Book Review # 3: What exactly is a military revolution?

The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution.  By Keith L. Shimko.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-521-12884-1.  Maps.  Figures.  Notes.  Index.  Pp. xi, 249.  $27.99.

I really liked this book....I mean I really liked it.  It actually taught me a few things, but, more importantly made me think about a subject near and dear to me, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

So, first to the nitty gritty.  Like Ballard's book, Shimko looks at the entire period of America's military involvement in Iraq from 1990-2010, BUT, he also goes back further, to look at what happened to the U.S. Army and the U.S. military in the aftermath of Vietnam and how the American military was able to resurrect itself after that dark period in American military history.  He then goes through a very cogent and well argued comparison of what the American RMA was, wasn't--where it worked well, and where it didn't. 

What I really liked about this book is that Shimko offers an excellent military analysis of exactly what the RMA for the U.S. military was- not something as simple as the invention of gunpowder, the tank, or the airplane..but the introduction of the microchip, sophisticated satellites and computer networks to create what he calls, and I think quite correctly, not a Revolution in MILITARY Affairs, but a revolution in the "reconnaissance-strike" complex of the U.S. military that allowed air power to completely dominate and obliterate Iraqi conventional forces in two conflicts.  This is the real meat of his analysis and why I think this book is so timely.  His balanced look at the impact of not only new technology, but the new AirLand Battle doctrine developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the U.S. shows how technology must be coupled with changes to doctrine, tactics and training to achieve a truly game changing method of waging warfare.

The ability of the USAF and USN to bomb the crap out of any target that can be detected, tracked and engaged is a definite capability that few countries possess.  HOWEVER, what target to bomb the crap out of becomes the problem when fighting insurgents and terrorists.  As Shimko points out, bombing tanks, airfields, and stationary targets is one thing, but finding knuckleheads making IEDs in some cave in Afghanistan to send a little 500lb love to is quite another. 

There are definite limits to this thing called an RMA and what is an RMA for conventional conflict may not be applicable to COIN or counter-terrorist operations.  As much as the jet jockeys and drone pilots like to brag about killing bad guys,what did that really do for U.S. troops in Anbar Province or Helmand Province?  The need to find and fix the target becomes much more of a boots on the ground effort in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, as Shimko correctly argues.  As the Israelis also found out in 2006, when your enemies deliberately hide their sophisticated and target-able weapons like missile launchers among civilian buildings and installations, air power becomes a much more politically risky weapon, in spite of its military capability. 

Shimko continues with an excellent summation of the challenges faced by the U.S. military as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down- What kind of enemy are we likely to fight in the next 20 years?  China?  Russia?  Iran?  Mexican drug lords?  Each of these potential foes could require vastly different military forces and capabilities.  As the U.S. begins to focus more on the Pacific, will the USAF and USN begin to build new aircraft and ships to maintain our dominance of the Global Commons?  What will be the role of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps?  Should Special Operations Forces focus on COIN and CT and allow armored and mechanized troops  to return to their traditional role of preparing for high-intensity conflict?  These are not trivial questions as the U.S. military attempts to not only recapitalize from 10 years of war in an era of HUGE budget deficits and the traitorous (at least in this Grouchy Historians' opinion) sequestration cuts, but allocate a shrinking pot of procurement money for next generation ground vehicles, aircraft and ships.

So, finally, since I complained about the price of an earlier book, I would consider this book much more reasonably priced and well worth the cost.  If you want to read an excellent introduction to the concept of the RMA and how it affected the U.S. military, read this book.


Anonymous said…
Glad you liked the book. Look forward to seeing the JMH review essay.