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Industrial Revolution Primacy: An Assessment of Western Warfare’s Most Impactful Military Revolution

The Industrial Revolution had the greatest impact on the way nations practice warfare in the 21st century. The Industrial Revolution’s changes were more fundamental to the conduct of war than the subsequent military revolutions, including World War I. Three primary reasons can be cited as evidence for this. First, World War I was monumental in its scope and impact on modern military affairs, but merely reflected the significant changes that occurred in the Industrial Revolution; it did not generate them. Second, the Industrial Revolution produced the relevant technological, tactical and operational changes which drive modern warfare. Third and finally, the landscape of modern strategy and diplomacy traces its origins to the Industrial Revolution. For the purposes of this work, the Industrial Revolution refers not only industrial manufacturing and technological advances, but doctrinal, academic and military advances. Generally, most topics discussed refer to dates of the Crimean War to World War I (1853-1914), but may imply developments occurring as early as the end of the Napoleonic Era (1815).

Counterargument: World War I

A common counter argument to the assertion that the Industrial Revolution has the greatest influence on warfare in the 21st century is that World War I was more impactful. The necessity to win World War I saw the rapid technological and operational advancements which later manifested in World War II and the Cold War. One will cite the development of tank and aircraft during World War I, which of course have massive implications on the prosecution of World War II. One may also site the development of German combined arms maneuver in the final chapters of the war through the Spring Offensive of 1918. However, World War I was the product of significant change, not the genesis.

As evidence, World War I advanced, but did not revolutionize, technological capabilities. Many of the technological changes seen in World War I were developed years or even decades earlier, and the Industrial Revolution enabled their mass production[1]. These innovations will be discussed later in further detail. However, few new technologies and tactics were original to World War I. Even German combined arms maneuver, perhaps the most impactful development of World War I, was an innovation of previous concepts from the Industrial Revolution. To further exhibit the limited influence of World War I, many relevant technological and operational innovations slowed or halted following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. For instance, Polish, French, and Belgian planners were caught inadequately prepared in 1939 largely because they failed to continue to concurrently innovate with the Germans. World War I was vastly important, but did not generate a large-scale generational shift in tactical theory as the Industrial Revolution did.

As further evidence, World War I did little to alter statecraft, strategic decision making, and diplomacy. The landscape of European power politics changed little following World War I. The seeds of cooperative alliances were planted in the attempt to create the League of Nations, which ultimately failed. Still, German, British, French, Italian, and Soviet diplomats and leaders continued to view the European map and colonies in essentially the same way, with war being an instrument of their political ambition. The most impactful national strategic change from World War I was the resulting phenomenon of the rise in totalitarian fascism[2]. While outside the scope of this work, this was due in large part to the unwise terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and again, merely an extension of militarism and nationalism; both industrial revolution concepts.

Relevant Technological, Tactical, and Operational Changes

The second reason that the Industrial Revolution was the most impactful military revolution for 21st century warfare is that many of the relevant technological, tactical, and operational changes that occur throughout the century were predicated on the Industrial Revolution. This involves four major components: technological advances in weapons; technological and industrial capabilities of logistics, manufacturing, and mobilization; new tactics employed; and new operational changes. In each case, the change was developed and employed in the Industrial Revolution age, and only employed or advanced in World War I.

The most important weapons advances to 21st century warfare were initially developed in the Industrial Revolution. Weapons technology such as the recoilless and rifled artillery, smokeless gunpowder, rifled and semi-automatic small arms were all developed in the Industrial Revolution. Recoilless artillery was vitally important as it reduced kickback when a round was fired, and the artillery team did not need to reset and re-aim the artillery piece. Rifling led to vastly longer and more accurate indirect fires. Smokeless gunpowder dramatically shifted tactics as entire formations could fire from covered and concealed positions without giving away their position. Rifled bolt action, semiautomatic, and even automatic machine guns were developed decades before World War I; rifling was developed as early as the early 19th century and employed during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the chassepot rifle appeared in the 1870s during the Franco- Prussian War[3]. The employment of accurate, rapid small arms would lead to massive casualties as tactics were slow to keep pace in conflicts decades before World War I. The impact of steamship technology on modern navies cannot be overstated on the future of 21st century warfare. Not only was the proximal impact of sea warfare drastically changed, but the production of large modern navies would shape U.S. and western power projection in World War II, the Cold War, and beyond. Current American and allied worldwide freedom of navigation is due to this critical Industrial Revolution development.

Furthermore, enabling and logistics technology such as mass railroad systems, automobiles, and assembly line industrial production capability provided a tectonic shift in the prosecution of war. Mass railroad systems could now move entire armies and their supplies across a country or continent within days.[4] The American Civil War showcased to the world the ability of tens of thousands of soldiers to move between geographically dispersed theaters of war on a massive continent.[5] Similarly, the development of steam shipping not only changed the nature of sea warfare, but allowed for the rapid deployment of armies worldwide. Additionally, the Industrial Revolution’s factory and assembly line systems impacted modern warfare in incalculable ways. Interchangeable parts allowed weapons and equipment to be built faster and more reliably. Tens of millions of Soldiers could be armed and equipped, allowing for the rapid expansion of militaries that would characterize the 20th and 21st centuries.

