Who is the greatest military commander of all time?

Just a bit of fun to begin the academic year! Feel free to add your own ideas, or leave a comment to explain your reasoning.

If you select ‘other’, please leave a comment to tell us who you chose!

(P.S. click on the speech bubble above to view comments)


Revolutionary Thinking: the ‘Military Revolution’, ‘Military-Technical Revolution’ and ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’.

By Louis E.H. Reynolds and Zoë C. Vince

A note on historiographical bias

The historiography currently available to us regarding these topics has traditionally been written from a Western, particularly Anglo-US, perspective.  Because of this inherent bias, we would like to emphasise the predisposition of the historians we have used to highlight Anglo-US sources contributions over other arguably more influential sources, in this case particularly from the USSR.  This is due mostly to cultural and linguistic factors.

While it is unreasonable to expect historians to be fluent in all relevant languages to their subject area, and to have full cultural and social awareness or experience of these countries, it would be equally unreasonable to ignore the influence of these factors in the Anglicisation and Americanisation of the defence and military history books and articles we as students use most often, and thus the effect of this bias on our understanding of War Studies as a whole. Understanding the origins of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA) as part of Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov’s ‘Military Technical Revolution’ (MTR), for example, is critical to any review of the modern misunderstandings and misapplications of the RMA concept.


All three theories have a range of often nebulous and irregular definitions. For the purpose of this article we have chosen to define the concepts as follows:

Military Revolution: A term to describe a period in history which has witnessed widespread and irreversible development in the areas of doctrine, technology, organisation and society, leading to decisive victories on the part of the army or country employing these new methods.  The adoption of such influential new techniques and technology is then emulated by all rivals and neighbours where practicable.

Military Technical Revolution: The precursor to the RMA, focusing specifically on the relationship between advancements in technology and success on the ‘battlefield’.  The RMA slightly expanded this concept to encapsulate the broader doctrinal and organisational changes occurring in the US army of the late twentieth century.

Revolution in Military Affairs: A current and ongoing ‘revolution’ in doctrine and organisation beginning in the 1970s and focusing on the role of technology, in particular information systems and air power.  Please note, however, that some historians have applied the RMA concept to ‘revolutions’ earlier in history.

Origins and development of the Military Revolution debate

The Military Revolution as a concept was originally defined by historian Michael Roberts in his 1955 inaugural lecture at Queen’s University of Belfast, entitled ‘Military Revolution 1560-1660’.  The term Military Revolution was used to explain the victories of Gustavus Adolphusof Sweden over the

Gustavus Adolphus

Imperial and Spanish armies during the Thirty Years War.  Roberts believed that Swedish military success in the early 17th century was due to organisational, tactical and doctrinal changes within the Swedish army.  Developments in this period included the introduction of superior drill (the counter-march) and the professionalisation of the troops and linear tactics rather than the widely used tercio, coupled with the necessary high proportion of NCOs and junior officers.  Reaching further back, the roots of these changes can be found with Maurice of Nassau and his late 16thcentury reforms of the Dutch armies. Maurice’s deep understanding of Roman military theory, particularly of the author

Maurice of Nassau

Aelian, and his application of drill, entrenchments, and other classically-inspired improvements led, Roberts argued, to a more proficient military machine.  The work of Gustavus Adolphus was therefore closely related to this, with the broader structural reforms of the army and formations complemented by technological advancements such as the use of three-pounder infantry support guns attached to modular infantry units, and tactical improvements like the employment of offensive shock action by his cavalry.

It is clear that the comprehensive and successfully applied changes to the existing military system were certainly impactive, one might say to the point of being revolutionary.  The developments introduced by Gustavus Adolphus were organisational, technological and doctrinal.  Gustavus Adolphus’ effective use of supply magazines, linear tactics and use of lighter artillery and firearms were steadily adopted by all the European powers.  The organisation of the Swedish army with its smaller unit sizes and higher numbers of NCOs and junior officers also became the standard model for Europe.  One area which is perhaps lacking from a ‘revolutionary’ perspective is the effect on society.  The widely accepted revolutions of history, the French and the Industrial Revolutions, had huge effects on the demographic, social reform and people as individuals.  Because we must avoid the study of war as a phenomenon in isolation, the social factor must not be ignored.  With the exception of the high casualty and mortality rate which was true of all combatants in the Thirty Years’ War, Gustavus Adolphus’ reforms had a negligible impact on the Swedish people.

