A Modern Military Revolution: How Airpower Reshaped the Global Diplomatic Order

By Thomas Furse

From the Cold War onward, a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) fundamentally transformed war and politics. Revolutions aren’t always crystallized moments of storming palaces, parliaments, and prisons. The RMA above all represents a technological transformation. This “revolution” represents an innovation in warfare, which in turn informed political and strategic decisions. Technological innovations, particularly those in global communications and airpower, changed how policymakers conceptualize geopolitics. Airpower is a key component in RMA. Through harnessing airpower, the military maintains its firepower and places fewer soldiers at risk. Drones, piloted thousands of miles away are an extension of this idea, maximizing firepower and limiting exposure.

Airpower is the kernel that drove the revolution forward. Conservative jurist Carl Schmitt in 1950 asserted that an aerial bombardment changed relations between the military and civilians. War planes immediately leave the site of their destruction “with all that has befallen men and materials on the ground, whose fate is in the hands of the sovereign of the surface state.” [1] Airpower and its lethal capabilities, recently seen in the airstrike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, is a tool that polices the world’s so-called troublemakers. Led by this revolution and in tune with the public’s fear of casualties, Western states opt for greater use of airpower to achieve foreign policy aims. In light of this, it is not surprising that since the 1990s the largest U.S. arms manufacturers—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman—specialized in airpower.

The RMA was a technological change in its first instance, but it had a mutual relationship with changes in organizational culture. The Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986 tightly interlocked the military branches to make decision-making more efficient. It gave greater responsibility to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff so they could give better advice to the president. This came after analysis from the operational failures in Vietnam and of the interventions in Beirut and Grenada in 1983. Military leaders were unable to communicate across branches, they lacked a clear chain of command and missed out giving advice to civilian leaders. The act became a cog in a broader development in military technology and organizational management.

The Gulf War of 1991 was the first major combat operation for this technological and organizational revolution. A united military command structure moved with relative ease in this complex operation. [2] The United States assembled a global coalition of Pacific, Gulf, and European states to wage war on Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. had the material and technology capabilities of precision airstrikes and more targeted killings. Japan, Germany, and the Gulf states paid for most of it. [3] A six-week air campaign against the Iraqi military commenced before the ground invasion finished the Iraqi military. The war saw the triangular stealth bomber, the F-117 Nighthawk, being used to lethal effect. In addition, the war saw Global Positioning System (GPS) map battlefields, locate friendly units, and predict where the enemy could be. It was one of the first instances where thermal imagery, cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles, precision strikes, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for video reconnaissance, and where laser-designated and guided missiles became vital for military success. Many analysts saw that technology and overwhelming airpower could shorten wars and ensure that adversaries comply with U.S. demands. [4]

RMA was a global phenomenon, where the United States had the strongest gravitational pull. The drive to harness airpower puts in perspective the drive for globalization in the 1990s. Coined in 1989, the Washington Consensus organized global trade and free-floating exchange rates. The Global South was pressured into enacting structural adjustment reforms to open their markets and integrate with the world economy. North America became a free trade area in 1994. In the same year, the World Trade Organization began to harmonize globe trade relations by removing barriers. The globe could be one integrated political and economic space through the Internet, global communications, unencumbered markets, and civilian air travel. For some hopeful progressives, this globalization was a chance for cosmopolitan unity. Genocide, autocrats, and isolated states would be relics of a pre-globalized world. The RMA gave hard power to this optimism. Francis Fukuyama exemplified this in The End of History in 1992. He contended that the technological, organizational, and ideological revolutions underway meant that war would be less common because of global integration. [5] The concentration of power primarily in Washington and the Pentagon, and then among the American allies and global institutions meant that the globe was redrawn into a more singular geopolitical space. The integration between military power and hi-tech civilian industries made this vision structurally possible. The U.S. military could operate anywhere in the world with relative ease, just as American finance spread into China and the Eastern Europe.


