In the last two decades of the 20th century the "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) has glimmered in the distance, always just out of reach. To many pundits and military analysts all the new technology of the last few decades was seen as capable of causing a fundamental change in how wars are fought. Then came the end of the Cold War, the disappearance of the enormous Soviet army and a new military landscape. This meant there would be no clash of huge mechanized armies in Europe, or anywhere else. The 1991 Gulf War showed that many of the American military technologies worked quite well. U.S. troops could not see more of the battlefield, communicate better, fight faster and roll over the Russian equipped and trained Iraqi army in record time.
But the RMA that developed over the next decade had less to do with technology and more to do with the nature of future wars. With "The Big One" (in Europe against the Soviet Union) now out of the picture, new kinds of wars became more common.
That’s because there have been three major changes since the Cold War days. First, there is a lot of neat new technology that allows for quicker, less bloody conflicts via the use of better sensors and precision weapons that actually work. Second, the current and future wars are smaller than what NATO and the Soviet Union were planning for nearly half a century. These 21st century wars also involved a lot more civilians getting in the way in addition to lots of politics, diplomacy and other complications. Then there is the growing media angle. Mass media has been around for over a century, but it has grown enormously in presence and volume in the last two decades. News is now a 24 hour a day operation and reporters are everywhere. Moreover, the Internet makes is easy for anyone with a camera, or a way with words, to join the media stream and get their story out. All of this has changed the battlefield atmosphere enormously since the Cold War.
The New War involves smaller forces fighting more complicated (by political, diplomatic and media issues) battles. While better sensors and communications gear give troops a better view of the battlefield, the greater presence of civilians and media actually make it a more complicated place. As a result, RMA is going places its first boosters never imagined. And no one knows exactly where the destination is.
Military analysts and planners in the major countries (especially the United States and China) agree that brute force is still important in a major war, and new technology makes the troops of major powers far more effective than in the past. But most of the wars since 1991 have involved irregular forces or nuclear armed nations confronting each other indirectly so as to not trigger a mutually destructive nuclear war. Thus intelligence, special operations forces and precision weapons become the primary tools that nations use regularly. This in itself is not revolutionary as “great powers” have for thousands of years used special operations troops, diplomacy, subterfuge and all manner of deceptions and feints to get their way. Noted military analysts from Shen Tzu to Machiavelli, Clausewitz and a dazzling array of late 20th and early 21st century pundits have recognized that “operations other than war” (OOTW) are the way to go if you can pull it off. It still is and it’s not RMA.