The Great Duality and the Future of the Army: Does Technology Favor the Offensive or Defensive?

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Doctrine is an army’s game plan. Doctrine not only tells an army how to fight but it communicates intent from the institutional Army to the fighting forces. The progression that leads to doctrine stretches across a temporal “reverse highway” that begins well into the future with a vision of how future wars will be fought. At some point along the highway visioning solidifies into warfighting concepts. All too often, the concept phase of this journey is where dead ends and misleading road signs appear. Visioning is cheap and ephemeral. Concepts, on the other hand, tend to ossify ideas that eventually turn into opinions. Opinions, even false ones, are defended by those whose influences are at stake. Opinions lead to investments that launch programs. Eventually the highway ends at the doctrinal present as organizations and weapons emerge to provide the tools and formations to fight wars.

The length of the temporal highway depends on how quickly technological variables affect battlefield dynamics. During the agricultural age, the pace of change was measured in generations. The musket and field gun of Gustavus Adolphus’ 17th-century army was little changed from the weapons used by European armies in the mid-19th century. The pace of societal innovation in the late-19th century accelerated technological change by an order of magnitude. A veteran of late Civil War battles would have recognized the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I. But he would have been mystified by the technologies that caused the slaughter: the machine gun, the small-bore rifle, quick firing, long-range artillery, and aircraft.

The past century gave us two catastrophic world wars and a Cold War that ended bloodlessly. But the bloodshed of the world wars was, in large measure, induced by military theorists who failed adequately to navigate the temporal highway from visioning to concepts to doctrine. The story of the failure of military theory from World War I to the present is a torturous one filled with false detours and misread signs that still confound theorists today. It’s necessary to retrace our travels down that past, painful highway because the Army is returning again to the prospect of fighting big, catastrophic wars, this time with the United States and Western Europe facing off against Russia or China.

The failure of first-world armies to get visioning and concepts right was due in large measure to a failure to anticipate the eternal duality of ground warfare: the shifting balance between firepower and maneuver induced primarily by the accelerated pace of technological change. In the 1980s, I witnessed how the pendulum of shifting dualities altered the course of battle when Gen. Jack Woodmansee, then V Corps Commander, asked me to lead a series of staff rides in France, one to the Battle of the Somme fought in 1916 and the other to Sedan fought in 1940. In war, firepower favors the defensive and maneuver favors the offensive. Technologies that matured decades prior to World War I swung the pendulum toward firepower by extending the tactical and operational killing zone by an order of magnitude. Unfortunately, the technologies of the Industrial Revolution did nothing to accelerate the speed of maneuver. It remained in 1916 as it had been since the days of the legion: at a walk. This tragic misreading of the firepower-maneuver duality cost the British Army 24,000 dead in a single day on the Somme.

Fast forward a generation. During our second staff ride we paused to gaze from the heights of La Marfee, a commanding vertical mass that dominated the Meuse River crossing sites at Sedan. Experience in battles like the Somme and Verdun convinced the French to put their faith in firepower and the defensive. Had they been right the overwhelming mass of French artillery scattered across the heights could have easily stopped the Germans at the river’s edge. But French visionaries and conceptualizers had failed to anticipate that, in a mere 20 years since the Great War, the internal combustion engine and wireless had shifted the duality of war from fire to maneuver, from the defensive to the offensive. The speed of the German advance overwhelmed the ability of the French command to comprehend that the speed of maneuver had increased from a walk to 20 miles per hour. France would lose the Battle of France in six days.

The Battle of France signaled the pendulum’s swing toward maneuver and the offensive. Later in the war the Soviet Union and the United States would borrow blitzkrieg doctrine from the Wehrmacht and apply it on a heretofore unimaginable scale. From the Oder to Berlin, from the Rhine to the Elbe, both mechanized armies raced at unprecedented speeds toward each other. In the midst of these triumphant times neither army could have foreseen that the end of the European war marked the pendulum’s apogee. It was then that the pendulum began reversing. It continues its countervailing path to this day.


