility and officer corps created a collective sense of honor, established financial self-sufficiency for the state, and resulted in an army of greater efficiency and cheapness than any other European force (McNeill 1984:154). Some of the most significant macro-social innovations were monarchical absolutism, centralized taxation systems, market economies, industrialization, and revolutionary nationalism.

Scholars who have studied revolutions in warfare have different perspectives on what constitutes a revolution, or how one should operationalize this variable, and whether we are in the midst of one now. Most scholars define a military revolution by its effects. According to Krepinevich (1994), a military revolution is “what occurs when the application of new technologies into a significant number of military systems combines with innovative operational concepts and organizational adaptation in a way that fundamentally alters the character and conduct of conflict.” It “produces a dramatic increase – often an order of magnitude or greater – in the combat potential and military effectiveness of armed forces.” Knox and Murray (2001:6–7) also define a revolution in warfare by its effects. They fundamentally change the framework of war; and they recast society and the state as well as military organizations.

There has yet to emerge a consensus definition or agreement on the classification of historical cases. In his seminal 1994 article, Krepinevich identified ten revolutions between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries: infantry; artillery; sail and shot; fortress; gunpowder; Napoleonic; land warfare; naval; interwar mechanization, aviation, and information; and nuclear. Arguably, land warfare, naval, and interwar all derive from the industrialization of warfare.

Knox and Murray (2001:6) identify only five: the seventeenth century creation of the modern nation-state; the French Revolution; the Industrial Revolution; World War I; and the advent of nuclear weapons. For Knox and Murray, military revolutions constitute fundamental changes in the social, political, and military landscapes. These are massive upheavals that bring about changes in politics and society; they recast society, the state, and military organizations. These periods of violent revolutionary change are followed by periods of calm during which militaries adapt to major changes in their environment based on the pattern of punctuated equilibrium identified by evolutionary biologists. Revolutions in military affairs is the term they reserve for these lesser transformations that follow in the wake of the upheavals of military revolutions, when military organizations devise new ways of destroying their opponents by coming to grips with the fundamental changes in their environments brought on by military revolutions. Revolutions in military affairs by definition are susceptible to human direction. For example, creation of the modern nation-state and modern military institutions in the seventeenth century ushered in Dutch and Swedish tactical reforms. The French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution paved the way for Napoleonic warfare, the railroad, rifle, and telegraph revolutions of the industrial era, and Britain’s revolutions in naval warfare associated with Sir John Fisher in 1905–14. The upheaval of World War I was followed by the interwar revolutions we associate with blitzkrieg, strategic bombing, and carrier warfare.

Goldman and Andres (1999) define a military revolution as a set of innovations that allow an entrepreneurial state or empire, which successfully exploits the potential of an integrated set of military inventions effectively in battle, to demonstrate a clear superiority over older techniques of battle. Evidence of such impending change typically reveals itself in peripheral wars and battles. Krepinevich (1994:40) argued that the Gulf War may have been such a “precursor war – an indicator of the revolutionary potential of emerging technologies and new military systems.” Goldman and Andres identify a dramatic rise in military effectiveness when a set of inventions is combined in a unique and innovative way and is proven in battle against a first class power. Examples include England’s defeat of the French at Crècy in 1346; Venice’s defeat of Turkish oar-driven galleys at Lepanto in 1571; England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588; Swedish defeats of the Hapsburgs in 1631–4; Napoleon’s victories in the War of the Second Coalition in 1800; and Prussia’s defeat of Austria in 1866 and France in 1870. Possessors achieve a crippling advantage in a confrontation with a major power, which dramatically alters the nature of military competition. By this set of indicators, they identify twelve significant turning points that represent revolutions in war-making, adding to Krepinevich’s list the defeat of the Chin dynasty of Northern China by the Mongols in 1211–15. The contributions of one set of innovations tend not to be lost when new innovations prove themselves. France’s revolutionary use of artillery in the fifteenth century incorporated the English infantry tactics that preceded it, and acquisition of nuclear weapons did not result in the United States dispensing with the mobile armor tactics that Germany pioneered between the wars.

