We shall have to grasp the idea that war, and the form which we give it, proceeds from ideas, feelings, and circumstances, which dominate for the moment.
This forum has seen much discussion on the hard choices required to build the right force for the future. One of those hard decisions is how to balance lethal warfighting with the complexity of campaigning below the level of major combat operations. Unfortunately, though, the recent Army Modernization Strategy obscures this decision—and its importance—underneath the glamourous depiction of a very specific vision of future war. Army Futures Command (AFC) is supposed to facilitate resourcing decisions in the form of “future concepts, requirements, and organizational designs based on its assessment of the future operating environment.” Unfortunately, AFC cannot do this because it is neither manned for nor focused on anything but the most conventional of envisioned battlefields. The shiny new strategy simply ignores the possibility of anything other than uniformed combatant forces on future battlefields. The new strategy document poorly assumes that Army forces will not do the murkier work like managing proxies, interacting in the economies it moves through, or using influence technology—among other information-related tasks required to gain the initiative at the opening of a future war.
We were living in a moment of opportunity for the Army, as the primary influencer in the land—and therefore, very human—domain. Senior leaders seemed to understand the facts laid out in the Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE): that force alone had become insufficient to achieve information superiority or influence the behavior of actors; that in an increasingly pervasive and connected information environment, existing policies and norms have hampered influence operations to the point where they could not achieve strategic outcomes. The Defense Department even designated information as a joint function, as evidenced by the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s mandate to “gain and maintain informational superiority.” The Joint Staff published concepts on campaigning below the level of armed conflict, even before the JCOIE, that seemed to prompt real strategic innovation. Innovative voices in the Army certainly identified a need to address our adversaries’ economic and proxy maneuver. Unfortunately, our moment may have passed.
The Army Modernization Strategy dutifully cites the NDS requirement to prioritize long-term strategic competition with China and Russia, deter regional adversaries, and sustain irregular-warfare competency. The document acknowledges that competitors seek to deny our power projection through means that center on an “array of political and informational tools,” but then leaves us without an answer to that threat behavior. If we look back to the ancient 2017 Multi-Domain Battle concept, we find a requirement to conduct campaigns below the level of armed conflict. And yet, almost none of the items listed in the Army Modernization Strategy’s description of the “current cross functional teams and signature efforts” can have decisive effects in a competition without major combat operations. But how does all of this thinking about land dominance and interoperability square with the increasing imperative to be able to “win without fighting”?
The most immediate way of avoiding a fight is to use a proxy and the world is awash in these campaigns. Whether Houthis, Turkish Islamists, Donbass separatists, or ELN drug gangs, states are offloading the risks of open conflict. It’s not just guerrillas. There is a re-emerging requirement to be able to effectively coordinate and control private military and security companies. While Western nations have also found the privatization of military capabilities operationally and strategically useful, these companies may exacerbate tensions or discredit the legitimacy of intervention. US foes have used them to muddy the waters of operational conditions and provide a degree of deniability. Where are the concepts or doctrine covering the employment, regulation, and understanding of proxies and private military and security companies to do things like advance US interests while mitigating liabilities to our own narratives and bolstering those of our chosen partners? In the Army Modernization Strategy, planners skipped right over their acknowledgement of Putin’s use of proxies, in their apparent haste to address Russia’s “unmanned and robotic systems, precision strike weapons, and sophisticated cyber capabilities.” Traditionally, special operations forces are the ones who tackle such irregular-warfare requirements. Unfortunately, these specialized units are absent from the Army’s new strategy and their expertise seemingly left out of AFC. A new cannon or helicopter should deter those pesky nonstate actors.
In competition short of armed conflict, lethal advantage does not carry the utility it once did. Longer-range weapon systems or better stealth technology become limited in their effects when global financial capital flows are providing the means to sidestep America’s conventional advantages and exert influence. Clandestine monetary transfer is the lifeblood of Russian corruption networks. Huge profits from the drug trade allow narcoterrorists to buy local political authority. Cryptocurrency has emerged as a tool for individual economic empowerment but also as a workaround for sanctions and a way to optimize kleptocracy. Money has returned to its place as an operational security tool—to a greater degree than perhaps any time since the Peace of Westphalia—as state-contracted private military and security companies enforce or support foreign-policy goals and wealthy private citizens are able to insulate themselves from local security environments. All these factors make economic intervention a key function of any future contemporary joint operation, a function that is primarily informational and inherently local—but a function we entirely trust to the nebulous interagency. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a largely diplomatic and economic power-projection program, cannot help but affect where we ourselves can and cannot project force, like a multi-domain task force during the shaping and deterrence phases of an operational campaign.
