How Do U.S. Soldiers Prepare For An Unpredictable Future? Army Leaders Have A Plan.
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The Army’s Apache tank killer epitomizes its step-by-step approach to winning the future. In the near term, it will be kept in a high state of readiness; in the medium term it will be thoroughly upgraded; and over the long run it will be replaced by a more lethal, survivable rotorcraft.
The U.S. Army today is led by an unusually thoughtful and experienced team of warfighters. The top two civilian leaders, Secretary Mark Esper and Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy, have both served in combat with Army units. The top two uniformed leaders, Chief of Staff Mark Milley and Vice Chief of Staff James McConville, have both attended Ivy League universities. All four have had extensive exposure to the baroque political processes whereby Army programs are funded.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet with all four as part of a small contingent of think-tank types invited to discuss the 2020 budget request to be sent to Congress in March. However, because Army leaders couldn’t discuss what is actually in the request, the meeting became more about how the Army thinks about the future. It was a surprisingly engaging discussion of how the nation’s oldest military service is adapting to an era of nearly unbounded possibilities, both good and bad.
The Army is sometimes described as an institution that is reluctant to change, but that is not what I heard. All four of the leaders are eager to pursue opportunities made possible by new warfighting concepts, new technologies, and the increased funding that the Trump Administration has provided. But they are acutely aware of the uncertainties that lie ahead, and the risks associated with betting on what might turn out to be the wrong ideas. So they have fashioned a flexible plan that keeps the Army’s options open.
The plan has many moving pieces, which cannot be adequately covered in a brief commentary. What I would like to do here is capture six overarching themes that shape the Army’s campaign plan to win the future—themes that collectively will provide the foundation for a warfighting force that could take 20 years to field. Whatever the content and configuration of that force may ultimately be, the current leadership team is determined that it will be capable of dominating all potential adversaries.
Recognize that the character of war is changing. The basic nature of war does not change. It will always be a violent struggle for dominance. However, the tactics and tools by which war is waged can change rapidly, and never has that been more true than today. Chief of Staff Milley figures that we are now in the third decade of a fundamental shift in the way war is conducted—a shift sparked in large part by what we have come to call the information revolution. Future wars will be waged not just on land, at sea and in the air, but also in space and on the electromagnetic spectrum. The Army has created a concept called “multi-domain operations” that captures the complexity of future battle spaces, and dictates the skills that will be needed to prevail.
Look beyond traditional warfighting tools. As in the last century, emerging technologies are proving to be the most dynamic factor reshaping warfare as the new millennium unfolds. Core combat systems must be protected against the new capabilities that enemies are acquiring, but the Army must also look beyond its traditional tools in assuring dominant land power. In the future, most air and ground vehicles may be unmanned or optionally manned, and equipped with artificial intelligence that bolsters resilience and response times. All land forces will be seamlessly connected by wireless networks that enemies can neither intercept nor jam. And even lowly mortar rounds will have pinpoint accuracy at ranges far beyond today’s weapons.
Embrace the enduring importance of people. Even if robots become ubiquitous on future battlefields, the human element will remain central to the nature of war. The Army is raising its recruitment standards, increasing the rigor of basic training, and applying new technologies such as augmented reality to the preparation of soldiers for combat. It will modestly increase the size of the force each year while reinforcing emphasis on core values such as loyalty, honor, integrity and courage. Each soldier will be held to the highest standards of professionalism, in return for which he or she can be assured that a soldier’s quality of life will be protected and enhanced.
Fashion an integrated, executable roadmap to the future. The Army’s planning process is not about finding silver bullets or panaceas. It is a step-by-step process for moving all of the service’s warfighting communities forward in tandem, in close consultation with sister services and overseas partners. The process begins by establishing a high state of readiness for all combat forces in the near term, making necessary upgrades to tactics and equipment in the medium term, and then investing in a new generation of warfighting systems over the long term. This has all been thought through in exquisite detail, with scores of programs delayed or terminated to make room for more pressing needs.
Stick with the roadmap, but keep your options open. The Army has had trouble sticking with plans in the past, which helps explain why it has not replaced hardly any of its core warfighting systems since the Reagan years. Now it is running out of time to modernize, because countries like China and Russia are fielding next-generation weapons. The Army’s ideas for how it must change the way it prepares for war are derived largely from observing what these potential adversaries are doing. However, new challenges may appear in unexpected quarters in the years ahead, so having a flexible campaign plan could prove crucial to coping with strategic surprises.
Tell a clear, convincing story to outsiders. None of the aforementioned steps will be feasible unless Army leaders can convince Congress and the President that they are on the right track. One of the truly distinguishing features of the current leadership team is that it is so persuasive in explaining its campaign for the future. Although Chief of Staff Milley looks like a typically stern four-star, he has an unusually subtle and convincing style of communication—which may partly explain why President Trump picked him to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Vice Chief McConville has a wry, thoughtful approach that easily wins over audiences. Secretary Esper and Under Secretary McCarthy are strikingly effective communicators. The Army has never had a better team of advocates atop its chain of command.
This band of brothers will need all their skills of persuasion in the years ahead as budget walls begin to close in. Washington can’t keep running trillion-dollar annual deficits forever. On the other hand, it can afford even less to lose wars. Today’s Army leaders have the best formula for avoiding defeat anyone has heard in a long time, and the right set of skills for keeping it sold in Washington