The Iraq Wars and America's Military Revolution

  • Published

The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution by Keith L. Shimko. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 264 pp.

Keith Shimko, a political scientist at Purdue University, convincingly argues that a revolution in military affairs (RMA) took place during the era of the US wars in Iraq, 1991–2003. Although many of the advancements that enabled this RMA trickled in over a period of many years—laser-guided bombs, for example, entered the US inventory in 1968, and Air-Land Battle doctrine developed during the early 1980s—this RMA culminated during the Iraq wars. During Operation Desert Storm (ODS), airpower’s dominance, precision weaponry and targeting, and a “dramatic improvement in information technologies and situational awareness” combined into warfare that was markedly different from that of the recent past. By Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), at the latest, one now planned for the number of targets per sortie instead of the number of sorties per target—a level of improvement that went beyond just greater efficiency. Furthermore, “simultaneity and speed” and the advent of parallel operations may have erased the concept of the battlefield front. New technologies largely nullified the effects of weather for the Americans. During the three-day sandstorm that struck in March 2003, US forces continued combat operations through the use of GPS, JDAMs, radar, and infrared detectors and guidance systems. The Iraqi military, in contrast, could not fight effectively under those conditions. Altogether, “the case for a contemporary RMA is persuasive, if not definitively compelling.”

Shimko provides well-summarized narratives of ODS, OIF, and to a lesser extent, Allied Force and Enduring Freedom. He uses these to test his assertions and to address arguments of those who reject that an RMA has occurred. He must rely on secondary sources because most primary sources remain classified, given the recentness of the wars. The narrative of OIF is particularly helpful in sequencing military operations with changes within Iraqi politics, changes in the US occupation strategy, and the course of the insurgency.

Shimko effectively grapples with counterarguments to his RMA thesis, especially those of Stephen Biddle. The book is essentially a firm but calm retort to Biddle’s assertion that there has been no RMA. Biddle has set such a high standard for an RMA that it is difficult to envision real-world conditions that could ever satisfy his criteria. The assertion that an RMA will have taken place only when “the modern system of warfare” has been “overthrown,” only when it is impossible to hide military targets under any circumstances, and only when either maneuver or firepower—without the support of the other—is able to win a war on its own, is “a conclusion that common sense rejects,” according to Eliot Cohen. Shimko finds common cause with Frederick Kagan’s arguments such as that parallel warfare of 2003 was “a fundamental transformation of warfare.”

The Iraq Wars summarizes the assumptions and claims of network-centric warfare, transformation, and Air-Land Battle and, for the most part, avoids conflating them with the RMA. It also refutes the assertion that because the US military had so much trouble with the occupation and subsequent insurgency in Iraq after the operational victory in 2003, no RMA took place: “Warfare is being revolutionized, not military affairs.” Shimko explains the RMA’s limitations and notes how policy and strategy decisions, politics, wishful thinking, and US military culture combined to create conditions that excellence in conventional warfare could not overcome. For example, OIF successfully accomplished “regime removal,” not “regime change,” the end state the Bush administration sought, because of the administration’s assumptions and hopes about how Iraqi society would react to the war were ill-informed and mistaken. In fact, stabilization is an issue “unrelated to the RMA.” The RMA is most important in relation to conventional warfare, and “[its] limitations derive from the fact that what constitutes militarily relevant assets varies by conflict and opponent,” so this RMA has not obviated the need for sound counterinsurgency practices. Indeed, many of the capabilities of the RMA function to better enable counterinsurgency efforts. At the same time, however, transformation “equated warfare with targeting and efficient destruction,” an idea that will lead one away from a sound counterinsurgency strategy.

The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution accomplishes several tasks well. It analyzes in a manner accessible to persons unfamiliar with the issue the current debate on whether or not an RMA has taken place. It provides concise histories of the wars with Iraq and uses them to address whether or not an RMA took place. The book also prompts one to ask additional questions about war in the twenty-first century, such as the relationship between fairness in battle and the moral legitimacy of advance weaponry, the relationship between warfare and the achievement of policy goals, and the question of equipping and preparing for the wars that are most likely, as advocated by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, or preparing for those that take place once or twice a century but threaten national existence. Shimko’s analysis provides ample fuel for those who advocate preparing first for the most dangerous wars against peer competitors. The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution is required reading for those interested in the RMA debates, US wars during the past 20 years, and the current vector of advanced conventional warfare.

Michael E. Weaver, PhD
Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."