What the Army needs to do to Win

July 30, 2015

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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

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10 thoughts on “What the Army needs to do to Win

  1. Simply put: the Army has no focus because the nation has no focus. The political establishment will not label China a rival nor Russia a threat because these things are politically unpalatable, and as a result the Army cannot train to counter any challenges they might pose. Conversely, the political establishment HAS deigned the Army must focus on slaying the evanescent demons of gender disparity, veterans healthcare, and, largest of them all, budget warfighting. The political establishment tells the Army they MUST focus on these and these alone, so the fact that the document is based on internal issues rather than external threats is no surprise at all.

  2. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that a document entitled “Win in a Complex World” takes a rather complex view of what types of operations might fall into the Army’s “core mission [of] fighting and winning wars.” Moreover, the sentiment that the Army needs to “refocus” on fighting and winning wars is a problematic symptom of what Robert Gates called “future war-itis” – the propensity of the Pentagon and Big Army to view the current conflicts as “other contingencies” somehow less than war.

    The subtext of such claims is what Tom Barnett has referred to as the Pentagon “buying one military and operating another.” Top brass want to train and equip for a “decisive action” in the Fulda Gap, but end up getting dragged into messy sideshows like Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The outcomes of all those conflicts should raise questions about the readiness of an Army trained and equipped to fight its “most dangerous adversary” to “successfully accomplish any other mission for which it may be tasked.”

    Referring to the success of AirLand Battle in the Gulf War is telling – not as evidence of the strength or applicability of that doctrine, but rather of nostalgia for it in the era of AirSea Battle. Just as AirLand battle put the Navy on the defensive in justifying its utility (and funding) in the 1990s while the Army liberated Kuwait, the AirSea Battle concept (justifiably) leaves the Army concerned that it will in fact be stuck with unpredictable, indecisive, emergent “contingencies” other than war.

    Is Russia dangerous? Absolutely. But look no further than “Time to Think About ‘Hybrid Defense'” for evidence that the biggest danger the Russian military poses right now is not “decisive action” (which it will likely seek to avoid in any case). The Army, together with the rest of the political-military establishment, should focus much more on distinguishing and prioritizing between threats and developing the strategic concepts and structures to counter them. But going back to the good old days of preparing to decisively defeat the Soviets is not the answer.

  3. Several thoughts.

    First: The idea that our recent conflicts are mere “contingencies”, and not actual wars in their own right, is a dangerous fallacy that too many in the Army have swallowed hook, line, and sinker. The DoD, and particularly the Army and the Air Force, have been trying for years to portray the Gulf War as the model for future campaigns, and Afghanistan and Iraq as blips on the radar, when precisely the opposite is true. As such, the fact that such a concept “has been praised within the Army” should be considered worrisome, rather than encouraging.

    Second: The idea that Russia is the U.S. Army’s “most dangerous likely opponent” is a misnomer leading to dangerous fallacy. A detailed study of Russia’s operations in South Ossetia and Ukraine reveal that the Russian military is not the powerful bear that ruthlessly annexed Eastern Europe in the 1950’s and 1960’s, or even Chechnya in the 1990’s. It is fairly safe to presume that Generals Dunford and Milley were referring to the threat posed by Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, the economic leverage they enjoy through their role as the supplier of much of Europe’s energy, and the diplomatic role they play in such bodies as the U.N. Security Council. Russia’s threat to American interest stems from this broader range of strategic instruments, rather than some imaginary threat of a so-called “decisive action” in the Fulda Gap.

    Third: Perpetual glorification of Desert Storm’s operational success ignores its less decisive long-term strategic challenges, as well as the fact that the Gulf War was a limited campaign to achieve limited goals against an opposing force which was both quantitatively and qualitatively inferior. The ’91 coalition’s win against the ’91 Iraqi army, fatigued as it was after a nine year stalemate against Iran, is akin to the varsity football team rounding up all of the freshmen in the marching band and beating them up. It’s 2015, and that ’91 varsity team keeps trying to relive its glory days by looking for more marching bands to pummel; meanwhile, rival street gangs are fighting a turf war outside the stadium. This nearly three decade long fantasy that the U.S. Army is going to sweep the championship game against the Red Army at Fulda Gap High and then take the cheerleading squad to prom has long since outlived its viability.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, particularly with your second point. While we certainly have to be prepared to take on the Russian military in a full scale conventional conflict, I believe you correctly point out that the greater threat from Russia comes in the form of the areas you identified.

