It is 2024. During the Russian presidential election, Russian-nationalist proxies attack Latvian forces with surplus equipment from the conflict in Ukraine. NATO responds, preventing nuclear escalation and blocking larger Russian conventional involvement through a combination of military and diplomatic threats, while U.S. airborne forces deploy to reinforce a NATO battlegroup outside of Riga. Artillery units deploy swarms of munitions, cheap hunter-killer drones that act as armed scouts using machine-learning to find, fix, and finish targets. Soldiers with occupational specialties that did not exist just several years ago take the field — like maintainers who fabricate their own drone repair parts with 3D printers and data technicians who help optimize predictive algorithms, integrating intelligence data with open-source information. These technologies are available today, but the U.S. Army has trouble reaching them, owing to a broken modernization enterprise.
In May 2017, during testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army warned of “a fundamental change in the character of warfare” connected to trends identified by a study by the Strategic Studies Group in 2015. Among its conclusions were that our warfighting model might be dramatically challenged by a convergence of factors, including the proliferation of low-cost sensors, precision strike technology, robotics, and information technologies that radically change how people get, manage, and use information.
Adapting the Army for this environment requires a clear modernization strategy and futures command that focuses the institutional Army and cultivates a culture of experimentation. At present, Army leaders contemplating that future do not sit atop an efficient and responsive modernization enterprise. It is for this reason that then-Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced the formation of a modernization command in October.
To solve this problem, the Army is establishing a new command with control of and accountability for its end-to-end futures and modernization process. The Army is not simply realigning, reorganizing, or retooling its modernization enterprise. The Army’s aim is strategic: to transform its modernization enterprise into a source of competitive advantage that U.S. adversaries cannot replicate.
To succeed, the Army should do three things. First, the Army must establish unity of command by ensuring the command McCarthy announced has the right authorities to unify the modernization enterprise. Senior leaders need to be able to articulate their modernization strategy and have authorities to execute it. Second, along with creating a futures command, the Army should fundamentally change the structure, processes, and governance of its modernization enterprise. Third, the Army should develop concepts and capabilities together, as part of an iterative experimentation process. The goal is an Army that leads the world in cost-effective, innovative solutions to military problems, nimbly reallocates resources as conditions evolve over time, and turns resource inputs into capability outputs with speed and efficiency that adversaries cannot match.
In the 1990s, the U.S. Army assessed that it was producing mostly incremental improvements to traditional warfighting solutions. To set targets that would drive a leap-ahead, the Army created the Army After Next program, which examined how new technologies and other factors might produce threats and opportunities 15 or more years in the future. The most visible outcome of the project was massive investment in the Future Combat Systems program. Aimed at a future too distant to forecast and seeded with layers of technical risk, the program floundered until 2009 when, with too little to show for 18 billion dollars invested and facing very different defense priorities, the Department of Defense canceled the program.
While Future Combat Systems may have done the most damage to the credibility of Army modernization, it did not stand alone. The cancellations of programs like the Comanche and Crusader damaged confidence in the Army’s ability to field game-changing weapons. Consequently, since the 1980s, when the Army fielded the “Big Five” combat systems showcased during Desert Storm, upgrades to legacy systems have characterized Army modernization. Meanwhile, adversaries are closing the gap. Russia, for example, is fielding new ground combat systems comparable to and, in some aspects, superior to their American counterparts. Iran and North Korea continue to field ballistic missiles capable of holding U.S. allies hostage.
Step 1: Unify the Army’s Modernization Enterprise Under a New Futures Command
Today, the Army modernization enterprise’s critical interoperating components are dispersed across Training and Doctrine Command, Army Materiel Command, multiple separate units, parts of the Army Staff, and parts of the Army Secretariat. The secretary of the Army is the first place those chains of command intersect. Thus, the process of identifying military problems, developing solutions, and delivering them is inhibited by organizational structure: veto players are many, coordination costs — principally time — are high, and key players can optimize for their process steps at the expense of the process as a whole. Until the Army consolidates disparate functions under one, empowered commander, it cannot reasonably expect to break down silos and achieve unity of effort.
