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Sunday Book Review: The Culture of Military Innovation


Dima Adamsky’s The Culture of Military Innovation is a very recent contribution to the literature on culture, military innovation, and the Revolution in Military Affairs. Adamsky’s question is this: Why did theorization of the RMA begin in the Soviet Union, while the practical technological developments associated with RMA first took hold in the United States? What explains how and why and state adopts RMA technology and doctrine? Adamsky’s three case studies are the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel, but these aren’t independent observations. Rather, they’re three narratives within the larger story of how RMA doctrine has developed across the international system.

Adamsky’s narrative of the Revolution in Military Affairs begins (or should begin) with the Yom Kippur War, where the Egyptian Army demonstrated the effect that precision guided munitions could have on a conventionally organized army. PGMs helped close the tactical capability gap between the IDF and the Egyptian Army by allowing the poorly trained Egyptians to destroy the much better trained Israelis at stand off distances. The Yom Kippur experience was taken very seriously in Western and Soviet military circles, as it challenged doctrine and force structure in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The rate of attrition on both sides of the Yom Kippur War would have quickly exhausted the belligerents in Europe. Both the Americans and the Soviets began thinking through solutions, with the Americans initially deciding on the Active Defense doctrine combined with a quantitative increase in PGMs, and the Soviets reconceptualizing “deep battle” concepts that went back as far as the 1920s.

Adamsky argues, however, that the most important efforts to reconceptualized warfare in the context of precision guided munitions and advanced information technology happened in the Red Army. Red Army theoreticians, inclined towards seeing warfare as a series of revolutionary cycles, argued that information tech and new PGMs would lay the material foundation for a military-technical revolution. Traditional distinctions between offense and defense, as well as territorial demarcations between conventional armies, would cease to exist between PGM equipped military organizations. Long range PGMs gave a defender the capability to cause serious, mission-killing losses to an attacker before an attack even developed. Similarly, such weapons made possible preparatory attacks on defender staging, mobilization, headquarters, and supply areas. The prevalence of PGMs and information technology would necessitate major changes in doctrine and force structure for any army that wished to avoid virtual annihilation. Future battles would be less about the ability to penetrate, create a breakthrough, and exploit than about disrupting the enemy system of movement, mobilization, and communication.

Adamsky’s key empirical insight is this; the Russians developed the doctrine for the MTR/RMA, but they lacked the material capacity to put its lessons into effect. Soviet technological capacity was more impressive than is oft remembered, but the United States was far, far ahead in the very technologies that made the MTR/RMA possible. By the time that sufficient consensus had built around the MTR in the Red Army, the Soviet Union was politically and economically incapable of providing the material foundation for the new doctrine. In the United States, on the other hand, military theorists were way behind on thinking about PGMs as anything other than force multipliers. This is to say that Americans conceptualized PGMs in terms of quantitative effect rather than qualitative transformation. It wouldn’t be until the early 1990s that Americans began to think seriously along the same lines that the Russians had developed in the 1970s and 1980s. In the American case, of course, the technology would not contradict the doctrine, but rather preceded it.

Adamsky also tells the tale of the RMA in Israel, a story which is simultaneously fascinating and confusing. Adamsky argues that the IDF picked up the overarching RMA/MTR theory around the same time or slightly after the US military, and that the technology-doctrine relationship was similar to that seen in the United States. However, the IDF was carrying out “RMA lite” campaigns in Lebanon prior to the full integration of theory and practice. Integration of doctrine and technology took place in the late 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War and in very close collaboration with the United States. However, Adamsky’s story about the IDF and RMA becomes a bit more confusing after this. She argues, for example, that the IDF considered its reaction to the Second Intifada to be based primarily on RMA principles (even if this didn’t involve high intensity warfare), and suggests a high degree of intellectual ferment within the IDF. However, he also notes the IDF’s (somewhat deserved) reputation for anti-intellectualism, and suggests that many of the key precepts remained controversial as late as 2006. Perhaps out of necessity, he treats the 2006 war very briefly, arguing that some of the Israeli failure can be laid at the feet of a still-incomplete doctrine/technology synthesis and ongoing conflict in the IDF about the proper transformational impact of RMA. This part of the account is more than a touch confusing; on the one hand the IDF gets credit for RMA doctrinal adaptation, while on the other hand intra-organizational conflict excuses poor IDF performance in Lebanon. An alternative interpretation of Lebanon might go as follows: The precepts of MTR/RMA are, at the very least, insufficiently developed in the context of low intensity warfare, and the use of “effects based operations” against non-traditional military organizations remains a problem for theorists and practitioners. MTR/RMA doctrine is was conceived of as a way to cut apart, paralyze, and destroy a modern, high technology military system. Effects Based Operations makes sense in the context of such an organization; rather than focus on simple destruction, key nodes which enable organizational operation are attacked. Non-traditional organizations such as Hezbollah either lack such nodes, or have different vulnerabilities that haven’t been sufficiently specified by the theory.

Adamsky’s story isn’t simply empirical. His explanatory framework focuses on psycho-cultural tendencies in Russia, Israel, and the United States. The argument is that cultural milieu breeds a certain way of thinking that affects how individuals conceptualized the relation of the whole to its parts, and of the present to the future. In the Soviet Union, a holistic theoretical method prevailed that allowed Russian military theorist to grasp the forest even in the absence of the trees. In Israel and the United States, a more practical manner of thinking allowed the planting and cultivation of the trees prior to the conceptualization of the forest, so to speak. I’ll confess that to a reader suspicious of simplistic cultural explanations, there is an element of “Russians drive this way, but Americans drive this way” to this account. It’s unclear, for example, how well such a theoretical framework could predict, as opposed to explain, the adoption of MTR/RMA theory, technology, and practice. Nevertheless, while I found the empirical story more interesting, Adamsky at least makes a serious effort to wed the narrative to a theoretical account.

