Editions : July-September 2014


  Transforming Military Power since the Cold War: Britain, France and the United States, 1991-2012  
By Theo Farrell, Sten Rynning and Terry Terriff 
(Cambridge University Press, 2013, 318pp)

Reviewed by Adhi Priamarizki

Military transformation has become a controversial mantra in determining success on the battlefield and in war. The debate about the sources of military transformation itself creates divisions among military transformation theorists. Nonetheless, rather than jump into the debate, the authors of the book clearly state that they want to strengthen the military transformation theory. By examining the armies of three NATO countries (Britain, France and the United States), Farrell, Rynning, and Terriff try to define the sources of transformation.

They choose the army as a focus point, as this branch has been central to the wars of Western nations since the dawn of the new Millennium. They describe Western militaries as operating in an environment characterized by profound strategic and sociotechnological change, namely the end of the Cold War, the rise of networked computers and expeditionary warfare.

The book finds that the British, French and US armies set out to transform by developing forces that are modular, medium-weight and networked. The authors conclude that in all three cases, transformation was expedited by two external factors: strategic change after the Cold War and sociotechnological change accompanying the information technology revolution. In contrast to previous military innovation studies, the book defines external elements as opportunities for militaries to realize they must be innovative to get past perennial obstacles.

Strategic change

The authors point out that the end of the Cold War was a seminal event that dramatically changed the strategic environment of the countries in the case studies. The fall of the Soviet Union not only altered the global balance of power but eliminated the traditional enemy of most NATO countries. Therefore, high military spending was unjustifiable due to the absence of a clear and present threat. Additionally, the new Russia was at its weakest point economically in the early 1990s.

According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military expenditures by the United States, Britain and France declined after 1990, presumably as a result of the end of the Cold War. The 9-11 attacks on the US prompted the three countries to increase military budgets to enhance capabilities, though not far beyond what they were during the Cold War. In fact, France’s 2010 military budget was slightly less than during this era. The Global Financial Crisis and euro zone crisis caused lower military spending by Britain and France. On the other hand, the United States steadily boosted military spending, primarily due to the wars it waged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It would have been interesting if the book explored more about the dynamics of military spending and its connection to military innovation within the armies of the three countries, since budget constraints are one of the obstacles to innovation. The authors could have explained how this dynamic influences transformation, as a military could be tempted to go back to the status quo.

Sociotechnological change

The authors correctly point out that sociotechnological change has an enormous impact on an army’s transformation. The end of the Cold War, the emergence of network-centric warfare and the intense use of expeditionary warfare are some of the sociotechnological changes mentioned in the book. Undeniably, these changes have forced armies to revolutionize their postures and tactics. An army needs to move fast and in considerable size, and its personnel must function alongside other military branches as well as with allied nations.

For the United States, the rise of China should become another contributing element in sociotechnological change. Accompanying America’s rebalancing toward Asia, air-sea battle appears to be a new joint concept. According to Richard Bitzinger and Michael Raska of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, the air-sea battle concept intends to preserve stability and sustain American power projection and freedom of action, while offsetting current and anticipated asymmetric threats through a novel integration of the US Air Force and Navy. This further reduces the US Army’s role in the current strategic environment, further increasing the need for transformation.

Case studies

The book’s authors explain that the armies of the United States, Britain and France changed along similar lines between the early 1990s and into this century. They shifted focus from major continental warfare to expeditionary warfare. They also adopted more medium-weight and modular force structures, and invested heavily in information communication technology.

Even though these explanations are sufficient to justify the case studies, it would have been wiser if the authors added more information about the role of armies in the military strategies of their respective nations. Those roles remain vague as the authors only explicitly describe them in the introductory chapter. The ascending role of air power during the past two decades, for example, definitely has massive consequences that can minimize an army’s function on the battlefield.

The book concludes with the argument that external triggers are opportunities for militaries to innovate. It also argues that interests and ideas influence military innovation. Farrell, Rynning and Terriff argue that Western nations must maintain and develop their military edge regardless of resource constraints, due to strategic uncertainty.

Despite loopholes in the narrative, the book provides adequate information on the subject of military transformation. Without jumping into the debate on the source of military innovation, it attempts to incorporate several arguments to offer a comprehensive explanation that would be immensely useful for academics, practitioners and those interested in military or strategic studies.


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