Andrew Ross (forthcoming) adopts a different approach to the question of how we define a military revolution, and by extension whether we are currently in the midst of one. He embeds his discussion in theories of innovation pioneered by Clayton Christensen (1997) and identifies a revolution by the “type” of change that occurs. Ross argues that revolutions require innovation, but not all innovation is transformational. Most innovation involves incremental advances in technology, doctrine, and organization. This is “sustaining” innovation, or what those in the defense community refer to as modernization. Revolution involves discontinuous or non-incremental innovation. There are different types of discontinuous innovation and they vary along two dimensions: hardware (weapon, platform, or system) and software (doctrine and organization). Technological breakthroughs occur when discontinuous innovations in hardware are coupled with incremental innovations in software. Examples include the introduction of battleships, aircraft, tanks, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, and most recently global positioning systems (GPS). Architectural breakthroughs occur when discontinuous innovations in software are coupled with incremental innovations in hardware. Examples include blitzkrieg, the all-volunteer force, and jointness.

Ross notes that rarely do we see discontinuous innovation in both hardware and software, producing truly disruptive innovation. Typically one dimension of innovation (hardware or software) lags behind the other. The technology of the tank and aircraft carrier preceded the doctrinal and organizational innovations that applied them in a novel breakthrough manner. Missile defense doctrine, on the other hand, has preceded the necessary technological capabilities to forge a breakthrough. Ross concurs with Krepinevich on the identity of previous historical examples of disruptive innovation. He is far more skeptical about the current period, arguing that both technology and doctrine are following a linear rather than discontinuous trajectory.

Causes of Revolutions in Warfare

Much of the writing on revolutions in warfare has focused on defining and describing them rather than theorizing about their causes and consequences. While the debate among military historians about revolutions in warfare has focused on how changes in military tactics and/or technology produced larger political and social changes, contemporary scholarship in the fields of political science and strategic studies has treated changes in warfare as a dependent variable and examined the relative causal impact of factors that produce such changes in warfare. Two key lines of argument can be discerned. The “economic determinist” school argues that revolutions in warfare are thrust upon militaries. The “contingent innovation school” argues that revolutions are made by innovators who exploit technological opportunities.

For the economic determinist school, the information RMA is an inevitable outgrowth of fundamental social, economic, and political changes marking the information age. The strongest proponents of the economic determinist school are futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler (1993). They use a very restrictive definition of revolution based on macro-level economic structure, and argue that “A military revolution, in the fullest sense, occurs only when a new civilization arises to challenge the old, when an entire society transforms itself, forcing its armed services to change at every level simultaneously – from technology and culture to organization, strategy, tactics, training, doctrine, and logistics.” The Tofflers argue that the “way a society makes war reflects the way it makes wealth.” Military power reflects a society’s underlying basis of economic strength. They identify three revolutions: agrarian, industrial, and informational. The “First Wave” of human development relied on agricultural production and war sought to seize and hold territory. The “Second Wave” relied on industrial production and warfare was a struggle of attrition whose purpose was to wear down the enemy’s capacity to feed, clothe, and equip its armed forces. The information revolution represents an equally seminal change because information has become the basis of economic strength in “Third Wave” states. Information is more than simply a tool for operational control. It has become a strategic asset. “Third Wave” warfare seeks to erode or destroy the enemy’s means of collecting, processing, storing, and disseminating the prime strategic asset of information.

The contingent innovation school focuses on the actions of specific farsighted individuals who recognize technological opportunities and launch a process of doctrinal and organizational reform to exploit these opportunities. Their approach is agent based rather than system based. Innovators may reside within civilian society (Posen 1984) or within the military (Rosen 1991; Pierce 2004). So, for example, the tank and the airplane were available to all the great powers during the interwar years but it was the Germans who innovated blitzkrieg and the Americans and Japanese who innovated carrier based warfare. For proponents of transformation today, the 1991 Gulf War revealed the potential of emerging technologies that can be exploited by a dramatic revision of doctrine and restructuring of organization. Although the consequences of revolutionary change are most dramatically revealed in wartime, the process of change typically occurs in peacetime when there is more time for experimentation and less risk for wrong decisions (Rosen 1991; Fitzsimonds and Van Tol 1994).