There’s a lot to like here. Although the story of Soviet military theorization of the RMA has certainly been told before, Adamsky’s account lends analytical clarity to the project, and evokes interesting questions about the relationship between doctrine and technology. Most (although not all) political science work on military doctrine tends to assume that technology precedes doctrine, and that the central difficulty military organizations face is the integration of new technology into existing doctrinal constructs. The offense-defense balance literature is particularly guilty of this, although the situation is improving. Adamsky rejects and even reverses this formulation, observing that theory sometimes precedes technology, and even develops in the latter’s absence. From a common sense point of view this is not particularly shocking; in order for military organizations to identify and push for new technological innovations, they must have some ideational foundation to precede the technological development. Adamsky also gives a relatively short, highly lucid, and quite readable account of the development of RMA in the USSR, the US, and Israel. It’s a worthwhile book for anyone interested in modern military doctrine, military learning, and the application of cultural models to organizational behavior.

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  • Jay C

    Interesting post on a fascinating subject, Rob: good review.

    But I think that a more relevant point-of-origin for the “RMA” might be found prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973: as I have always seen it, it began a decade earlier, in Vietnam.

    The precepts of MTR/RMA are, at the very least, insufficiently developed in the context of low intensity warfare, and the use of “effects based operations” against non-traditional military organizations remains a problem for theorists and practitioners.

    Which is exactly what the US found (to its chagrin) in Vietnam. The technological quality – to say nothing of the quantity – of weaponry available to American forces (and, to a lesser extent, their allies) was far superior to their foes, and got better and better over time but was ultimately virtually irrelevant.The struggle in Vietnam was only partly a military one; the political and social “fronts” were every bit as important (indeed, to Ho Chi Minh, the main ones). But for whatever reasons, the US remained focused on the high-technology aspects of military force and its applications; with results that we saw. Similar, in many ways, to the results Israel got in South Lebanon in 2006, and for many of the same reasons.

    • Robert Farley

      Not really. For one,the North Vietnamese Army was far more advanced than is normally understood; it employed MiG fighters and SAMs that were more or less the technological equivalents of the equipment that the US was using. More importantly, the Vietnam War was conducted in a firmly pre-RMA technological context. PGMs, information technology, advanced communications tech, etc. weren’t really part of the conflict. It’s true enough that the US military tried to use high tech military solutions for political problems, but that’s hardly unique to Vietnam, and isn’t really the same question that animated RMA theorists in either the US or the USSR.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      I thought the lesson the IDF learned from its 2006 debacle was that it was totally unsuited to conducting conventional (more or less) warfare since it had concentrated for so long on low intentsity, anti-insurgent/gureilla warfare.

      • straight shooter

        its not that IDF was poorly suited to conventional warfare (the ideal battle for the IDF would be a straight land & air showdown against states, such as Egypt or Syria).

        The problem with Lebanon in 2006 is that Hezbollah is not a state. It is an amorphous paramilitary organization with some much more advanced suppliers (Iran, Russia).

        By dispersing its missile and rocket-launching points through civilian neighborhoods, Hezbollah made it costly for Israel to engage the attacker. When there are Israeli caused civilian casualties (which Hezbollah was ensuring) the international choir comes down disproportionately harsh.

        Hezbollah’s greatest asset is not military/technological, it is that the international political climate considers Israeli self-defense intolerable.

  • blowback

    Why were the Russians surprised by the initial success of the Egyptian Army’s strategy in the Yom Kippur war since they had designed it to allow a rather poor conscript army to take on what was claimed to be one of the best armies in the world and have a chance of fighting them to a standstill to achieve their political objectives? If I remember correctly the Israelis conned the Egyptians into casting this strategy aside, adopting more traditional tactics and this allowed the Israelis to maul the Egyptian Army.
    BTW, where SAMs and ATGMs used in Yom Kippur really PGMs? I don’t think so. Modern fire-and-forget missiles could be classified as such though.
    As for the IDF, the outcomes of Gulf War 1 and Gulf War 2 suggests that their abilities were and are grossly overated.

  • Daragh McDowell

    Excellent review Rob. Might I add that

    In the Soviet Union, a holistic theoretical method prevailed that allowed Russian military theorist to grasp the forest even in the absence of the trees.

    is a theme that appears constantly throughout Soviet military history (at least in my experience of studying it.) Tukhachevsky developed ‘deep operations’ which the Germans would adapt as Blitzkrieg even before the Soviet Union was able to field the large armoured forces that comprised its backbone. In the US, the newer theories of armored warfare were still greeted with skepticism up until the fall of France.

    One of my favourite examples of Soviet military thought is their thought on nuclear weapons. Even after the psychological shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Soviets realised that nukes were only as effective as their delivery systems and their ability to be incorporated into the overall strategic mission of the forces. Thus Soviet conception of the ‘second’ Revolution in Military Affairs (the one immediately prior to the one being discussed above) focused on the effects of ballistic missiles as delivery systems of nukes, rather than nukes per se, again before the Soviets were capable of fielding a significant ICBM force.

    Whew – after all that showing off I’ve a couple of questions for Rob. To what extent do you think the academic military culture under discussion is affected by overall Soviet doctrine on command hierarchies (that is overwhelmingly ‘vertical’ structures in which a commander is given near total control over the resources and forces in his area of operations vs. NATO/Western command hierarchies in which the ‘combined arms’ of a front are under the control of several different commanders?) Conversely how much is it affected by Soviet conceptions of the ‘armed forces’ as one component in the overall military struggle, which theoretically involves society as a whole?

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