A moment of uncertainty about RMA

One concept for future warfare was especially fashionable in about 1991-2004:
The idea of precision standoff firepower application, supported by fantastic sensors.
This firepower was seen as an almost universal problem-solver by some, and as a sharpened tool in the inventory of tools by others.
"Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) became the title for this school of thought.

There's much that could be told and even still be discussed about RMA, I want to focus on one aspect because it keeps irritating me: The "standoff" element.

Maybe - just maybe - this wasn't so much exaggerated as it looked in the meantime.

Military history has some trends, and one of these trends with a thread that spans centuries is the move away from close combat to ranged - standoff - combat.

It began with the Neanderthalers, which were according to modern scientists not able to throw a spear, while Homo Sapiens Sapiens was able to do so (still is) - this is the core of one of the possible explanations why we're still here and they apparently not.

Another example is naval warfare of the 16th century; both the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and the Spanish Armada's English channel battle 1588 were more coined by standoff gunfire (as opposed to boarding actions) than ever before.
The dominance of gun firepower over ramming and boarding tactics continued to grow (despite a 19th century revival of ramming) till the Battle of Tsushima 1905 where long-range gunfire was finally dominant and used very much like in its final late WW2 form.

Fighter aircraft moved from close-in combat to primarily medium-range combat from the late 50's to the early 90's.

Ground forces experienced a similar trend.

The horse cavalry experienced a slow decline of its shock value. This began roughly in the Battle of Crécy 1346. It lasted with ups and downs till the first successful breech loading rifle eliminated the viability of horse cavalry as shock arm in the mid-19th century. It did so among modern armies almost entirely (only troops with poor cohesion, morale and training kept failing when confronted with a decent horse cavalry charge).

The move of infantry tactics away from bayonet charges to pure firepower took decades - mid-19th century till early First World War was the most important period for this.

Artillery gave up direct fire in the First World War and delegated the little direct fire to anti-tank specialists, infantry-manned light guns and tanks. Indirect fire - previously only important in sieges - was developed in the early 20th century and adopted as standard tactic in late 1914. The artillery ranges grew to many multiples of eyesight range.

These trends point all into one direction; more standoff, less close combat.

It seems logical that increased capabilities (more range) adds to the relevance of standoff combat, but will standoff combat be preferable to close-range combat all the time in the future? Maybe even in cases where we still use/prefer rather close-in combat today?

This makes me wonder; could it be that I'm (too) conservative? (For once and just on this topic!)
I prefer warships with at least one 76mm gun (better 100-127mm) over warships with less or no gun armament.
I distrust medium range air combat and assume that short range air combat is possibly much less, but probably much more relevant (depends on circumstances).
I consider tanks on a battlefield still as vehicles with an emphasis on mobility (equal to firepower and protection), and expect that tank assaults can still accomplish difficult offensive missions in a combined arms tactic.

Maybe - just maybe - those who distrust the new sensors (some are really terrifying, especially some radars!) and precision firepower munitions are wrong? Maybe they're -we're- too conservative?

Maybe we're not and RMA toys are really just a slightly sharpened version of old and already well-understood tools?

Maybe such trends are reversible (some technological indications for this suspicion exist)?

We didn't have a really high-end war since generations; no first rate power vs. first rate power conflict across all three dimensions - air, sea, land.
How can we know for sure? Peacetime experiments - as useful as they are - rarely proved to be accurate prediction tools in the past.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Many of today's precision weapons are far less precise than the military would have you believe. Sheer firepower will still be important, and modern armies shouldn't make the mistake of relying too much on their precision weapons, especially since these weapons systems tend to be quite expensive. Another thing to keep in mind when talking about long range weaponry is the mobility of the target. It takes a while for an artillery shell fired from long range to hit its target, with modern self-propelled artillery, we could see prolonged artillery duels between self-propelled artillery batteries that can coordinate attacks from dispered positions and move before the enemy can return fire. In the meantime tank forces could close in and engage the artillery. In any case mobility is key to defeat long range weaponry, and increased volume of fire is the key to defeat mobility at range.

  2. Well, the RMA/NCW answer to shoot&scoot is the integration of aerial SAR/GMTI radar technology:

    The counter-artillery radar measures the ammunition's external ballistics and calculates their origin.
    One such aerial radar looks in SAR (synthetic aperture radar) mode at the area or origin and identifies one or more vehicles as the evil ordnance.
    The enemy ordnance begins to move, the aerial radar switches to GMTI (ground moving target indicator) and tracks the movement till the ordnance rests again. Then switch to SAR, identification again, comparison of SAR picture with map, to determine the exact coordinates.
    Own MLRS fires one or several guided munitions at exactly the right spot.
    BDA (battle damage assessment) by aerial radar in SAR mode, also checking for movement.
    The target could also be included in the flight path of a recon drone in the next hours to confirm the kill.

    The SAR/GMTI works at range in excess of 300 km, even 40 km guns cannot hide if the terrain is flat.
    An alternative to large SAR/GMTI radar aircraft would be a drone with a smaller-ranged, but equally performing radar - there's one such package for the Predator. It could be fitted into seriously survivable drones.

    By the way; the movement of the OPFOR artillery can also be blocked in a somewhat closed terrain by MLRS rockets with AT mines like AT-2 as cargo. I've never seen a SPH with a dozer blade or similar mine-clearing equipment.

    The problems are numerous, of course; enemy electronic warfare, camouflage, concealment, deception and hard kill attack on the actively emitting radars.

  3. Overly obsessed with "scorin'" zero-casualties. A post - Vietnam symptom is all that can be said of RMA, methinks. War, precise and clean. Like a video game. Wonder if they knew what happened when they started dropping those graphite bombs...

    Then we have the quagmire of Iraq & Afghanistan where all the high -tech tools were not really "force - multipliers".

  4. Good sensors are expensive and less capable sensors directing at short range could really make a difference.
    What if stand-off was using a far away platform, but a hidden very close observer for terminal guidance support?
    The problem is that all sensors rely more or less on waves with decreasing intensity according to the power of two of the distance. So good sensors for longer distance pose staggering demands and come with a price tag (companies like). Can you rather hide close to the target a cheap sensor that can communicate and escape after accomplishing the mission? An even better sensor would be a tracking device on the enemy target, offering a very clear guidance.
    In my opinion this is an essential gap and a less capable enemy can try to exploit it with much higher effective fire results.
    That leads me to the question how smart must a bomb be? If you can combine a less capable bomb with a returning UAV without stellar avionics wouldn't that enhance the economy of many strikes and still provide a very long stand off due to refuelling on the route.
    The concept of one-way expensive missiles is likely an error in development because these weapons will rather serve a task similar to sniper rifles in the infantry, but you need much more automatic firearms, grenade launchers and machineguns to be effective on the target at acceptable costs.
    A kind of simplified unmanned A10 would be my choice for many missile and bombing tasks supported by infantry scouts, unmanned submersibles and small scout UAVs.
    The mentioned marking could be carried out with a large number of small inexpensive short range missiles using not a destroying, but a marking, de-stealthing, warhead.