The debate about the causes of revolution feeds into a much larger literature on innovation (Grissom 2006). If technology presents opportunities, why do some states exploit them while others do not? The civil–military model attributes innovation to the influence of visionary civilians who intervene to promote change (Posen 1984; Zisk 1993; Avant 1994). The interservice model attributes innovation to resource scarcity. Services compete for new mission areas to maximize resources and this results in innovation (Sapolsky 1972; Bacevich 1986; Cote 1998). The intra-service model looks at competition among branches within a particular service, to the willingness of junior officers to embrace new missions, and to a professional military climate that fosters critical thinking (Davis 1967; Rosen 1991). According to the cultural model of military innovation, culture shapes the content of innovation, blinding militaries to some courses of action and privileging others (Kier 1997; Terriff 2006a; 2006b; Farrell 2008). At the transnational level, cross-national professional military culture can promote emulation and innovation (Farrell 2001).


Revolutions in warfare are the product of both internal processes of military innovation and external processes of diffusion. A growing body of scholarship focuses on how innovations diffuse through the international system, advantaging some states over others and producing shifts in the balance of power. Research on the way that new war fighting approaches diffuse across the international system sheds light on how revolutions in warfare unfold and on their systemic consequences.

Competition is a major spur to the spread of revolutions in warfare. Because states fear being less competitively organized and equipped, military organizations closely monitor each other’s capabilities, particularly during periods of dramatic change (Waltz 1979). “More than any other institution, militaries tend to copy one another across state borders, and with good reason. War is a matter of Darwinian dominance or survival for states, and of life or death for individuals. When an army confronts new or different weaponry or practices on the battlefield, it must adapt to them, and often adaptation takes the form of imitation” (Lynn 1996:509). Geography, factor endowments, and strategic circumstances will influence which practices states adopt and how faithfully they emulate the leader (Elman 1999) but given mission requirements, competition is a spur to the spread of revolutionary military innovations.

Spheres of influence and alliance obligations also influence how revolutions in warfare spread. If a nation is in a sphere of influence or likely to obtain benefits by positioning itself in a bloc, it may emulate the practices of the bloc leader as a political statement of solidarity. If a nation is a member of a military alliance, it may pursue the modernization plans imposed by the alliance, which could involve emulation to facilitate interoperability or specialization to facilitate complementarity.

Diffusion occurs via commercial as well as military and political channels, particularly in a globalized world. Innovations originate from science, academia, and industry as well as the military so diffusion is not simply a state-to-state process, controlled and managed by central political decision makers in the service of the national interest. This is clearly the case for the key technologies underlying an information revolution in military affairs. There is tremendous commercial pressure for their diffusion because they provide a competitive advantage in the global economy. Although the commercial applications of a technology may encourage its adoption, lack of capital investment, supporting infrastructure, or skill sets needed may impede the ability of states to exploit their military applications fully.

Institutional explanations of two types are relevant to the study of how revolutions in warfare spread. Bureaucratic interpretations of military behavior focus on inter- and intraorganizational competition and infighting. Military organizations have a rational interest in adopting the most effective methods to secure the state, but they also have the goal of bureaucratic survival. If an innovation poses a major threat to the organization’s missions, resources, autonomy, or essence, it may be strongly resisted; innovations that pose no such threats are far more likely to be adopted. Offensive technologies and doctrines are hypothesized to give the organization greater control and resources and so should spread widely (Posen 1984). Bureaucratic theorists predict incremental change due to organizational inertia.

Neo-institutional approaches (so called because institutions are defined as norms) focus on noncompetitive pressures that motivate members of a profession to emulate one another across borders. Technologies, forms, and practices may be widely adopted simply because they reflect the institutionalized cultural values of the world polity (Eyre and Suchman 1996; Farrell 2001; 2005). Organizations strive for institutional legitimacy. Through professional networks, organizations share ideas about the best organizational structures and the most legitimate way to practice their profession. Institutional pressures stimulate the spread of forms and practices across organizations in the same profession, and operate through educational and professional networks via a process of socialization. The more professionalized a field, the greater the convergence in organizational form across the members as they come to share understandings of appropriate behavior and identity. The fact that a form or practice is sanctioned abroad increases the likelihood that it will become a model for emulation.

