Future War: Not Back to the Future


“The ruling idea of the Germans in the conduct of this war was speed. Faced by the undisputed evidence of Germany’s new tactics, we ignored, or wholly failed to understand the quickened rhythm of the times.” 

Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat

I am at the twilight of my 37-year career in the United States Marine Corps. As my time in the service ends, I thought it was important to share where I think our nation is in terms of its ability to fight and win the next war.

The good news is that we continue to attract, recruit, train, and equip the finest young people this nation has to offer in the defense of our republic. The challenge is that we are ill-prepared for the next war. I say that because we are not fully adapting to the changing character of 21st-century warfare. We are rapidly moving from industrial-era warfare to information-era warfare, which is making legacy bureaucratic processes and military organizations obsolete. This information evolution will bring extraordinary complexity and lethality to the next war. Waging future war will require a way of thinking and action currently absent from mainstream Department of Defense processes. Worse yet, the existing defense bureaucracy stifles initiative and stymies innovation, keeping the military from fully capitalizing on  the warfighting potential of emerging technologies. U.S. forces will be disadvantaged in the future fight if we do not take significant action to change the way we prepare for war. The Defense Department needs to re-examine the way it thinks about staff design and staff processes in order to gain the technological edge in future war.

In World War II we primarily fought a three-domain fight — sea, air, and land.  American factories ensured we had the mobility and mass to overwhelm our enemies in these three domains. Today, and in the future, we will be fighting adversaries in seven domains — sea, air, land, space, cyber, as well as two “new-old” domains: perception and time. Space and cyber operations hold the potential to have more of an impact on future war than the bombs and bullets in wars past. Similarly, the weaponization of social media, as detailed by Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking in the book LikeWar, speaks to the “war of perception” amongst friends and foes alike. Artificial intelligence — better described as augmented intelligence — has the potential to create man-machine teamsthat will establish overmatch at every level and function of warfare. All of this is new and foreboding — and we need to understand its implications in both armed and unarmed conflict.

America’s near-peer adversaries, especially China, are investing in cutting-edge military technology. They are also forging effective partnerships between the state and the private sector to gain military advantage. In this contest of diplomatic, economic, and political will, China is gaining ground and we are losing ground. When we look at the U.S. military through China’s lens, we see the following vulnerabilities. First, our 20th-century capability development and acquisition system, a legacy of Robert Strange McNamara, is too costly, inefficient, and slow. Compounding this problem is a national industrial base that lacks resilience, responsiveness, and depth. Second, we produce tools of war that are highly complex, exquisite, and too costly to lose — think aircraft carriers. In the Battle of Midway, we sank four Japanese carriers in a four-day period. In today’s era of relatively inexpensive hypersonic weapons and other ship-killing missiles, could the U.S. military withstand the loss of four multibillion-dollar carriers in four days? Third, we are not sufficiently leveraging emerging technologies that will change the nature of warfare. For example, unmanned platforms can be used on land, in and under the sea, and in the air with great kinetic, surveillance, and logistics effect.

Yet, these same emerging technologies are what the United States likely needs to offset Chinese capabilities. Take, for instance, 3D printing and artificial intelligence. Additive manufacturing or 3D printing will allow a military force to make everything from specialty parts to unmanned platforms cheaply, quickly, and most importantly, locally. 3D printing will revolutionize American manufacturing and global supply chains. The industrial age spawned a factory-to-foxhole military logistics design. 3D printing disrupts that design in a positive way. We will be able to move the factory — in this instance a micro-factory — close to the foxhole. This will decrease delivery times and increase operational tempo. By combining 3D printing with crowdsourcing, we will be able to generate capabilities in a fraction of the time required by traditional methods.

The use and application of AI has shown that Watson can beat the world’s best Jeopardy players, Deep Blue can beat the world’s best chess master, and Deep Mind can beat the world’s best Go player. This intelligence has the potential to accelerate John Boyd’s observe-orient-decide-act loop to cognitive speeds never before seen in the history of warfare — across every capability area, every domain of warfare, and all levels of war. Lastly, artificial intelligence has the potential to influence information venues and to shape, alter, or distort the perception battlespace.

In the future operating environment, time and its action arm, timing, will play a dominant role. Man-machine teaming will be able to aggregate input from multiple sources in multiple domains and distill that input into actionable knowledge. This, in turn, will accelerate operational tempo, maximize the application of precision fires, and economize logistics delivery. The fog and friction of war will remain, but artificial intelligence and machine learning may provide clarity out of confusion. In the end, the combatant who can make the best decisions, at the right time, for the desired effect, will carry the day. Similarly, the combatant who can alter their foes’ perception of the operating environment and sow distrust in their senses, both virtual and human, will have a qualitative advantage in the fight.

