Army Contemplates Future Amid Today's Crises

By Sandra I. Erwin

The nation's military is fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East, helping to contain an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and warily watching other flashpoints around the world.

But that didn't stop the Army from bringing together every general officer above the two-star rank this week to Washington, D.C., to discuss a topic of utmost concern to the service: the Army's future.

About 200 general officers — including many division and corps commanders — spent an entire day discussing how the Army should reshape itself for tomorrow's conflicts, especially those after 2025. "Was that more important than working the inbox items such as the unfolding ISIL operation?" Stimson Center Chairman Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr. asked Gen. David G. Perkins.

In short, yes, said Perkins, the commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC.

Perkins is overseeing the latest rewrite of the Army's "operational concept" that will guide how the service is organized and equipped by 2025. The concept is still in the draft phase and will be unveiled next month in Washington at the annual convention of the Association of the U.S. Army.

While the world might be engulfed in war, the Army cannot let its long-term plans veer off course, Perkins said Sept. 25 during a talk at the Stimson Center.

With the world's volatility rising, the tendency is to turn every crisis into a soccer game of seven-year-olds where they are all chasing the ball and nobody is on defense, Perkins said. "Left to their own devices, everyone runs to the ball." Officials are paying proper attention to today's issues, but "we have to think about the future and start now to think about the brigade commanders of 2025."

At the top of the agenda is having a solid strategy for grooming future leaders to cope with unpredictable challenges, Perkins said. "Gen. Ray Odierno [the Army's chief of staff] said the key to our success in the future is leader development."

These high-level discussions are taking place as the Army faces not only the crises of the day but also budgetary and personnel troubles. To meet congressionally mandated spending limits, it is downsizing at a rate of 20,000 troops per year, including junior officers in command positions overseas. Cutbacks have affected troop morale. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the Army is also gripped by questions about its role there and whether the huge sacrifice was worth it.

The generals at the Pentagon have been historically incapable of predicting the future, and that is not going to change, Perkins said. "I often get asked 'Tell me about the future,' as if it's going to be completely different from the past.'"

But there is a long list of "do not forget" items that the Army has to keep in mind as it moves forward, he said. One is to make sure it does not box itself into a particular role or mission, and is able to take on unglamorous jobs. "As we develop the future of the Army, we want to make sure we provide multiple capabilities to the strategic policy makers of our nation," he said. "We want to give them options, not ultimatums."

The Army in many cases will not get to choose what it does, he said. "When you say you don't do windows, what you find out is the enemy starts putting up a bunch of windows. It would be great if we could work ourselves out of some jobs. We just don't have that luxury."

The Army will have to accept the inevitability that it will be blindsided. Who would have predicted a year ago that there would be an Ebola epidemic, or who even knew that ISIL existed? “Things are going to happen that you didn't have on your radar screen and didn't have time to get ready for,” Perkins said. As a result, leaders will have to think on their feet. “As you look to the future, there is a whole quality associated with response time,” he said. “How long do you wait to do something about it? … The element of time is taking on a new meaning as we go into the future.”

Another pillar of the Army’s thinking about the future is that it needs hard power even if the ultimate goal is to not use it. The Defense Department has embraced the notion that U.S. military interventions can be prevented by building allies’ military forces to do their own fighting. There is also an underlying assumption that military actions don’t solve foreign policy problems. That said,

“The only way you win without a fight is by deterring. The only way to do that is you have to be able to win with a fight,” Perkins said. “Your adversary has to be absolutely sure that you can win the fight. Then they may decide not to fight.”

The U.S. military has had a decisive technological advantage for decades, but the Army should not take that for granted and, further, it should operate on the assumption that its enemies will have access to the same technology, Perkins said.

What the Army is learning is that its “secret sauce” is its professional cadre of soldiers, he said. Many foreign allies attribute the success of the U.S. military to “our stuff.” But the technology that has given American forces an edge — such as night-vision goggles and precision-guided weapons — are increasingly available to anyone who has money to buy them.

The stuff can easily be acquired, but a brigade of competent soldiers takes many years to build, he noted. “Of all the things that set us apart, technology is the most transferrable.”

But Perkins acknowledged that the U.S. military should upgrade its technology regardless of global market trends. And that will require changing the arcane acquisition process that was conceived long before computers or the Internet even existed.

“We are looking internally at what things are preventing us from innovating,” he said. Innovation does not necessarily mean buying new stuff, however. The Army needs to think more broadly about how equipment is used and whether it creates vulnerabilities, he explained. A case in point is the current force's heavy reliance on fuel. The tendency is to deploy heavy equipment that demands a huge logistics tail and additional security to protect troops on the ground. But these efforts to reduce the tactical risk end up raising the political risk of the mission if, for instance, the enemy decides to target supply convoys en route to the front lines.

“We're looking at what we can do with technology not only to reduce tactical risk but also political risk,” said Perkins. An example would be the use of robotic supply vehicles that can deliver goods without putting drivers in harm’s way. “We never really looked at things that way. We tend to look at things from the tactical side.”

TRADOC intends to review the bureaucratic process that informs and dictates what equipment the Army buys, he said. “The new operational concept puts a big focus on requirements,” he added.

“Our requirements are very narrowly defined,” which explains why the Army might design a new helicopter without consideration of its long-term logistics supply burdens. “We are not organized in the Army to look at things necessarily that way,” Perkins said. “We are discussing how we get a better view of total capability versus just a thing,” he said. “Exquisite solutions have exquisite weaknesses.”

Timeliness also has to be a priority. “The acquisition timeline for any piece of technology should not be longer than the lifecycle of the technology.”

Perkins said too much focus on high-tech equipment risks losing sight of what the force needs to accomplish. One of TRADOC’s favorite buzzwords, “expeditionary,” implies the Army has to be a 911 “crisis response” force and therefore needs lighter combat vehicles and faster means of transportation.

That thinking is shortsighted, he said. “Our nation wants more than just a response, it wants resolution,” he said. “When we say ‘expeditionary,’ it's not just getting there. It's having adequate capability and endurance to resolve the issue,” he added. “We want to make sure we define the requirements before we jump on the latest shiny object.”

Any conversation about the future also has to raise the uncomfortable subject of how to define “winning,” especially in complex conflicts where civilian agencies and foreign allies are involved. “It’s important to have clarity,” Perkins said. The bumper sticker of the new Army’s operational concept is “Win in a complex world,” he said. “Defining ‘win’ and defining ‘complex’ is going to be very powerful for the stuff we buy and how we go about using it.”

Topics: Expeditionary Warfare, Advanced Weapons

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