What the Army needs to do to Win


In their recent testimony before Congress, both Gen. James Dunford, likely the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Mark Milley, nominee for chief of staff of the Army, identified Russia as the greatest military threat to the United States and its allies. The reemergence of Russia as a credible military threat is cause for the U.S. military to reevaluate and refocus its operating concepts — which in turn influence doctrine, equipment, and ultimately plans.

The Army Operating Concept is the service’s self-developed vision of how the Army plans to fight and win its future wars. The latest version, “Win in a Complex World,” was released in October 2014 and has been praised within the Army because it is widely understood as an adept refocus of the Army on its core mission: fighting and winning wars, while continuing to provide the president options for other possible contingencies. However, this praise comes as the Army has lost much of the premiere combat effectiveness and much of its technological overmatch against Russia and China. The Army’s combined arms proficiency, the ability to synchronize all facets of tactical combat power into an unstoppable wave, atrophied during more than a decade’s worth of concentrated focus on ongoing counterinsurgency operations in southwest Asia. This degradation can be seen in the poor performance ratings of maneuver brigades at combat training centers since the reintroduction of “decisive operations” — which the Army defines as those that directly accomplish a specified mission (as opposed to “shaping” and “sustaining” operations) — into training environments in recent years.

While the latest Army Operating Concept attempts to account for these shortfalls, it fails to focus the Army’s efforts into a unified and coherent approach. Essentially, the concept requires that the Army be all things, in all missions, under all conditions, at all times, in all places, and with limited resources. The result is that the Army’s efforts are disjointed and uncoordinated, and will not allow it to reestablish operational parity against its most dangerous likely opponent — Russia in Europe — for the next 20 years, at least. The Army should rewrite this important document and focus it on the Russian threat in order to achieve not just parity but supremacy as soon as possible.

What the Army requires in its operating concept to adequately plan for success in the future is to define and instill the appropriate intangibles, in terms of qualities of effectiveness; plan and resource the right tangibles, in terms of systems and structure; develop and institutionalize, in doctrine, rational fundamental tenets; and provide a fundamental substrate upon which to build the force in terms of a quantifiable threat.

The Army Operating Concept defines the problem it seeks to solve this way: “How does the Army conduct joint operations promptly, in sufficient scale, and for ample duration to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win wars?” As a result, the operating concept places equal importance on preparing the future force for all potential operations, enemies, factors, and environments without the benefit of leveraging all national resources in a rational, proportional, and systematic way. Several explicit and implicit assumptions further contribute to diverting focus, such as a continued reliance on an exclusively “professional all-volunteer force,” and “adjusting to budgetary fiscal restraints.” Perhaps most detrimental is the lack of distinction between existential threats and threats to our national interest — either in terms of actors or factors in the operational environment.

Operation Desert Storm, in 1991, demonstrated how effective the Army, prepared under a sound operating concept, can be. Under the AirLand Battle concept — developed as the mechanism by which ground forces and airpower would be coordinated for victory on the potential battlefields of Cold War-era Europe — this operation brought together all of the right elements for victory. The Army, together with the other services, had the right intangibles embodied in leadership, courage, endurance, and will. It had the right tangible systems with the Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, M1 Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle, Patriot air and missile defense system, and the Multiple Launch Rocket System. The Army trained and planned based on the four tenets of AirLand Battle: initiative, depth, agility, and synchronization. The glue that bound these elements together was the enemy for which it prepared: the combined armies of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. In short, the Army was equipped, trained, and motivated to successfully defeat its most challenging operation against its most dangerous adversary, and, therefore, well pre-disposed to successfully accomplish any other mission for which it may be tasked.

In reality, the key distinction between AirLand Battle and the new Army Operating Concept is a focus on internal limitations in the latter, and a focus on an external adversary in the former. The Army Operating Concept should concentrate on its most challenging military operation against its most capable and dangerous adversary, and accordingly array the right tangible systems and leverage the appropriate intangibles — founded on enduring tenets. The National Military Strategy, and recent events in international relations, leave little doubt about the most dangerous potential adversary and most challenging military operation: Russia. Belligerence by Russia against the sovereignty of its neighbors indicates a continuing need for military defense against Russian aggression toward a NATO member.

The right tangibles are current and future systems that provide our forces a technological advantage over our most capable adversary in order to successfully accomplish its most challenging mission. The intangible qualities that create effective combat units are well known to us and inherent in the American population, with one exception: will. Will is often tied to public opinion. The Army has tried to compensate for a potential lack of will by tying its effectiveness to an all-volunteer professional force. The problem with that approach is it restrains the Army’s ability to plan for rapid force generation and scalability while preserving the nation’s wealth. A large professional Army is costly and unsustainable — thus, the current focus on internal resource challenges rather than external adversaries.

One appropriate model to illustrate the benefit of focusing externally is Prussia prior to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. During this period Prussia had to balance restrictive resources, multiple operations, shifts in the operational environment, and multiple potential threats. Prussia focused on France, which had well-established military doctrine, a relatively large professional army, vastly superior firearms, and support from the population. Despite this, the Prussian army decisively defeated the French army in the latter’s own countryside. The Prussian advantage was in newly established tenets that were linked to new weapons systems, all of which were founded on intangible qualities. The Prussian tenets are familiar: initiative was embodied in “auftragstaktik” (mission command); depth was embodied in a new approach to massed artillery, organized at division level to provide flexibility and mass to exploit breaches, disrupt supply lines, and soften defense in depth; synchronicity was embodied in meticulous mobilization, movement, and envelopment planning; and agility was embodied in reorganization and repurposing the cavalry for scouting and reconnoitering, as well as the dispersal of infantry into company size formations. The Prussian intangibles were also similar: nationalism, courage, sacrifice, and leadership. The result was a resource-constrained army, with competing operational requirements, able to defeat a very dangerous adversary.

The Army Operating Concept refocuses the Army on preparing for, deterring, and defeating dangerous adversaries in the future global operating environment, but it misses the mark by inadvertently focusing inwardly on our challenges rather than outwardly. The concept should identify what the most challenging future operation will be and against what potential adversary. This will enable the Army to leverage intangible qualities of effectiveness, together with our key tenets, in order to maintain and acquire the right tangibles, in terms of equipment and people, to prepare for the worst while being responsible stewards of national resources.


Michael Jacobson is a Department of the Army Civilian field artillery capability analyst and Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. Mike received his Master of Arts in International Relations from Old Dominion University. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army