Author’s note: This is the third in a series of articles about the profession of arms. Over the series, I will chart the modern development of our profession in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, examining that development through the lens of four themes that have driven and influenced it: events, technology, ideas, and institutions. I will then examine how change in the strategic environment will drive continued evolution in the profession of arms. Importantly, I will propose areas where we, as members of this profession, must lead change and ensure our military institutions remain effective—at every level—into the twenty-first century.

You can also read the first and second articles in the series.

The twentieth century witnessed a series of turning points in the modern profession of arms. The technological developments of the Second Industrial Revolution—which bracketed the turn of that century—drove the transformation of military ideas and institutions, and saw the conduct of war leap into a new domain with the birth of aerospace forces. The period to the end of World War II was explored in Part Two of this series. The technological, ideological, and societal changes in the period before World War II resulted in a profession that possessed an expanded view of military activities within broader national security approaches. The profession of arms also evolved alongside an improved the capacity to mobilize populations and national industry. As Margaret MacMillan has recently written, “One of the great tragedies of modern war was that the very strengths of societies—in organization, industry, science or resources—could turn them into such effective killing machines.” This necessitated a broader view of strategy, which until now had largely been a military preoccupation. As Lawrence Freedman has written, “It was only the shocking experience of World War I that led to attempts to broaden the meaning of strategy.”

With the first use of atomic weapons in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, members of the profession of arms witnessed clear evidence of the potential for military activities henceforth to be able to extinguish not just an enemy army, but all of humankind. As this article demonstrates, the advent of nuclear weapons would have a significant impact on the profession. This also represented the start of a pulse of professionalism in the twentieth-century profession of arms.

This article examines the post-atomic era, which like the first forty-five years of the twentieth century saw many milestones in the development of the modern profession. This second pulse of professionalism was driven by geopolitical competition, decolonization by European powers, new technologies, and eventually a world transformed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Like the first two parts of this series, the development of the modern profession of arms in this article will be explored through the framework of events, technology, ideas, and institutions. This part will focus on events, with the other three legs of the framework covered subsequently in the series.

The multi-decade Cold War laid a foundation for the profession of arms as it exists in the twenty-first century, and provides many lessons about great power competition that retain relevance today. It is therefore appropriate that we spend some time reviewing the events of the Cold War to set the scene for our continued examination of the profession of arms in the twentieth century.


The Cold War. It would be impossible here to provide a full history of the Cold War. Our aim is not to provide a full account of the period between 1947 and 1991 but to assess the impact of the Cold War on the profession of arms and its members. Characterized by the grand competition between the United States and its allies on one side and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its client states on the other, the Cold War saw the rise of nuclear weapons and the strategies associated with their possession. It also featured political warfare, influence operations, the space race, and a nearly constant threat of nuclear warfare.

The confrontation between the two blocs during the Cold War was heavily shaped by the largest member of each of these blocs. After the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon in 1949, and then a thermonuclear weapon in 1953 (one year after America), the security policies and military strategies of both sides were increasingly based on nuclear deterrence. The dominance of nuclear deterrence was to have a significant impact on the profession of arms.

First, and perhaps most importantly, it led to the creation of a new breed of defense intellectuals whose main concern was nuclear strategy. While the idea of strategy was not new, the addition of such destructive weapons to the arsenals of NATO and the Warsaw Pact meant that nations had to evolve strategic thought to take account of the potential impacts of their use. Strategists such as Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, and Albert Wohlstetter (among many others) all made significant contributions to various theories around nuclear strategies from the 1950s onwards. A second generation, composed of strategists such as Lawrence Freedman and Colin Gray, followed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Cold War, and the developments in nuclear strategy, also led to research and debate on the conduct of civil-military relations. Despite nuclear weapons being deployed by the military services of the United States, Britain, and France, the control of these weapons was ultimately vested in the civilian political leaders, not the military. This demanded that new forms of interaction between civilian and military leaders and strategists be developed.

The relief of Gen. Douglas MacArthur by US President Harry Truman during the Korean War provided an exemplar of how the implementation of strategy was evolving and how nuclear weapons were changing the interaction of civilian political leaders and senior military leaders. In early 1951, MacArthur issued a series of public statements that included a communique offering a ceasefire to China in March 1951. Truman believed these statements challenged his authority. Further, Truman felt that some of MacArthur’s military operations unnecessarily provoked China. Fearing that these events not only challenged presidential authority, but also set a bad precedent for future civil-military relations in the United States, Truman relieved MacArthur from command in April 1951.

