Over the last 15 years of war, the Pentagon has prided itself on finding new ways to protect its men and women deployed in harm’s way — from new vehicles designed to shield troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan to improved helmets and individual body armor. Yet perversely, this success has occurred at the same time that U.S. ground forces have lost much of their ability to protect themselves against far more lethal battlefield threats. This has made them more vulnerable in the future.
Today, nearly every mid-grade leader in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps has significant experience battling insurgents and conducting combat operations in complex and demanding irregular warfare environments. Yet, virtually none of those leaders have been under massive, sustained artillery, mortar, or rocket fire. None have been attacked with precision strikes from guided missiles or bombs. No Army or Marine unit was struck with chemical weapons during the recent wars, or faced fallout from a nuclear blast. Few have dealt with jamming or serious disruption of tactical communications networks, and none have faced air attacks from enemy fighters, cruise missiles, or drones. Protecting the force against these deadly threats has rightfully not been a priority when the main threats to U.S. forces have come from roadside bombs, small arms fire, and suicide attackers. But that priority must now change — and change quickly.
While the U.S. military was absorbed by the limited unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, great power politics returned to the global scene and advanced military capabilities continued to proliferate. Whereas access to precision weapons and firepower, a monopoly on computer network attack, and unchallenged air supremacy have been nearly birthrights for U.S. forces since at least 2001, those domains are becoming far more contested, and will not be guaranteed in the future. Enemy aircraft operating under an advanced air defense umbrella may be able to strike U.S. troops with precision standoff weapons. Cruise missiles fired from distant warships or aircraft may be employed against friendly troop concentrations, command and control, and logistics nodes — as Russia did against targets in Syria in late 2015. The rapid advent of low cost and miniature commercial drones (which are now available to non-state actors as well as state adversaries) presents a dangerous and growing threat to U.S. ground forces. The threat of use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons is growing — as Pakistan’s development of battlefield nuclear weapons and Syria’s use of chemical munitions have shown. And the risks of proliferation of all these capabilities is on the rise, particularly throughout the greater Middle East.
The U.S. military needs to address this combination of new and resurgent risks to the force in two ways: by reinvigorating basic soldier skills and by rapidly developing new protective technologies. Strong commitments to both will be required to overcome these increasingly dangerous threats to the force.
First, U.S. ground forces must refocus on mastering the individual and small unit survival skills that were an inherent part of ground warfare before the 9/11 attacks. When one of your columnists was a lieutenant in the Cold War military, he practiced all of his infantry tasks wearing his chemical protective mask and charcoal-filled protective suit, and carried both as part of his standard kit. His platoons dug foxholes with overhead cover to shield against enemy artillery attacks, and practiced using small arms for air defense. His soldiers were proficient in camouflage, noise and light discipline at night, operating under radio jamming, and offsetting radio antennae away from command posts to avoid being targeted by electronic emissions. His infantry company regularly trained in washing down chemically contaminated vehicles, detecting radiation and chemical agents, and continuing the mission in those deadly environments. These basic soldier and survivor skills used to be commonplace, yet all but disappeared during the recent wars. They must be resurrected and burnished for today’s changed world.
Second, the U.S. military must move more rapidly to secure better protection capabilities. Future adversaries will increasingly have access to a wide range of technology, from weaponized micro-drones with full motion video to long-range guided rockets that can mass fires on U.S. troop concentrations. The inability of the U.S. military to effectively defend itself against these lethal attacks — so very different from recent threats of roadside bombs and attackers with suicide vests — is a major vulnerability.
Develop a Mobile Protective Umbrella. U.S. troops are deeply vulnerable to incoming artillery, rocket, and missile attacks, which are currently the deadliest conventional threats facing U.S. forces. They need a mobile and reliable system that can detect these threats and then rapidly destroy them. The Israeli Defense Force has employed an early fixed site version of this called Iron Dome, which is designed primarily to counter small, unguided rockets launched against Israeli population centers (though a new sea-based version was just successfully tested). A different type of protective umbrella, called Counter-Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM), has been used by the U.S. Army in limited numbers to provide base defense in Iraq and Afghanistan. It uses a land version of the U.S. Navy’s Phalanx 20mm cannon to destroy incoming projectiles. The critical next step is making this type of capability small enough and sufficiently mobile to accompany all U.S. battle formations, to protect troops from the growing proliferation of deadly precision or massed rockets, and other indirect fires. Speeding the Army’s development of its new multi-mission launcher looks like a promising possible solution.
Invest in Counter-Drone Systems. The dangers of lethal swarming drones employed en masse against ground formations over the next decade are both real and unprecedented. According New America, 86 countries already have some sort of drone capability, and 19 of those either already have or are developing armed drones. In the future, drones will be utilized not only by highly capable state adversaries but also by less powerful states and non-state actors that will be able to buy large quantities easily and cheaply. And even unarmed drones can have very deadly effects, since they can operate as surveillance platforms that cue mass fires on collections of U.S. troops, logistics, or command posts. To counter this growing threat, the U.S. military needs to accelerate the development of various counter-drone technologies, such as “search and destroy” friendly drones, directed energy defense options, and electronic warfare (EW) countermeasures.
Deploy Active Protective Systems. U.S. armored vehicles and aircraft are highly vulnerable to advanced guided weapons that are now becoming commonplace on the battlefield. On the ground, Russia’s T-14 Armata tank, which was first displayed in 2015 and is reportedly already in production, can launch onboard rockets to deflect or destroy incoming anti-tank guided missiles or rocket-propelled grenades. No U.S. armored vehicle today features similar protection. In the air, both the Army and Marines will continue to depend on rotorcraft for vertical lift and assaults, logistics resupply, and close air support for troops in contact. These aircraft are immensely vulnerable to a wide range of air defense systems that are available to both advanced militaries and increasingly to non-state actors. The U.S. military needs to develop active protection systems for all of its air and ground combat platforms, which can detect incoming threats and automatically destroy them with either directed energy or kinetic responses.
U.S. battlefield dominance largely depends on the ability of U.S. forces to freely maneuver to avoid taking high casualties. Yet both are at risk in today’s fast-changing world. Revitalizing individual and unit survival training and rapidly accelerating active protection measures would help ensure that U.S. ground forces can continue to operate effectively on the battlefields of the future.
Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo, by Tech. Sgt. Eric Petosky