Unity of command will allow the new futures command to articulate a single, coherent strategy driving modernization. That strategy should be grounded in a fully credible and authoritative running estimate of alternative futures and allocation of modernization resources must match it. This is impractical in a decentralized system, the major components of which operate within different organizational cultures and respond to different senior leaders. The result is that multiple visions of the future compete for resources, making it difficult for the Army to mass resources and measure results.
Step 2: Change the Operating Model to Enable a Culture of Experimentation
Unity of command is only part of the solution. While executing a consolidation, the command will be simultaneously changing which people are involved in what activities, how they work together, and how they make decisions. Some change will be so substantial that it cannot be adequately described in the language of the existing process. For example, today, modernization problem solving is driven by teams inside the Army’s functionally-organized centers of excellence (i.e., fires, maneuver, aviation, etc.). The question for the new command is not whether those teams belong within the modernization command, but whether that is the right construct for solving problems of future war. This does not necessarily mean significant change for all parts of the current system, many of which perform well, or that the Army will fail to take advantages of lessons learned during recent initiatives to improve performance, such as establishment of the Rapid Capabilities Office.
Modernization requires experimentation. To adapt to the changing character of the war, the Army needs to integrate the right science, technology, engineering, manufacturing, warfighting, and sustainment expertise. This integration requires experiments that encourage failing early and often in pursuit of cost-effective solutions to emerging military problems. For example, over the course of the development of smart, cooperative loiter munitions would be hurdles involving the maturation of cooperative robotics technology, development of cost-effective manufacturing techniques, and discovery of practical techniques for soldiers’ employment of them. By identifying and addressing interrelated issues early, the Army will be less likely to pursue a solution in ignorance of opportunities and pitfalls only visible from particular vantages.
Including the right perspectives early may also change the kinds of solutions we pursue. On the one hand, we must not produce better tools if what we need are different tools — better cavalry if we need motorized units, or better howitzers if we need more lethal autonomous systems. On the other, we must not make eggs-in-one-basket bets on capabilities with underappreciated technical hurdles, such as plagued Future Combat Systems.
As part of the process, the Army should develop more materiel systems to the level of a working prototype before deciding (a) whether to pursue them and (b) what performance characteristics to demand. In the current system most funding for prototyping comes from acquisition programs, each of which is mandated to produce a specific tool with specific characteristics. With the benefit of knowledge gained in early experimentation, the Army can be sure the performance goals for a chosen solution are neither too nor insufficiently ambitious.
Step 3: Developing Concepts and Technology Together
The Army should use the interplay of concept and technology development, explored through experiments, exercises, and wargames, to accelerate the development of holistic warfighting solutions. A model for this is U.S. Navy experimentation with carrier aviation during the interwar period. In that era, the Navy experimented with a variety of aircraft technologies and a variety of concepts for their employment. Insights into what new technology made inspired concepts and concepts possible, in turn, steered further development of the technology. The process was rapid and iterative.
The Army’s current modernization paradigm rests on an underlying assumption so longstanding that it is rarely questioned within the service: that concepts should drive capability development — that the Army should not develop technologies and then decide how to fight with them, but decide how it will fight and then develop the technologies that allow that. Often-cited is the Army’s use of AirLand Battle, a clear description of how the Army would fight at the operational level of war, to drive development of the “Big Five,” which were Army modernization priorities through the 1980s. For two reasons, the Army should depart from this intellectual constraint.
First, technology and the strategic environment are changing too quickly for the Army to painstakingly develop a single, specific operational concept and then build to it. AirLand Battle, first published in 1982 and improved in 1986, represented over a decade of thought work and, while applicable across a range of contingencies, it was conceived as a solution to a specific military problem in war with a specific adversary in a specific place. One may or may not agree that the approach was appropriate for the Cold War. It was during that era, in 1955, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred, and in the way it is carried out.” But, by putting concept development and experimentation together, the Army can discover rather than merely anticipate the future fight.