Another useful case study in the evolution in civil-military relations was the Cuban missile crisis. The difference in thinking about nuclear weapons on display during that event was stark. While President John F. Kennedy and his civilian advisors did not think it was possible to win a nuclear exchange and sought to find a negotiated solution, senior military leaders based their planning on the theory that it was possible to win a nuclear exchange and retain a society with a population above minimum viability. The crisis, playing out over thirteen days, provided lessons in crisis management, bureaucratic decision making, political control over the use of nuclear weapons, diplomacy, nuclear strategy, and civil-military relations.

The lessons of the MacArthur relief, the Cuban missile crisis, and dawning understanding that nuclear exchanges would result in mutual destruction drove a change in how military institutions interacted with civilian policymakers. Senior military leaders, many of whom had spent their formative years on the battlefields of World War II, now required the ability to better appreciate and analyze the military implications of the policy requirements of their civilian leaders. To be effective strategic leaders, senior military leaders needed to understand the art and science of military activities, as well as how to inform and participate in high-level policy discussions with civilian leaders. This in turn drove evolution in the training and education of military officers and reinforced the requirement for high-level education—in the form of war colleges—in every major country. We will return to the theories of civil-military relations—what Eliot Cohen has called “the unequal dialog”—in the next part of this series.

The Cold War also saw new skillsets and career pathways emerge in the profession. In biology, speciation is an evolutionary process whereby populations of living things evolve to become distinct species. Subspeciation is the way in which these species then divide into subspecies. An element of the natural world, we can also see this process occurring in the profession of arms because of new technologies introduced during the Cold War. New subspecialties (and new doctrines) within existing services arose to meet the requirements of nuclear deterrence and to exploit the power of new technologies such as nuclear power generation, space-based satellites, and long-range missiles.

The US Air Force Strategic Air Command was established in 1946 on the foundation of World War II bomber commands and became a principal element of the US nuclear deterrent. The development of intercontinental missiles and their nuclear warheads saw the establishment of a new missile division within the command in 1957. With the advent of satellites, the Air Force established its first space organization in 1954, which in due course provided the foundation for the establishment of the service’s Space Command in 1982. The development of nuclear-powered submarines by the United States Navy in the 1950s resulted in the establishment of an entirely new professional community within the service. Each of these new organizations and subspecialties required supporting doctrine, training, education, career pathways, and leadership models. The profession of arms expanded its knowledge base and increased the number of “subspecies” that belonged to it. Eventually, this broadening of military capabilities would drive the need for better joint collaboration and integration, which will be explored in the next part of this series. The combination of new technologies, strategic competition, new institutions, and new doctrines was a principal driver in the second pulse of professionalism for the twentieth-century profession of arms.

The Cold War was also the background to a different form of conflict in the post–World War II period: the withdrawal from colonial possessions by European powers. From 1950 until almost the end of the Cold War, decolonization was a factor in conflicts in Africa and Asia. Some of these conflicts—like wars in Vietnam and Algeria—featured indigenous forces conducting insurgencies. These insurgencies were often supported by third parties, and were frequently viewed as proxy struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union. The nuclear standoff of the Cold War coexisted with low-level, guerrilla warfare. Lawrence Freedman wrote that “if nuclear weapons pulled military strategy away from conventional warfare in one direction, guerrilla warfare moved it in another.” In various guises over the rest of the twentieth century, this indirect approach to securing political objectives was to distract, and at times consume, Western strategists and military leaders.

As a form of warfare, this was hardly new. But it was Mao Zedong from China who would refine the approach to an art form in his struggle against the Chinese Nationalists in the late 1940s. While Mao never saw guerrilla warfare as the exclusive path to victory, it suited his lack of material and military resources. The military institutions of the West had to work hard to adjust their tactics, doctrine, and training to adapt to the kind of unconventional—and very political—operations described by Mao in his book On Guerrilla Warfare. The Malayan emergency between 1948 and 1960 saw British Commonwealth forces fighting the Malayan National Liberation Army, a communist organization seeking Malayan independence. Under the remarkably innovative leadership of the British Army’s Gen. Sir Gerald Templer, the early 1950s saw development of new counterinsurgency theory and doctrine that unified social, economic, political, police, and military efforts.

At nearly the same time, France struggled with its Algerian colony fighting for independence. Over the period of 1954 to 1962, French forces—often brutally—sought to suppress the independence movement led by the indigenous National Liberation Front. The most important contribution to the profession of arms’ thinking about guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency from the war in Algeria was that of French military officer David Galula. As a young company commander in that conflict, he successfully eliminated the insurgency from the area he was responsible for. But his ideas, especially isolating insurgents from the populace, were never widely adopted by French forces and Algeria gained its independence in 1962.

