There is an aphorism that generals always fight the last war, and armies consequently spend the time between conflicts training how to fight better under conditions they most recently experienced. The implication is that military forces often fail to focus on the enemy they should be preparing for—the ones they are most likely to fight in the future. As the US military’s role in the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, there are concerns that the Army will continue to focus on counterinsurgency operations against insurgent forces, rather than cognitively disconnecting to fully focus on preparing for a future war against a potential peer adversary. The Army is in a critical period of transition as we approach the end of US military involvement in Afghanistan. Make no mistake, US Army leadership is making concerted efforts to refocus priorities to better posture junior soldiers and leaders to transition from counterinsurgency operations to large-scale, conventional war preparedness in Eastern Europe or the Pacific region.
Agent of Change: The Maneuver Center of Excellence
Discussion surrounding the need for the Army to reimagine and reconfigure itself began as early as 2011, when then president Barack Obama announced a pivot to Asia, which recognized China as a peer competitor and national security priority. The 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy indicated a commitment to begin shifting priorities away from the irregular warfare being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and toward preparations for a large-scale conventional fight. These documents clearly recognized China and Russia as primary national security threats, which the US military must be prepared to compete with, deter, and—if necessary—defeat on the battlefield. Army leaders across the force have made it very clear what the Army is preparing for.
A military force prepared for a peer competitor is radically different than a force designed to conduct counterinsurgency operations. From the ways leaders and soldiers are trained and educated to how units are designed and the equipment and capabilities they wield, the Army is undergoing a broad transformation—a major departure from the two decades of small, incremental changes that were necessary as it fought two major irregular conflicts at once. A testament to the breadth of these transitions can be seen at the US Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) located at Fort Benning, Georgia. At the installation known as the home of the infantry and armor, the MCoE is executing a vision of building smarter, faster, and more lethal combat soldiers, leaders, and formations. Major changes like extending one-station unit training to twenty-two weeks for most combat military occupational specialties in order to build physical prowess, mental aptitude, and tactical and marksmanship proficiencies have been occurring over the past few years to prepare a future force ready for the next fight.
The MCoE has also updated the strategy and content of professional military education courses, like the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course, which now trains leaders using scenarios based on Chinese- and Russian-style tactics and capabilities in decisive action training environments, as opposed to scenarios containing hybrid, terrorist, or insurgent threats using Cold War–era equipment. Soldiers are also training with the most advanced military equipment, participating in more tactical exercises, and firing more live rounds than ever before. As a result, the skills, proficiencies, and lethality of infantry and armor soldiers arriving at their first duty stations are greater than ever. These are the foundational changes the future force will be built on: highly fit, proficient, intelligent, and agile soldiers and leaders prepared to operate in any environment, against any adversary.
Colocated and teamed with the Army Futures Command’s Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate, the MCoE is modernizing the Army’s ground maneuver forces and formations. As the Army is aggressively pursuing the Next Generation Combat Vehicle and Next Generation Squad Weapons, and experimenting with the world’s most advanced robotics, sensors, and other technologies, MCoE organizations are tracking their development, putting them in the hands of soldiers for testing, and providing feedback to make them ready for fielding to the operational force. These technologies are designed to increase the speed, lethality, and all-domain superiority of Army formations. A critical element of Army efforts is focusing on tasks only the Army can perform in combat. While all services are experiencing similar transitions and developing technologies at a fervent pace, Army leaders know that dominating ground combat and influencing populations are areas specifically relevant to the Army, and vital to succeeding in future conflicts.
Building on the Foundation
Despite the Army’s strategic, operational, and tactical pivot, the transition from two decades of counterinsurgency operations is daunting. To be sure, there is still work to be done. Not only does the service need to prepare for a form of conflict radically different from recent wars, but change must also be rapid enough to keep pace with the changing character of warfare—and the growing capabilities of our potential adversaries. Great power competitors like China and Russia are undertaking efforts to modernize their militaries for increasingly complex battlefields. They are engaging in irregular tactics using proxy forces, seeking advantage in the information environment and cyber domain, and advancing technologies for contested environments like dense urban terrain.
Those of us who have the opportunity to serve as leaders in the Army must recognize the reality of the situation, and constantly reinforce the need to make an intellectual break with past experiences. We must solidify the hard-earned lessons of our recent past in doctrine and lessons-learned repositories so that they are not lost. But, we must also evolve, build upon, or sometimes even discard practices that are not designed for a peer conflict. As an example, we are still finding some Army training scenarios that include proxy militias as the opposing force, or include events like key leader engagements with local leaders or pursuits of a single fighter with an RPG or AK-47 through a small village.
