An Army Caught in the Middle Between Luddites, Luminaries, and the Occasional Looney


For the first time since the creation of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command in the 1970s, the Army now has a major command focused on preparing it for future war with a peer competitor. The four-star Army Futures Command is an important and necessary move by the Army to bring the disparate parts of its modernization enterprise under one senior commander. The new command’s mission is comprehensive. It “will integrate the future operational environment, threat, and technologies to develop and deliver future force requirements, designing future force organizations, and delivering materiel capabilities.”

The Army’s post-World War I history with preparing for future wars is mixed and has implications for preparing for the two most challenging adversaries identified in the National Defense Strategy: China and Russia.

Contrary to what it says, the Army has always been a concepts-based, rather than a doctrine-based, institution. Concepts about future war generate the requirements for capabilities to realize them. This has been true since the 1920s, with one exception that I will discuss later.

Unfortunately, the Army’s doctrinal solutions evolve in war only after the failure of its concepts in its first battles, which the Army has historically lost since the Revolutionary War. And the list of battles is extensive: Long Island (1776), First Bull Run (1861), Cantigny (1918), Bataan (1942), Buna (1943), Kasserine Pass (1943), Task Force Smith (1950), and LZ Albany (1965).

The reason the Army fails in its first battles is because its concepts are initially — until tested in combat — a statement of how the Army “wants to fight” and rarely an analytical assessment of how it “will have to fight.” And, again, these concepts drive capabilities. The potential adversary, its capabilities, and the place where conflict might occur — the problems a concept has to solve — have rarely been fundamental to Army concept development.

The agenda for a recent Modern War Institute conference noted: “We are at an inflection point of history, akin to the one that followed the First World War. Strategic bombing, blitzkrieg, and nuclear warfare would come to define the next phase of war.” I agree with that statement and will turn now to what the Army did in the face of these pivotal changes to the character of war in the past as a way to think about the future.

The interwar Army is a topic I have spent some time studying. It is a useful case for examining the Army’s experience since World War I with potentially transformative technologies. After World War I all the powers that had been engaged in that war developed tanks, airplanes, and radios. But only Germany developed the blitzkrieg. Why is that?

I examine this question in my book, Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers. In the U.S. Army, mechanization became captive of the conservative infantry and cavalry branches, which saw the technology through the lens of improving what they already did. Tanks became infantry support weapons or iron horses for traditional cavalry missions. Or worse, as in the case of Maj. Gen. John Herr, the last chief of cavalry, who actively blocked mechanization to maintain horse cavalry structure. His approach to mechanization is best summed up in his statement: “When better roller skates are made, Cavalry horses will wear them.” His breakthrough innovation was to put horses on tractor-trailers to give them operational mobility. He never questioned what they would do on the battlefield. Herr ran the cavalry branch until Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall got rid of all the Army’s horses — and Herr — in 1942.

In 1940, the fall of France to the German blitzkrieg convinced Marshall to form the Armored Force from the Army’s disparate infantry tank units and its single mechanized cavalry brigade. He did this over the objections of the chiefs of the infantry and cavalry branches who were responsible for mechanization in the maneuver branches. The new Armored Force, however, was distinctly cavalry in culture. Its commander, Brig. Gen. Adna Chaffee, Jr., had commanded the 7th Calvary Brigade (mechanized), and the Armored Force was conceptually grounded in traditional cavalry missions of exploitation and pursuit. Chaffee was also an astute personnel manager. To “prevent the plodding infantry tank mentality from infecting the armored divisions,” he assigned mechanized cavalry officers to key positions.

A central assumption of Army armored force concepts was that Army tanks would not fight enemy tanks. Tank destroyers — lightly armored vehicles with high velocity guns — were to deal with enemy tanks. The conceptual role of the armored division drove materiel requirements. The War Department’s May 1941 FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations: Operations specified that while the armored division was “capable of engaging in all forms of combat…its primary role is in offensive operations against hostile rear areas.” As Marshall reflected after the war in Europe, “we desired to use our tanks in long-range thrusts deep into the enemy’s rear where they could chew up his supply installations and communications. This required great endurance — low consumption of gasoline and ability to move great distances without breakdown.”

