Nearly four months into Russia’s escalated war in Ukraine, an astounding number of Russian generals have reportedly been killed in Ukraine. Western officials have confirmed at least seven of these deaths, while Ukraine claims to have killed twelve general officers—either of these figures would represent a historically high number. There is no singular explanation for why so many Russian generals have been killed in combat, with poor tactics and poor electronics and communications discipline each serving as contributing factors. But the larger reason likely lies in the Russian military’s overly centralized decision-making processes and lack of strong junior leaders—especially noncommissioned officers—in tactical formations. Because Russian generals do not delegate decisions to lower levels, they are often physically located with lower echelons and therefore vulnerable to enemy targeting. Viewed another way, the lack of trust between senior officers and subordinates created a culture of micromanagement, resulting in both operational failures and the death of senior Russian officers.
Battlefield leadership has traditionally been a strength for democratic militaries compared to more authoritarian ones. A subfield of security studies literature has examined this topic in depth, arguing that democratic militaries often display better wartime innovation and allow their junior leaders to exercise more initiative, contributing to battlefield success. The US Army in particular prides itself on strong leadership, with senior Army officials often describing the Army as a “people first” organization that employs the philosophy of “mission command.” Indeed, the US Army has a professional NCO corps unmatched in its capabilities and, compared to other militaries, the Army empowers its junior officers and takes their development seriously. Based on these principles and the scholarship on democratic military advantages, it would seem as if there were no cause for concern when it comes Army leadership.
But as previous articles in this series have pointed out, US Army commanders have struggled to fully implement mission command. Army leaders exacerbated some of their worst tendencies during the post-9/11 wars, including centralizing decision-making echelons above where it should have been and using unsecured communications, often on personal cell phones. Russia’s recent experience in Ukraine shows just how catastrophic these tendencies can be. Although the US Army’s leadership allows for far more delegation and subordinate initiative than the Russian military, Army leaders are not fully prepared for war against a state with advanced technological capabilities. As the 2018 National Defense Strategy bluntly states, “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” Army leadership will not automatically be effective in a future war just because it has been effective in the past and because the Army says it places people first.
For Army leaders to succeed in future wars, they must adapt the character of their leadership to the changing character of warfare and to the new generations of soldiers populating the Army’s ranks. While not nearly an exhaustive list, the following recommendations are immediate steps the Army can take to better prepare its leaders for the future.
The first thing the Army should do to better prepare leaders for future war is redefine leadership by directly linking it to context. While the core of the doctrinal definition of leadership can remain, it should be modified to “leadership is the application of contextually appropriate tools to influence people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” ADP 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession, should be updated to distinguish the evergreen qualities associated with the nature of leadership from leadership practices and styles that are contextually specific and sensitive to the changing character of warfare. While the leadership requirements for successfully running a rifle range in 2040 will be the same as they are in 2022, the managerial practice used in garrison will not be effective on a dynamic, complex, and multidomain battlefield. Future generations of leaders will need to develop the skills to change their leadership style to fit the proper context, understanding that some situations may be more suited to their individual and generational preferences whereas other contexts may require approaches that come less naturally.
What is currently a single chapter of ADP 6-22, “Leadership in Practice,” should become the core of the entire doctrine. One way to do this would be to separate leadership into the categories of simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic contexts rather than parse leadership into three levels—direct, organizational, and strategic—as the doctrine currently does. In addition to a new definition and framing of leadership, the doctrine should consider changing or adding to the attributes and competencies for leaders, as described in the third article in this series. These attributes should be clearly tied to different contexts. Ideally, leaders would demonstrate high degrees of all attributes and competencies, but that is neither realistic nor practical. By tying these traits directly to context, various attributes and competencies could therefore be prioritized accordingly in different types of military education and training.
More significant changes to better prepare Army leaders for future war include new approaches to professional military education (PME) and training. PME does not currently include enough focus on the changes in warfare, instead relying primarily on examinations of the same few historical wars and battles that do not always project into future wars. While the study of history is necessary to provide context for and understanding of the current and future character of war, it is insufficient for providing the tools leaders need to thrive on the complex battlefields of the future. All PME needs to include more focus on how electronic warfare, cyber, disinformation, space, and several other technological developments are shaping future battlefields.
This focus must begin at the start of an officer’s career, during their precommissioning education program like West Point and ROTC. A well-rounded education is important for intellectual development by exposing young people to a broad range of ideas, but all graduates of West Point will be leaders in the US military expected to fight America’s wars and lead America’s sons and daughters. These responsibilities mean every opportunity to prepare for future war must be taken, especially when it can be done in conjunction with cadets’ degree-earning coursework. Curriculums currently fall short of educating future officers about the challenges of future warfare. For example, at West Point, many mandatory general education courses such as computer coding, philosophy, and psychology could be used to create an awareness of the trends that will influence the future character of warfare and what young officers will be asked to do. However, these courses are seldom thematically tied to military leadership applications of their respective disciplines. Rather than requiring cadets to learn how to code or build technological systems purely for the sake of learning, detached from practical military application, technical courses should devote time to the effects these systems could have on Army formations and how to properly employ these capabilities. Humanities courses should provide an opportunity to instruct cadets on information literacy, the weaponization of social media, and the role it will play in future war, but these lessons are largely absent from the current curriculum. The newly developed Defense and Strategic Studies course on Leadership in Future War, which affords cadets a guided opportunity to learn about and reflect on their future leadership environment, is a promising first step, but because it is not a required course, too few cadets are exposed to its ideas.