With a couple of exceptions, the theories of Mao, Templer, and Galula were largely forgotten by US forces during the Vietnam War. As David Fitzgerald writes in Learning to Forget, “Although there has been a long tradition within the Army of fighting small wars, it is also true that these wars have not lingered in the organization’s historical memory.” Thus, the hard-earned lessons of Vietnam were similarly left behind in the wake of the US defeat there. Counterinsurgency became a subject studied by very few either inside or outside the military. But the wars spawned by the 9/11 attacks on the United States led to a re-examination of these ideas from the few decades after World War II. A new generation of young scholars, such as David Kilcullen, John Nagl, Emile Simpson, and others, would recast revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency theories for a new generation of military planners and leaders in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

It was not only unconventional conflicts that drove changes in thinking in the military profession during the Cold War. The Cold War also provided the background for industrial-style conflicts in which massed armies, air forces, and navies undertook what we might understand as conventional operations. Very early in the Cold War, some hoped that the possession of nuclear weapons would negate the need for large (and expensive) standing conventional militaries. This idea eventually foundered on the lessons of the defeat of Task Force Smith in Korea in July 1950. Superpowers and other major powers such as Britain and France would thereafter have to sustain both their growing nuclear arsenals and large standing conventional military organizations.

In his book The Utility of Force, Maj. Gen. Rupert Smith called these “parallel conflicts.” These conflicts were conducted generally with the same forces that had been built for the Cold War competition. Additionally there were often (but not always) underlying connections between the specific conflict and the large competition between the two blocs involved in the Cold War. The Korean War, which broke out in 1950, was a largely a conventional conflict, although new elements such as United Nations Command—and possession of nuclear weapons by one of the protagonists—differentiated it from the recently concluded World War II. But other wars featuring traditional military classes were also fought in Kashmir, between Israeli and its neighbors, between China and Vietnam in 1979, over the Falkland Islands in 1982, and between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988.

These conflicts reinforced to many that the era of conventional, or Industrial Age, conflict was not over. More importantly, they provided an important source of lessons about new approaches to tactics such as air-land integration, and vital insights into the use of new technologies such as antitank missiles. But perhaps the high point of conventional excellence during the second half of the twentieth century was the 1991 Gulf War. It was a harbinger of a new era of integration of joint capabilities, recon-strike capabilities, and advanced technologies. But it was also an example (again) of how conventional excellence does not always lead to enduring political solutions. And it provided important insights for both state and nonstate actors that would seek to challenge the West’s ideas and military forces in the twenty-first century.

The Cold War, from 1947 through to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, drove the development of many technologies that continue to have an impact on military institutions and the profession of arms. In the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet military leaders wrote about a new revolution in military affairs. As Andrew Krepinevich has written, this stemmed from their concern over the United States’ possession of more advanced technology and its incorporation into military systems. Using the term “military-technical revolution,” the Soviets speculated that new advanced technologies, particularly those enabling greater precision and networking through information systems, would see quality becoming more important than quantity, thereby revolutionizing warfare. The development of better computers and the internet allowed more rapid sharing of information and networking of sensors. Space-based capabilities increased the precision and discrimination of warfare. During this era, new subspecialties within the profession that focused on long-range strike, communications, nuclear-powered vessels, and other areas emerged. We will return to this topic—and the debate around the notion of a revolution in military affairs—in a subsequent article in this series.

But perhaps the most important event of the Cold War is what did not occur—a breakout of hostilities leading to a nuclear exchange. Scholar Reed Robert Bonadonna has proposed that the greatest accomplishment of the military profession during the twentieth century was its evident restraint while it exercised stewardship and control over nuclear weapons, which were not employed. This may overstate the role of the profession somewhat given the contributions of strategists, policymakers, political leaders, industry, and various elements of society to this outcome. However, there is little doubt that the professional military institutions that appeared after World War II did play a large part in this positive outcome for all human beings. There are lessons in this for our profession as we grapple with the challenges of another strategic competition between two wealthy, highly advanced but ideologically different powers in the twenty-first century.

