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Armed Conflict in the 21st Century: The Information Revolution and Post-Modern Warfare

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz.

April 2000

129 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Within the past decade, the U.S. military has implemented a number of programs to assess the changes underway in the global security environment and in the nature of warfare. Defense leaders and thinkers have concluded that revolutionary change is taking place and, if the United States develops appropriate technology, warfighting concepts, and military organizations, it can master or control this change, thus augmenting American security. Dr. Steven Metz suggests that official thinking within the U.S. military may be too narrow. The information revolution, he contends, will have far-reaching strategic effects. The transformation it brings will not only be technological, but political, social, ethical and strategic as well.

As he explores the impact that the information revolution may have on the conduct of armed conflict, Dr. Metz introduces a number of ideas which need further analysis, including the potential for the emergence of nontraditional, networked enemies; multidimensional asymmetry; the privatization of security; and the potential impact of technologies like robotics, nonlethality, and nanotechnology. He concludes with an assessment of the features likely to characterize successful militaries in the 21st century.


The German philosopher Hegel held that revolutions are the locomotive of history. According to his theory, every social, political, and economic system builds up tensions and contradictions over time. Eventually these explode in revolution. Taking the argument one step further, Lenin held that a revolutionary did not have to wait for the explosion, but could speed it up, manipulate it, and control it. But Lenin was wrong. One cannot create a revolution in the way that an architect designs a building. Nor is it possible to control revolutions like a conductor leads an orchestra. Revolutions are much too big and complex for that. Those who live in revolutionary times can only make a thousand small decisions and hope that they move history forward in the desired direction. This holds as much for military revolutions as for any other kind.

A “revolution-centric” perspective on the development of war emerged among American strategic thinkers in the 1990s. Now security analysts, military leaders, and defense policymakers, not only in the United States, but around the world, accept the idea that some sort of revolution in military affairs is underway. 1 Its nature and eventual outcome, though, are less clear. One thing is certain: the United States has a greater stake in the revolution in military affairs than any other nation. By definition, revolutions upset existing relationships and hierarchies. Since the current configuration of global political, economic, and military power is favorable to the United States, the chances are that fundamental strategic change will prove deleterious to the American position. Washington is thus faced with the difficult task of modulating, directing, or controlling the revolution in military affairs.

History has seen two types of military revolutions. Operational and tactical revolutions occurred when new technology, operational concepts, or military organizations combined to generate a substantial increase in the effectiveness of military organizations. The revolution of the 1920s and 1930s that led to mechanized land warfare, strategic air war, and carrier war at sea is one example. Strategic revolutions have been much rarer. Alvin and Heidi Toffler suggest that strategic revolutions occur when a much broader shift in the method of production changes the entire panoply of human relationships, thus altering not only how militaries fight, but who fights and why they fight.2 Today American strategic thinkers assume that the world is in the midst of an operational or technological military revolution and plan accordingly. In fact, a strategic revolution may be under way, spawned by and reflecting the information revolution.

Underestimating the extent of the ongoing revolution in military affairs and failing to understand its intricacies and second order effects can endanger American security. The need to think broadly and holistically is pressing. In simple terms, the information revolution is increasing interconnectedness and escalating the pace of change in nearly every dimension of life. This, in turn, shapes the evolution of armed conflict. Whether in economics, politics, or warfighting, those who are able to grasp the magnitude of this will be the best prepared to deal with it.

The architects of the 21st century American military must understand the broad political, economic, social, and ethical changes brought by the information revolution and by its manifestations—interconnectedness and an escalated pace of change. They must understand the effect these changes are having or might have on the evolution of armed conflict. Then, most importantly, they must develop some notion of what characteristics the future American military must have to prosper in the new strategic environment. The better an individual, an organization, or a state understands the nature of a revolution, the better its chances of emerging a winner. By examining the ongoing changes in the nature of armed conflict and thinking expansively, looking for wider implications and relationships, and exploring cross-cutting connections between technology, ethics, social trends, politics, and strategy, the architects of the future U.S. military can increase the chances of ultimate success. This study provides some suggestions on how this might be done.





Part I:
Strategic Context

Part II:
Images of Future War

Part III:
The Mark of Success for Future Militaries

Part IV:
Conclusion and Recommendations


About the Author

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