The Future Soldier: Alone in a Crowd


In the November 1956 Army magazine Lt. Col Robert Rigg portrayed a soldier of the “Futurarmy” of the 1970s. This soldier would swarm with his comrades to the battlefield in atomic aircraft, see the enemy clearly at night and in all weather conditions, wear light plastic bulletproof armor (with special pockets to store cigarettes), be informed by thousands of deployed sensors, and have supplies transported by a fleet of robots. He was obviously way off the mark for the time frame he targeted, but much of what he envisioned can still be found in predictions of future soldier capabilities.

I recently had the opportunity to attend another event in the Army’s Unified Quest series — the Army’s wargaming and experimentation program. This one focused on the human performance requirements for the soldier of the future. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley instructed the attendees to look at a high-intensity conflict against a peer adversary in an urban environment in the period from 2035-2050. The assembled group of experts included military officers, civilian academics, medical experts, ethicists, researchers, and even an itinerant historian. I was very impressed with their wide range of expertise and the dedication they exhibited trying to determine the required attributes for future warfare.

The organizers of the gathering, the Army Capabilities Integration Center’s (ARCIC) Human Dimension Division, allowed me to muse about the implications of past experience in what is characterized as a new “multi-domain battlefield.” Peer opponents will be able to periodically deny access to the various domains — land, sea, air, cyber, space — and we will have to synchronize efforts to exploit windows of opportunity in each one. As revealed in charts published by the Dupuy Institute, as warfare has become more lethal, soldiers have become more and more dispersed. Whereas about 5,000 occupied a square kilometer during the Napoleonic Wars, only 25 did during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. With increased lethality comes more danger and fear, while dispersion lessens a force’s ability to manage that stress. As I thought about these challenges, two classic books immediately came to my mind with much to reveal about the continuities of combat even on a future battlefield.

The first book is The Anatomy of Courage by Winston Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran. In this book, he studies trench warfare in World War I and Bomber Command in World War II to analyze the “Soldier’s Struggle Against Fear.” Every soldier has a certain unique supply of courage. While it is possible for soldiers to replenish their supply of courage away from the battle, once it is used up they crack. Lord Moran wrote:

How is courage spent in war? Courage is will-power, whereof no man has an unlimited stock; and when in war it is used up, he is finished. A man’s courage is his capital and he is always spending. The call on the bank may be only the daily drain of the front line or it may be a sudden draft which threatens to close the account. His will is perhaps almost destroyed by intensive shelling, by heavy bombing, or by a bloody battle, or it is gradually used up by monotony, by exposure, by the loss of the support of stauncher spirits on whom he has come to depend, by physical exhaustion, by a wrong attitude to danger, to casualties, to war, to death itself.

And how is fear best managed in the stress of combat? That is best covered in another classic, S.L.A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War. He controversially found that American soldiers in World War II rarely fired their weapons when isolated on the dispersed battlefield. His findings have been questioned,  but I have found his key ideas to be in sync with the observations of commanders like George Patton and Lucian Truscott. For Marshall, the most important factor in managing fear on the battlefield was human contact.

On the field of fire it is the touch of human nature which gives men courage and enables them to make proper use of their weapons. One file, patting another on the back, may turn a mouse into a lion; an unexpected GI can of chocolate, brought forward in a decisive moment, may rally a stricken battalion. By the same token, it is the loss of this touch which freezes men and impairs all action. Deprive it of this vitalizing spark and no man would go forward against the enemy.

I hold it to be one of the simplest truths of war that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with his weapons is the near presence or the presumed presence of a comrade. The warmth which derives from human companionship is as essential to his employment of the arms with which he fights as is the finger with which he pulls a trigger or the eye with which he aligns his sights. The other man may be almost beyond hailing or seeing distance, but he must be there somewhere within a man’s consciousness or the onset of demoralization is almost immediate.

How will such contact be maintained on an extremely lethal future battlefield that will require even more dispersion for safety? Some argue that future soldiers will come from a generation accustom to virtual connections and those links will suffice to maintain cohesion and control fear. But a capable enemy like Russia or China will be able to sever those connections, at least for a time, or degrade them. Even worse, in my view, is that such an enemy will be able to “spoof” those links with false information, seeding distrust of the data or orders being received. That will have an even more serious impact on operations than severing the connections altogether. Trust is even harder to replenish than courage. I often lament the fact that we were so quick to set up separate cyber commands severed from electronic warfare organizations. The two have much in common, especially with their focus on gathering, denying, and spoofing information.

Attendees at the seminar had to wrestle with these information realities as well as others. The future force will be smaller, more expensive, and highly technical. With more intellectual challenges and a possibly smaller pool of qualified applicants, recruiting and development programs will have to be individually tailored and talent will have to be  carefully managed throughout careers. With the loss of redundancy that comes with fewer numbers, individual and organizational resilience becomes even more important.

Where does that leave our future soldier? He or she will have to be able to fight connected and disconnected. While an urban battlefield might contain few soldiers, it could include thousands of civilians, with the ethical and operational challenges that result. While a basic health standard is and will be required for all soldiers, physical fitness requirements could vary by specialty. Cognitive demands will be high, not only to gather vast information but also to judge its worth. Developing useful baselines and metrics for physical, cognitive, and social soldier attributes will be major challenges. Units might need master trainers not only to handle individual physical fitness programs but also to foster resilience with the ability to resist, rebound, and recover from extreme stress. Soldiers could be wired to transmit constant biometric data to monitor their stress levels and conditioning at all times.

These individually based programs could clash with military traditions designed to foster unit cohesion, which will be required even on a high-tech battlefield. Who sets the physical standards for each soldier — the unit or a Center of Excellence? What if everyone is not required to be able to run three miles in the morning together or do a certain number of pullups? What if one soldier requires two weeks to recover from an operation but another requires four? Can unit training schedules be individualized and the Army truly be able to train to standard and not to time?

There are also some complex legal and ethical issues to be resolved. Is individual biometric data protected personal medical information? Who gets to monitor it — the soldiers, their squad leader, or some centralized data center? Will individuals get overloaded with too much information about themselves or overreact to it? There were, at this seminar, discussions on the use of analysis of DNA and RNA to determine soldier capabilities and environmental tolerance. Will that sort of genetic determination be allowed in 2035?

One overriding assumption that was apparent to me throughout the exercise was that  even the Army of the future will still rely on competent and cohesive teams. Despite visions of super empowered individuals with exoskeletons and all kinds of enhanced capabilities, and a battlefield even more dispersed and “empty” than in the past, the training and bonding of teams will still be the key factor to create, command, and control victorious soldiers who can function in any battlespace.

Rigg foresaw a “land blitzkrieg by a three dimensional field army” using all sorts of futuristic technology, but even he acknowledged that the most important field of endeavor that required our superiority was “in the scientific projection and perfection of man – the real target in conflict, and the ultimate instrument of war.”


Dr. Conrad Crane is Chief of Historical Services for the US Army Heritage and Education Center at the US Army War College. His latest book is Cassandra in Oz: Counterinsurgency and Future War, published by Naval Institute Press.