Belief in the global “unipolarity” — a polite word for hegemony — of the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s was underpinned by a belief in the absolute superiority of the US armed forces created by their mastery of the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) which had supposedly given them “full spectrum dominance” of any battle space. Victories in the Gulf War of 1990–91, the Kosovo War of 1998–99, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and that of Iraq in 2003 appeared to support this belief. This year, as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, is a good opportunity to look back at the RMA and judge which of the claims for it have stood the test of time. 

The potential for a new revolution in military affairs was first recognised by Soviet military thinkers in the 1970s. They saw the immense military possibilities created by a combination of the vastly increasing power of computers and optical equipment with speed of communications and range and accuracy of missiles. They recognised, grimly, that in the event of war, this would give the United States the ability to inflict immense damage on Soviet tank armies before they could even get to grips with their NATO enemies. They also recognised that the Soviet economy was entirely incapable of generating this kind of technology itself. 

This technological combination was indeed embraced by the US armed forces, and in creating absolute battlefield superiority in “conventional” warfare for countries possessing this technology over those which do not, the RMA was indeed a worthy successor to previous such revolutions: if not on the scale of the horse and gunpowder revolutions, then perhaps the machine gun or the tank. 

However, the more excitable US boosters of the RMA also forgot a number of critical factors, which echo to some extent earlier historical experience. A decade after the invasion of Iraq these have become all too clear, and just as the RMA appeared to create a foundation for a long period of US supremacy, so its limitations have severely qualified this.

Most importantly, of course, they did not take insurgency into account. Like the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the United States won the initial clashes in Afghanistan and Iraq only to become bogged down in guerrilla and terrorist wars in which its technological superiority was of limited use. Lieutenant General Kalashnikov is dead, but his simple, effective, low-tech rifle lives on. 

Not that the RMA has been by any means completely useless. It gave rise to the drones which are now America’s weapon of choice in fighting al Qaeda and its allies, and improved surveillance has been of great help in Afghanistan. But none of this has won the war for the United States, partly because the RMA has absolutely nothing to contribute to the state-building that has to accompany successful counter-insurgency; and partly because to provide security on the ground against insurgents still requires huge numbers of infantry. 

And those infantry are expensive — as the approximately three trillion–dollar cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars demonstrates. For the other equation that has not been altered by the RMA is that of resources. Weird though it may seem, the Taliban have actually outspent the United States in Afghanistan. A common estimate of the amount it takes to keep their forces in the field is around $400 million a year. The United States is planning to spend 10 times that to support the Afghan National Army and police in the years to come — and has spent an average of something like 200 times that per year to maintain its own forces in Afghanistan. This and the casualties suffered have exhausted the willingness of the US population to continue the struggle. It was indeed because he feared just this that Donald Rumsfeld and his allies mistakenly convinced themselves in the run-up to Iraq that the RMA would allow the United States to win such wars with very limited numbers of troops. 

The other mistake of some of the RMA’s advocates was to believe that it would remain a purely American revolution. The United States undoubtedly will for a long time to come retain a considerable technological edge over China — but no longer the kind of edge that could give it any certainty of victory in a war in China’s littoral waters. 

The US step-back from attempts to maintain unipolarity by military means began in the second Bush term. Future historians may see two events in 2008 as marking a key turning point: the refusal to save Georgia from defeat by Russia, and the decision not to attack Iran. Both decisions were largely driven by a US military command acutely aware of the strain on US military resources. 

On the other hand, perhaps the very limitations of US military power in recent years may have a good effect on China. Chinese officials have told me that the spectacle of America’s travails in the Greater Middle East has cured them of any desire whatsoever to imitate the USSR and challenge the United States for domination of that region. If that is so, then at least something good will have come out of the disasters of the past decade.