A World Transformed? It would have been a neat ending indeed to finish this exploration of key events with the end of the Cold War. However, history had one more act to play out as the century drew to a close. As John Lewis Gaddis writes, “At the beginning of 1989 . . . the Soviet Union, its empire, its ideology—and therefore the Cold War itself—was a sand pile ready to slide.” Even newly inaugurated US President George H.W. Bush did not appreciate the massive geopolitical change that lay ahead for his administration. As he notes in A World Transformed, “Did we see what was coming when we entered office? No we did not. The world we encountered in January 1989 was the familiar bipolar one of superpower rivalry. . . . Yet in only three years, the Cold War was over.”

Throughout 1989, a series of events in Eastern Europe, including the removal of the fence between Hungary and Austria, elections in Poland, and the opening of the wall between East and West Berlin by East German border guards heralded massive changes in Europe. By 1991 the end was in sight for the Soviet Union. On December 25 of that year, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, signed a decree making his office extinct and handed over his powers to Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet Union was no more, and the Cold War was over.

While the Soviet Union may have no longer existed, millions of troops still occupied positions throughout Europe. Fleets of strategic bombers, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear missile submarines were still at high readiness, maintaining the nuclear deterrents for their nations. But it did not take long for demands for a peace dividend in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to build. The states on both sides were left with a surplus of military power. The years between 1992 and 2000 saw a significant reduction in forces as a result of government desires to reduce defense expenditures and arms control treaties such as the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II).

Despite the victory of the US coalition forces over Iraq in early 1991, the profession in the West now faced a challenge: What would its future role be with the disappearance of the existential challenge posed by the Soviet Union? The large peer competitor against which all military capability was compared in the West no longer existed. But while military institutions began a period of introspection and, to a certain degree, hand wringing, civilian policymakers were already looking to solve new national security challenges. Failing states, the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, terrorism, and ethnic civil wars would come to dominate the security focus of leaders in Western nations in the immediate post–Cold War era. Writing in 1991, Lawrence Freedman described the global security environment as one characterized by “confused interests,” “confused principles,” and “confused instruments.” And as Theo Farrell writes in Transforming Military Power since the Cold War, these new challenges were less about “the amount of military power, and more [about] military agility.”

Military institutions, and the wider profession of arms, henceforth would focus less on large-scale conventional operations and more on peacekeeping, stabilization, and humanitarian support activities. There was ample opportunity for military organizations in the 1990s to develop new approaches for operations in places such as Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, Liberia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Cambodia, and beyond. Over the decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, military organizations that had spent decades preparing for war with the Warsaw Pact would adapt to undertake what became known in the US military as “military operations other than war.”

As the profession came to grips with the implications of this “unipolar moment,” military organizations adapted what they taught in their training schools, officer academies, and war colleges. Less warfighting and more peacekeeping became the focus in many military institutions. Accompanying a surge in regional studies and examination of the politics of a new world order, new military doctrine was developed to support this shift.

Importantly, new military operations incorporated many other nonmilitary players that had not been present in more conventional operations. Other government agencies and nongovernmental organizations all played a part in the stabilization and rebuilding of disrupted societies. This demanded a new approach to planning and executing military operations. It was an approach that required greater civil-military integration. Charles Moskos, writing in The Postmodern Military, proposed that “whatever the future holds, we can for now confidently state that the dominant trend is a blurring of the lines between the military and civilian entities, both in structure and culture. This permeability between military and civilian structures is a major new historical phenomenon.” This transition to a new postmodern military was still very much underway when airliners flew into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on that September morning in 2001.

As the profession of arms responded to the post–Cold War era, including the reductions in force sizes and adapting to new missions, major developments were continuing to take place in technology. In the 1990s, computers became more widely available, more powerful, and cheaper to acquire. At the same time, technologies such as GPS were enabling a revolution in precision warfare. Finally, the internet became widely accessible. These technological imperatives, along with the geopolitical changes of the post–Cold War era, drove transformation in the profession of arms. This spawned new theories of warfare including, as highlighted earlier, the concept of a revolution in military affairs. We will examine the idea of revolutions in military affairs in a subsequent part of this series. But before we do, we must turn to an exploration of the technologies developed after World War II that would drive evolution in how military institutions, and the profession of arms, thought about and conducted military operations. This will be the focus of Part Four of this series on the modern profession of arms.

Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the USMC Command and Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. He has commanded at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and brigade level, and is a science fiction fan, a cricket tragic, terrible gardener, and an aspiring writer. In January 2018, he assumed command of the Australian Defence College in Canberra, Australia. He is an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute, and tweets under the handle @WarInTheFuture.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image: NATO officials observe the Boltzmann nuclear test, part of Operation Plumbbob, on May 28, 1957, at the Nevada Test Site (credit: National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office).