Skip to main content

Beware the “”RMA’nia!””

Do the high-tech accomplishments of U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm a decade ago herald a new 21st-century era of advances in weaponry and warfare of almost Star-Trek like proportions? Or do the less glamorous and more traditional subsequent experiences of U.S. infantry forces slogging it out with Somali factions and trudging through the mud of Bosnia suggest that, despite undeniable and ongoing advances, future human combat will continue to strongly resemble that of the past?

From the military services to most of the defense analytical community to many military contractors, and to a lesser but real extent also the Office of the Secretary of Defense and many parts of Capitol Hill, defense analysts and officials are leaning towards the first position. The impression is becoming widespread that military technology is advancing at a rate perhaps unheralded since the end of World War II. Indeed, it has become de rigeur to describe the ongoing improvements in technology and associated potential for a fundamental transformation in the nature of military organizations, warfare, and perhaps even in basic national security strategy as well, as a “revolution in military affairs.”

Different people mean different things when using this term today. For one thing, historically there have been at least three fundamentally different kinds of “RMAs,” and proponents of the concept disagree about how to classify the current phase of military innovation. Previous “RMA’s” have sometimes resulted directly from the development of a single technology like the crossbow, gunpowder, or nuclear weapon, sometimes from a fundamental change in how the state organized its resources for security as in the Napoleonic era, and sometimes from changes in the way military technologies were linked together, as in the development of blitzkrieg doctrine or carrier airpower before and during World War II.

RMA proponents and believers also disagree as to whether the 1991 Gulf War was at its core a harbinger of a future era of long-range high-precision efficient warfare—or more of a culmination of trends that had been underway for decades and that could soon be challenged by other trends tending to restore what the 19th century Prussian Carl von Clausewitz called the “fog of war” into armed human combat

But there is a rough consensus that the pace at which information and communications technologies have been evolving, coupled with other late twentieth-century technical innovations, could make current times the most discontinuous period of warfare since modern armored forces, blitzkrieg tactics, combat aircraft, aircraft carriers, and radar were developed in the period from roughly 1915 to 1945. There is also agreement that RMAs do not simply happen; they are created by a combination of technological breakthrough, institutional adaptation, and warfighting innovation.

If this prevalent impression simply amounted to a prediction, it would matter little whether or not its proponents were proved right. We could simply wait to find out, and view the subject as an intellectually interesting one that the general defense policymaker could nonetheless safely ignore. But as noted, most RMA proponents view military revolutions as the purposeful creations of people, and not simply emergent properties that result almost accidentally from a cumulative process of technological innovation. For that reason alone, the RMA debate has important implications. Some concern issues such as coalition operations between different countries and the structure of alliances. But the recommendations of RMA proponents tend to center around the idea that more budgetary resources should be devoted to innovation—research and development, procurement of new hardware, large-scale and frequent exercises and experiments with new technology—and less to nearer-term military concerns such as maintaining all current forces in a high state of warfighting readiness, keeping ample capabilities to handle simultaneous conflicts in places like Korea and the Persian Gulf, or undertaking non-combat operations like those in Bosnia and Haiti

To use the lexicon of the Pentagon’s current official strategy, articulated in Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen’s 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, RMA proponents would put more resources into “preparing” U.S. forces for an uncertain future and less into trying to “shape” that future military environment through American military engagement overseas or in being ready to “respond” to near-term (and lower-risk) challenges to U.S. interests by relatively weak and traditional threats posed by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il.

Even those of us who take a skeptical perspective on this so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA) and the defense policy prescriptions usually offered by its major proponents should acknowledge that the debate is healthy, and that RMA proponents are motivated by sensible concerns. One is the possibility that only a high-technology standoff-warfare force can make the U.S. military usable in a domestic political context where casualties appear taboo.

An even more compelling argument is that established powers lacking major unachieved goals are vulnerable to settling into strategic or political complacency, gradually losing ground relative to other countries as a result.

Military organizations are also sufficiently conservative that, absent compelling international threats or agendas, they may tend towards excessive caution.

They may also simply fail to grasp the significance of radically new technologies because they are by definition difficult or impossible to assess based on existing paradigms and concepts of operations. For example, many of the technical breakthroughs that made possible the above-mentioned tactical and strategic innovations of World War II were made years or decades before they were finally woven into military forces and war plans, and were exploited to varying degrees by different militaries—some clearly much more successfully than others. The RMA debate should help reduce the odds that the United States will fall prey to any such overly conservative tendencies.