Geoffrey Parker responded to Roberts’ argument by emphasising earlier developments which Roberts had neglected, such as the 15th century improvement of gunpowder artillery, and the critical subsequent development in the early 1500s of the trace italienne, in what was later characterised by

Clifford J. Rogers as an ‘artillery fortress revolution’. This development reversed the superiority of the offensive that had existed since the 1430s, and strategically the emphasis returned to the defensive, focusing on entrenchment on the battlefield and the use of the new fortifications which partially negated the effectiveness of early artillery. Certainly, this alternative earlier Military Revolution is also worthy of further study, as the social, economic and military changes it wrought on early modern Europe was similarly significant.   It must be stressed however, that as David Parrott pointed out, Parker was merely moving the revolution into his own specialism, namely 16th century warfare with particular respect to siege warfare.  Nevertheless, the Military Revolution debate was enhanced, with Roberts’ narrow view of European warfare added to by Parker’s acknowledgement of the importance of siege warfare and the primacy of the defence.

Clifford J. Rogers also redefined the Military Revolution, again with solid justification, and again by moving it further into the past into his own area of speciality, in this case the Hundred Years’ War.  For Rogers there were two ‘revolutions’, which he defined as the ‘Infantry Revolution’ and the ‘Artillery Revolution.’ According to him the ‘Infantry Revolution’ began with the adoption by the English under Edward III of a combined formation consisting of longbowmen and dismounted men-at-arms fighting in tactically defensive positions.  Other contributing developments included the Flemish, Swiss and Scottish use of pike in the 14th and 15th centuries, which reduced the previous dominance of the mounted feudal aristocracy on the battlefield.  Through these developments, Rogers argued that this Military Revolution began the process of transforming medieval, feudal military structures in Europe into more recognisably modern professional armies.

The second part of Rogers’ contribution to the debate begins in the 15thcentury, when technological developments in gunpowder weaponry between 1420 and 1430 led to the ‘Artillery Revolution’.  The result of this ‘revolution’ was the increased redundancy of traditional high walled towns and castles, as powerful artillery quickly became proficient at creating assailable breaches.  To give a comparative example, Henry V’s siege of Harfleur in 1415 lasted

Henry V at Harfleur

many months, whereas in 1449 when the French recaptured it, the sieges lasted a mere 17 days.  Understandably this effective use of artillery led to great social and economic changes as populations came under attack in their towns.  A further related development, Rogers argues, was the expansion and consolidation of the larger European states as they alone could afford the high price of siege warfare and the logistics involved.   Quickly the futility of static, castle based defence, due to the potency of artillery, became clear and the emphasis shifted to the offensive use of large armies on the battlefield.  Again, the financial burden of campaigning increased as only the large states with more sophisticated and centralised taxation systems could finance the large armies required.  A consequence of increased state centralisation was the absorption of weaker states by their larger neighbours, for example in this manner the Spanish drove the Moors from Spain, and the French re-conquered Normandy and the semi-independent region of Brittany.

Rogers’ argument is detailed and sensible, the consequences and importance of the early developments of infantry and artillery cannot be understated, and his description of the two parallel developments as ‘revolutions’ is understandable.  This earlier period witnessed broad changes in military conduct, as well as economic, social and political developments which had wide-reaching consequences.

But still the debate continued, with Jeremy Black further adding to the debate by highlighting the importance of the years 1660 to 1710 and overall expanding Roberts’ original period to 1550-1800.  Black argued that rather than in the early 17th century, the real structural and tactical changes in European armies occurred in the following hundred years, one of his examples being the military advancements made by Louis XIV alongside his political and structural centralisation.

The development of the Military Revolution debate has therefore resulted in a potential ‘revolutionary’ period of up to 500 years, from Rogers’ 14th century developments to those cited by Black, going right up to 1800.  Each historian has largely agreed with Roberts’ main principles of ‘revolution’, but rejected their narrow geographical and chronological application.  For the purpose of promoting their own areas of interest, each newcomer to the debate has loosely applied the arguments to alternative periods in history.  As a result, there remains a confused and divisive account of what actually constitutes a Military Revolution.

Origins and development of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’

In the late 1970s, low ranking Soviet officers began to argue that computers, space surveillance (satellites), long range missiles, communications systems

A typical 1970s US satellite

and information technology, as well as their integration into conventional forces, was changing the balance of power.  In other words the Soviet armies, and their doctrine and technology, were becoming obsolete when viewed in direct comparison with the US coordinated multi-arm forces with their superior communication and information systems.

This new understanding led to Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov (1917-1994) outlining in a series of papers and lectures what he described as a ‘Military Technical Revolution’ (MTR).  This MTR involved the ‘revolutionary’ synthesis of new technology, military systems and organisational and operational adaptation to create a new ‘way’ of waging war.  Due to the constraints of the declining Soviet economy and lack of political will to engage in another military-technological arms race with the West, the Soviet armed forces only implemented limited reforms in response to Ogarkov’s research.