A confluence of circumstances has restored the dominance of the defensive. The greatest single influencer has been technology. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has characterized this transformational period as the “second offset.” Work’s thesis contends that the United States has sought to avoid matching an enemy’s advantage in mass by seeking technological “offsets” that allow a smaller force to prevail against a larger one. The first offset begun during the Eisenhower administration focusing on nuclear weapons as a means to cancel Soviet superiority in conventional forces.

The second offset, begun after Vietnam, sought to develop conventional technologies to achieve the same objective. The subsequent surge in technological innovation was enormously decisive. Sometime during the Reagan administration, the Soviet Union realized that unprecedented advances in American killing power expressed as range, lethality, and precision, doomed the Communist Party’s dreams of crushing NATO in a blitzkrieg-like invasion across the inter-German border. The second “conventional” offset was responsible to some degree for accelerating the decline and fall of the Soviet Empire.

But the second offset was flawed in that it favored only one dimension: firepower, delivered principally from the air. Technology favored airpower because transformative weapons of the period were most effective when delivered from the air. The aerial second offset began symbolically with the bombing of the Than Hoa bridge in North Vietnam in the spring of 1972. The bridge had withstood thousands of dumb bombs before it collapsed when struck by four laser-guided bombs. The path toward firepower dominance from the air continued with development of GPS-guided bombs and cluster munitions that increased the lethality of aerial ordnance enormously. Stealth arrived in time for Desert Storm and the effectiveness of F-117 fighters over Baghdad ended the debate over the worth of radar evading technologies. More recently, the exploitation of unmanned aircraft and the inclusion of cyber weapons as part of our air service’s arsenal has made American aerial killing power unmatched on the planet.

The Army’s contribution to the second offset was the realization that the ground and aerial domains of war needed to be merged into a single cohesive fighting doctrine, AirLand Battle. The doctrine contained two brilliantly conceived ideas for defeating a larger enemy by a firepower intensive force. First, was the imperative to destroy armored formations at a rate faster than the Soviets could “present” them at the forward battle area. Gen. Donn Starry, commander of V Corps in Europe and later “father” of AirLand Battle doctrine, once recalled the “I Love Lucy” candy stuffing scene as evidence of the problem. Lucy could only keep up if she and Ethel stuffed the boxes all along the conveyor belt rather than at the point where the candies fell off the end. Thus, the secret of AirLand Battle was to attack deeply all across three maneuver echelons of the Soviet offensive. Only tactical and operational aircraft and long-range missiles could get far enough to kill the Russians in depth.

The second imperative of AirLand Battle was to slow or even culminate the Russian advance using maneuver forces supported by land- and air-delivered firepower. Wargames conducted at Ft. Leavenworth in the early 1980s revealed that tracking and sensing technologies of the time were unable to kill moving targets. If Soviet forces could be slowed, the killing power of supporting arms would be magnified considerably, enough perhaps to halt Soviet forces before they reached the Rhine. At the time, no one in the Army seriously considered AirLand Battle as an inclusive doctrine for both offensive and defensive maneuver. It was intended solely for battle along the German border. The development of AirLand Battle was significant because, for the first time in the annals of American military history, a doctrine, an idea, was responsible for deterring war. AirLand Battle was equally transformational in that, also for the first time, an idea was powerful enough to break the constrictions of service vanities to interconnect two separate domains, air and land.

AirLand Battle’s greatest shortcoming, however, was that its effectiveness in Desert Storm (and later on the march to Baghdad in 2003) convinced doctrine-makers that the doctrine was suitable for offensive as well as defensive warfare. The doctrine’s success also seemed to validate the long-term efficacy of weapons used in the execution of AirLand Battle: the M-1 Tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and the Multiple Launch Rocket System. Again, these were false takeaways. As a new brigadier general, I headed the team that wrote Certain Victory, the Army’s official history of Desert Storm in 1991. Our research revealed that Schwarzkopf’s 100-hour left hook across the sands of Iraq and Kuwait was indeed magnificent. But it moved only slightly faster than Patton’s march across France or even Guderian’s march from Amiens to the English Channel. This cautionary tale is important because lessons drawn from battles against incompetent enemies should always be treated as suspect.

