The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovation Determines the Fates of Great Powers 
by Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr.
Yale, 549 pp., £35, May 2023, 978 0 300 23409 1
Show More
Show More

On​ 24 January, US Central Command, which oversees military operations across the Middle East and West Asia, issued a press release reporting that the USS Gravely, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, had shot down two missiles fired by Yemeni Houthis at a US-owned container ship, the MV Maersk Detroit, in the Gulf of Aden. A third Houthi missile had landed in the sea. There was no damage to the ship. The Gravely was part of Operation Protective Guardian, deployed to safeguard commercial shipping through the Houthi blockade of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea. The Americans and their allies claimed to have the measure of the situati0n. For the previous two weeks the US, assisted by the RAF, had been targeting Houthi missile bases with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. The Gravely was commissioned in 2010 and built at a cost of around $2 billion, with a sophisticated weapons system designed to intercept enemy missiles. The missiles fired by the Houthis are thought to have been AS-5 ‘Kelts’, first deployed by the Soviet navy almost sixty years ago, and were targeted by very basic means, relying on the merchant ships’ own tracking beacons, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) used by all commercial ships to broadcast their location. Despite the technological imbalance, the US navy lost the battle, as revealed in a detail omitted from CentCom’s five-line press release. After the incident, to avoid further missile attack, the Maersk Detroit and another Maersk vessel abandoned their attempt to run the blockade and headed to safer waters in the Arabian Sea, followed by a costly diversion around the African continent. Using comparatively primitive technology, the Houthis have disrupted a significant component of the global economy.

The word ‘disruptive’ crops up a lot in Andrew Krepinevich’s exhaustive treatise on military innovation. His contention is that the adoption of innovative military technology ahead of rivals leads to victory. In support of his argument he delves into areas usually frequented only by specialists. Among them are the Fisher Revolution, which involved an initiative to build up-to-date warships for the Royal Navy in the years preceding the First World War; the evolution of Blitzkrieg in the German army between the world wars; and the development of aircraft carrier tactics by the US navy, beginning in the 1920s. In each case he cites the advent of new or improved technology, such as long-range torpedoes in the British example, or fast Panzer units adopted by the Germans before the Second World War. He finds room to highlight the role played by leaders, such as the dynamic Admiral Jackie Fisher, sponsor of the ‘dreadnought revolution’; Generals Hans von Seeckt and Heinz Guderian in the creation of Hitler’s Wehrmacht; and assorted interwar US naval leaders. But it is his evident belief that technology proved the decisive factor.

These historical precedents are merely a prelude to Krepinevich’s cherished core example: the ‘precision warfare revolution’, technologies pioneered by the US air force in the late 20th century to guide bombs and missiles to their targets with unprecedented accuracy. His celebration of this long-sought achievement, dramatically demonstrated to the wider world in the 1991 war against Iraq (Operation Desert Storm), when TV audiences could watch videos beamed directly from the bombs as they destroyed Iraqi targets, comes with a cautionary warning. Putative enemies, the Russians and Chinese, have now introduced precision in their own forces, obviating the US advantage. This prompts Krepinevich, a defence policy analyst, to invoke the exciting possibilities of nascent technologies, such as the incorporation of AI, autonomous drones, cyberwar, space war and other emerging ‘domains’.

The book’s argument should come as no surprise given Krepinevich’s relationship with the late Andrew Marshall, who directed the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment for more than forty years. Krepinevich praises Marshall as ‘one of our country’s greatest and most underappreciated strategists of the post-World War Two era’ and ‘my principal intellectual mentor’. The notion that Marshall has been underappreciated, especially in the higher reaches of the US defence complex, is hard to accept, since his prescriptions rarely if ever cut against the grain of the military’s wishes, especially in the matter of spending; indeed, they were eagerly implemented by decision-makers, including successive secretaries of defence and military chiefs.