Second, the common narrative of the relationship between AirLand Battle and the “Big Five” is misleading. AirLand battle was not actually the intellectual ground zero for any “Big Five” program, each of which was a top Army modernization priority well into its development by 1976. It was an operational concept developed alongside and later brought together with the “Big Five.” For example, one of the Big Five was the Abrams main battle tank. The program that yielded the Abrams was officially initiated in 1973, prior to the development of AirLand battle or even its predecessor, Active Defense. Even the 1973 program drew heavily upon a U.S.-German tank technology program started in 1963.
The Army should develop technologies with an understanding of the problems they might solve and a vision of where they may fit among battlefield systems. It should also field systems together with well-developed concepts of their employment. But the process need not be rigidly sequential. Concept and technology innovation processes should be flexible and iterative, each informing the other. For example, during World War I, Great Britain developed the tank with a narrow application in mind. During the interwar period, military experimentation with tanks informed the development of concepts of their employment which, in turn, steered the development of tank technology.
There is No Solution Without a Command
It may not be immediately evident that a new command should be the solution to the Army’s modernization problems. The Army already has commands responsible for modernization and new bureaucracy may not address the failures of the old. Some believe the Army’s problem is simply that it lacks a clear modernization strategy. Others believe the problem is dysfunctional processes and unnecessary bureaucracy around requirements determination. Others direct their ire at the acquisition system. Ultimately, all of the above have contributed to the problem.
Many components of the Army’s modernization enterprise perform their designated functions very well. But even if every part did its work flawlessly, output suffers from dysfunction of the system as a whole. The Army has been consolidating parts of the enterprise for almost 30 years. To address problems identified in the 1980s, it established the Army Acquisition Corps. To improve capabilities integration, it created the organization that became the Army Capabilities Integration Center. To rationalize science and technology efforts, it created the Research and Development Command. Each of these was an incremental improvement, aimed at one part of a larger system.
A complete solution requires an end-to-end redesign, and significantly improved unity of effort is not practically achievable without unity of command. Furthermore, it would be unrealistic to expect the Army to impose upon its modernization enterprise a fundamentally different operating model without first freeing it of the bureaucratic frame that constrains its form and, second, reducing the number of veto players involved in the change effort.
Into the Futures
Success is an Army that, in any area of competitive innovation, can reliably turn inside of any adversary. That is, if militaries around the world experience a near-simultaneous (e.g., within the same one to three years) recognition of an important development in technology or the strategic environment, the U.S. military’s response should almost always be the fastest and most appropriate.
Any way we accomplish it, the ability to deliver better solutions to America’s soldiers faster will be a source of advantage. But so will be the ability to turn resource inputs into military capability with greater efficiency than our adversaries. No warfighting solution, whether delivered in war or during preparation for it, is resource-unconstrained. To the extent that efficiency means more capability faster, efficiency is a kind of effectiveness in its own right.
Today, the Army and her sister services are engaged in a protracted struggle to out-innovate America’s adversaries. Success is not simply a matter being the best prepared for the first battle — competitive military innovation is part of a protracted struggle. But that competition is already long underway. If the U.S. military and her many partners are mostly successful, the U.S. and her allies will win the third world war. If they are completely successful, there will not be one.
Neil Hollenbeck is a Fellow with the Army Future Studies Group and an infantry officer with previous assignments in the 82nd Airborne and 3rd Infantry Divisions and on the faculty at West Point. He holds an MBA from Duke University.
Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D holds a dual appointment at Marine Corps University and American University, School of International Service. He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army, 1975-2010 and the Next War series at War on the Rocks.
The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of their organizations or any entity of the U.S. government.