The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovation Determines the Fates of Great Powers

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Release Date: 
March 21, 2023
Yale University Press
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One of the favorite topics of military historians are the so-called “revolutions in military affairs”—those convergencies of technologies and weaponry that create great change regarding how militaries are formed and wars are fought.

The book takes a somewhat different tack than typical revolution in military affairs histories. First, the author reviews the state-of-the-art in military technology, making his thesis that the current paradigm of “mature precision-warfare regime” that is considered the ultimate military capability has reached its limit and is beginning to lose its dominance in warfare. The author takes the reader through the emergence of the U.S. as the dominant military of this archetype as the convergence of stealth aircraft, precision-guided weapons, and space-based navigation and communications satellites give the U.S. unquestioned dominance in warfare from about 1991 to today.

The author then analyzes the current developments in military technologies and doctrines, making a compelling case that the emergence of powers such as China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia, along with their own developments in revolutionary technologies, have nearly erased this advantage and introduced new capabilities that could challenge the U.S. in the near future.

After moving the reader through this evaluation, the author then goes through a historical analysis of disruptive technologies and capabilities to spot trends and common patterns of significant military developments of the 20th century. 

In the naval realm, he examines the pinnacle of battleship development, the British Dreadnought-class ships of the early 20th century and how they went from the zenith of big gun ship design to their complete replacement battleships by aircraft carriers in World War II.

Switching to the land warfare realm, he examines the development of not merely tanks and armored vehicles between the world wars, but the development of true combined arms doctrine and capabilities, examining how the German military after 1919 essentially rebuilt their entire army after their defeat in World War I, adopting not only tanks as the basis of their entire military, but incorporated mechanization, radio communications, and tactical airpower to create the World War II Wehrmacht that conquered most of Europe. 

Finally, he takes the reader through the fascinating journey of the U.S. Air Force from a hide-bound strategic nuclear bomber force of the post-World War II nuclear era to the stunningly successful instrument of air power that quickly dismantled Iraq’s air defense system in 1991 and remains dominant to this day.

Finally, Krepinevich examines these historical examples to look for trends and conclusions about what is needed from an institutional perspective to make disruptive military innovations not only mainstream military systems, but incorporate their new capabilities into doctrine, training, and ultimately operational planning leading to combat victory. He rightly avoids making summary conclusions or sweeping observations, instead offering insightful analysis and critical thinking based on his actual experience examining military innovations as part of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the premier think tank of the Secretary of Defense.

This book is important as it presents a clear picture of the challenges the U.S. military faces as it emerges from what the author describes as an unchallenged period of conducting counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations against insurgent groups and minor powers like Iraq and Libya and must again prepare for great power conflicts with China, Russia, and even Iran and North Korea. All of these states are constantly looking for new means to side-step U.S. military advantages and the observations Krepinevich has made should make both policymakers and students of strategic studies thoughtfully consider what technologies and capabilities the U.S. military should be looking to in the next decade.