war on the rocks

The Biggest Hurdles to the Future Army We Need

June 16, 2016

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a complex wargame as part of the Army’s Unified Quest series that was focused on scenarios in 2030 and 2050. There was much innovative thought on display as the hundreds of participants wrestled with the potential impact of new technology on future battlefields. I was mostly involved with a pseudo-Pacific scenario, but there were teams looking at other geographic areas as well.  I was particularly struck by two different ideas: First, the U.S. Army’s historical role in cross-domain dominance will continue to be relevant even as new technologies make warfare more lethal and complicated. Second, for the Army to adapt to this future the toughest barriers to overcome will be legal, bureaucratic, and intellectual rather than technological.

In 1943, Gen. Hap Arnold’s Army Air Forces staff wrestled with a letter from a mother concerned about the morality of the bombing operations her son was executing in Europe. They came up with a reply describing the challenges of restraining warfare in the modern age, which included the statement that “Law cannot limit what physics makes possible.” Military doctrine cannot defy gravity either.  The importance of landpower in cross-domain dominance is ensured by physics, as well as by biology. What goes up, must come down. What leaves the land where people dwell must eventually return to it. It should not be surprising that among the Army’s many Wartime Executive Agency Requirements is the running of theater port facilities.

Historically, there are many ways that landpower has influenced the other domains.  Eventually, Alexander the Great realized that the best way to neutralize the superior Persian fleet was to simply capture all its ports. After months of brutal but futile bombing of hardened submarine pens in cities along the coast of Brittany, what finally ended the U-boat threat there in 1944 was the Third Army seizing those bases after breaking out of Normandy. Almost every major coastal American city boasts some old fortifications that remain from the intricate system of defenses once designed to deny access to enemy shipping.

Such denial also applies to air bases. In 1944, the Army Air Forces launched Operation Matterhorn, an ambitious plan to bomb Japan with B-29 Very Heavy Bombers from China. General Curtis LeMay labored to get his Twentieth Bomb Group moved from India to China, including flying supplies over the fearsome “Hump” across the Himalayas and building new airfields with rocks and peasant laborers.  Attacks started from Chinese air bases in the summer, but did not really start to become irksome for the Japanese until the fall. They then conducted Operation Ichi-go, a land campaign to eliminate the troublesome airfields, negating the threat and invalidating an immense logistical effort by early 1945.

Ground-based defenses can also restrict access to the air domain. In 1973, fully one quarter of the Israeli Air Force was downed by the Egyptian air defense belt early in the Yom Kippur War. However, when the overconfident Egyptians moved their major land forces deeper into the Sinai, the Israeli Army was able to get behind them and drive through and destroy the belts, freeing up their aircraft for normal operations.  There is no more efficient way to take out a radar set then to shoot a tank round through it.  There are also many examples of ground attacks to take out shore defenses in order to allow greater access to the seas.  Often the easiest way to destroy ground-based anti-access/area-denial systems has been to simply overrun them with land forces.

Landpower can also be used to expand the range and power of air forces. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s New Guinea campaign is a fine example of that. His concept of “triphibious warfare” involved progressive shore assaults along the coast of the island to seize ground to build airfields.  Those new bases would then provide the air support for the next advance.

Similar relationships will play out in new domains like space and cyber. The best locations for space based platforms are still determined by where people live on the ground.  There actually is key terrain in space, as everyone wants access to the geosynchronous orbits that oversee the most target audiences on land. From the experience of six months working with Cyber Command to help develop operational guidance, I learned that the surest way to deal with a computer hacker remains shooting a bullet through them and their computer.  I suspect that future operations to ensure access to the cyber domain will include familiar targeted raids to eliminate key enemies with the precise violence that only a soldier can deliver.

Yet with all the support for the Army’s continuing relevance that was evident during the wargame, and a willingness to contemplate some very extreme technological transformations (As T.X. Hammes says, there is a very fine line between a vision and an hallucination), I was struck by a reluctance to come to grips with some of the more mundane limitations on change and reform.