We need to recognize that our Napoleonic staff structure and processes will not keep pace with the demands of the future operating environment. Today’s staff design is too bureaucratic, layered, and stovepiped to process the volumes of information required to wage war in a connected, digital age. The Napoleonic staff construct was designed to maximize the capacity and output of the Industrial Revolution. Staffs were specialized and hierarchical. Every group did its part to ensure the ships and trains ran on time, large conscript armies were formed, trained, and shipped to combat in “good enough” condition, and air, sea, and ground fires were delivered with inexact but punishing effect. The military was big and slow, but decisive.

Twenty-first century war will not be a war of mass. It will be won by whoever best takes advantage of information and connectivity. The characteristics of warfare in this era are an emphasis on precision as opposed to mass; the aggregation and networking of distributed force to deliver precision fires and survivable maneuver; using the full range of the electro-magnetic spectrum to safely operate in multiple domains; and blinding or distorting the enemy’s perception of the battle. This new age will see smaller, flexible formations employing AI-enhanced decision-making tools to create overmatch at the tactical and operational level of war.

A new military staff design will optimize these tools to accelerate sound, timely, and impactful decision-making. Where the industrial staff was specialized, big, and slow, a new speed will define operations.  Human-machine collaboration will enable smaller staffs to create cross-cutting networks for combined arms and maneuver. The staff will be trained and organized to operate in both functional (operations, intelligence, logistics, etc.) and cross-functional integrated teams. AI-enhanced decision-making tools will allow this future staff to reconfigure and reorient quickly, anticipate threats and opportunities, and then best choreograph multiple actions and activities in each warfighting domain simultaneously.

Indeed, simultaneity will be the key element in generating a high operational tempo, optimizing all elements of combat power, and creating confusion in the enemy’s mind. Virtual reality modeling and wargaming will enhance staff action before and during combat operations. Though we are making strides in improving staff processes and training, we are not fundamentally changing the way we build and operate staffs. As a result, today’s staffs remain too large, bureaucratic, and slow to meet the demands of future war. We need to reconfigure our staff design and modernize organizational processes to take advantage of the technologies that will alter future wars.

In light of these technological developments, we need to think about the character of war: Is it changing?  I would argue it is. As  Gen. Omar Bradley said, “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” He was talking about the atomic bomb, but his words apply just as much today. Tomorrow’s foes may defeat or destroy us before the first kinetic round is fired, because cyber attacks will render our systems inoperable or unreliable. On the other hand, if we go “kinetic” and start destroying targets, man-machine teaming has the potential to deliver precision lethality and decapitate leadership, literally and figuratively. Low cost, locally 3D-manufactured drones could destroy multimillion-dollar fifth-generation aircraft (i.e., drone vs. F-35) at home station and overseas airfields. AI-enhanced decision-making tools may give our foes significant advantage in complex future battles.

Some Defense Department organizations are thinking about future war and trying to accelerate capability development to outpace the Chinese and other potential adversaries. The Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office is designed to deliver strategic operational effects in three to five years. James “Hondo” Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, has established a NavalX office to use non-traditional capability development methods to deliver critical capabilities quickly for sailors and marines. The Marine Corps has established a three-star deputy commandant for information operations, tasked to harness the power of information to shape the battlefield. Each of these initiatives reflect adaptive, evolutionary, and transformative thinking, but they do not constitute a new institutional framework for change.

Such a framework is needed because the rhythm of 21st-century warfare is accelerating. In the 20th century the radio, radar, and tank increased war’s rhythm and speed. These tools were designed to aggregate mass and pulverize our enemies into submission. 20th-century war was physical in design and kinetic in application. In the 21st century artificial intelligence, unmanned platforms, and additive manufacturing will further increase war’s rhythm and speed. Artificial intelligence will have the greatest impact because it will transform the cognitive realm. Men and women enhanced by machines will be able to alter and shape perception, compress time, and accelerate decision-making. This condition, in turn, makes perception and time the decisive domains of future war. To fight and win in these domains, the Defense Department needs to reorganize itself to reflect a new way of thinking.


—Michael G. Dana

Lt. Gen., USMC



Lt. Gen. Mike Dana is a career logistician and strategic planner. He served in Desert Storm, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. His last joint assignment was as the Director of Strategic Planning and Policy at US Indo-Pacific Command.

Image: Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Dylan Chagnon