Most pertinently, Marshall promoted the proposition that advances in precision targeting had brought about a ‘revolution in military affairs’ that had changed the nature of warfare. The triumph of 1991 served as a vindication of his high-tech approach. Krepinevich reports that, ‘armed with only a handful of stealthy aircraft and a small stockpile of precision-guided munitions … the coalition, led by the US air force, quickly suppressed Iraq’s air defences,’ whereupon the targeting switched to Iraqi ground forces so effectively that when coalition troops attacked Kuwait, ‘the Iraqi army simply collapsed.’ Unsurprisingly, this association of sweeping victory with the revolutionary technologies of stealth and precision targeting was accepted without challenge by the military and its industrial partners.

With Marshall’s encouragement, Krepinevich wrote a celebratory report in 1992 titled ‘The Military-Technical Revolution: A Preliminary Assessment’, which laid out the thesis of the ‘origins of victory’, with reference to the historical examples of dreadnoughts, Blitzkrieg and aircraft carriers. The stage was set for what became the standard US approach to warfare: aerial precision strikes against air defences and ‘high-value’ targets, as deployed in the Kosovo war of 1999, the Afghan and Iraq invasions at the beginning of the 21st century, and subsequent conflicts up to and including current engagements in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

All these operations have relied on the presumed ability of aerial bombardment not only to disable an enemy’s defences but also, in Krepinevich’s words, ‘to identify a relatively small number of targets that, when successfully engaged (or engaged on a recurring basis), lead to the crippling of an enemy’s military effectiveness or capacity to resist’. The US air force was in fact devoted to this doctrine even before it achieved its independence from the army in 1947. The idea was conceived in the 1930s at the Air Corps Tactical School and was deemed practicable thanks to the purported potential of the Norden bombsight, which measured an aircraft’s direction and speed in order to predict the trajectory of the bombs it released. This was a military-technical revolution that clearly failed, as the bomber generals implicitly conceded when they switched to indiscriminate fire-bombing of Japanese cities late in the Second World War. In Vietnam, air force planners thought they had identified Hanoi’s oil fuel storage tanks as a ‘critical node’ essential to the enemy’s war effort and duly destroyed them, only to find that the Vietnamese had anticipated the attack and stored their fuel in hidden sites elsewhere. A further attempt to eliminate Vietnamese supply lines down the Ho Chi Minh Trail by means of ingeniously designed sensors designed to detect enemy movements similarly failed, thanks to simple countermeasures deployed by the Vietnamese.

In this light it is worth examining the earlier military-technical revolutions Krepinevich invokes to buttress his arguments. They tell a story somewhat at variance with his conclusions. Admiral Fisher, one of Krepinevich’s heroes, believed that the answer to the advancing technology of submarines and long-range torpedoes, which had called into question Britain’s traditional strategy of closely blockading enemy ports, lay in fast ships armed with massive guns that could outrange enemy forces. He constructed a fleet of heavily gunned battleships and cruisers, which shed some defensive armour in order to provide more speed and firepower. But in the only full-scale naval battle of the First World War, at Jutland in 1916, the comparatively thinly armoured British cruisers fell victim to accurate German fire, while British shells – thanks to deficient fuses – often failed to penetrate well-armoured German adversaries. Even so, superior British numbers might have brought about a significant victory (the battle was largely deemed a draw) were it not for a failing that had little to do with technology.

