Book Review: The (Real) Revolution in Military Affairs

Has the United States already lost the modern arms race? Are the Top Gun movies a danger to the United States? The answer to both questions is a definitive ‘yes’, according to Andrei Martyanov in his book The Real Revolution in Military Affairs (2019, Clarity Press), which should make very uncomfortable reading for Western politicians and military commanders.

Why review books about military strategy, when I have no military background or connection? One reason is to identify insights, tools, and perspectives which are transferable to strategic business management, as with my reading of Suvorov’s Science of Victory (which has been stalled during my break from blogging, but which I will return to soon). Another is that any business needs, to a greater or lesser extent, consider the international political environment in its PESTLE scans. Finally, an informed citizen will benefit enormously from having an understanding of the forces shaping the decisions of governments and national leaders – and that is particularly true in this US election year.

This book is a very valuable contribution to the latter two categories. It might spend much of its times discussing weapons systems, but what it’s really about is international relations.

The author was born in Baku, in Azerbaijan, which was then part of the Soviet Union. According to his bio, he graduated from the Kirov Naval Red Banner Academy before going on to serve as an officer both on ships, and on the naval staff. He now lives in the US, working in the aerospace industry. The book reflects this background.

Russian professional writing is more conversational than is usual in Western professional writing, and this is definitely reflected in Martyanov’s style. Although it took a little getting used to, I decided to read the book as if it were a  transcript from staff college lectures. This turned out to be a useful approach. I know that staff colleges and officer training schools exist, but I’ve never really given much thought to what is actually taught.

Some of the examples given in first part of book gave me a better idea. For example, imagine a situation in which military planners need to knock out enemy artillery before it can open fire. How many tanks must be sent on this mission to ensure success? It turns out that there is a mathematical formula for this, as there are for many other scenarios, and these are routinely applied in the planning and conduct of combat. Formulae are developed and refined due to careful analysis of training practices and real-world combat experience.

Understanding this is essential before moving on to Martyanov’s main points. Any military planning, from a small tactical action to strategic planning, builds on a body of knowledge and theory derived from accumulated experience, and from a thorough understanding of the tools and systems involved.

Maryanov argues that this is no longer possible for NATO leaders. In his view (and that of many others) Russia’s development of hypersonic missiles such as the Kindjal has established a new reality, in which Western military planners have no data, and no relevant models, on which they can formulate scenarios.

These missiles, which can carry either nuclear or conventional payloads,  travel at such speed that detecting them is near-impossible; stopping them is completely impossible for any air-defence system that NATO currently possesses or is likely to possess for years to come. These hypersonic missiles also have a sufficiently long range that detecting and destroying their launch site will also be near-impossible, given that they are designed to be launched from submarines, small ships, and mobile launchers. The missiles are also extremely accurate, being both linked to GLONASS (Russia’s GPS equivalent), and also capable of making independent in-flight changes in order to track a moving target. China also now has its own hypersonic missiles, although these are not as advanced as the Russian systems.

This is all very interesting, but why should we care? There are three reasons.

First of all, Martyanov explains that the entire American way of war is obsolete. Carrier groups are now nothing more than fantastically expensive white elephants, since they can be sunk without ever knowing that they were even under attack. Hypersonic missiles mean that any warship, including littoral combat ships, can be sunk as soon as it enters the range of the missile. Since the Russian armed forces can launch the Kindjal from submarines, fighter aircraft, and long-range bombers, this  means that no enemy fleet is safe, anywhere. (China’s missiles are currently, I believe, all land-based – but even this means that any ship within 2,000km of China’s coast (or the various island bases) can be sunk).

Furthermore, NATO armies, particularly the US, are highly networked – but they operate on the assumption that their command and control systems are safely protected behind the battlefield. This no longer applies, since conventionally-armed  hypersonic missiles can target and destroy command posts (up to and including the Pentagon itself), AWACs aircraft, and even communication and surveillance satellites. Ground forces will find very quickly that they are blind and deaf. The US military has also committed its future to the F-35 aircraft – but the F-35 needs to be in contact with its ALIS software network, which is now targettable, making air superiority unlikely.

All of this means that the military environment has changed dramatically. The power projection methods of the United States have been rendered useless.

This brings us to the second reason why we should care. Martyanov points out that many Western countries, but particularly the US and the UK, policy decisions are now made by a class of politicians and media who simply don’t know anything about realities of military planning, and who don’t even understand it exists. Rather, these groups exist in echo chambers in which ever-more abstract arguments have long since replaced sober reflections on realities. Far worse is that even senior military leaders are unable to process the implications of the new technologies. No senior military leaders have experience in fighting peer enemies; their thinking is shaped by the post-Korean war experience of fighting far inferior forces, such as the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. When it comes to Russia, Martyanov does not point out (perhaps it seemed too obvious to him) that the decision-makers of the West still think of the Russian armed forces in terms of the decrepit and demoralized Red Army of the post-Cold War 1990s and early 2000s, not what it has become since. This misconception is dangerous, as it lends itself to a massive misunderstanding of the risks involved in an aggressive anti-Russia policy.

A good example of this might be Top Gun: the 90s classic and its forthcoming sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, still apparently dominate the thinking of both civil and military leaders. The recent award of Navy ‘wings of gold’ to Tom Cruise and Jerry Bruckenheimer reflects a totally outmoded vision of war, but one still dominating the perceptions of the public, politicians, and many military leaders.

Therefore, American way of war is obsolete. Based on expeditionary model; of war in distant places, with the homeland secure. Force projection via carrier air power; land war won due to air superiority. None of these assumptions remain viable given the speed, accuracy, & unstoppable nature of hypersonic cruise missiles.

(As an aside, Martyanov points out that US political & military leaders may come to regret making personal attacks on leaders of the countries they wish to destabilise, such as Saddam Hussein. Gaddafi, Assad, or Putin. They take it for granted thatthey themselves are untouchable; hypersonic cruise missiles mean they can actually be personally targetted upon outbreak of war).

The third reason why we should care is the move to a new, multipolar, world order and the changes we need to make in our thinking in consequence. China is able to become more assertive, since US naval power is no longer a significant factor. NATO’s aggressive position towards Russia is an indication of a very dangerous overconfidence. Russia and China are determined to develop a trade bloc across Eurasia, increasingly incorporating India, Iran, and Pakistan. This bloc is likely to exclude the US, or at least to engage on restricted terms. Lacking any military means to disrupt the process,  the US has no alternative but to watch it happen. Business leaders and analysts would do well to understand this evolving shift in the world economy.

In making this point, I am going beyond what Martyanov says. Nevertheless, if we accept his position that hypersonic missiles are weapons against which there is no defence, then Donald Trump’s foreign policy makes a great deal of sense: withdrawing from littoral conflicts, disengaging with China, seeking better relations with Russia, establishing a Space Force all reflect the new reality. The Democrats’ policies do not reflect military reality, and appear to reflect a continued, misguided, and dangerous, belief in American exceptionalism.

There is more in Martyanov’s book than I have discussed here: there is discussion of the use of combined arms operations, of drone warfare, and of air defence systems, all of which add depth to his arguments, and which are worth reading for their insights into the sober and realistic methods by which Russia makes decisions. Even without this, this book is worth reading to gain a alternative view of how the world is changing, and why.

Image credits: Kh-47M2 Kinzhal. 2018 Moscow Victory Day Parade by kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68926303

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