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Land Warfare in the 21st Century

Authored by Colonel James M. Dubik, General Gordon R. Sullivan

February 1993

33 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Land warfare in the 21st century will be shaped by the cumulative effects of many revolutionary changes that have yet to merge in a clear or predictable pattern. This paper identifies three elements of change that are likely to have the greatest impact on the Army and the joint conduct of land warfare.

First, the international system is undergoing its third major transition of the 20th century in response to the end of the cold war.

Second, changes in military technology are culminating in what many believe will be a "military-technical revolution" that brings unprecedented depth and transparency to the battlefield.

Finally, this paper cautions that change will inevitably coexist with at least three constants--the root causes of war, the nature of war, and the essence of fighting power. Preparation includes traditional non-quantifiable factors as much as technology. Leadership, courage, self-sacrifice, initiative, and comradeship under extreme conditions of ambiguity, fog, friction, danger, stark fear, anxiety, death, and destruction--all remain the coins of war's realm and no amount of technological advance will degrade their value.

A central message of this paper is for strategists to carry the best of the present forward as we adapt to the revolutionary changes on the horizon. Land warfare will remain a vital component in the national military strategy, but only if we understand and respond to the forces that are shaping the battlefields of the 21st century.


The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war have given rise to a national debate unmatched since the end of World War II. Dramatic changes in the international system have forced policymakers to reevaluate old strategies and look for new focal points amidst the still unsettled debris of the bipolar world. At issue is the role of the United States in a new world order and its capabilities to defend and promote its national interests in a new environment where threats are both diffuse and uncertain and where conflict is inherent yet unpredictable. The degree of uncertainty in the global security environment parallels revolutionary changes in military technology and in the traditional concepts of how we employ military forces. Together, these trends require greater flexibility in U.S. military strategy and significant departures from cold war concepts of deterrence and war fighting. This paper examines their cumulative effect on land warfare of the future. Only by dealing with these questions today will we be able to make the investment and force structure decisions to best position ourselves for tomorrow.

These are times of both continuity and change, and must be understood as such. Complex changes are never complete breaks from the past; evolutionary and revolutionary changes coexist, each shaping the other. This relationship between continuity and change is discussed in the introduction to A.T. Mahan's famous work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. There he tells strategists, "While many of the conditions of war vary from age to age with the progress of weapons, there are certain teachings in the school of history which remain constant." Then he cautions: "It is wise to observe things that are alike, it is also wise to look for things that differ."

This paper follows Mahan's advice. It will describe how much in the realm of warfare is changing and where those changes are headed. The essay is developed in three steps: changes in the context within which war is fought; technological changes in the conduct of land combat; and, continuities in the nature of warfare. Change and continuity, when taken together, provide a foundation for examining 21st century warfare.

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