Guest Book Review: “The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovations Determine the Fates of Great Powers”

Corrected link (I hope!)

Today Graham Todd debuts a new guest contributor with an in-depth review of Andrew Krepinevich’s The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovations Determine the Fates of Great Powers This book is on my list of summer reading recommendations, and Graham gives it a thorough examination. 

After reading Mr. Todd’s superb review, I think you’ll find you’ll want to put Origins of Victory on your own reading list!

Plunge Now, Concede the Western Pacific, or Look Forward to the Bloodiest War in Fifty Years

Graham H. Todd*

Recently, a senior mentor gave one of his most passionate endorsements for a new book: The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovations Determine the Fates of Great Powers (hereafter Origins of Victory), by Andrew F. Krepinevich. 

Using America’s success in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm and the military revolution of the reconnaissance-strike complex as the scene setter and reference point throughout Origins of Victory, Mr. Krepinevich examines several military revolutions of the past century to identify the key tenets of modern militaries and societies that are likely to determine who can successfully achieve the next military revolution first. 

Before taking that deep-dive, Mr. Krepinevich provides an assessment of competition environment characteristics and advancing technologies most applicable to International Armed Conflict that will likely shape the next military revolution and perhaps deter a general war. 

These technologies include not only artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, and space warfare, but also additive (3D) manufacturing, and synthetic biology.  He then explores the challenge of deterrence in this post-Cold War, multi-polar world. 

Mr. Krepinevich does not hold back as he contrasts the modern challenges of: the “democratization of destruction,” non-traditional and questionably “rational” actors, asymmetric and non-attributable attacks, and the increasing risk of regional conflicts becoming global, against America’s last two decades of lazily assuming that deterrence was assured.  

Origins of Victory leaves little doubt that deterrence will be harder to achieve and maintain than ever before.

Mr. Krepinevich’s amazing study smartly illuminates that the principal objective with any military revolution is to develop a better way to know where your adversary is, strike them first, and accomplish those two tasks before they can find you and strike you. 

Boiling this principle down even further to three words, I found myself routinely thinking about Information, Speed, and Stealth, and then beginning to understand how interconnected those concepts are in all aspects of competition, whether economic, political, societal, technological, or military.

Learning from Past Revolutions

Origins of Victory’s review of four modern “revolutions” further drives home it’s not about the actual weapons or technology that was leveraged, but how these concepts were applied to drive the use of the technology and weapons at the strategic and tactical level. 

His review of Blitzkrieg was an obvious choice, but he also highlighted Blitzkrieg’s Achilles’ heel: it was not designed for conquering an island nation such as the United Kingdom, and its speed and limited range were ill-suited for the massive expanse of Soviet Russia.

Mr. Krepinevich’s review of America’s exploitation of carrier aviation was telling of things to come: speed and reconnaissance (what he termed “scouting” (read “information”)) combined with long-range strike signaled the end of the battleship and a new era of naval warfare.

Mr Krepinevich’s in-depth assessment of the U.S. Air Force’s maturation of General Wilbur “Bill” Creech’s vision of an “all day, all night, all weather, precision, standoff, interoperable force,” which served as a cornerstone in DoD’s offset strategy to the Warsaw Pact’s conventional advantage and the Soviet’s nuclear parity.  

Mr. Krepinevich describes this period as a successful employment of a First-Move Advantage leveraging America’s clear advantages in information technologies (stealth, space, ISR, battle-management, and precision weapons) over the Soviets to exploit a new, more effective means of competing before they could react. 

Yet, surprisingly for me at least, it was the summary of British Royal Navy Admiral Jackie Fisher’s innovations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was the most compelling in reinforcing not just the fundamental importance of developing and using information (wireless technology), speed (fast, heavily armed cruisers and submarine hunting destroyers), and stealth (submarines and their torpedoes), but also the importance of having the right framework and pieces that are most likely key to create and field the next military revolution. 

The following quote from Admiral Fisher stays close by on my desk:

“The first desideratum of all is Speed!  Your fools don’t see it—They are always running about to see where they can put on a little more armour!  To make it safer!  You don’t go into battle to be safe!  No, you go into the battle to hit the other fellow in the eye first so that he can’t see you.  Yes!  You hit him first, you hit him hard and you keep on hitting.  That’s your safety!  You don’t get hit back! … The first of all necessities is Speed so as to be able to fight when you like, where you like, and how you like.” (Page 298).