The forces we present to our soldiers and units in training, education, and leader development events must be based on real-world, peer enemy threats. Scenarios, historical vignettes, reading lists, and training environments need to be oriented toward the future fight. Our mental and physical preparations must match our equipment and technology modernizations. We must cognitively get east of the Vistula and north of the Han, ready for the potential for large-scale, conventional war in Eastern Europe or the Pacific region. The responsibility lies with leaders who spent many of their formative years engaged in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to steer junior soldiers and leaders toward something deeply different, and prepare them for the requirements of large-scale combat operations.
Major General Patrick J. Donahoe is the commanding general of the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.
John Spencer is the chair of urban warfare studies with the Modern War Institute at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Courtney Bacon, US Army
The aphorism brought up by the authors in the introduction is what the US Army is currently doing, but instead of fighting the last war, it is fighting the war before the last war (and possibly the war before that war); It should be fighting the future war, now.
I would argue the authors, and the US Army, largely view innovation as providing better tech to our soldiers and integrating tech into training. Tech is a very important aspect of innovation and modernization, but there are other substantially larger problems that need innovative solutions prior to the next conflict.
For example, extending one-station unit training by up to eight weeks undoubtedly provides a better-quality soldier to gaining units; however, is this “innovation” from the Maneuver Center of Excellence extremely important to the US Army as it competes, deters and retains the capability to defeat a near-peer adversary? It seems the Maneuver Center of Excellence is very focused on the “defeat” aspect in regards to adversaries so lets look at this innovation from that lens.
The initial cost of a conventional conflict with a near-peer adversary will most likely be high; All those active duty soldiers we poured the majority of time and resources into can be at a fraction of their strength in a short period of time. What is the replacement plan? How do those replacements rapidly acquire the skills they need to not only survive, but thrive, in a harsh uncertain combat environment? What does the “streets to battlefield” pipeline look like, and how fast is it?
Moreover, has the Maneuver Center of Excellence discussed the potential need of replacements in a time of war with US Army Recruiting Command and discussed possible innovations to recruitment in order to ensure replacements are volunteers and have some sort of knowledge base before the conflict even begins, instead of relying on crash-course trained draftees in the worst case scenario? (something to the effect of providing some type of educational benefit to highly qualified candidates, in exchange for only graduating from basic training and having a four year “on-call” status, no national guard or reserve commitment).
As evident by the example above, innovation is needed to update antiquated policies and structures that have largely been unchanged for decades to prepare for the future war, now. Tech will not be the answer to everything.
a. If one is engaged in "revolutionary" activities on a global scale — as the Soviets/the communists were in the Old Cold War of yesterday and as the U.S./the West has been since then — then the idea of problems at home OR problems with lesser states and societies OR problems with non-state actors OR problems with rival great powers; this may be a ridiculous notion.
b. Rather, if one is engaged in "revolutionary" activities on a global scale — as the Soviets/the communists were in the Old Cold War of yesterday and as the U.S./the West has been in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — then ALL OF THE ABOVE (problems at home AND problems with lesser states and societies AND problems with non-state actors AND problems with rival great powers); this is likely to be your reality. This given that:
c. In both my "a" and "b" above, the problems at home, the problems with lesser states and societies, the problems with non-state actors and the problems with great power rivals, all these problems stem from the "revolutionary" entity's attempt to achieve political, economic, social and/or value change both at home and abroad — an activity which, quite obviously, threatens status quo actors, status quo players, status quo cultures and traditions, status quo jobs, and status quo rulers, etc. (to include those within the "revolutionary" entities own states and societies) throughout the world.
d. In circumstances such as these, the goal of the "resisting transformation" great powers (i.e., the great powers who are being threatened by the "revolutionary" great power); this is to:
1. "Contain" the "revolutionary" great power (the Soviets/the communists back then; the U.S./the West today); this, by:
2. Bringing to the fight, supporting and "mixing and matching" as many of the threatened "status quo" entities and players as possible.
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Given the fact of the U.S./the West's "revolutionary" activities since the end of the Old Cold War — and the variety of "status quo" enemies that we — via this process — have now had aligned against us (to include those here at home);
Given this fact, then our strategy for "winning" (that is: achieving meaningful political, economic, social and value change both at home and abroad); this must now take into account:
a. Not only the full array of our "status quo" "enemies" (those both here at home and there abroad; as I have described them above) but, also,
b. The many and varied ways that (under good leadership from Russia and/or China for example) these such many and varied status quo "enemies" might be brought to bear against us.