Post-Gulf War, strategic documents entrenched the RMA. In the mid-1990s, the Joint Vision 2010 outlined how the American military could employ informational technologies to clear away the “fog of war.” After consideration, Joint Vision 2020 in 2000 expanded this strategy into “Full Spectrum Dominance.” [6] In recognizing the globe as one political space it also drew attention to potential negative effects. Terrorist and criminal networks could spread across the world becoming trans-regional threats. Weapons of Mass Destruction could be sold on the international black market. Global human and drug trafficking funded local and irregular violence. A civil war in one state could engulf neighbors. As the RMA made the world a more singular space it strengthened its legitimacy by its adherents claiming that only modern technology could solve the negative effects of global integration. The only way to go was to have more accurate satellite technology and airstrikes, enhanced missile defenses, accelerated logistical support through land, sea, and air. In this manner, the revolution in RMA was always unfinished. Threats were contained through preemptive strikes. Their potential to spread across the globe was a recalibration of the domino theory. The “Bush Doctrine” encapsulated the idea to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What’s more, it made clear that the size of the U.S. military was not the main priority. Informational technology, transport, and logistics would give the American military global dominance. The Global Defense Posture Review in 2004 (GDPR) was a strategy for a smaller footprint and a greater emphasis on technical capability to improve flexibility and efficiency. [7] The U.S. military could span the globe without having to station vast numbers of troops everywhere.

Weathering the crisis of 2008, the financial, manufacturing, and technology industries solidified the momentum of the 1980s reaching further into new markets and global supply chains. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of Artificial Intelligence shifts military technology into automation and the “Internet of Things,” thus continuing the revolution. National geopolitical spaces have drawn closer together from advances in financial services—automated transactions, instant data, regional blocs under a single currency, the easing of tariffs, and migration restrictions. To continue the developments of the Goldwater-Nichols act, military organization still seeks greater streamlining. Most recently, Microsoft won the $10 billion contract to develop the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or Jedi. The single Cloud computing system means that weapons with Artificial Intelligence and robotic warning systems across the globe are united in one system for quicker battlefield access to troops anywhere. The protectionist measures by the United States have sought to reorganize supply chains, not cancel them outright. There’s no “Luddite” resurgence to roll back the technological-military revolution. Artificial Intelligence is the latest frontier. A.I. will enable the military to process information more quickly and gain greater lethality from robots. These advances built a military power that has revolutionary means and ends. Ruling the global skies has sustained it over potential competitors.


This brief history of the RMA can help to hone our understanding of the boundaries of military power and its ties with the civilian government. These shifts have taken place over the last three decades. The innovations of RMA has meant that military power is deeply connected with the civilian world and is producing a geopolitical imagination that sees the globe as a single connected space. Innovation in civilian technology made companies that once had few ties with the military propel the revolution forward. The revolution in the RMA is not a stark moment of realization or rebirth. Instead, it came in the continual shifts that merged civilian and military relations, with each innovation making the next more likely.

Thomas Furse is a PhD student at City, University of London. He is researching American foreign policy, specifically the history of strategic thought. You can reach him on Twitter at @TomFurse and via email at Thomas.furse@city.ac.uk.

Title image: Grumman F-14A Tomcat of VF-114 over Kuwait, Gulf War, 1991.

Further Reading:

Bacevich, Andrew. American Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Rosenboim, Or. The Emergence of Globalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Konaev, Margarita. “With AI, We’ll See Faster Fights, But Longer Wars.” War on the Rocks, 2019.

Singer, P. W. Wired for War. New York, Penguin, 2009.

Slobodian, Quinn. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018.


[1] Carl Schmitt, 2006 [1950], The Nomos of the Earth, Telos Press Publishing, p. 320

[2] General Colin Powell, “Testimony: Department of Defense Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1992,” Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, 1st Session, March 4, 1991, p. 59. “You will notice in Desert Storm nobody is accusing us of logrolling and service parochialism and the Army fighting the Air Force and the Navy fighting the Marine Corps. We are now a team. The Goldwater-Nichols legislation helped that.”

[3] Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers. Verso, 2017, p. 114

[4] Thomas A. Keaney A and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey Summary Report, 1993, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a273996.pdf [accessed January 6th 2020]

[5] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin, 2012 [1992]. It’s worth noting too that for others, there was relative stability in the bipolar order and that a looming clash of civilizations could emerge. See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, 1996

[6] Department of Defense, Joint Vision 2020, 2000, http://pentagonus.ru/doc/JV2020.pdf [accessed January 6th 2020]]

[7] Douglas Feith, Strengthening U.S. Global Defense Posture, 2004,  http://www.dmzhawaii.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/global_posture.pdf [accessed January 6th 2020]

One thought on “A Modern Military Revolution: How Airpower Reshaped the Global Diplomatic Order

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