As a service academy, the West Point case is distinct in many regards, but the tendency to divorce education from trends in contemporary and future warfare exists throughout PME. Education on electronic warfare, cyber, space, and disinformation are each lacking in most PME courses. More importantly, there are not unifying lessons or exercises to help students understand how these fit into and change the character of combined arms warfare. Even if many of these capabilities exist at higher echelons than those where junior officers will lead, all military leaders need to understand the effects adversaries can bring to bear against their formations. Furthermore, mid-grade officers will likely find themselves working on staffs that have a role in synchronizing and employing these capabilities. It is therefore essential that each branch’s Captains Career Course, the Army’s Intermediate Level Education, and the Army War College all place more direct emphasis on the capabilities officers need to understand and on the skills they need to succeed on increasingly complex battlefields.
Along with PME, training must also do a better job incorporating the full range of capabilities that can be requested and employed by tactical leaders as well as accounting for all the effects adversaries can employ against Army formations. Without routine practice on how to request and use electronic warfare, space, cyber, and information capabilities, and how to protect against these effects from the adversary, Army forces will never be able to synchronize their capabilities, especially in situations with degraded communications.
The purpose of training is to give soldiers practice and repetition to master the skills they will need in combat. However, rather than training models based on repetition, units need to train to failure, intentionally changing scenarios and forcing participants to be adaptive rather than repetitive. Training must be agile, be adaptive, and require resiliency, just like the future battlefield. With limited time in a training calendar, some may argue that individuals and units first need to master basic skills before focusing on adaptation. This is undoubtedly true, but what comprises “basic skills” should be reexamined. Decreasing a unit’s electromagnetic signature, spoofing a unit’s location through physical and electronic decoys, and properly employing drone swarms may be just as important as tank live fires or infantry battle drills in the future. Moreover, if soldiers do not train their ability to adapt, improvise, and look outside established courses of action in a controlled training environment, it is wishful thinking to believe that this ability will appear in combat. This skill will not materialize the instant it is required; Army training must take deliberate steps to cultivate it.
One final way the Army can build leaders for future war is by continuing to improve its personnel policies to attract and retain the type of innovative leaders required in future warfare. Future wars will place a premium on adaptability and innovation over repetition and tradition. Leaders who eschew convention and buck the trend while acting ethically and legally should be rewarded rather than punished. The Army should consider changing the evaluation and promotion system to require diversity among various paths and experiences for upward mobility to reverse the trend of officers selecting those most like them for promotion to higher ranks. As the third article in the series discussed, success in future wars will require an officer corps with a diverse set of skills rather than rigid leadership molds. Evaluations could get rid of block checking entirely and promotion boards could include joint and civilian members, which would provide more diverse experiences and a broader pool that would allow those under consideration to be reviewed more thoroughly. Single-page officer and enlisted record briefs could be eliminated altogether or adapted to account for different skills and experiences not currently captured. The Army is taking some promising steps with things like the Assignment Interactive Module and the Battalion Command Assessment Program. All personnel policies moving forward should mirror the spirit of these programs to retain the most diverse, well-rounded, and innovative leaders possible rather than ones who fit the traditional command mold.
Future Leadership for Future Wars
Just as important as recommending changes for the Army to better prepare leaders for future war is providing members of the Army profession with a framework to continually assess how leadership should adapt as warfare changes. This series of articles is an attempt to provide such a tool through the paradoxical trinity of leadership composed of context, leaders, and followers. For leaders to maximize their performance, they need to understand when and how the character of leadership should adjust to the changing character of war. As warfare becomes more complex and new generations of soldiers populate the Army’s ranks, leaders need to prioritize trust, communication, and team building over individually oriented traits that have traditionally dominated the Army’s approach to leadership.
Leadership practices in the US Army developed over two and a half centuries by optimizing for the principal problem facing tactical commanders: controlling their land forces on confined, two- to three-dimensional battlefields. The resulting managerial styles of command were not due to egotistical tendencies of individual leaders, but because the hierarchical, command-centric style best allowed Army officers to manage their forces during battles. But as battlefields geographically expand due to the tremendous range and lethality of weapons systems, and domains like space and cyber increasingly influence ground combat, war is becoming more complex. This change in the context of war, along with generational changes in the people who populate the Army’s ranks, require a commensurate change in the Army’s approach to leadership. The Army’s future leaders must be more innovative, adaptive, and agile than ever before, and they must be at least as adept at building strong and trusting teams as they are at preparing themselves as individuals. Effective leadership has historically been one of the greatest strengths of the US Army, a critical advantage held over its battlefield rivals. But without adapting leadership practices to changes in the character of war and new generations of soldiers, Army leadership may become an Achilles’ heel in future war.
Cole Livieratos is an Army strategist currently assigned to the Directorate of Concepts at Army Futures Command. He holds a PhD in international relations, is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute, and is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @LiveCole1.
Tyler Skidmore is an Army engineer officer and 2021 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He holds a BS in systems and decision sciences with a minor in Eurasian area studies, and he is completing an MS in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University as a GEM Fellow.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Army Futures Command, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.