As Andrew Gordon explained in The Rules of the Game (1996), his brilliant dissection of the Royal Navy that fought at Jutland, the service had become progressively encrusted over the previous century with a rigid mindset exacerbated by an ever more elaborate system of command and control exercised largely through signalling flags, which made it impossible for subordinate commanders to exercise initiative. Krepinevich considers Jutland a strategic victory for Britain, because it deterred the German surface fleet from further attempts to break out of the North Sea and attack Britain’s Atlantic supply lines. But the German submarine fleet suffered no such inhibitions, wreaking havoc on unescorted merchant ships and bringing Britain to the brink of starvation and defeat. An honest review of the record casts the British naval leadership in a very poor light. As David Lloyd George explained in his memoirs, ‘before the War, the Board of Admiralty had concentrated so much on big and still bigger ships that they neglected essential weapons like mines, armour-piercing shells and torpedoes – all of which were inferior to those manufactured by the Germans.’ When he and other politicians pressed for the adoption of merchant ship convoys protected against submarines by naval escorts, they were met with what Lloyd George described as ‘implacable and prolonged resistance’ from Fisher’s protégés at the Admiralty. Only when sailors were forced to accept convoys did the tide turn.

When considering the German army that brought most of Europe under Hitler’s control in the early years of the Second World War, Krepinevich pays due tribute to the military leaders who foresaw that the static and bloody attrition of the previous world war could be avoided by focusing on mobility and manoeuvre. Accordingly, they invested in fast-moving tank formations as well as an air force primarily dedicated to working in conjunction with ground troops. Though acknowledging the conceptual insights of generals like von Seeckt and Guderian, Krepinevich is happiest when dwelling on the technology they utilised, especially relatively speedy mechanised forces. But the real secret of German success lay in the encouragement and facilitation of initiative by lower-level commanders on the front line, who were free to devise the best means of accomplishing their mission without the interference of superiors. Aided by Guderian’s insistence on putting a radio in every tank, they were able to adapt to and exploit changing circumstances on the battlefield, faster than equally well armed but rigidly controlled opponents could respond. Hermann Balck, one of the most successful Panzer generals, later observed that ‘the German higher commander rarely or never reproached their subordinates unless they made a terrible blunder. They were fostering the individual’s initiative.’ In other words, the system was geared to operate on the basis of an implicit understanding of what needed to be done, rather than relying on explicit instructions on the execution of the high command’s plans.

Krepinevich devotes a section to the development by far-sighted exponents of American aircraft carrier tactics that culminated in their crushing victory over the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. He once again identifies the seminal role of a few visionary leaders, such as Admiral Joseph Reeves, who pioneered a policy of operating carrier forces independently of battleship-heavy fleets. Krepinevich has little to say about similar trends in the Japanese navy, which would have led to the destruction of America’s Pacific carrier force had it not been fortuitously absent from Pearl Harbor on the day of Japan’s surprise attack. The Japanese defeat at Midway six months later was in large part due to the success of US naval codebreakers in decrypting Japanese messages and the willingness of Admiral Chester Nimitz to concentrate his forces at Midway in defiance of orders from Washington. The readiness of lower-ranking officers to rapidly adapt fighter tactics and firefighting techniques thanks to lessons learned in the preceding Battle of the Coral Sea gave them a significant advantage over the more rigidly controlled enemy.

Fortified by his reading of historical examples from earlier in the 20th century, Krepinevich turns his attention to the Gulf War triumph of 1991, and celebrates another ‘leading visionary’, the US air force general Wilbur Creech. Krepinevich’s glowing assessment of the 1991 success is unencumbered by any doubts as to the veracity of official accounts. Fortunately we have an independent study by the General Accounting Office, carried out over several years with full access to detailed records (obtained in the face of strenuous official resistance), which paints a rather different picture. The F-117 ‘stealth’ bomber, for example, purportedly invisible to radar, had often required the company of a host of escorting planes to jam enemy detection systems that supposedly could not see the bomber anyway. Far from ‘one target one bomb’, as claimed by exultant laser-guided bomb manufacturers, the F-117 used an average of four, and sometimes ten, of the most accurate weapons to destroy a target. Overall, the investigators concluded, ‘many of [the Pentagon’s] and manufacturers’ postwar claims about weapon system performance … were overstated, misleading, inconsistent with the best available data, or unverifiable.’