Finally, peacetime eras are often the best times for militaries to innovate, since they can focus on new ideas and develop them more easily when war does not distract them or discourage risk-taking. In that light, even if some of the most ambitious RMA concepts now in circulation are nebulous and exaggerated, the case for a rapid transformation of the U.S. military should not be dismissed out of hand—or viewed as just the latest fad in a U.S. defense community that remains oversized for the post-Cold War world and tired of post-game analysis of Desert Storm.

Still, the onus of proof in the end needs to be on the RMA proponents—or to be more specific, on those who argue that military technology and operations are now changing at an accelerating rate, making possible discontinuous and dramatic changes in warfare that must be ambitiously pursued. The United States already spends a good deal of money on military research and development—averaging about $30 billion annually (in constant 1998 dollars) during the Cold War, and still slightly more than that average today, or almost half of all federal funds devoted to science and technology research. Given this degree of attention to invention and discovery, and an average weapons procurement budget around $80 billion during the Cold War, the U.S. military has been in a constant state of innovation for decades.

So the “status quo” in defense circles does not mean standing still; it means taking a balanced approach to modernization that has served the country remarkably well for decades—and indeed brought on the very technologies displayed in Desert Storm that have given rise to the belief that an RMA may be underway.

The United States must not make poor decisions about its defense priorities or foreign policy role out of a faddish affinity for newness or out of the delusions of a generation of policymakers that believe their epoch to be more historic than it really is.

Past military innovations have not always worked out so well. For example, in World War I and World War II, militaries overestimated the likely effects of artillery and aerial bombardment against prepared defensive positions, meaning that their infantry forces proved much more vulnerable than expected when they assaulted enemy lines.

Britain’s new all-tank units were too inflexible and had Achilles’ heels that combined-arms units would not, meaning that they did not fare as well as Germany’s integrated motorized divisions in World War II. Nor did strategic aerial bombardment achieve as important results against London or German and Japanese cities as did close-air support for armored formations in blitzkrieg operations. The U.S. Army’s “Pentomic” division concept, intended to employ tactical nuclear weapons and exploit advances they made possible, was abandoned in 1961 when it became clear that nuclear weapons were unlikely to be used on the battlefield and that dependence on them therefore actually decreased the likely effectiveness of the new units.

There is reason to think that a good deal of current RMA thinking could veer in equally unproductive or even dangerous directions. Even some very gifted analysts have done things like posit the possibility of essentially limitless energy sources, complete transparency of the oceans, and other technological breakthroughs for which there is no serious scientific basis. On the one hand, one cannot fault defense analysts for having a little bit of imagination. On the other, when such extremely unlikely breakthroughs in physics and engineering can be seriously posited, and included in a list of “wild card” scenarios that includes far more plausible events like the political collapse of a key ally or a major earthquake in California, one senses that the RMA debate may have veered somewhat into what might be called “RMA’nia.”


When thinking about the so-called RMA, some historical perspective is in order. RMA proponents admittedly invoke history themselves, but they usually point to major periods of innovation decades or centuries ago. It is also important to realize that rapid technical innovation in the military sphere has been going continuously and rapidly—even since World War II and its blitzkrieg, aircraft carrier, strategic bombardment, air defense, and nuclear weapons revolutions. It is not clear what is now different about the pace or relative significance of military progress, even relative to periods like the 1960s and 1970s.

The 20th century has witnessed constant technical breakthroughs with enormous consequences for strategy and warfare. Even since the advent of reliable tanks, blitzkrieg warfare and carrier-based airpower, the following capabilities have been incorporated into modern military forces: radar, helicopters, infrared sensors for guidance and targeting, laser-guided bombs, laser rangefinders, high-performance jet engines, stealth technology, autonomous and accurate missiles, and reconnaissance satellites (not to mention thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles).

Moreover, many of these technologies have seen their periods of greatest and most rapid fundamental improvement; although they continue to improve, it is often incrementally rather than fundamentally—or as Martin Libicki of the National Defense University puts it in regard to the specific example of jet engines, changes are now of degree instead of kind

Even the current period of technical innovation featuring advances in precision munitions, battlefield communications, and computing power has been underway for nearly three decades. Satellite communications were first used militarily in Vietnam in 1965, where aircraft-delivered precision-guided munitions also made their debut in the early 1970s. Air defense and anti-tank missiles played major roles in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Stealth fighters were designed in the late 1970s.