Because Army tanks would not have to fight enemy tanks, they were lightly armored and had low velocity guns. Furthermore, since deployability was a requirement, the Army Regulation 850-15 placed limits until late in the war on the weight and size of tanks — 30 tons, with a width of 103 inches — to facilitate shipping and to ensure “that navy transporters and portable bridges did not need to be redesigned in the midst of the war.” One Army Ordnance tank specialist, however, noted after the war that “Hitler’s tanks violated this American rule.”

The central assumption that Army tanks would not fight German tanks was proven false. Gen. Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group alone lost some 4,000 tanks in action between the D-Day invasion and the end of the war less than a year later. Marshall admitted as much in the War Department’s 1945 biennial report:

Another noteworthy example of German superiority was in the heavy tank. From the summer of 1943 to the spring of 1945 the German Tiger and Panther tanks outmatched our Sherman tanks in direct combat. This stemmed largely from different concepts of armored warfare held by us and the Germans, and the radical difference in our approach to the battlefield. … it became unavoidable in stagnant prepared-line fighting to escape tank-to-tank battles.

Interestingly, Army armored concepts did not envision the need for air support — one of the key emerging technologies of the interwar period. This would have been difficult in the U.S. Army, given that its air arm was focused on developing concepts to make it a decisive force to gain its independence from the ground Army via strategic bombardment. Thus, the Army Air Corps shaped aviation technology to prove its decisive strategic value through daylight precision bombing of the enemy’s industrial web and rejected preparing to provide close support to ground forces. Such a role would justify an independent Air Force. Indeed, in 1941, Army Air Forces staff officers asserted to President Franklin Roosevelt that if their approach was fully resourced and “if the air offensive is successful, a land offensive may not be necessary.”

Thus, there was no American blitzkrieg, which at its core was a German focus on a problem — defeating France — that required joint concepts and the combining of two transformative technologies via the radio: the tank and the airplane. Neither the Army’s ground nor air constituencies demanded such cooperation.

The Army often grasps at the new because it believes what it does is not compelling enough to get what it wants in the competition between the services for resources. In this regard, the Army’s approach to modernization in reply to President Dwight Eisenhower’s “New Look,” which cut conventional forces and relied upon a doctrine of massive retaliation, is an interesting case study. In response to this challenge to its budget and structure, the Army went all out to organize and equip for relevance. The Army was genuinely under pressure. At one point Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson, returning the Army’s budget submission to Gen. Maxwell Taylor, directed the Army chief of staff “to substitute ‘newfangled’ equipment that Congress would support” in place of its budget requests for “unglamorous weapons and equipment such as rifles, machine guns, and trucks, which had little appeal for Congress or the nation.” Taylor complied, and the Army began pursuing exotic technologies and ideas: “such ideas as ‘convertiplanes,’ which combined the advantages of rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft; one-man ‘flying platforms’; and the adoption of pentomic divisions, which fielded nuclear weapons.”

Andrew Bacevich’s assessment of this period is a useful caution:

The incessant emphasis on technology was little more than an artful dodge concealing the emptiness of the Army’s thinking. The futurists who proclaimed that changing technology was reshaping the face of warfare succeeded only in laying the Service open to doctrinal fads. Captivated by the prospect of turning the latest technological breakthrough to the benefit of short-term institutional goals, Service leaders charged off to develop the doctrine, tactics, and organization needed to convert technological promise into combat capability. The danger of this approach — to judge by the 1950s — was that the Army’s unfettered enthusiasm blinded it to the limits of technology in the overall equation of war and to the real problems that technological change brings in its trail.