(Bottom bottom line thought — based on the above: Much as the singular focus on counterinsurgency was wrong back then, likewise the singular focus on great power competition today is wrong; this, due to [a] the many and varied "status quo" enemies that I have described above and [b] the many and varied ways that these enemies, under good leadership [and potentially in a modular way?] can be used against us.)
The premise of this article is spot on. The Army needs to be looking forward to how it will win a LSCO war, and also compete in GPC. I think the senior leaders in the Army are definitely on the right track in their vision for a more lethal fighting force. However, there were several points of hubris in this article that I felt needed to be addressed.
The first has to do with OSUT. Having been on the receiving end of these twenty-two week OSUT Soldiers, we are lying to ourselves by saying that increasing the time spent in basic training without increasing the actual standards at basic training is producing a more lethal output. For example, the Army has done away with the APFT, and the ACFT will not be a record test for some time. Therefore, there is no real physical standard for a Soldier to pass at basic training. The burden then comes upon the unit to try and spend time getting these Soldiers in shape. It will always end up being a "numbers game" with the Army unless it downsizes, and can become more selective of the Soldiers it recruits. If almost everyone passes because the standards are so low, and there is no physical standard, what is the incentive for a Soldier to push themselves during basic training if they know that they just need to complete it in order to graduate? If the Army wants more lethal and agile Soldiers showing up at units, increase the standards at basic training.
The second is in regards to MCCC students fighting "peer" adversaries in tactical scenarios. I whole-heartedly agree that transitioning to these tactical engagements is the right direction the course should be heading; but aren't we putting the cart before the horse if we are expecting students to be fighting a GPC enemy when the doctrine for the future conflict hasn't been written yet? Furthermore, the Army hasn't fielded all of the next generation weapon systems either. If this is a future scenario, how can students be expected to know how to implement these new weapon systems in combat without having any experience with them, or any doctrine to reference on how they are supposed to be implemented? Once MCOE writes new doctrine, taking into consideration the modernization equipment of our future Army, then students will best be able to realistically think about how they are going to fight in a future conflict.
I am optimistic on the direction the Army is headed based on the vision of our senior leaders. However, there is still more that needs to be addressed if we want to win our next fight.
From the first paragraph of our article above:
" As the US military’s role in the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, there are concerns that the Army will continue to focus on counterinsurgency operations against insurgent forces, rather than cognitively disconnecting to fully focus on preparing for a future war against a potential peer adversary. The Army is in a critical period of transition as we approach the end of US military involvement in Afghanistan. Make no mistake, US Army leadership is making concerted efforts to refocus priorities to better posture junior soldiers and leaders to transition from counterinsurgency operations to large-scale, conventional war preparedness in Eastern Europe or the Pacific region."
As I suggested in my initial comment above, the idea of an "either" war (for example a "counterinsurgency") or an "or" war (for example LSCO) — this seems to be exceptionally wrong-headed thinking.
Why is this?
Because in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — much as in the Old Cold War of yesterday —
a. The political, economic, social and/or value "change" demands that the revolutionary powers (the U.S./the West today; the Soviets/the communists yesterday) seek to achieve both at home and abroad —
b. These such "change" demands provide that those state and non-state entities — both at home and abroad — who will lose power, influence, control, prestige, safety and status in this process — these folks will now be your "natural enemies." (And, from this such perspective, will be each other's "natural allies" — see the quoted item that I have placed at the bottom of my comment here.)
From that such perspective, of course, any intelligent opponent will make sure that you must prepare for — and participate in — "war" on all fronts, for example,
a. A "war" against "resisting change" opponents on your home front (civil wars?) AND
b. A "war" against "resisting change" opponents in lesser states and societies (counterinsurgencies?) AND,
c. A "war" against "resisting change" great power opponents (great power war/LSCO?).
In the Old Cold War of yesterday, when the Soviets/the communists were engaged in "revolutionary" activities both at home and abroad, the U.S./West — AND OUR RESISTING TRANSFORMATION ALLIES THROUGHOUT THE WORLD — were engaged in "resistance warfare."
Accordingly, back then, we made sure that the Soviets/the communists faced "war" (a) both at home and abroad and (b) simultaneously in every way and kind imaginable. ("Modular" components; thus, a variety of ways to "plug and play?")
In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, when it is the U.S./the West who is now engaged in "revolutionary" activities both at home and abroad — now it is our opponents who have decided (especially given the success of our approach in the Old Cold War) to do this exact same thing to us.
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past."
(See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Given our "revolutionary" political objective, and given the information that I have provided above, it would seem that the U.S./the West today — much like the Soviets/the communists yesterday — must prepare to — simultaneously — fight "wars" of every kind — and in every combination — imaginable.