Are the munitions, sensors, and integrated communications systems now being developed or produced of even greater significance than the above technologies? That is unclear. They should be incorporated into the force, but their overall effectiveness may be best seen as evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Not too much should be made of the semantics, however. Perhaps one can say that there is an RMA underway—but if so, it is because, as Israeli defense expert Jonathan Shimshoni writes, “An entrepreneurial military organization must be in a state of permanent revolution; change must be its constant condition.”

In other words, the current information-led defense modernization wave might be seen as the RMA that is following a multitude of previous RMAs—including most recently those catalyzed by improved aerospace capabilities (high-performance jet aircraft, helicopters, satellites, cruise missiles), sensors (infrared and laser detection and targeting devices), and as noted precision-guided munitions.

A good deal of the enthusiasm about the RMA seems derived from the impression that computer technology is completely revolutionizing life, the global economy, and therefore inevitably warfare. But the effects of the computer revolution on the economy as a whole may be considerably more limited than appearances suggest. Although good for Silicon Valley, it may not do as much for the economy—or the military. To be specific, information technologies are often more expensive and less efficiently utilized than is commonly believed. Their growing prevalence in the economy also fails to correlate strongly with increased economic growth rates at either the broad level of the overall U.S. economy or even, as best as can be measured, in computer-intensive industries. Perhaps this is not surprising in that computers do not actually produce goods or, in the strict sense, even data.

For those who would make a great deal of Desert Storm and assume its lessons can be quickly built upon in the future, it is worth remembering several caveats about the performance of high-technology equipment in that war. Infrared, electro-optical, and laser systems were all seriously degraded in performance by weather, dust, and smoke. Even high-resolution radars on aircraft such as the F-15E had difficulty distinguishing tanks from trucks at tactical distances. And advanced munitions did not, in this case, have to operate against Iraqi countermeasures.

That list of problems highlights a serious limitation upon a “revolution” driven by innovations in computer and communications: however fast and efficiently an advanced electronic grid can transmit data within a military force, that data will only be useful when reliable and accurate. Computers and communications cannot compensate for many of the limitations on sensors that are likely to continue to inhibit performance in the foreseeable future. Without good data, the old adage about computers applies: garbage in, garbage out. To put it another way, if what “information dominance” means is simply to improve the speed, data rates, and reliability of communications between U.S. forces, but the information itself remains severely limited in certain types of regions or settings, it may not translate into warfighting breakthroughs or guaranteed victory. As retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Ripper put it bluntly and perhaps somewhat sardonically, “We had information dominance in Somalia.”

And as Lawrence Freedman writes, despite their overwhelming firepower advantage over Iraq at the time of the standoff over U.N. weapons inspections in 1997-1998, the allies “lacked `dominant situational awareness'” about where to find Iraq’s chemical and biological capabilities.

While a good deal of optimism exists about coming breakthroughs in sensors, much of it seems unwarranted. A good example is the Air Force claim in 1997 that, “In the first quarter of the 21st century you will be able to find, fix or track, and target—in near real-time—anything of consequence that moves upon or is located on the face of the Earth.”

That may be true for easily recognizable military objects like tanks and ships (provided they can be distinguished from allied and civilian assets). It is unlikely to be true, particularly at standoff distances, for small arms, for enemy soldiers interspersed among a background population or in a heavy forest, for mortars and antitank and antiaircraft missiles hidden in trucks or caves, and for properly secured weapons of mass destruction. The Air Force was probably more wrong than right on this particular assessment.

Even if some of these weapons or military systems prove to be detectable and trackable, they will often not be identifiable as enemy capabilities until the enemy chooses to initiate hostilities by taking the first shot or shots—particularly in infantry and counterinsurgency warfare. And even if they are picked up by reconnaissance assets when they are fired, their ability to “shoot and scoot” may make it impossible for standoff weaponry to reach them before they can hide in buildings, crowds of people, or other complex terrain. To give a sobering example of the limits of current technology, only about 2 of the 60 mortars that were fired in Mogadishu during the U.S. operation there in 1992-94 were spotted and targeted quickly enough to be destroyed. Things will undoubtedly improve—but we should not lose sight of the fact that, for examples like this one, they have a very long way to go.