Security, economic, and institutional forces, both competitive and normative, create incentives for states to adopt revolutionary military innovations. The extent to which a state or organization can launch its own revolutions will be influenced by a host of substate forces that will either stifle change or push it in a particular direction. For example, state strength affects how responsive a government can be to international pressures (Krasner 1979; Zakaria 1998). Strong states are hypothesized to compete more successfully in RMAs because they are able to extract the necessary financial and human resources (Hoyt 1996).

The access to central decision makers by proponents of transformation and the ease of building reformist coalitions are also important for transformation. Centralized state-dominated structures provide reformers with few access points into the political system, but centralization of state authority can facilitate reform if decision makers are committed to change. Decentralized society-dominated domestic structures provide more access but make coalition-building more difficult because of the larger number of veto players who can derail reform (Evangelista 1989; Risse-Kappen 1994). The ability of reformers to build coalitions and coopt potential opponents highlights the role of norm entrepreneurs, their access to the decision making apparatus, and their ability to mobilize political support, implement personnel changes, and redirect investments into new warfare areas (Farrell 2001). Transnational networks also have a role to play in transferring and socializing new ideas and ensuring they are internalized in domestic practices (Risse et al. 1999), while domestic advocacy groups can assist in mobilizing domestic support for new ideas (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Gurowitz 1999; Risse and Sikkink 1999; Farrell 2001). Together, strong transnational networks and mobilized domestic interest groups increase the likelihood of transformation.

While external pressures and strategic threats promote competition and spur states to adopt cutting edge military methods, internal security roles for the armed forces have been shown to have the opposite effect. In his assessment of the RMA in the Middle East, Eisenstadt (n.d.) argues that “one of the most important impediments to achieving an RMA […] will be political. Nearly every military in the region has an internal security role, and each army has praetorian units organized primarily to counterbalance the regular military and prop up the regime. […] [T]hese units get the best in equipment and training.” By contrast, the revolution in warfare associated with Prussian reforms in the 1860s coincided with a shift in the primary emphasis of European regular forces away from police functions to international war. The Ottomans could not emulate the short/active and long/reserve system associated with the Prussian model because they had to use regular forces for police duties to manage their internal security problems (Parry and Yapp 1975).

More generally, political instability and internal violence often prompt civilian intervention into military affairs in the form of frequent rotations of commanders, purges of the officer corps, isolation of officers from foreign sources of expertise or training, and promotions based on political loyalty over military ability – all of which undermine morale, professionalism, and the ability of the military to transform (Biddle and Zirkle 1996). Rosen’s (1996) analysis of the armies of India demonstrates how militaries reflect their societies, and that militaries from highly fractured societies are highly politicized and thus less able to transform. In many cases this is due to pathological civil–military relations that undermine the military’s ability to exploit advanced technology (Biddle and Zirkle 1996); or internal conflict requires the military to assume a domestic policing role, which prevents it from modernizing for external war (Eisenstadt n.d.).

Cultural factors (e.g. shared values about how society should be structured and function, and about the purpose and limits of armed violence) also influence diffusion and transformation. In his critique of Törsten Hagerstrand’s spatial diffusion theory (1967), Blaut (1977:346) noted that “technological innovations tend to be rejected, not through ignorance, but through incompatibility with the existing cultural system as a whole.” Policy makers have rejected out of hand programs that were normatively unacceptable to their citizens despite the effectiveness of the program elsewhere (Robertson 1991). Local cultural models or norms specific to an organization can pose barriers to diffusion (Cameron 1994; Legro 1995; Katzenstein 1996; Kier 1997; Farrell 1998). For example, Eisenstadt and Pollack (2003) conclude from their study of Arab militaries that a society’s culture helps determine which skills and behavioral predilections the nation’s manpower will bring to military service and by extension which military practices can be adopted.

Cross-cultural transfer is rarely complete due to imperfect information, the influence of alternative implicit models based on past experience, conflict between the imported model and valued local patterns, or a different societal scale (e.g. population or geographic area) between the receiving society and the society in which the model originally developed. Checkel (1999) asserts that the impact of new ideas will be greater if they resonate with domestic norms, understandings, and beliefs; if, in his words, there is a “cultural match.” When cultural match is low, diffusion requires elite learning, political mobilization from below, norm entrepreneurs, or personnel changes (Farrell 2001). An alternative argument on how culture affects innovation and transformation is advanced by Goldstone (2008), who focuses not on the content of culture but on the amount of cultural diversity and pluralism that leaders are willing to tolerate. When elites view their role as defenders of a cultural orthodoxy, new ideas that challenge that orthodoxy are resisted and only reforms which restore that tradition are adopted.