Fisher leveraged emerging wireless technology and the resulting real-time, global information picture it provided along with faster cruisers to employ a smaller, yet more agile, interconnected, and responsive naval force around the globe in the face of budget constraints and increased global competition. 

The parallels of Fisher’s innovations begun 100 years ago are clearly applicable to today’s global competition challenge. 

Mr. Krepinevich concludes his review by adding one more critical lesson from Admiral Fisher—the Second Move Advantage and Plunging:

“Put off to the very last hour the ship (big or little) that you mean to build … You see all your rival’s plans fully developed, their vessels started beyond recall, and then in each individual answer to each such rival vessel you plunge with a design 50 percent better!  Knowing that your rapid shipbuilding and command of money will enable you to have your vessel fit to fight as soon if not sooner than the rival vessel.” (Page 577).

Are America and her allies capable of rebuilding their industrial base and Plunging in time? 

Four Primary Attributes for Innovation

Origins of Victory concludes by offering a number of primary attributes consistently critical in the development of each military revolution, while recognizing that disruptive innovations do not happen overnight and they are messy and bumpy.  The most critical attribute was a Guiding Vision that answers what are we trying to do and how can we accomplish this more effectively, i.e., the “Why”. 

Equally vital, this required an unusually long-tenured leader to bring about that innovation, such as General Creech’s six years as head of Tactical Air Command (TAC) or Admiral Moffett’s twelve years as head of the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics.  

Innovation also requires identifying and adopting new measures of military effectiveness for the future conflict, such as the U.S. Air Force no longer measuring the number of aircraft in a strike package but instead the number of weapons that can be delivered on target.

In his attempt to look forward, Mr. Krepinevich offers a less than optimistic assessment of the Joint Staff’s efforts over the last twenty plus years to define the Operational Challenge and identify the appropriate Operational Concepts to implement. 

He offers four strategic Operational Challenges for the U.S. to solve, with the fourth being the most compelling and worthy of renewed focus and effort: “Deterring, and if necessary, defending against attempts to sever lines of communication via the global commons linking the United States to key overseas theaters of operation and key trading partners/resources … without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons.”  (Page 598). 

Mr. Krepinevich wraps up this important effort by assessing that the United States’ efforts at disruptive innovation “exhibit few, if any, of the characteristics of military organizations that succeed in this endeavor.”  (Page 614).  

Concluding Thoughts and Looking Forward

I cannot think of another recent work that has better empowered me to contemplate the military challenges facing America and its allies than Origins of Victory.  As a Global Strike convert, I confess my bias toward range, speed, and precision in trying to identify tomorrow’s Operational Challenges. 

Looking regionally, Mr. Krepinevich envisions an antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) challenge in the Western Pacific.  However, that assessment, fails to account for the transformative impact that the broader Operational Challenge of Distance in the Western Pacific imposes on creating a successful Operational Concept.  

Consider the U.S. Air Force’s focus on “forward U.S. air bases,” apparently because it is still plunging on small, short-range, payload-constrained manned fighters, versus weapon systems with the range and precision to operate from more secure locations.  

America is no longer using the right measures of effectiveness because it has not clearly defined the next Operational Challenge, identified the resulting Operational Concept, and then put in place the leaders to see that Guiding Vision through.  America has all the technology it needs, but is it looking at Information, Speed, and Stealth through a legacy or future fight lens? 

Read Origins of Victory and become empowered for the Global Competition, because if we can get Information, Speed, and Stealth right and Plunge to deliver the capabilities and tactics in time, maybe we can actually deter the next “general war.”

About the Author

Graham Todd is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who served in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps and still serves as Counsel for Global Strike and Nuclear Operations at Air Force Global Strike Command.  He earned his B.S. from U.S. Air Force Academy in 1993, a M.A. in Russian and East European Studies from Univ. of Kansas in 1994, and his J.D. from Florida State University in 2001.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Air Force Global Strike Command, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!



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