Moreover, these types of infantry and urban combat are perhaps the most likely forms of warfare that the United States will face in future years. The advent of nuclear deterrence, the lessons of the world wars, the nature of modern industrial democracies, and the relatively benign and thoughtful leadership of the United States all seem to suggest that interstate war between the world’s major powers will be less frequent in the future than it has been in the past. At the same time, there are no such indications about any lessening in the tendency of substate actors and in some cases smal states to go to war. The Marine Corps’ punchy refrain, that the next serious war in which the United States participates is more likely to be the “stepchild of Chechnya” than a close cousin of Desert Storm, is compelling.

For such battles, standoff sensors and weapons linked by rapid computing and communications systems are not so clearly applicable, even if future advances in science and technology will probably help U.S. forces in certain ways to some extent.

Moreover, in such settings enemy forces are often much more motivated, and willing to absorb casualties, than western forces, as has been vividly demonstrated from Algeria to Vietnam to Somalia. Even in more traditional combat settings, adversaries may be willing to run risks of escalation, even using weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. homeland, particularly if the conventional battle is coming uncomfortably close to the heart of their homeland or national government and leadership.

The sensor challenge extends not only to satellites, spy planes, and unmanned aerial vehicles but also to homing “brilliant” munitions. A number of new types of ordnance, intended to pick up the infrared or acoustic signature of enemy equipment and then attack it with small shaped charges, are now being acquired. They include the sensor-fuzed weapon (SFW), brilliant antitank submunition (BAT), and others. But regardless of how well they are doing on test ranges, none have been challenged by a determined adversary to date. In addition to building battlefield flares to confuse infrared sensors, a foe might design countermeasures to blare out noise to jam acoustical sensors and generate large amounts of dust and smoke to cloud the vision of sensors on homing munitions. Attacks might be waged during heavy fog or cloud cover, severely restricting the effectiveness of infrared and optical sensors. High-altitude nuclear bursts or radio-frequency weapons might be used to destroy unprotected electronics on which many U.S. targeting, communications, and weapons systems depend.

Besides the arena of sensors, there are other areas of technology critical to the performance of modern militaries where scientific and engineering progress is being made, but at much slower rates than in computers that appear more a continuation of previous trends than an acceleration. Missile defense technology remains very challenging to develop. Progress in internal combustion engine efficiency and rocket propellent efficiency is gradual and incremental.

Biological weaponry detectors remain rather large and slow, with limited prospects for miniaturization. Increases in the carrying capacities of communications technologies may continue to apply more to areas like fiber-optic cable than to more battlefield-friendly systems like radios. The armor-antiarmor competition remains vigorous—but regardless of whether tanks or antitank weapons have the lead at a given moment, the competition shows few signs of allowing the drastic reductions in vehicle weight and improvements in deployability that the military services and RMA proponents consider essential for future warfighting needs.

Detection of mines in shallow water remains extremely difficult, despite decades of effort to find new technologies for doing so.

These sobering facts cast doubt on other recent Pentagon documents and “visions” as well. Consider the well-known and influential publication written when General John Shalikashvili was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision 2010. It emphasizes that “dominant maneuver, precision engagement, full dimensional protection, and focused logistics” will be at the heart of U.S. military strategy in a relatively short space of time. Although they are not precisely defined in the document, the concepts of dominant maneuver and full dimensional protection imply near-term breakthroughs in areas like missile defense and lighter armor that, as noted above, do not appear to be on the immediate horizon. Given that most major military systems require more than a decade to acquire, the former Chairman’s vision already appears doomed to fall far short of its goals. In particular, the following passage seems almost wildly optimistic and premature, “By 2010, we should be able to change how we conduct the most intense joint operations. Instead of relying on massed forces and sequential operations, we will achieve massed effects in other ways. Information superiority and advances in technology will enable us to achieve desired effects through the tailored application of joint combat power.”

The grandiose nature of such claims and goals, and the absence of concrete technological means of backing them up, are somewhat reminiscent of the most extreme aspirations of the promoters of the 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative. There are legitimate grounds for supporting that program for its technical research agenda, and an argument to be made that it hastened the demise of the communist bloc by starkly reminding the Soviet Union that it could not compete technologically with the West. But its goal of being able to bear the brunt of a major Soviet nuclear strike was highly unrealistic, and should remind participants in the current RMA debate that willpower alone is not sufficient to create technological solutions to problems—particularly those that an adversary has an interest in opposing. As Ben Rich, the former director of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” and father of the F-117 fighter, wrote in criticizing SDI and offering guidance about how to think about future military innovation, we will waste money in defense unless “the new technology we are attempting to create is really within practical reach of our current abilities and achievable with reasonable expenditures.”