Transformation depends as much upon restructuring concepts and organizations as on developing or gaining access to requisite technologies. Social and cultural factors are critical to these processes. Innovations that require significant changes in sociocultural values and behavioral patterns spread more slowly, less uniformly, and with less predictable outcomes. The rate of adoption depends on how compatible the innovation is with existing values and practices as well as past experience and current needs of the adopter.

Future Avenues for Research

Revolutions in warfare are complex social phenomena. Historical and social science scholarship reveals this and discussion in the policy community has come to accept the need to understand and surmount the organizational, social, and cultural challenges associated with dramatic changes in the way militaries fight. While some may equate the current RMA with using aviation to attack key targets with precision munitions, most thoughtful people who have reflected on this would not characterize it that way. A view of revolutions in warfare driven exclusively by technology is a straw man that even the most ardent of enthusiasts would reject; hence the discussion in military professional journals on the doctrinal and organizational changes necessary to leverage new technologies for improved military effectiveness.

Unquestionably, the information revolution has spurred social and economic changes so it makes sense to expect it to impact military affairs. Yet revolutions of this magnitude are impossible to steer and control. Looking back at past revolutions in warfare from the current vantage point, it is tempting to conclude that past trajectories were inevitable, particularly because we are now so conscious of the transformation process. But revolutions involve substantial uncertainty. Innovations present multiple options, not one inevitable pathway. What may seem obvious in hindsight was not nearly so obvious at the time. Much of the thinking about the RMA undoubtedly reflects too strongly a preoccupation with US capabilities and US geopolitical circumstances.

Nor are leaders necessarily the main beneficiaries. This is perhaps where the greatest hubris on the part of the United States lies. Disruptive technologies by definition represent a credible threat to the competitive strength of the market leader. They are disruptive precisely because they do not augment the leader’s existing strength but rather compromise traditional sources of power, growth, and profitability. They create new forms of competition, and thereby new competitors. So for example, new communication and computing technologies, as well as the internet, have facilitated the emergence, coordination, and operations of networked terrorist groups in the Greater Middle East (Van Creveld 1991). The growth of national satellite architectures and the commercialization of space threaten to erode the United States’ near-monopoly in space. Coupled with missile and WMD technology, even middle and small powers may be able to target forward bases and deter US operations abroad. Advanced mines and man-portable, antiaircraft missiles; terrorism and cyber-warfare attacks on critical infrastructure; and protracted and extremely lethal conflicts, are all tailor-made to exploit US vulnerabilities and empower traditionally weaker actors. America’s competitive advantage in technology and in fighting concentrated and in the open is being degraded by competitors that adopt asymmetric strategies including combat in urban environments and other complex terrain because these force the United States into manpower-intensive operations over a protracted period with the prospect of substantial casualties. Historically, this is why status quo powers and leaders in particular, who by definition are status quo in striving to preserve the conditions that have put them on top, tend not to be early adopters. The fact that the United States today took the risky strategy of transforming early on suggests an interesting case to study in greater depth.

Over time, the debate over the RMA has become less about the advent of new ways of waging war than about the nature of the enemy we should be preparing to engage. One rarely gets the enemy one prepares for because adversaries are adaptive and strategy dictates exploiting the other’s vulnerabilities, not challenging their strengths. The blowback against the RMA construct is much more a rejection of the implied and often explicit assumption of many early RMA enthusiasts that planning should focus on a peer or near-peer engagement or conventional operations against a regional power than it is a rejection of the claims about the potential of networked information systems to dramatically improve military effectiveness. In fact, basic information technologies like the internet and GPS have been of tremendous use to nonstate actors that are traditionally weak by conventional standards.