Money was, for just a moment, considered a commander’s most powerful weapon—money as a weapon system, we called it. In light of the US military’s recent fixation on high-end warfighting, tactical economics has largely been relegated to the few (now apparently) unconventional voices who recognize its importance, though all of our latest weapons still have dramatic effects on local markets, as seen in any city liberated from the Islamic State. Who is it that might grapple with emerging threats like cryptocurrency, and old malignancies like corruption, both of which will enable threats of all flavors and at all levels of war? Information-related capabilities, like those provided by civil affairs and psychological operations troops or information operations officers, are the logical answer—key capabilities in the tactical-economics lessons of these last years of stability operations. Unfortunately, there just do not seem to be enough of those folks in the Army Futures Command’s manning documents to fully appreciate this part of future battlefields.
A likely rejoinder to all the above cynicism is that the document in question is really an acquisition plan, and that’s fair. But it’s also a problem; the Army Modernization Strategy does things like insist that “cloud open-architecture” will miraculously enable commanders to “counter adversaries in the information environment” and “win in the cognitive space.” This logical fallacy handwaves the central reality of our age—that individuals have gained access to capabilities that were once solely within the purview of states and large corporations. Tech startups like Planet Labs can provide satellite imagery with twenty-four-hour revisit time. Other firms, sometimes even nonprofits, are engineering systems like the Hala phone application that provides war-zone bystanders a de facto early-warning network by identifying the sound of jets leaving their bases—by model and velocity. Similarly, artificial intelligence–driven information operations is giving actors influence capabilities that rival those of the Soviet state at its height. In this technological revolution, power—for states or nonstate actors—does not necessarily come only from bullets and bombs but also from data streams and information injection.
The world is now flooded with digital products for which the internet is just a conduit to some human objective with increasingly disruptive audience effects. The thing is, none of these technologies are on the Army Modernization Strategy’s tables or lists. Examples of developments the document is missing include the explosion of “economic media” and the prolific use of drone cameras for everything from public-relations content to dropping grenades. There is innovation afoot, with leaflet technology and other adaptations emerging on the fringe. Certainly some Army office in Austin should be studying technology like additive manufacturing, perhaps for deception operations, or attempting to field influence capabilities like augmented reality—Pokémon Go, except featuring humanitarian messaging or revolutionary graffiti instead of cartoon creatures. Unfortunately, AFC apparently lacks sufficient information operations or psychological operations soldiers, so even if these things are important, no one in Austin is professionally interested in working on them.
The Army, as an institution, faces a dilemma in that it must manipulate human systems but also invest in technical systems for a finite combat advantage; these are the hard choices mentioned above. The Army has expressed its preference by emphasizing the latter, focusing solely on adaptation in lethal terms. Unfortunately, in the race to understand a rapidly changing character of war, Army leaders have overlooked the logical constant: the unchanging human nature of conflict. The Army’s attempts to field a new “Big 5” as well as normalize the integration of intelligence, cyber warfare, and electronic warfare to inform and enable targeting—in pursuit of multi-domain operations—are important, without a doubt. But that doesn’t diminish the risk that arises from missing the tides of larger change. Today’s “fight” is a competition to win or lose by human-centric operations. We can reliably assume that the really important problems—the hard ones, too—will not realistically feature purely lethal or technological solutions. They will be human problems, sometimes with technological entry points, but with solutions that are about people, not just than gizmos.
The Army Modernization Strategy, like many other similar documents, identifies all the crafty things our adversaries are doing, describes the problems that poses, and then sets out to solve those problems with things we wanted to do anyway. If the intention of Army planners was to get out of the business of stability operations or irregular warfare, that’s fine; it’s not a hard decision, it’s an easy one that leaders have made before. Unfortunately, this time our adversaries are paying attention and their techniques of warfare—Iranian hybrid, Chinese unrestricted, and Russian next-generation—will continue to exploit American bias toward big-ticket spending over strategic innovation.
The United States Army is the principal land power in the joint force—and humans live on land. Modernizing the land force, therefore, must recognize the requirement to maneuver in any human terrain. Senior Army officials are not faced with a binary choice, of lethal versus nonlethal capabilities, but the contours of great-power competition—and conflict, when it occurs—will be largely defined by lesser-power decisions. The very human decisions that shape the operating environment may not necessarily be swayed by hypersonic weapons or really fast helicopters. The big, bloody campaigns that so capture our imaginations will not start with forces miraculously placed to exchange volleys of drones or long-range precision-strike munitions. Posturing for these fights will, however, require utilizing influence technology, economic maneuver, and proxy employment to arrive at a position of advantage before—or as—missiles leave their rails. US defense leaders have known, for some time, that their strategic assumptions about the United States’ global position and the rules that determine how effectively it can exercise power are outdated. The Army’s modernization effort, by abandoning human endeavors, is just kicking that problematic can down the road.
Maj. Chris Telley serves as an Army information operations officer for Special Operations Command-South. His past writing covers technology integration for competitive influence and multi-domain operations, as well as Latin American affairs. He tweets at @chris_telley.
The views expressed are those of the author 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, DoD