The Army officially has given up on trying to predict the future.
And it has good reasons for doing so. After the Cold War, large, heavily armored armies were regarded as passé and U.S. military strategy called for smaller, high-tech, “agile” forces that could quickly deploy, kill the bad guys and go home within 30 days. Planning for those surgical wars did not pay off for the Army when it was sent to Iraq and its undefended supply lines became prime targets of insurgent bombs.
Let down by the hype of technowarfare and wised up by the harshness of counterinsurgencies, the Army is not about to make grandiose jumps into the future. Its draft “operational concept” for how it envisions fighting wars from 2016 to 2028 in fact reads more like a how-to manual for winning Iraq and Afghanistan-like campaigns than a vision of warfare decades from now.
The document — a brainchild of Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who’s a senior advisor to Gen. David Petraeus — for the first time institutionalizes the idea that technology is not to be trusted and commits into doctrine the lessons from the current wars. It calls for a flatter command structure and for greater integration of military and civilian organizations. It also takes a dim view of the future in that the erosion of America’s financial strength will influence military strategy and that potential enemies, like roadside bombers, will employ technologies in ways that could give them an edge over U.S. forces.
There are no symptoms of “next-war-itis” in this document.
“We are trying to avoid the mistakes of the past,” says one of the writers of the operational concept, Lt. Col. Mark Elfendahl, chief of joint and Army concepts at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, Fort Monroe, Va.
“We’re avoiding one of the drawbacks of our earlier approach to concepts: looking too far into the future and becoming disconnected from what’s going on right now,” Elfendahl says. “Now we are trying to bring the future closer to us and look at a shorter range of time.”
Taking a short-term view is not a bad idea after having been blindsided by 9/11 and al-Qaida. But it does offend many traditionalists who contend this approach to war planning is myopic and could leave the Army ill-equipped to tackle problems that it now cannot prognosticate.
A retired general who specializes in doctrine development says the new operational concept is testament to an overreaction to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ call to “rebalance” priorities so more emphasis is placed on current conflicts, versus planning for unforeseeable wars. “They’re saying ‘rebalancing’ means we are not doing anything about the future,” he says. The way the Army has written this concept is “irresponsible” because it assumes upcoming wars will be mostly counterinsurgencies and makes no serious attempt to anticipate future threats, or foresee what weapons and capabilities the Army will need to fight them, he says.
One reason why the Army is being gun-shy about projecting forward is the huge disappointment that was the Future Combat Systems modernization program. FCS promised “perfect” information that would allow troops to find and kill the enemy swiftly. The failure of FCS to deliver on that pledge has undermined the Army’s confidence in making estimations about how to defeat adversaries.
Elfendahl says technology has fallen short of expectations so it only makes sense to temper ambitions. “We are not luddites, however,” he says. “We’re not saying technology is bunk. Some technologies have been of great value.”
But he rejects the criticism that the Army is being shortsighted. “We are not looking exclusively backwards,” he says. “I would take issue with that.”
The Army simply is being pragmatic, he contends. “It’s certainly gotten harder to predict the future. There is a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “We’re grounding our work in ongoing and recent experience but we are not wedded to it.”
One can’t blame the Army for being cautious, argues military analyst Daniel Gouré, of the Lexington Institute. “The central theme of the new Army vision for itself is the need for adaptability in all things,” he writes on his blog. “The future operating environment will be extremely complex.” But he worries that the Army is offering “no vision of future warfare or even of land combat,” Gouré says. Is the ultimate challenge to defeat hostile military forces, free conquered nations or occupy foreign lands? “It is important to be clear on this subject not only because of its implications for the Army’s operating concept but also because it is key to explaining the importance of the Army to the American people.”
In the final analysis, the Army is wise to proceed cautiously because it is still encumbered by two grinding wars. As McMaster has repeatedly stressed, the debate of whether the Army should prepare for high-end or low-end warfare is deceptive because future enemies ultimately will have a say in how they choose to fight the United States. But if the Army trains competent leaders, they will adapt to whatever threat pops up. The operating concept, ultimately, is about motivating the current generation of young officers during these tempestuous times.