To the extent that attacks become increasingly accurate and lethal in the future, and forces more distant from or dispersed on the actual battlefield, those trends would represent the continuations of developments that have been underway for centuries.

To be sure, discontinuously rapid changes in lethality, concentration of forces on the battlefield, or other basic characteristics of warfare could justify using the term revolutionary to describe ongoing progress. But if trends that have been underway for centuries, and that have been rapid throughout at least the last two centuries, simply continue, that may not be enough to make them historic or justify radical changes in warfighting tactics and strategy.

Even if the United States devises successful counter-countermeasures, autonomous homing munitions of the type now envisioned may only be useful while an adversary is in the attack phase and its forces can be clearly distinguished from allied units and civilian assets. That is an important phase of many wars, to be sure. But that hinges on reacting quickly to any assault. Doing so is a challenging task at both political and military levels. It is much more likely to be accomplished when a solid forward-defense strategy is in place than in a region where the United States does not expect war and may not be bound by a firm treaty commitment to defend a friendly country (but may ultimately choose to get involved anyway). If the United States does not counterattack during a narrow time window when enemy forces are relatively exposed and isolated, it may have a great deal more trouble employing standoff munitions with autonomous homing devices against enemy forces.

Technology will certainly remain important, and improved technologies will help across a wide variety of tactical settings. But they may not fundamentally change the nature of battle the way RMA proponents insist.


Most American analysts, aware that the U.S. military is the best in the world and investing in research as well as new hardware at a far greater rate than any other country, tend to be sanguine about the likely effects of military innovation on U.S. military capabilities.

Their tendency may also reflect a characteristic American affinity for science and technology. However, some of the most thoughtful RMA proponents, such as Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, are motivated by worry as much as optimism or technophilia.

A number of strategists within the military are also of this view—notably Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak, who worries about irregular foes in large cities near the world’s coastlines operating certain types of specialized weapons and capabilities more than he worries about traditional armored battle.

On purely logical grounds, there would appear to be ample reason for worry. At present, the United States is not only the world’s best military force, it is probably able to defeat most potential aggressors with disproportionately low casualties to itself, at least in cases of interstate or open-ocean conflict of the type that most directly affect its core national interests. Under these circumstances, the concept of “convergence to the mean” suggests that time will be more likely to erode U.S. superiority than to shore it up. As RAND analyst John Arquilla puts it, “American military power lies so far beyond its nearest competitors today that it seems senseless to pursue the latest technological advances—especially as their introduction now will no doubt lead to the erosion of existing advantages through a process of diffusion to others.”

Granted, that is not inevitable. Perhaps the next round of technologies and warfighting innovations will allow the United States to further improve casualty exchange ratios relative to the 10:1 that have typified recent low-intensity battles or the 100:1 proportions witnessed in Desert Storm.

Granted, that is not inevitable. Perhaps the next round of technologies and warfighting innovations will allow the United States to further improve casualty exchange ratios relative to the 10:1 that have typified recent low-intensity battles or the 100:1 proportions witnessed in Desert Storm.39 It may also help the United States buttress its current ability to deploy “decisive” or “overwhelming” force in many situations to the point where future wars would be shorter and less bloody for both sides. But perhaps not.

Moreover, the specific technologies that are available to various militaries early in the 21st century give concrete reasons for concern. Analysts like Krepinevich point to the growing threats posed by cruise and anti-ship and ballistic missiles, advanced satellite technologies for communications and targeting that are increasingly available to any paying customer, sea mines and advanced diesel submarines, physical and electronic vulnerabilities of information and communication systems on which the U.S. armed forces increasingly depend, and the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. These technologies could make it much harder for the United States to reach foreign ports safely, keep those ports as well as airfields and other infrastructure safe from enemy attack, and protect its troops on the battlefield.