Irregular threats are currently receiving a lion’s share of the attention as the US government and its international partners try to defeat al Qaeda and the global militant Islamist movement. This has given rise to the idea of a “postmodernist” RMA which focuses on the effects of globalization and new types of strategic agents on warfare, similar to the role played by the emergence of nationalism and mass armies between 1500 and 1800 (Conetta 2006). Al Qaeda has proven to be a novel and adaptable adversary. Since 9/11 it has evolved from a unified organization dominated by a powerful leadership core into a loose network of associated groupings spanning the globe with various financial, logistical, and operational ties that exploit the very information systems the United States hoped to leverage most effectively. It possesses a sophisticated propaganda machine that exploits the internet to disseminate and amplify its messages and to recruit adherents. It also exploits the virtual safe haven of the internet for fundraising and operational planning. Whereas strong states have traditionally been perceived to be greater threats than weak states, al Qaeda has reversed that assessment. It benefits from the semi-permissive environment afforded by ungoverned or undergoverned areas which provide physical safe havens for illicit actors to operate freely and from the indirect support provided by corrupt regimes.

A key question is whether the United States and its allies should continue to prepare for a “long war” against violent extremists, or, in the words of Paul Bracken (1993), plan for a future war by creating a “military after next.” Roxborough and Eyre (1999) call for creating four militaries after next corresponding to four likely warfare futures: high-tech systemic war against a peer or near peer; cyberwar by civilians against adversary computer systems; peacewar with soldiers engaged in post-conflict reconstruction environments; and dirty war against nonstate actors that employ asymmetric techniques of insurgency, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. At the close of the Cold War with no threat in sight, the idea of developing capabilities without focusing on a particular threat gained currency. We now face a highly complex security environment, one characterized by a large number of threats, a diverse set of consequential security actors, and an increasingly globalized and interdependent world in which ideas and technologies diffuse at an ever increasing rate. The RMA debate has thus become a surrogate for debate over future threats. Just because current operations are consumed with counterinsurgency and dirty war does not mean those will be the primary demands placed upon a military after next.

In addition to questions about the evolution of contemporary warfare futures that the RMA debate has spurred, a range of more academic questions requires further analysis. Scholarship has surfaced a host of hypotheses on the causes of revolutions in warfare but few studies that rigorously sort out the extent to which revolution is driven by forces internal to the military (or the broader defense/national security establishment) or those external to the military in society and the international system. It is notable that most of the scholarship on revolutions in warfare employs qualitative methods, chiefly case studies. Our understanding would benefit from the insights of scholars employing other methodological approaches, including quantitative and formal methods.

There have been attempts to examine how the current revolution is unfolding in the Asia Pacific region (Goldman and Mahnken 2004) and in Europe (Terriff et al. 2009). These studies are immensely useful for documenting how transformation varies across societies, economies, polities, and cultures, and reminding us that innovations are always exploited in multiple and often unanticipated ways. They also highlight the different types of motivations behind states adopting such transformations. More studies undertaken now in this vein would allow scholars to exploit access to the individuals making decisions about transformation.

Research on revolutions in warfare has for the most part treated the organization or the nation-state as the unit of analysis, ignoring the reactions of other states. One study treated the defense industry as the unit of analysis (Dombrowski et al. 2002) to assess the cascading impact on other sectors of the economy and society. More attention should be given to the systemic consequences of revolution by treating the system as the unit of analysis (Goldman and Andres 1999). How does transformation affect the strategic environment of the state? How will it likely affect future interstate conflict?

Finally, it is worth asking whether, by institutionalizing revolution and transformation, transformation is dead. Can organizations really make transformation routine? Or are we only seeing rhetoric but not the substance of revolution and transformation?

The topic of revolutions in warfare has spurred lively debate in policy circles, equally vigorous discussion in academic ones, and cross-fertilization between practitioners and scholars, as well as across social science disciplines. It has deepened understanding of how military organizations change, how they learn from, emulate, and adapt to one another. It has provided opportunities to study the ways nontraditional actors can exploit and modify new technologies and how those adaptations ripple throughout the system. It has produced a rich trove of case studies and drawn upon a breadth of theoretical approaches from neorealism to constructivism. It is an area that deserves to receive sustained attention because the insights are not purely academic. This research program can influence how militaries invest scarce resources, how organizations prepare their soldiers to fight, and ultimately who will be victorious and who will pay the ultimate cost of defeat in war.


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