      Additionally, I concur with your first point that we cannot simply write off our recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as anomalies to be ignored in favor of a focus on a large scale Cold War era conflict. The old adage of generals always trying to fight the last war comes to mind. We must adapt and prepare for different kinds of military threats and challenges rather than preparing only for the war that we WANT to fight. That is of course easier said than done, particularly in light of the internal challenges noted by the author.

      That brings me to a part of the article that I found to be curious. The author mentions that “adjusting to budgetary fiscal restraints” and relying on “an exclusively ‘professional all-volunteer force'” divert focus, presumably from his primary concern of a large scale conventional conflict. However, I would point out that these are simply the realities our military must plan around. While it would be nice for the onerous financial constraints placed on our armed forces not to exist, the fact is that they do and that we must make the best of the situation. Not to mention the fact that we have had the professional all-volunteer force model since my father was guarding the Hof Corridor and preparing for “decisive action” with the Soviets in the 1980s. It makes me wonder why he considers that a diversion as it is not as though it is a new focus for the Army or other branches.

      Finally, I would also take issue with the author next sentence referring to the AOC’s “lack of distinction between existential threats and threats to our national interest.” While I agree that for the purposes of planning and prioritization it is certainly important to make a distinction between threats to our friends and interests and those that are directly aimed at us, I have somewhat of a problem with this statement. First, because of the fact that even “existential threats” can be too broad of a category for what he’s talking about, as I believe both ISIS and Al-Qaeda could fall under this umbrella despite the fact that they don’t possess the capability to actually destroy the United States in the way that Russia does in the form of its nuclear arsenal. Second, the author seems to be suggesting that Russia’s conventional forces are THE “existential threat” that the Army should be planning for, where I would argue that it falls into the “national interest” category as the threat is to our allies and interests in Eastern Europe rather than to the continued existence of the United States. So while I feel that the author gets at an important point here, it seems out of sync with his primary argument.

  4. I really appreciate the serious and thoughtful responses you all have provided to the article. There’s really nothing in the responses that I strongly disagree with. I think there might be a misunderstanding that I’m arguing for reintroduction of Airland Battle and consideration of Russia as the reemergence of the Soviet Union. I’m not. Russia is very different today than what it was during the Cold War, and in many ways presents a much more complex problem to the west. Instead, my argument is that the addition of a “most dangerous” threat to the AOC may help bring focus and unity of effort in development of Force2025. Thanks again for the exceptionally thoughtful feedback.

  5. [Hi, my name is W. Fleetwood and I wrote a nasty comment that was a clear violation of WOTR’s “don’t be a jerk” rule. I promise to do better next time so the moderators won’t have to bother with me]

    1. Hi, my name is W. Fleetwood, I have been a commissioned officer in the US Army Infantry. I am a combat wounded veteran. I carry scars on my body acquired in service of this country. Since no criticism, however mild, is allowed at this site let me speak in praise of this article.

      I read it in its entirety. In it LTC Jacobson makes some cogent points. He writes using that opaque academic style of discourse that is guaranteed to prevent any of the unwashed, hoi polloi, citizen types from proceeding past the first half of the first paragraph. This acts as a fine filter, keeping the very real questions he raised from being understood and debated by said unwashed citizens. The beauty of this is that it leaves decisions in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, where we all know, they should be.

      1. Thanks W. Fleetwood. I appreciate your service (truly do), but it is irrelevant to the fact that you were needlessly insulting in your last comment. Criticism and insults are different things. Criticism is allowed, and – in fact – the way you just phrased it is perfectly fine with me. Thank you.

        1. Hello Mr. Evens. If you wish to think I’m a jerk, drive on. If, as a moderator, you want to remove my comment, well, your baseball, your rules. What is not required is to assume another persons identity and speak in their name words they did not say. It really isn’t.

  6. When are people finally going to stop pretending that there aren’t two different forms of conflict that out military must prepare for? You simply can not successfully use the same training and equipment in an insurgency that you need to win a conventional (massive military) war. And we must have both to win. Both types of conflict happen, and both are important, but they are very different.

    We need to split the force into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ elements. If only there were some structure that would allow us to have separate units with separate missions, equipment, and training. We could call it a body, or possibly a Corps, if only such an animal existed…

    Of course, to do so would be to admit the existence of reality. Something which the officer corps is generally loathe to do.