Twenty-five years after Desert Storm, little in the conventional operational environment has changed when it comes to preparing for war against a peer competitor. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the ground services took a doctrinal knee. Over nearly two decades, the military spawned a generation of officers schooled in counterinsurgency. Today’s doctrine-makers have only vicarious experience with fighting big wars. But while we still seek to find our doctrinal legs for conventional wars, technology hasn’t taken a knee. And, absent a few exceptions, emerging technologies continue to favor the defensive. Artificial intelligence in particular promises to make the battlefield transparent allowing near perfect targeting of mechanized forces. An enemy’s defensive cyber capability mated to a cutting-edge integrated air defense network might well impede the ability of American airpower to conduct an offensive air campaign. Russia has developed a sophisticated suite of long-range precision missiles networked to unmanned sensors that would allow them to conduct their own version of AirLand Battle, but in reverse.

The pendulum has hit the doctrinal stops. The three components of firepower dominance — lethality, range, and precision — have all increased killing power by at least a factor of four or five just in the past three decades alone while the speed of ground maneuver is exactly where it was during the Battle of France in 1940.


The Army is currently positioned along the doctrinal highway somewhere between visioning and concept development. Its emerging concept, multi-domain operations, rightfully recognizes that the hidden hand of technological innovation has added new layers to the complexity of operations. It was hard enough to add the air in AirLand battle. The challenge is much greater when the Army seeks to add cyber and space to the calculus of battle. For the first time since the Cold War, the Army has built a doctrine around a threat rather than capabilities. The Army’s brain trust that developed AirLand Battle willingly limited the scope of its doctrine to fighting a war in central Europe. The multi-domain concept, however, expands the scope of conflict to embrace “competitive” phases of conflict against Russia and China. The thinkers behind multi-domain operations seek to move warfare “beyond joint” with the concept of “convergence,” an idea first expressed in Army After Next writings in the 1990s as “interdependence,” or “joint interdependence.” The two terms together take multi-service integration to a new and higher level in the hope that traditional service-specific friction might be reduced in future conflicts.

The concept, however, has a fatal flaw: It mirrors mistakes made when armies of the past failed to keep pace with technological change. I’ve read and re-read the authoritative documents on multi-domain operations many times. After receiving briefings on war games conducted by Army Futures Command, I’m convinced that concept- and doctrine-writers now perceive the battlefield as dominated by the offensive. To a degree, this bias is understandable. When the Army hit the conventional war “pause button” in 2001 it was still under the embrace of Desert Storm, America’s last successful big war. This experience was an intellectual lure because it redeemed the Army from the stigma of Vietnam. It remains emotionally compelling because it separates the Army’s intellectual community today from the frustrations of fighting unfulfilling wars in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Desert Storm is a dead-end along the doctrinal highway. It never would have succeeded had Russian forces been on the other side of the berm.

My thoughts are observations, not criticisms. I’m a student of the history of doctrine, not a bomb thrower. I’ve been around a long time and tend to take a longer view of events. My concern is that after 18 frustrating years of counterinsurgency warfare, the Army has pushed the “resume play” button perhaps a bit precipitously. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the service’s publication of The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations, 2028.

Let’s slow down. The Army has time to figure this out.

But one thing is certain: Any doctrine founded on a false premise cannot be sustained. The services are fortunate in that the concept of multi-domain operations is still evolving somewhere along the temporal highway short of the point where units are formed and systems funded. By all accounts the capabilities of the Army’s big six priorities for weapons — long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift, the network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality — remain viable regardless of which side of the duality they serve.

As mentioned above, the Army’s brain trust has time to decide where between the primal dualities the answer lies. Does technology favor the offensive or defensive? I vote for the latter. Only time will tell who is right. The Western powers voted wrong in 1914. The French voted wrong in 1940. History’s cautionary tale is that the side that gets it wrong next time will suffer ill consequences beyond imagining.


Robert Scales is a retired major general and former commandant of the Army War College. In the 1990s he was director of Army doctrine at Training and Doctrine Command where he started the Army After Next Project for the chief of staff of the Army. He is the author of eight books on military history and theory and is a frequent contributor to major news outlets. He is a graduate of West Point and holds a PhD in history from Duke University.

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