U.S. Armed Forces and the Emerging RMA

James FitzSimonds and Thomas Mahnken

April 3, 2002

On Wednesday April 3, two professors from the Naval War College, James FitzSimonds and Thomas Mahnken, gave a talk at SSP entitled "US Armed Forces and the Emerging RMA." Mr. FitzSimonds is a former naval officer and Dr. Mahnken is an academic who has worked at the Office of Net Assessment and on the Gulf War Air Power Survey. They presented the results of a multiyear study they had conducted of the attitudes of US and foreign military officers concerning the future of war. This project sought to address what Mahnken and FitzSimonds identified as commonly made but largely unsubstantiated assertions from the RMA literature about officer attitudes. 2000 officers were surveyed at Joint Professional Military Education centers around the country. The officers varied in rank from 0-3 up to O-9. Focus groups of students were also run at the Naval War College in an effort to flesh out the robust but largely statistical results delivered by the surveys. Finally, Mahnken and FitzSimonds performed a content analysis of 345 articles on the RMA in professional journals between 1990 and 2000.

This project sought to answer three key questions. First, what is the overall attitude of officers towards the proposition of a current RMA? Next, how compelling is the need to transform the armed forces? Finally, what is the depth and character of this transformation if needed?

The survey questions addressed a number of topics, some of which the speakers put under the heading of "Impetus for Change." These questions sought to determine whether there was a perceived need for transformation and why. Here, officers proved remarkably unconcerned about future threats. They were not worried about future adversaries launching long-range precision strikes on fixed facilities abroad, or on carrier battle groups. In focus groups, participants stated the belief that someone higher up than them had thought through the problems of force protection and American ingenuity could successfully counter any prospective vulnerability. Though these surveys were completed before September 11, respondents ranked terrorism as the most likely future threat, beating out weapons of mass destruction and information warfare. The rise of a peer competitor, by contrast, did not trouble the officers much at all.

Questions addressing the future impact of dominant weapons also produced results that surprised many in the audience. Most officers thought that armor and mechanized forces would be as important in 2020 as they are today, although there was lots of uncertainty. There was less uncertainty about the importance of manned aircraft in 2020, which the vast majority of those surveyed thought would be quite high. Interestingly, the US Air Force was the most skeptical about the future of manned aircraft while the Marine Corps was by far the most optimistic. The presenters suggested that this reflected the different ways the services use air power, with the USAF focusing on strike and the USMC focusing on close air support and lift. Related to the last question, most of those surveyed thought that unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) would be dominant weapons in 2020. Over 50% of the officers in each service thought that carrier battle groups would maintain their current level of importance into 2020. Overall, the Army and the USMC were most enthusiastic about current systems while the Air Force proved the most open to change.

Asked about new ways of war, most believed that space war and information warfare were very likely in the future. However, with the exception of intelligence communications, and cryptanalysis officers, very few officers worried that future adversaries could deny the United States the use of its information networks. Survey questions addressing the impact of the RMA on the future character of war produced very interesting results. Officers from allied nations surveyed while receiving professional military education in the US overwhelmingly thought that it would be easier for the US to use force, the risk of casualties would be lower, and decisive battlefield victories will be easier in the future. The Air Force was almost as open to change as the foreign officers, while the Army and Marine Corps members tended to be more skeptical or uncertain.

When asked about the character and depth of the present transformation, tremendous uncertainty was the order of the day. Officers were uncertain concerning whether or not the military was currently embarked upon a path to radical change. Most officers did believe that their service was serious about exploring new ways of warfare although this result does reflect the fact that 100% of Marines believed this strongly. Almost all those asked had little idea of what was going on in other services, which is perhaps to be expected. When faced with the prospect of sacrifices, few were enthusiastic about change. Virtually none of those surveyed thought investment in new approaches should be traded for a reduction in force structure. A similarly small number were willing to make sacrifices in readiness to achieve transformational goals.

This presentation was full of cautionary notes for policymakers. The results of Mahnken and FitzSimonds' project seem to suggest that transformation fever has yet to take root below the level of the top flag officers and civilian officials. Officers see little in the way of future threats that could justify a massive transformative effort. They perceive both their personal vulnerability as soldiers, and the vulnerability of the nation, to be relatively low. Moreover, they think that American ingenuity is enough to keep current weapons platforms dominant and safe from attack. Finally, the project showed that talking about transformation is easy, but getting people to believe in it and be willing to make sacrifices on behalf of it is much, much harder.

Dr. Mahnken is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California, and holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University. In addition to his academic duties, he is an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Mr. FitzSimonds is a professor in the Warfare Analysis and Research Department at the Naval War College. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds an S.M. degree from MIT. He retired as a Captain from the U.S. Navy after 27 years of active duty.

Rapporteur: Todd Stiefler

Back to seminar schedule, Spring 2002