The reaction to the MTR in the West was minimal, being largely dismissed as propaganda; however Andrew W. Marshall, Head of the US Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment and Strategic Planning, saw its merits and referred to the MTR in his analysis of the military balance between the US and the USSR.  He too, like Ogarkov, believed that change lay in sensors and information systems.

Due to the primarily technological nature of the MTR, it may be possible to apply it to previous examples of military-technological change, which range from the invention of the stirrup to that of the tank. The central idea of the MTR, being that technological innovation can drive military change, is a concept which has been familiar throughout history and because of this can be closely compared to the Military Revolution theory.

Marshall rebranded the MTR concept as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, and developed its details. The development of the RMA concept by Marshall was followed closely by modern military organisations across the globe, not least the People’s Liberation Army of China, who “translated every word that Marshall wrote.”

This change in terminology was accompanied by little actual change in the concept, except for the expansion of the idea to incorporate more up-to-date technological innovations contemporary to Marshall, and to slightly change the direction of the concept specifically towards the future planning of the US military. Many academics use the terms MTR and RMA interchangeably, while others refer to an MTR as a generalised military-technological advance applicable to other periods in history, and in comparison view the RMA concept as being more focused on military-technological development from 1985 to the present day.

The historiography of the RMA debate has expanded greatly in recent years.  Having established and largely accepted the current information-technology RMA, historians are now attempting to project the concept back in time, and by doing so explain other instances of technological change leading organisational and doctrinal reform.  One such example is the applicationof the RMA idea to ‘Blitzkrieg’, particularly the Fall of France in 1940.  Unfortunately there are numerous problems with this.  Firstly it has been comprehensively proven that Germany did not possess vastly superior technology, despite isolated technological strengths.  In addition, ‘Blitzkrieg’ was not a formal doctrine, and as a result the direct effects of technological advancement cannot be proven.  The Fall of France was to a large extent aided

The Fall of France 1940

by French incompetence and mistakes, and additionally any analysis of Blitzkrieg is incomplete without reference to the Eastern Front, where it ultimately failed due to a variety of logistical, tactical and strategic reasons.  It is clear that this approach is flawed.

Taking examples from history and by doing so applying the lessons of past wars to modern conflicts is a core part of contemporary academic analysis.  However, projecting modern concepts and metaphysical structures onto past events risks both historical ‘cherry picking’ in the style of Mahan, as well as often cripplingly subjective analysis, which distorts historical truth.

Can these terms really be applied? 

Due to the historian’s penchant for applying theories and definitions to alternative periods in history, it is possible to find terms like the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ or the Military Revolution appearing in studies ranging throughout the whole spectrum of military history, often interchangeably.  To a certain extent, although the debate surrounding the Military Revolution is by no means over, this term has been worn-out, over used and over applied.  The RMA however is only just being properly explored, and applied to other periods of great military change.  Historians have projected the Revolution in Military Affairs back to German ‘Blitzkrieg’ and the First World War, for example.  These studies promote analysis and evaluation of the RMA when applied to other areas, but take the original concept completely out of context.

The Military Revolution debate is centred on which period of history it may or may not be applied to.  As a result of numerous historians’ studies and debates, academics in the field of warfare are presented with many different sides of the same argument; an argument which is inherently flawed.  By extending and editing the original framework to fit their own areas of interest, the key historians engaged in this debate have negated any plausibility attached to the ‘revolutionary’ label, not least through the advocacy of a revolution lasting more than one hundred years, a concept proposed by more than one academic.  The RMA, being ‘younger’, has yet to be fully understood and applied in this way.

The boundaries between the different terms are largely indistinct and by removing the original limitations of time and space, the RMA being specifically aimed at the 1980s onward, the resulting ‘revolution’, encapsulating technology, doctrine and organisation would overlap heavily with the Military Revolution.

It is also important to remember provenance when assessing any of these terms.  The Military Revolution was conceived by an early modern historian 400 years after the events, while the MTR and RMA concepts were created by contemporaneous military thinkers to explain developments in the modern world.  Understanding the geneses of these concepts therefore helps to differentiate between the two.

Consequently, the question is not necessarily can these terms be applied, but is perhaps ‘should they be applied?’.  The Military Revolution concept lends itself to a range of periods in history, but has as a result been over applied, stretched and warped.  The RMA was developed from the original MTR idea to address advancements in technology, and their effects on the military, specifically in the US in the 70s, 80s and later decades.  It is thus by definition a concept that can only be applied to the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and because of this it is clearly inappropriate to superimpose the RMA onto any other period in time.

Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution Theory

Clifford J. Rogers, perhaps aware that his paper on the multiple military revolutions of the Hundred Years’ War was stretching Roberts’ already crumbling conceptual framework to breaking point, proposed the adoption in military history of a biological term first used in the 1970s in reference to evolutionary biology, ‘Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution’. Rogers saw this idea as a series of small, periodic bursts of change in military history, punctuated by relative stability.  This translates as, for example, an important new technological development, followed by relative inaction while the technology delivers an impact and then the widespread adoption of the technology and acceptance of the social, economic and political consequences related to it.

This theory goes further than the Military Revolution debate to explain why Europe experienced continuous ‘revolutions’ throughout a period of over 500 years.  By viewing the developments as short bursts of activity in an otherwise stagnant and reactionary military environment, it is possible to identify important technological, doctrinal, organisational and social changes without having to impose the ‘revolution’ label on them.  This idea therefore has much to offer, but for it to be any more relevant, and in order to emerge from beneath the Military Revolution theory it requires tighter definition and further study.

Summary and Conclusion

An MTR is an RMA is not quite a Military Revolution.  A Military Revolution implies that the military-technical development (MTR/RMA) is accompanied by broader social, economic, political or cultural change.  This is as close to a qualitative definition as one can expose without breaking the concepts at their core.

Indeed, there is clearly no quantitative measurement.  For example, while Clifford J. Rogers speculated that perhaps a revolution “lasts for no more than one lifespan”, Jeremy Black’s revolution lasts for over 200 years, and Roberts a full 100 years.  The Military Revolutions of Rogers, Black, Roberts and Parker (to name but a few examples) are all well argued, and all fit the general definition of a Military Revolution.  Yet they extend from 1302 with the genesis of Rogers’ ‘Infantry Revolution’ to around 1430 with the ‘Artillery Revolution’, then 1500 and the beginning of trace italienne, followed by the 1630s and Gustavus Adolphus’ application of linear tactics, to the late 17th century and the inception of the bayonet, being drawn by Black all the way to 1800 in his work ‘A Military Revolution? Military Change and European Society 1550-1800’.  Developments such as these, with similar characteristics and occurring over long periods of time, appeared with such frequency during the last millennium that surely they cannot be regarded as revolutionary at all.

A lack of capacity for any real quantitative measurement is not on its own a fatal blow to the Military Revolution concept, but in combination with the lack of consistency in its application by various academics and the sheer volume of time periods referred to as military revolutions, it must be concluded that the term clearly has no value.

The main problem with the RMA in comparison is not that it has been over-applied, although restraint must now be used to prevent this happening, but that it has not been properly defined.  The Revolution in Military Affairs is a modern concept for the modern military, and as such must not be projected back in time to historical periods more suited to alternative explanations.  In addition to this, an ‘end’ to the current RMA must be found.  This RMA began in the 1970s with the increasing military use of information systems and smart technology, continuing through the development and increasingly widespread use of the internet, up to the present day.  Without clear definition this RMA could therefore continue infinitely, if one considers the rate of technological development we are now experiencing.  The RMA concept as a result of this runs the risk of becoming, like the Military Revolution, too broad to succeed as a workable term.

We would argue that while ‘military affairs’ have been irreversibly transformed by post-1970 technological developments, this transformation cannot be

New technology has changed the conduct and organisation of modern armed forces

viewed as a revolution.  Without knowing the conclusion to the current RMA, it is impossible to know whether the US and the West are experiencing a revolutionary or evolutionary process.  Because of this, we would direct interested parties to the Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution Theory, which has many merits and may be applied successfully to much of history due to having a more sensible and all-encompassing approach.  Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution however does require more study and application to historical subjects before it may be totally adopted by historians.

The military historian Cyril Falls once noted that people throughout history have had a tendency to view their own period of time as revolutionary in a way that separates them conceptually from the past, a subjective flaw we perhaps still suffer from. We would argue that this is the same for military historians and analysts, with a tendency for each to see their own period of study as the most significant. It is not coincidental that each of the historians discussed in this article have found their own specialism the most noteworthy period in military history.

It is perhaps both the linear academic view of history, a product of the Enlightenment, and our own psychological requirements as pattern seeking mammals that motivate us to attempt to draw a straight line through history, and to view the entire subcategory of military history on the sliding scale of a single concept, be it ‘Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution’, ‘RMA’, ‘MTR’ or ‘Military Revolution’. Similarly, perhaps none of these approaches is appropriate. What is clear is that the Military Revolution, RMA and MTR concepts are so loosely defined, subjective, over applied and misunderstood that if they originally provided analytical value, they no longer do so.

The authors of this article can be contacted via Twitter at: @L_EH_Reynolds and @zcvince