Michael Finch wrote recently in the Journal of Military History about this period, noting:

Such was the power of the hypothetical nuclear confrontation, that even the record of more recognizable conventional wars in such places as Korea and Vietnam could not shake the position of those theoreticians who confidently offered solutions which appealed to the military.

Finch also reminds us that in the mid-1960s, Duke historian Ted Ropp wrote:

a fascination with gadgets — such as electronics and cost accounting still grips the military and civilian components of the defense department. Our military intellectuals pander to this market for panaceas. Even the works of the abler ones . . . are so ‘solution-oriented’ that they are quickly dated.

The one positive example I have found where the Army succeeded in concept and capability development was in the 1970s and 1980s after the Yom Kippur war. In the aftermath of that war, the Army studied the Soviets, their capabilities, and the likely place of conflict in NATO. This resulted in technologies and concepts of employment with clear metrics to measure their performance against the threat and drove changes across the Army to create formations able to fight and win in a very difficult environment.

The Army also conducted honest operational experiments, under realistic conditions, to test the efficacy and potential of its concepts. And these experiments and exercises helped evolve the Army from the Active Defense doctrine to two versions of AirLand Battle in a period of 10 years. And while the Army’s “Big Five” weapons of the 1980s represented a major increase in capability, those systems, such as the Abrams and Bradley, were based on known, proven technologies that minimized the risk of major program failures.

The Army abandoned threat-based concept and capability development after the end of the Cold War, and I believe this is a key reason that the Future Combat Systems resulted in the largest programmatic failure in the history of the Department of the Army. Nevertheless, between the end of the Cold War and 2006, Army concepts and doctrine also became an implicit statement of what the Army did not want to do. And a concept for counter-insurgency to deal with the chaos in Iraq had to be hastily developed and rushed to the field. In the future, the Army has to be prepared to do more than one thing, as the National Defense Strategy notes.

Much of the talk about the future and technology is reminiscent of that in the interwar and nuclear eras and should raise important questions as the Army goes forward. Are new technologies really going to change everything, like the advocates of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons argued? Or, as others argued, are they going to improve what the military already does. It turns out both camps were incorrect before World War II, and the Army missed the opportunity to combine available technologies, like the Germans did with the Blitzkrieg.

The principal lesson in all of this is that the U.S. military should have a clear problem that it is trying to solve to enable it to innovate, and is should realize that innovation is generally not invention. Indeed, as Elting Morison observed in his classic study of continuous-aim naval gunfire:

The basic elements, the gun, gear, and sight, were put in the environment by other men, men interested in designing machinery to serve different purposes or simply interested in the instruments themselves. These elements were brought into successful combination by minds not interested in the instruments for themselves but in what they could do with them.

These are also important lessons from the U.S. Army’s renaissance in the 1970s, which also resulted in close cooperation between the Army and the Air Force to solve the shared problem of the defense of Western Europe against Soviet aggression that neither could solve independently.

The National Defense Strategy prioritizes the potential adversaries and places that should be the priorities for future concepts and capabilities. The United States also knows what its adversaries’ capabilities are out to 2025. While the Russians and the Chinese are perusing cyber, space, and artificial intelligence, they are also making significant investments in modernizing their conventional and nuclear capabilities. Consequently, the Army and the other services have all the information they need for threat-based analysis to guide concept and capability development. This understanding of the adversaries, their capabilities, and the place where deterrence or combat will occur could be the crucial first step to ensuring the United States is prepared to win the next first battle.

Nevertheless, a lingering challenge to developing truly joint concepts and capabilities is the absence of a joint command that is so focused — the role Joint Forces Command filled until its disestablishment in 2011. The creation of Army Futures Command is an important recognition that the challenges of preparing the Army for the future require a single empowered major command. The joint force could use a similar organization to avoid the likely prospect that joint concepts will be an amalgamation of service concepts and less than a sum of their parts.


David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Image: United States Government