I agree. The US military needs to be prepared to not only compete, but dominate, in any form of conflict it will see. They cannot have a one track mind and focus solely on large scale conventional warfare; the likelihood the US military engages in direct large scale conventional warfare against a near peer adversary anytime soon is low. The US military still needs to be prepared to defeat its near peer adversaries in large scale conventional warfare as a deterrent and for the worst case scenario.
What is very likely is the US military will engage in proxy conflicts, where US SOF and advisors will have to serve in a very similar capacity they have served in the past decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Task Forces will be assembled to provide the right kind of force for a proxy conflict to compete against opposition backed by a near-peer advisory. No proxy conflict will look the same and will require different capabilities and personnel to win.
What will definitely happen is near peer adversaries like China and Russia will continue to expand their influence through economic means (like the belt and road initiative) and continue to drag vulnerable countries into their sphere of influence. The US military will need to innovate new tactics, formations, and capabilities in order to ensure these vulnerable countries do not fall under the wrong influence. Conventional Forces will hopefully be asked to deploy and train alongside vulnerable allies and potential allies alike to expand US influence and compete against near peer adversaries. This will require a more mature, competent and creative force that is capable of building interoperability and key relationships in strategic locations.
US Army decision makers are literally preparing for the war before the last war, instead of the future war. Innovation is needed across the board when it comes to tactics, formations, policies and employment. They need to always be prepared for the worst case scenario conventional conflict, but they have to be able to compete in the constantly changing Great Power Competition environment.
Your concluding paragraph above:
"US Army decision makers are literally preparing for the war before the last war, instead of the future war. Innovation is needed across the board when it comes to tactics, formations, policies and employment. They need to always be prepared for the worst case scenario conventional conflict, but they have to be able to compete in the constantly changing Great Power Competition environment."
In consideration of the matters that I have presented in my comments above, I suggest that there is ONE EXACT AND SPECIFIC WAY in which great power competition has changed post-the Cold War; this is that:
a. Now it is the U.S./the West who is the entity seeking to achieve political, economic, social and/or value "change" both at home and abroad. And:
b. Now it is our great power opponents such as Russia and China who seek to prevent the U.S./the West from achieving our such "world transformation" goals/seek to "contain" us.
Thus, I suggest, IT IS IN THIS EXACT AND SPECIFIC REVERSAL OF ROLES "way" that great power competition has changed today.
The ramifications of this such reversal of roles?
Now the more-traditional/the more-conservative/the more-no change and/or reverse unwanted change elements of the world's populations (those both here at home and there abroad) — who were the U.S./the West "natural allies" back in the Old Cold War (this, because they were already "hard-wired" to resist — and indeed to fight and die to prevent — political, economic, social and/or value "change"),
These folks, with now the U.S./the West being the ones seeking to achieve political, economic, social and/or value change throughout the world, these folks have now become the "natural allies" of our opponents (our great nation and small opponents, our state and non-state actor opponents and our at home and abroad opponents). Why? See my "hard-wired" explanation in the paragraph immediately above.
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
a. Yes, we must prepare to fight the last war but — given that we are now the "revolutionary" entity rather than the "containment" entity —
b. Now we prepare to fight this war as if we were the Soviets/the communists back-in-the-day.
Yes, the Army has traditionally trained to fight the last war. This is at the macro level, perhaps a micro level of training should take place?
If commanders and command teams were trained in different war scenarios by SMEs or Red Forces; the rank and file could be trained from within. Each company would be trainers for the battalion in each aspect of warfare (i.e. A-vertical envelopment, B-aquatic operations, C-cold weather/arctic operations, D-CG/Urban warfare, etc.). The Battalion staff could have a rotating schedule for the companies to train the Bn while they are waiting to be deployed or while deployed to keep current on different aspects of their profession.
Historically the Army has always been forced to pivots after each major conflict: Korea to Vietnam, Vietnam to Desert Storm (this was more of a deliberate pivot than a forced pivot); Desert Storm to GWOT. Finding the balance is the issue. The Army tends to be all in on one form of combat verses the other (LSCO vs Counterinsurgency). The complexity of balancing the Army so it its prepared to fight and win the nations wars (any war) is the problem that the Army must face. A force trained to fight LSCO, is not prepared to fight counterinsurgency and vice versa. While it is the responsibility of Army leadership to prepare the force for the next war, war fighting skills atrophy over time and that includes the skills at the squad level to the skills at the higher headquarters staff level. Arguments can be made for which is the harder form of war, but if the Army's task is to fight and win, than it must be able to that across the entire spectrum of combat.