New tactics were employed in previous engagements, such as the Crimean War, American Civil War, Franco-Prussian War, Russo- Japanese War, and various colonial conflicts. In tandem with the development of new technologies, these conflicts displayed the shifts from Napoleonic tactics that World War I employed. As early as 1853 in the Crimean War, rifled small arms allowed precise infantry engagement up to 300 meters away[6]. This conflict also saw the implementation of steam powered battleships. The American Civil War and Franco-Prussian Wars displayed unmatched speed, marksmanship, and lethality when using Napoleonic tactics with Industrial Age technologies. British colonial wars in Africa against the Mahdi, Dervishes and Zulus displayed the immense impact of rapid-fire small arms and artillery in open battlefields, over 30 years before World War I. In 1904 in Manchuria, the Russo- Japanese War displayed eerily similar battlegrounds to World War I in Manchuria with massive firepower devastating large quantities of soldiers with minimal territorial gain. Arguably, the Russo- Japanese War was a microcosm of World War I with fewer participants.

Professionalization of the Military

Finally, relevant operational changes, such as the professionalization of modern militaries, creation of service academies and career officer class, training of general staff, and development of related academic disciplines occur in the Industrial Revolution. Specifically, the Prussian military system spearheaded the sophistication of these systems. The intellectual work of August von Gneisenau, Gerhard von Scharnhorn, and Carl von Clausewitz are as instrumental in the Industrial Revolution as the industrial innovations of textile and steel manufacturing[7]. The development of the Kriegsakademie (War Academy) not only led to professionally trained planners throughout the ranks of the Prussian and later German armies, but resulted in similar war colleges later in Camberley and Leavenworth.[8] One of the most poignant and unchanged legacies of the Industrial Revolution in 21st century warfare is the massive planning and synchronizing staffs that modern militaries bring to bear.

The final reason for the Industrial Revolution’s unmatched impact on 21st century warfare is its impact at the strategic level of war. Statecraft, strategic war planning, and diplomacy radically changed during the Industrial Revolution. First, mobilization was so large scale and irreversible that it not only became not only an operational function, but a diplomatic imperative. European power politics rested on an early form of mutually assured destruction and developed into a construct comparable to modern deterrence theory[9]. Heads of states and their ambassadors made calculations of relative power and shifted alliances based on this, what Henry Kissinger popularized as realpolitik[10]. Limited war became evermore impossible as alliances became more complex as multiple nations developed the ability to conduct total war. The legacy of this continued after World War I and led to World War II. While shifting to a bipolar balance of power in the Cold War, this period’s system of diplomacy remains relevant today in NATO, Russian, and Chinese foreign policy.

Similarly, nationalism, and associated assumptions of continental insecurity, defined German, Russian, and French foreign policy leading up to World War I and beyond; arguably defining European policy until 1989. The unification of Germany and Bismarck’s masterful strategic policy making led to a state which perpetually battled geography. The massive Russian powerbase and Polish and Ukrainian breadbaskets to the east, unstable Balkans to the southeast, ambitious France to the West, and the British superpower off of Europe’s coast led to insecure and constantly offensive minded German strategy[11]. France was no less insecure following the Franco-Prussian War, and as Russia emerged from its medieval state, Tzars were challenged in protecting large borders often defined by open terrain. Following Napoleon’s wars, nationalism was a powerful instrument in facilitating the associated militarism. The concept of nationalism represented a quantum leap in the western philosophy of the nation state. These strategic concepts would remain relevant through the Cold War. Even current competition with Russia belies the idea nationalism and geographic insecurity do not drive current foreign policy.


The Industrial Revolution had the most significant impact on the way nations conduct war in the 21st Century. World War I is the visible and dramatic result of military revolution, not the genesis of it, as World War I advanced but did not revolutionize military capabilities, and did little to alter strategic decision making. Further, the relevant technological, tactical, and operational changes that define this military revolution were developed and employed in the conflicts of the Industrial Revolution, such as the American Civil War, the Franco- Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese War. These changes include weapons technology, mobilization capabilities, tactics employing these changes, and operational considerations. Finally, the Industrial Revolution saw radical shifts in diplomatic and strategic policy, which World War I did little to alter. In fact, World War I solidified and further entrenched these policies.

About the Author Patrick Knight is a U.S. Army officer and pursuing academically rigorous military and civilian education and training as a strategist. He has served in various tactical and force generation assignments, and holds a M.S. from the Florida Institute of Technology. He can be reached at or his LinkedIn.

The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.


[1] Parker, Geoffrey, The Cambridge History of Warfare, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005), 219. [2] Kissinger, Henry, Diplomacy, (New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks,1994), 289. [3] Parker, 245 [4] Knox, MacGregor and Murray, Williamson, The Dynamics of Military Revolution, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001), 104. [5] Parker, 225. [6] Ibid, 221. [7] Paret, Peter, Makers of Modern Strategy, (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1986), 281. [8] Parker, 250. [9] Mingst, Karen, A., Essentials of International Relations, 4th Ed., (New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 242. [10] Kissinger, 130. [11] Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, (New York, HarperCollins Publisher, 2012), 97. Cover Photo Credit - Imperial War Museums,

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