The first set of such restrictions is legal. I have been a proponent for some time of a complete restructuring of the industrial-age Army personnel system to better manage talent for the information age. Alterations would encourage more specialization and drastically change career patterns. A few months ago I had the chance to discuss my concerns with Gen. David Perkins, the erudite commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. While he was surprisingly supportive of many of my ideas, he pointed out that the Army’s flexibility is limited by the requirements of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) of 1980, as well as by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.  The “up or out” career pattern requirements of DOPMA along with the joint service provisions of Goldwater-Nichols severely limit opportunities for specialization and personalized talent management. Changing those laws will not be easy, especially since the Navy and Air Force are much more comfortable with the contemporary career structure and are less likely to go along with significant reform. However, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has already begun the process by asking Congress to amend DOPMA to allow more flexibility for non-traditional career paths.

During the wargame, I was troubled by the tendency of many operators to assume away logistic needs that will also impose force structure requirements. There is a legal aspect of that issue, as well. The Army remains the primary logistic enabler for a joint campaign. Its responsibilities for all services in a theater cover more than 30 different functions including all rations, oil and lubricants, overland petroleum and energy distribution, POWs and detainees, civil affairs, graves registration, and nuclear/biological/chemical protection and decontamination. Total Army Analysis exercises have shown that Wartime Executive Agency Requirements delineated in laws, DoD Directives, and operational plans can tie up as much as one-sixth of active Army force structure in a scenario involving two major conflicts. The Army’s joint logistic role is not likely to change. Someone at the wargame made the inane statement that we would just contract out all logistics in the future.  We will not find civilians willing to sign up for austere and violent environments that include a threat of the employment of WMD. And as Martin van Creveld points out in his superb book Command in War, as warfare becomes more complex with greater reliance on technology, logistics requirements increase even more.

Bureaucratic barriers are often linked to legal ones. Much of the recent push to alter Goldwater-Nichols legislation has come from a desire to create a more efficient military acquisition system. Civilian industry can innovate, develop, and deploy new systems much faster than the Department of Defense. When it was finally deployed in 2014, the core computer processors of the F-22 Raptor reflected 1990s technology that was 56 times slower than that of then current iPhone 6. Somehow we must develop processes that can adapt and acquire technology much quicker, as well as create a nimbler bureaucracy to oversee them.

But we also must learn and adapt much better intellectually. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley generated an impressive array of directives concerning service readiness, but he neglected to emphasize what I think is the most critical category, intellectual readiness.  In 1930, new Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur took over a War Department staff that had been demoralized by the bullying drive of his predecessor, Charles B. Summerall. MacArthur revitalized it. He encouraged debate and discussion, brought in some of his old staff from the Philippines, and recruited outstanding young talent like Major Dwight Eisenhower. MacArthur evaluated his main assets, which he considered to be the Army’s research staff and laboratories, a vibrant school system, a now able staff, and his own ideas. Though he would make many changes in the service during his five years in office, he thought the most important was “the spirit of change” that came over the Army, establishing the “central character” for the force that would win World War II.

In a time of tough military budgets, MacArthur found his greatest achievements in reshaping the Army to be more intellectual than physical. Much of his time was spent battling for dollars in a very tight fiscal environment. He had to make some very hard choices. He abandoned a separate tank arm in 1931 and sacrificed many benefits such as pay, which was reduced 10 percent in 1932, but he managed to fight off cuts to his officer corps. In the words of William Manchester, MacArthur preferred to spend his scarce money “on personnel rather than materiel, reasoning that equipment becomes obsolete but leadership does not.”   He revitalized both the Command and General Staff College and the War College by opening them up to more students and assigning top officers as faculty. He expanded ROTC programs. Despite the tight budgets, branches performed basic research to have options available for new systems and weapons when money would become available for full development later.  This preparation paid off when the nation finally mobilized for World War II and the leaders trained and educated in Army schools quickly adapted to modern warfare to include incorporating the new technology.

Likewise, the current Army needs to ensure that it maintains a strong educational and institutional base focused on creating a force that can learn, adapt, and anticipate. We are all familiar with Michael Howard’s line about predicting the requirements for future warfare, which holds that the main goal of military science is just not to be so wrong that doctrine cannot be corrected when the fighting actually starts. The recent Unified Quest exercise was a good example of an effort to anticipate what that future would be like, though everyone realized that much remained speculative and opaque. Along with the pursuit of the new technologies that were discussed, the Army needs to begin preparing the legal, bureaucratic, and intellectual foundations to be able to properly employ them, so the right adjustments can be made when the service is again called upon to win the nation’s war.


Conrad C. Crane is chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks and a former director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cassandra in Oz: Counterinsurgency and Future War (USNI).

Image: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Yvette Zabala-Garriga