Independent of their implications for U.S. security, do these trends support the argument that a revolution in military affairs is underway? It is difficult to say. To the extent that these vulnerabilities would simply negate U.S. efforts to improve its technological sophistication, integrated or network warfare capabilities, and long-range strike forces, they could simply stymie military innovation and argue against the concept that an RMA is underway. On the other hand, if they greatly improve some U.S. capabilities while also exacerbating different types of vulnerabilities, it could be most accurate to think of their net effect as truly revolutionary—but also indeterminate in whether they will likely help or hurt a high-technology country like the United States.


It appears, then, that the so-called RMA is an intriguing but complex concept, subject to multiple definitions, and with many possible implications for U.S. force planning and security. Although a good deal of rhetoric, exaggeration, and “RMAnia” have characterized much of the debate so far, it would be both wrong and unwise to dismiss it. It would also be unwise to wrap ourselves too much in the cloak of Clausewitz, arguing that there must always be a “fog of war” and that ambitious plans to improve data acquisition and dissemination are destined to fail.

Similar thinking might very well have discouraged the Germans from devising the sophisticated and highly integrated blitzkrieg tactics, the British from devising radar-controlled air defense, and the U.S. military from developing the sophisticated long-range precision-attack capabilities that were so important in Desert Storm. As noted earlier, it also flies in the face of the work of great military theorists like Sun Tze and B. H. Liddell Hart. But the grandiose debate over whether or not an RMA is underway is much less useful and important in the end than a more detailed analysis about specific trends in technology and their implications for a number of different types of warfare.

The need for specificity is perhaps best illustrated by examining the specific proposals for reshaping the U.S. military that have been put forward to date by RMA proponents. The overriding message that comes out of such an examination is that many proposals are vague, and those that are specific are often contradictory. There are arguments to defend each major proposal, to be sure; none of the major RMA concepts that have been articulated are unintelligent or unworthy of debate. But not all can be right simultaneously. Until we have better determined which proposals make best sense given the likely course of future technology, purchases of large numbers of the various systems would generally be premature.

One vision might be described as “RMA on the cheap.” Its proponents hold that improvements in sensors, munitions, communications, and computers are progressing rapidly enough that these less-expensive types of assets can be used to drive the next round of military innovation, allowing a more relaxed approach to improving technology for the traditionally high-priced ships and planes and other major platforms.

A second school focuses on airpower and extrapolates largely from the experiences of Operation Desert Storm. Its notable proponents tend to emphasize F-22 Raptor jets, advanced munitions, and missile defenses.

They tend to seize upon the impressive test-range performances of “brilliant weapons,” and value stealth aircraft based on the proliferation of advanced air-defense weaponry around the world. But the basis for their optimism about missile defense technology is unclear, as are the grounds for their expectation that adversaries will be unable to develop countermeasures against advanced munitions?

A third school has a more nebulous but also more grandiose perspective. Its members view things like fighters and munitions as assets we should keep acquiring and improving. But they would argue that any RMA vision focused on such discrete items misses the whole point of the current purported revolution—that it can redefine the way those individual assets are intertwined on the battlefield. In essence, this school advocates rapid modernization across a wide variety of fronts, emphasizing the stealth and missile defenses and other major new systems of the second school mentioned above with the “system of systems” approach of the first school.

And a fourth, but by no means final, RMA school focuses on looming U.S. vulnerabilities likely to emerge as potential adversaries learn the lessons of Desert Storm themselves and take advantage of the availability of technologies to counter this style of warfare. Its members often point out that, partly because of the difficulty of developing reliable missile defenses and protecting forward bases and airfields, weapons like F-22 fighters may be less valuable than now hoped. They tend to emphasize vertical-and-short takeoff aircraft such as some versions of the future joint strike fighter (JSF), or long-range stealth bombers, or “arsenal ships” with hardened hulls that could hold large numbers of precision weapons in launch tubes.46 Yet there are unanswered questions about their proposals too. Will arsenal ships prove sufficiently invulnerable that we will be wise to place so much advanced weaponry on individual ships? And if technologies such as unmanned aeriel vehicles and advanced communications systems are becoming so good, why does a single high-priced platform like the B-2 have to both acquire targets and deliver ordnance? Would it not be a much wiser use of funds to use unmanned aircraft to acquire targets and then deliver ordance with cruise-missile-equipped bombers flying hundreds of miles away from defended airspace?

The RMA debate cannot be very constructive until it gets away from sermonizing and platitudes and starts addressing questions like these.

Get daily updates from Brookings