It can’t be denied that the destruction of power plants, oil refineries, communications centres and other ‘high-value’ targets identified by the planners as key to the functioning of Saddam Hussein’s war machine did reduce Iraq to a pre-industrial state. But the US offensive didn’t induce the collapse of the Iraqi army, or the regime. Saddam evaded strenuous attempts to locate and kill him by avoiding his known headquarters, travelling unescorted in a Baghdad taxi. The elimination of the Iraqi army in Kuwait was largely accomplished not only by the evident unwillingness of Iraqi troops to fight, but by the US decision to abandon its initial plan for a frontal assault in favour of a ‘left hook’ round the Iraqi flank, and by the heavy use of a weapon developed and operated on very different principles from the complex systems touted by Krepinevich. The A-10 close support plane, which a reluctant air force deployed to Saudi Arabia only on the direct order of the commanding US army general, inflicted heavy damage on the Iraqi forces – so decisively that Chuck Horner, the local US air commander, cabled Washington in the immediate aftermath of the war to report that ‘the A-10 saved my ass.’ Armed with a quick-firing heavy-calibre cannon and designed to survive damage from anti-aircraft fire, the plane enabled pilots to fly low, selecting targets on the basis of their own observation, without the fallible intervention of radar and other sensors.

This highly effective weapon had emerged from within an initiative that Krepinevich vehemently derides, the so-called military reform movement, which attracted significant attention and support in the press and Congress in the 1980s. This loosely constituted group, with a number of combat veterans at its core, including the legendary fighter pilot and theoretician of conflict Colonel John Boyd, argued that the complex and expensive weapons systems championed by the Pentagon and its industrial partners were inevitably unreliable and often ineffective in combat. Instead, they advocated cheaper, simpler and thoroughly tested systems such as the A-10 and the lightweight F-16 fighter, programmes trenchantly opposed by the air force high command.

Time has shown that the reformers were right. The course doggedly pursued by the Pentagon has ensured a force with shrinking numbers of basic weapons and personnel, despite ever more money being spent on defence. Money is lavished on advanced weapons systems whose effectiveness is questionable, and which are vastly expensive to maintain. The number of fighter and attack planes in the US air force, which stood at more than four thousand forty years ago, has dwindled to just over two thousand today. The complexity of the weapons that do get bought means that they are diminishingly available for training and combat. In the 1990s, military pilots spent an average of twenty hours a month in the air; today they fly for between five and ten hours a month. At any one time, 40 per cent of the US navy’s attack submarines are out of commission for repairs.

None of these sobering details trouble Krepinevich, who prefers to dwell on the urgent necessity of developing increasingly fantastical programmes: hypersonics, genetic engineering, quantum computing and of course AI. Copious sums are indeed being lavished on such projects. In 2019 the Pentagon inaugurated an AI system called Gamechanger, in the hope of enabling it to discover where all its money goes – so far without success, as it has continued to fail an audit of its accounts.

The US military is heavily involved in ongoing conflicts – either by proxy, as in Ukraine, or directly, as in the Middle East. To date, the results have shed a poor light on the military-technological revolution. Successive ‘game-changing’ systems dispatched to Ukraine, notably the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (designed to hit targets with great precision at long range), have failed to produce victory while eliciting effective countermeasures on the part of the Russians. Artillery has dominated the battlefield, consuming massive quantities of shells which in the West are in short supply thanks to the prevailing preference for the production of more exotic weapons. Drones, it’s true, have brought major changes to the battlefield, but the machines that have had the most striking impact are cheap ones originally designed for the consumer market and adapted in the field for lethal purposes by front-line troops – conceptually similar to the jerry-rigged explosive devices that caused havoc to Western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Middle East, the US still seeks out and strikes ‘high-value’ targets, as it has done for the past three decades, picking off insurgent leaders who are then predictably replaced with equally or more determined commanders. All the wonders of precision targeting and comprehensive surveillance notwithstanding, the Houthi blockade of the Red Sea is as effectively disruptive as ever.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences