Forecasting The Future Of Warfare

David Maxwell:  “A long important read with important history (and a “scorecard”).”
Excerpt:
How Did We Do? You Decide.
 
I gave up command of the Army War College in the summer of 2000. Gen. Rick Shinseki, chief of staff at the time, kindly asked that I stay on active duty another six months to write a monograph on Army After Next. Instead I took the time to write a book on the subject titled Yellow Smoke. The book was on the official reading lists of the Navy and Marine Corps. In 2004, it became the intellectual catalyst that brought Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis and me together and led to our mutual effort to imbed some of my thoughts from Army After Next into Marine doctrine and materiel development between 2004 and 2009.
 
We are seven years away from 2025, the objective date we established in 1999 for locking in the tenets of Army After Next. Below I’ve listed the ten themes taken from Yellow Smoke. Read them carefully in light of contemporary events and decide for yourselves how close we got it to right.
1. Increase the Speed of Operational Forces as a National Priority
2. Project and Maneuver Land Forces by Brigades
3. Maneuver by Air at the Operational and Tactical Levels
4. Establish an “Unblinking Eye” Over the Battlefield
 5. Proliferate Precision and Distribute It Downward
6. Adopt an Operational Maneuver Doctrine Based on Firepower Dominance and Area Control
7. Supplement Manned with Unmanned Reconnaissance
 8. Maneuver with All Arms at the Lowest Practical Level
9. Establish a “Band of Brothers” Approach to Selection, Training, and Readiness
10. Move Beyond Jointness to True Interdependence of Services

Forecasting the Future of Warfare

“No one in this room can accurately predict the future, least of all me. The nature of war is never gonna change. But the character of war is changing before our eyes — with the introduction of a lot of technology, a lot of societal changes with urbanization and a wide variety of other factors.”

-Gen. Mark Miller at the Association of the U.S. Army Convention, 2017

The Army’s decision to create a “Futures Command” is long overdue, well-intended, and absolutely necessary if the Army is to emerge from the malaise that has held modernization in its vice for all of this new century. But accelerating the pace of modernization without a rigorous understanding of how militaries anticipate the future of war might run the risk of creating an accelerating engine with greater thrust, but no vectors.

I’ve spent almost three decades studying the art and science of future gazing. The high point of my immersion as a futurist began in 1991 when then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan, entrusted me with writing the Army’s official history of the Gulf War, Certain Victory. Three years later, in 1995 another chief of staff, Gen. Dennis Reimer, gave me the mission of looking into the deep future of warfare, beyond 2020 to 2025. As head of the Army After Next project, I had access to an enormously talented group of young officers, many of whom are still doing great work today. With the assistance of my deputy, Col. Bob Killebrew, we invented the Army’s first strategic game, which continues today in heavily modified form as Unified Quest.

Army After Next was a magical time. To quote Killebrew:

We never stopped slam-bang arguments over the direction of land warfare that rattled the windows at Fort Monroe. We were secure enough to tolerate and encourage a kind of no-holds-barred intellectual combat that raged inside TRADOC’s doctrine directorate from 1995-97, when rank bowed to ideas and bureaucracy to improvisation, risky experimentation and, very occasionally, success.

As the Army seeks to resume its effort to look into the future it would also be useful to look back 25 years to examine how the Army’s first effort at a disciplined approach to divining the future was created. The target year of the Army After Next study was 2025. That end point is quickly approaching. Perhaps a critical look back might allow today’s futurists to grade our work. If they judge that we got it close to right, then perhaps they will have confidence that borrowing our ideas might help guide them along signposts pointing to war in 2045 and beyond.

Michael Howard, the imminent scholar and military strategist, once observed that the purpose of future gazing in war is not to get it right, but to avoid getting it terribly wrong. He expressed a truism that practical soldiers leaned through experience: war is the most complex and unpredictable of all human enterprises. Unlike law, business, or science, soldiers (thankfully) practice their craft infrequently. Soldiers are reluctant to hypothesize about the future because war is a high stakes game. Getting it wrong costs lives and catastrophic failure threatens survival of the state.

Today, as Gen. Milley suggested above, the art of predicting the course of war is made far more difficult by a quickening of the rate of change among those variables most likely to influence conflict such as technology, domestic politics, and international events. While the pace of influencing events is accelerating the capacity of militaries to build weapons and structures to accommodate change is slowing. Thus soldiers today must cast farther and farther out to stay ahead. The farther out the time horizon, the more indistinct the view becomes, and the more likely soldiers are to get it terribly wrong.

Two decades on I still live with the guilt of having failed to turn Army After Next into a viable operational concept. In the end, success is not measured by the elegance of ideas but by how the Army weaponizes and structures itself to implement the ideas. As my good friend and co-author Wick Murray wrote in his iconic book Innovation in the Interwar Period:

Messiahs are not enough; they need disciples. One way to further the idea of innovations is to institutionalize it in a service’s school systems. This ploy, exploited in every nation, proved inadequate. Another battleground for the hearts and minds of the officer corps has been the writing of doctrinal manuals. Again, the reformers met with considerable success, but these victories of words on paper did not suffice. In the end, the only sign of victory for reformers were real operational units that could perform wartime missions.

In the end, my Army After Next team failed to translate our victory of words on paper into real operational units. But I think wisdom can be found in a failure that should act as a cautionary tale — one that demonstrates how tomorrow’s future gazers can get it right.

Army After Next and Army XXI: A Brief History of Failures

By 1997, our Army After Next team believed they had accumulated enough evidence to begin a visioning process in earnest. Subsequent events would reveal we suffered from one very serious miscalculation that would hamper all the Army’s attempts to get the future right for decades to come. It all came down to timing, what I term “early lock versus late lock.”

Let me explain.

The object of future gazing is not only to predict what organizations, doctrine, and technologies are the right ones, but also to estimate when these three primal warfighting variables will be mature enough to be applied to create combat units. “Lock in” occurs when an Army translates visions, concepts, and ideas into real things, to “operationalize” them to use the common term. Lock too soon and the three variables may not be developed sufficiently to fit into operational units. Lock too late and run the risk of making yesterday perfect.

Sadly, in the 1990s the Army made both mistakes at once and it is still suffering the consequences. I believe (as you will read in a minute) we had our Army After Next concepts right. But we locked too soon. We simply misjudged the rate at which essential technologies would mature. We then made the fatal mistake of trying to apply them too soon: early lock. In a word, the organizational and materiel manifestations of Army After Next — what would eventually become the Future Combat Systemsin 2003 were not ready at the time we attempted to turn ideas and concepts into operational units.

In our study, we concluded that strategic speed necessary to arrive quickly could only be achieved by unburdening the operational force. That meant lighter fighting vehicles, a thin if not missing logistical umbilical cord, and the substitution of aerial systems to replace ground systems. In particular, we foresaw that fires, information, and sensors would gravitate into the third dimension. But we locked too early. The technologies essential for the success of Future Combat Systems weren’t ready for prime time in 2000. Sadly, 12 years later most would mature but by then the operationalized spawn of Army After Next — Future Combat Systems — was dead and $18 billion dollars went down the drain.

The Army leadership wisely chose another time horizon closer in for its near-term future gazing experiment, Army XXI. Army XXI was a classic example of late lock. The materiel manifestation was more corrosive than Army After Next because its experimental manifestation, the Army Warfighting Experiments. These were expensive and yielded few insights into where war was actually headed. They failed because their near-term focus only served to revalidate the Army’s bias toward sustaining the heavy force of Desert Storm.

In a strange twist of irony, the Army’s intermediate effort, the Objective Force, turned out to be a comparative success. The Objective Force emerged in 1999 after the Army was embarrassed by its inability to move Task Force Eagle from Germany to Albania. Task Force Eagle consisted of a battalion of AH 64 attack helicopters with its attached security and logistics. The unit was to be stationed at an abandoned Soviet airbase at Tusla, Albania. This strategic repositioning should have taken a week or less. It took over two months.

This public failure of strategic mobility only reinforced the opinion among the Washington elites that the U.S. Army had become a giant beached whale incapable of maneuvering over long distances. This opinion buttressed the air service’s contention that future wars could be won in the air long before the Army could arrive ready to fight. In light of these opinions, the Clinton Administration was contemplating reducing the Army’s conventional force from ten to eight divisions.

Gen. Erick Shinseki, Army chief of staff at the time, decided that the Objective Force would be a gap filler between Army After Next and Army XXI. The concept was simple: Graft an existing eight wheeled fighting vehicle, the Stryker, into a light infantry brigade formation. During the early days of the Iraq War these Stryker brigades proved invaluable as “middle weight” forces sufficiently protected and armed yet capable of moving over great distances. Stryker was, almost accidentally, a perfect “right lock” solution for a warfighting contingency no one predicted in 1999. It remains, arguably, the only materiel success since the “Big Five” (the Abrams, Bradley, Apache, Blackhawk, and Patriot) of the 1970s.

It’s been a decade since the demise of Future Combat Systems. Over the years I’ve tried time and again to reconcile how a legitimate process of future gazing led to such serious and expensive operational failure. One answer is that it did not fail. Perhaps it was only suspended momentarily. In light of current events one could argue that 9/11 caused the course of conventional war to hit the pause button and that it’s now time to hit “resume play.” Spend some time reading our insights from 1999 and make your own judgments.

Army After Next: How it Worked

From the start, the Army After Next team concluded that without some rigor and discipline, the future gazing process would be limited to speculative ruminations of the senior officer present. We began our inquiry by developing a structured methodology to add rigor. Then we created a hypothesis (or a series of hypotheses) that offered the greatest chance of not getting the future terribly wrong. Third, we spent many months gathering evidence, an admittedly ephemeral process for investigating events that had yet to occur. Eventually, we discovered three sources of evidence.

History

To be sure, there is danger in steering a car using only the rear-view mirror, but there is a greater risk in pressing ahead without a look at where we are driving from. But we were comforted with the truism, paraphrased from the eminent strategist, Colin Gray, that “war is war, only the grammar changes.” Clearly, the grammar gets less intelligible the farther time recedes. The utility of historical analogizing also becomes less reliable if the course of backward gazing is discontinuous. Small wrinkles in the fabric are not terribly concerning: The transition from coal to petroleum-fired propulsion caused only minor conceptual revisions in Naval doctrine after the Great War. Relevance becomes a problem when rends in the fabric appear: sail to steam propulsion in the nineteenth century, for example.

During our historical inquiry into the course of industrial age warfare we identified several wrinkles and one serious rend. The final days of World War II tore the contextual fabric of warfare fundamentally. The atomic bomb ended great power conflict. The collapse of European military and economic might ended the European Era of warfare, a five hundred epoch that had seen European armies and navies colonize three quarters of the planet. The collapse ushered in the American Era. We knew America would not fight all post-World War II conflicts but its long shadow would influence all wars to come.

Wrinkles in time would occasionally nudge the course of war. Postcolonial wars would emerge below the nuclear threshold and under the umbrella of the great powers. Airpower would be the premise for American engagement in future wars. Precision guidance, micro circuitry, unmanned vehicles, and stealth would shape the geometry of future battlefields. We completely missed the world after 9/11. Whether it was a rend or a wrinkle remains to be discovered.

The Present

We intentionally violated the old saw that generals should never fight the next war like the last. Our study convinced us that last wars offered brief, often dimly lit glimpses of the key variables that would likely be repeated in the next. The genius is in finding the right ones. After World War I the Great powers knew that internal combustion and wireless telegraphy were the ingredients most likely to alter war-making. The early winners in World War II battles picked the right ones and operationalized and weaponized them most efficiently. Thus, we were compelled to sift through the tea leaves of contemporary wars at the time to include Desert Storm, Panama, the Balkans, and the emerging threat of terrorism.

We were most influenced by Desert Storm, and not in a good way. At the time the Army was under fire for being too slow to the fight. The Army After Next team weighed the dichotomy of arriving quickly but too light versus arriving heavy in combat power but too late. Solving this dichotomy formed the nexus of our investigation into the future. We believed the only means for solving this dilemma was to devise a strategic landpower wargame that tested the comparative merits of light (Army After Next), medium (Objective Force) and heavy (Army XXI) forces.

Wargames

The preponderance of our evidence came from gaming. The gaming methodology we devised in 1995 is still with us in the form of the Unified Quest game conducted yearly at the Army War College. The Army had never done strategic future gazing before, so we were obliged to start by grafting the structure and operational concept borrowed from the Navy’s Global game conducted at the Navy War College on to our game. At the time, Global was the gold standard for all strategic games. We pledged to anchor our version of the game on two pillars: one, to get as close to right as the evidence and gaming methodology allowed and, two, to conduct the game with openness and fidelity.

Eventually, the game evolved into a melding of the Global game’s structures with the proven objectivity imbedded in the Army’s National Training Center methodologies. Most essential was the rule that the game would be “free play” and not scripted. We learned from the National Training Center experience that losing a battle often conveyed more wisdom than winning. But games at the strategic level were very public and closely watched by those who paid our bills. It took long and passionate discussions with the Army’s senior leadership to allow the prospect of losing in a national level game.

Building on the National Training Center motif we worked very hard to create a world-class opposing force. Over time we brought aboard diabolically creative “enemies” like retired Col. Richard Sinnreich and Marine Gen. Paul van Riper. We also borrowed the idea of employing a band of experienced strategic “observer/controllers” to referee the game and enough digitized data collection to capture “ground truth” from the National Training Center. We took the risk of inviting well-known Beltway luminaries to play the roles of administration and service officials and leaders. These people were experienced enough to smell a set up. We knew from the start that any attempt to “cook the books” would compromise the game fatally.

Our greatest initial miscalculation, one we inherited from Global, was our decision to base evidence collection on a single massive, signature game. To be sure, the first game was a hugely successful public relations exercise involving over 600 players and observers. But in the end, we gained very little useful data. In time, we changed our approach to embrace a “constellation” of franchise games scattered across many venues with each game focused on a different variable such as logistics, intelligence, maneuver, and command and control.

Thanks to a quarter century’s leap ahead in information technology, it is now possible to expand a constellation several orders of magnitude. Instead of four or five data points, a well-constructed strategic game might be able to collect hundreds of gaming variations testing thousands of discrete data points. To be sure, the Army’s leadership will still expect a grand event every year. But instead of a single game, perhaps a better idea might be to orchestrate a grand Army After Next, several months after all gaming data has been properly analyzed and parsed.

We can learn a few additional lessons from other failed strategic games that followed Army After Next. First, never restart a game when some “black swan” event rears its ugly head. As we learned painfully from the events of 9/11, black swans are a periodic feature of warfare and any strategic game worth its mettle must be able to accommodate them. Second, keep the game unclassified yet retain as much as possible actual state and non-state players using real geography. Third, don’t build a game around the intent to prove the efficacy of a specific weapon, program or concept. Global lost its credibility because the Navy dedicated every game to proving the need for aircraft carriers (with the added imperative not to loses one).

Be sure to insert a “red handle” to allow any player to stop the game. During our first Army After Next game, we postulated the capability to project ground units from the Continental U.S. directly into the operational area. One very astute DARPA scientist pulled the red handle and stopped the game. He very succinctly reminded us that the laws of physics and our continued reliance on fossil fuels would make direct intervention from the United States impossible. His intercession was important because it made the leadership reformulate the game to add intermediate bases for operational staging. Then we discovered such bases were under the enemy’s WMD umbrella thus forcing us to add air defense and base defense forces, which forced us to radically change our strategic lift requirements — you get the picture.

The Navy’s Global game relied on the creation of “scenarios” most of which were based on extensions of existing national security documents. We found this approach to be a bad idea. One simply cannot credibly extend contemporary strategy beyond a generation. Instead we found it more useful to write a “History of the Future.” We began with general but immutable characteristics of the future: national character, cultural affinities, recurrent behaviors, and personalities of foreign leaders and then added the nuances inherent in the geostrategic positioning of a postulated enemy state. Other facts could be reliably inferred such as economic power or evolving demographics, as well as a country’s technological and intellectual base and it’s relationships with neighboring competitors.

We took a common-sense approach to finding enemies to fight. We eliminated wars of conquest against unconquerable states such as Russia, Iran (we projected they would be nuclear capable in 2025), and China. We eliminated whole continents we then saw as barren of vital interests for the United States: the Americas, Africa, and South Asia. That left us with only a few options: wars on the periphery against great power surrogates or a war against a rouge state such as North Korea. Remember, this was 1996. We completely missed the threat of a global terrorist state. In the end, we chose for our first game a border clash with Russian surrogates in the Balkans. To keep it unclassified, the State Department forced us to march continually northward until our cursor landed on what seemed then to be a non-contentious place: Belarus.

We learned quickly not to use an Army game to solve the problems of the Department of Defense. Never be ashamed to call an Army strategic game what it is: a game focused on landpower. Sure, a whole of government approach is vital for winning wars. Jointness is imperative. No single service fights alone. But the game must view jointness from a land-power perspective.

Yet we must be careful not to be too parochial in crafting the game. The validity of the game will be challenged if it becomes so exclusive to the ground forces that it exercises only in one dimension. This imperative is even more important as we add more dimensions to our calculus such as cyber, space, and interagency involvement.

A lesson we failed to embrace in the 1990’s was to delay the final After Action Review until second and third order insights could be gleaned and consolidated by the game leadership. Sadly, today the perceived need to make a media splash still overrides the imperative for deliberate intellectual introspection. My recommendation would be to first spend several months conducting the franchise games, then convene a strategic senior seminar to socialize the evidence among a group of trusted futurists, in private if possible. Then the insights should be shared with those empowered to translate concepts into doctrine, materiel, and operational units. Then the next year repeat again and again, all while constantly experimenting, questioning, and debating with a willingness to restart whenever rends and wrinkles appear on the temporal horizon.

Lessons Learned about the Art and Science of Future Gazing

The objective of a future gazing exercise must be to feed doctrine first because no program or new structure can survive intellectual scrutiny unless it fits into a credible doctrinal scheme. But doctrine is for today. To develop tomorrow’s doctrine, today’s futurist must march out into the future following an intellectual roadmap that leads a generation beyond today’s doctrinal line of departure. His “locking” point, the temporal final objective is where a vague outline of a “vision” begins to appear. A generation for the objective locking point is just about right. For Army After Next, the objective resided in 2025. In 1999, the Army After Next team believed that it would take at least that long to take a weapon from design to fielding. A generation was needed to train and educate a battalion commander and at least that long was needed to organize and equip a new formation. In Pentagonese, the visionary locking point is well beyond two program objective memoranda (POM).

Once on the objective in 2025, we made an imaginary march back toward the doctrinal line of departure following the signposts in reverse. At about a decade closer to the present, we encountered intermediate objectives where vision becomes a concept. Future gazing gets serious at this conceptual waypoint because the journey enters the realm of the POM. Concepts become programs only through investments in experimentation. It’s at the concept stage that the outline of a doctrine begins to appear. The march from intermediate objective to doctrinal line of departure demands prototyping and modeling to avoid early lock. As we’ve seen with Army After Next, it’s here that mistakes are most often made. Hopefully, if rigor is properly applied and the Gods of War are with us, a properly equipped, trained, and structured formation will meet the enemy sometime along the journey from concepts to the doctrinal line of departure just in time.

The rearward march from vision to concepts to doctrine must be disciplined by an understanding of what might be rather than what just happened. A sure sign that we’ve got it wrong occurs when the journey from vision to concept becomes increasingly complex. We have learned painfully that simplicity is the surest sign of success. Beware of those who add needless layers of detail and cute, captive phrases. Also, the journey from vision to concepts to doctrine must avoid the minefields of intellectual bullying by misinformed seniors amplified by adoring, unthinking disciples.

The end state, a doctrine that drives Murray’s “real operational units that could perform wartime mission(s),” must be sufficiently ahead to allow newly discovered wrinkles and unanticipated breakthroughs to be accommodated yet sufficiently constrained to be affordable. The march backward from vision to doctrine must avoid incrementalism at all costs. If the long march doesn’t result in a leap ahead in capabilities it’s doomed to failure. Incrementalism comes from change neutered by bureaucratic inertia, yesterday’s ideas repackaged as sloganisms, and over-indulgent lawyers, unimaginative doctrine writers, and parsimonious budgeteers.

Minefields Along the March

The long temporal march from vision to concepts to doctrine would be a straightforward process were it not for minefields scattered along the way. These minefields take many shapes and can become deadly though inattention and haste. I tripped over many as director of the Army After Next project. First among them was the impulse within the Army to fixate too quickly on detail. Immediately after the first Army After Next wargame combat developers began to badger us for details. What would a “flying Army” look like? How would a force, as envisioned by Army After Next, be equipped, organized, and trained? How much would it cost? Within a year after the first wargame officers in Training and Doctrine Command were drawing up organization charts and adding tactical detail totally beyond our ability to define much less justify our ideas at the time. The lesson I learned was to be sure that you have the concepts right through gaming and experimentation before you try to build mythical tables of organization and equipment.

Another troublesome minefield is the lure of technology. Just because a new and exciting technology appears doesn’t mean it must fit into an emerging warfighting concept. Another distracting minefield comes from technologists who constantly scan the threat horizon anxious to alert on enemies who they sense are harnessing new technologies to build better weapons. To be sure, we must guard against being surprised by leap-ahead technologies in the hands of an enemy. But recent battlefield experience suggests that we have been surprised and bested on the battlefield, not by new weapons, but by enemies who have employed simple technologies creatively.

We must be careful not to shape the course of change to conform to existing materiel and structures. The French developed their doctrine of the “Methodical Battle” in part to accommodate the mountain of materiel left over from World War I. The Germans on the other hand were stripped of their most modern weapons by the strictures of the Treaty of Versailles and thus were free to develop their concept of maneuver warfare unencumbered by masses of obsolescent materiel.

The lesson for today is obvious. Like the French, we are burdened by the massive investments that gave us the “Big Five.” These machines are now more than a generation old. Let’s accommodate legacy weapons in our doctrine only if they fit. But be aware of the past. A mountain of excess Abrams tanks rusting in the Utah desert should not unduly influence how we prepare to fight tomorrow’s wars.

In a similar fashion, we should never allow the pace of change to conform to outdated thinking. Recent history supports the conclusion that progressive institutional structures facilitate change: The optimum structure can be seen in the development of AirLand battle doctrine during the Cold War. Gen. Donn Starry, then the commander of Training and Doctrine Command, organized his mechanism for change by creating an island of excellence in the form of the “Boat House Gang,” a group of young talented officers imbued with a particularly brilliant creative spirit as they created AirLand Battle doctrine.

Impatience is a character of American strategic thought. Seems like every year or two we witnesses the emergence of some cosmic slogan that morphs into a strategy. You can see it coming when monikers like “Effects Based Operations” or “AirSea Battle” suddenly spawn an office in the Pentagon staffed by action officers scurrying about with furrowed brows. Truth is that history shows us that we can’t afford to get the thinking part over quickly in order to get a budget line started. Imagining the future is like making a fine wine. It needs sufficient time for debate, synthesis, and second-order thought.

The worst institutional approach, as seen in the French Army’s methodof divining the future of warfare during the inter-war period, is to rely on a strict hierarchy dominated by seniors who already know the truth. We encountered some of this when, after 9/11, the transition from Army After Next to Future Combat Systems suddenly became threatening to the “heavy” Army establishment

To some degree, Army After Next was torpedoed by first-hand experiences of senior officers who were battalion and brigade commanders in Operation Desert Storm. As my generation learned so painfully after the Vietnam War, nothing ossifies creative thought more than victory and nothing accelerates progress more than losing a war. In a similar fashion the British Army was slow to adapt to a battlefield dominated by the machine gun and artillery because senior British officers had (quite laterally) earned their spurs in glorious wars fighting native peoples rather than fighting a modern army like the Germans. The Germans had no long-term experience in war, so they relied on the study of history rather than the visceral side of warfare learned through glorious but irrelevant experience in battle. We are an Army armed with 17 years of the visceral. So be warned.

Ideas and concepts are porous, particularly in an era of intrusive social media and intellectual property theft wherein the half-life of an idea is measured in days if not hours. To that end, it’s also painful to reveal that visionaries are not the ones who always win. British genius imagined a new era of warfare during the interwar period. Gurus like B.H. Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller were the true architects of machine warfare. But it was the Germans first, and later the Soviets, who gained notoriety for successfully implementing the tenets of blitzkrieg. This example reinforces the truism that no visionary can overcome wrongheaded strategy. And, as the British learned to their chagrin, political leadership often gets it wrong, or right for the wrong reasons

How Did We Do? You Decide.

I gave up command of the Army War College in the summer of 2000. Gen. Rick Shinseki, chief of staff at the time, kindly asked that I stay on active duty another six months to write a monograph on Army After Next. Instead I took the time to write a book on the subject titled Yellow Smoke. The book was on the official reading lists of the Navy and Marine Corps. In 2004, it became the intellectual catalyst that brought Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis and me together and led to our mutual effort to imbed some of my thoughts from Army After Next into Marine doctrine and materiel development between 2004 and 2009.

We are seven years away from 2025, the objective date we established in 1999 for locking in the tenets of Army After Next. Below I’ve listed the ten themes taken from Yellow Smoke. Read them carefully in light of contemporary events and decide for yourselves how close we got it to right.

1. Increase the Speed of Operational Forces as a National Priority

If future wars are to be won at minimum cost, they must be won quickly. The strategic speed of an early-arriving force is best achieved by lightening the force sufficiently to allow it to be projected principally by air.

2. Project and Maneuver Land Forces by Brigades

Land forces will best be able to achieve the necessary balance between strategic speed and sustainable fighting power if all early-arriving, close-combat forces are dispatched and fight as autonomous, self-contained brigades of about 5,000 soldiers each.

3. Maneuver by Air at the Operational and Tactical Levels

Increasing the strategic speed of a force is of little value unless the momentum generated by global projection can be sustained by aerial maneuver at the operational and tactical levels.

4. Establish an “Unblinking Eye” Over the Battlefield

Lighter and smaller early-arriving forces can win against a more numerous and heavier enemy only if they are protected by an “unblinking eye” — a constant, reliable, ubiquitous, and overwhelmingly dominant sphere of information emanating from unmanned aerial platforms.

 5. Proliferate Precision and Distribute It Downward

Maneuver forces should be provided with the tools to adequately support an offensive strategy dominated by precision firepower on a distributed battlefield. To do this, ground forces at the lowest tactical level should be given the same relative advantage in precision firepower as that possessed by the air services today.

6. Adopt an Operational Maneuver Doctrine Based on Firepower Dominance and Area Control

The need to accelerate the velocity of maneuver at all levels of war becomes more important when an adaptive enemy begins to level the firepower playing field by acquiring his own precision weapons. Distributed maneuver forced by proliferated precision weapons will change the geometry of ground combat from a linear to an irregular, roughly circular area formation.

7. Supplement Manned with Unmanned Reconnaissance

Information- and precision-age technologies offer considerable promise as a means for producing unmanned aerial and ground vehicles capable of performing effectively as surrogates for manned tactical reconnaissance.

 8. Maneuver with All Arms at the Lowest Practical Level

While the “base element of maneuver” might have been a division in World War II and a brigade in Operation Desert Storm, perhaps by 2025 it might be a company of all arms, possessing the power to employ every dimension of ground combat from maneuver to fires, reconnaissance, logistics, and the control of all external amplifiers.

9. Establish a “Band of Brothers” Approach to Selection, Training, and Readiness

The surest way to reduce casualties among close-combat units is to only place in harm’s way soldiers trained through a “band of brothers” approach — those who, over a period of years, have worked collectively to achieve physical fitness, emotional maturity, technical competence, confidence in their leaders, and an intuitive sense of the battlefield.

10. Move Beyond Jointness to True Interdependence of Services

Combat functions such as operational maneuver and precision firepower — functions provided principally by one service yet vital to the warfighting effectiveness of another — should be removed from the constrictive rules of joint warfare and elevated to a new dimension of interdependent command and control.

Gazing into a Different Future

Do you think our concepts were about right? Do you think they would have been sufficiently mature today to guarantee overmatch in 2025? Remember the objective of future gazing is not to get it perfectly right but to avoid getting it perfectly wrong. The Army After Next initiative was cancelled in 2008. What type of Army do you think we might have today had it been allowed to mature?

Sadly, we will never know. We can agree, however, that the Army is now obliged to start over, to march out conceptually, crossing today’s line of departure and continuing to an objective vision place nested in about 2045. I won’t be around to rewrite this piece in 2040. I can only hope that future generations of talented officers will work diligently to get it as close to right as their collective intellects will allow.

Retired Major General Bob Scales is a former Commandant of the Army War College, an artilleryman and author of the book Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk, published by the Naval Institute Press.  The opinions here are those of the authors and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any organization therein.

Image: Army.mil/Shawn Weismiller

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