New Roles for the U.S. Military

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The American military stands at a watershed, facing massive, unfamiliar change — with tools designed for an earlier age.

In the past when society experienced turbulence of this magnitude, the resulting shifts affected all areas of life. So it will be again. Our armed forces, one of society’s most conservative institutions, must be transformed. Enormous changes are pushing for dramatic alterations in their composition, the context in which they operate, and their role in our society.

We are living at the beginning of a technology explosion. Extraordinary technological advances are being made in a variety of disciplines, some of which did not even exist ten years ago. Many are affecting our national security.

The most significant advance is in information technology. Not only is this extraordinary technology proliferating, it is also increasing in its capability. Just eight years ago, PCs made available large-scale, cheap, fast repetitive iteration, opening up whole areas of dynamic systems analysis. Now virtual reality and its ultimate derivative, full-color holographic projection, are making it possible to move information rather than people. Warfare, for example, has always involved moving men — and tanks, aircraft, rifles, and so on — to a specific location to fight. Even staff support operations like the targeting and scheduling of aircraft sorties required large numbers of people to be in the vicinity of the conflict. In Desert Shield/Desert Storm, it took 7,000 people located in Riyadh to generate the daily bombing plans.

All that is changing. Years ago, “old” technology such as that in surveillance satellites moved “eyes” miles away from the viewer. But in the not-too-distant future, real-time multidimensional presentations of almost any place on earth will be available to planners who never leave the United States. They will be able to launch and target unmanned precision missiles and other systems hooked into global information networks from locations much more efficient and convenient than where the action is.

The new technology is making information the world’s new capital commodity. Immense increases in communication linkages are diffusing information quickly throughout business, educational, social, and military systems, shortening reaction times and stepping up the tempo of operations. Ideas and images are blanketing the globe in seconds, changing shape and meaning throughout the process as receivers pass them along with their own responses. CNN’s coverage of Desert Storm was just a harbinger of what is to come.

Unlike in the past, this revolution is also feeding itself.


1. E. Whitney-Smith, “Information Doesn’t Want,” Whole Earth Review, Fall 1991, p. 38.

2. National Security in the 1990s: Defining a New Basis for U.S.Military Forces,” speech by Representative Les Aspin, chairman, House Armed Services Committee, before the Atlantic Council of the United States, January 6, 1992.

3. S. Begley with D. Glick, “Was Andrew a Freak — or a Preview of Things to Come?” Newsweek, September 7, 1992, p. 30; and

P. Applebome, “Storm Cycles and Coastal Growth Could Make Disaster a Way of Life,” New York Times, August 30, 1992, sec. 4, p. 1.

4. “Worldwatch Report Calls 1990s Decisive Decade for Environment,” New York Times, January 13, 1992.

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