A Better Idea Can Win the Next Big War for the Ground Services
For old Cold Warriors like me, it’s Groundhog Day. For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the ground services are beginning to emerge from two decades of fighting insurgents to refocus on fighting a big war against Russia or China. The Army in particular has been successful in founding an institution, Army Futures Command, specifically tailored to the task of future-gazing. The command is beginning to resurrect an empirical process by which the military looks into the future. This process has a provenance that goes back 30 years to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of the Gulf War.
The American ground services won a crushing victory against Saddam Hussein’s army by following a game plan, AirLand Battle, that the Army devised in the late 1970s to halt a Soviet invasion across the inter-German border. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s hundred-hour “Great Wheel” maneuver succeeded in part because the inept Iraqi army put up little resistance. Further, the billiard table terrain of Iraq and Kuwait was perfectly suited for large-scale blitzkrieg warfare reminiscent of the German Ardennes offensive in 1940 and Patton’s armored rush across France in 1944. Desert Storm was a catharsis for the Army. The victory cast off the stigma of Vietnam and reestablished the respectability of the Army among America’s warfighting institutions.
Then came Sept. 11. For almost 20 years, America’s ground forces put “big war” thoughts aside to reset and relearn counter-insurgency doctrine. Only after America’s Middle Eastern adventures began to die down in 2015 did the defense intellectual community return to thinking about big wars. The seminal moment came when then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work challenged the Army to develop what he termed, “AirLand Battle 2.0.” He asked how ground warfare doctrine might be altered by the appearance of new, post-Desert Storm technological domains such as space, cyber, and information warfare? Today the concept known as multi-domain operations embraces Work’s intent by adding additional domains. But at its core, the multi-domain operations concept adds additional layers of complexity to virtually the same AirLand Battle doctrine first envisioned in the 1970s.
Buried in the rush to embrace multi-domain operations is an all-but-forgotten future-gazing effort the Army began soon after Desert Storm. In 1996, Gen.Dennis Reimer, then Army chief of staff, created the Army After Next program to look deep into the future to about 2020 to 2025. I was Army After Next’s first director. Casting that far ahead led our group to question many of the accepted tenets derived from the Army’s experience in Desert Storm. To understand the future, we looked deep into the past to identify patterns and shifts in warfare induced principally by technology. We reached several conclusions that differed considerably from the accepted tenets of the time. First, we came to accept the heretical insight that the revolution wrought by precision weapons and manned and unmanned aerial sensors shifted the classical warfighting balance between firepower and maneuver strictly to the former. A firepower-intensive battlefield always favors the defensive. History told us that stalemate, attrition, and catastrophic losses were the inevitable consequences of a firepower-dominant battlefield. We concluded that the only way to avoid costly attrition was to increase the speed of movement across the deadly zone that separates warring sides.
Speed allows a maneuvering force to move across, through, around, or over the enemy’s firepower killing zone. The classical term for such a maneuver is “operational offensive/tactical defensive.” Such an approach seeks to exploit rather than overcome the power of the defensive by maneuvering to a position of advantage (usually in the enemy’s rear) such that the enemy is left with two unacceptable alternatives: Stay in place and wither or attack across disadvantageous ground with the maneuvering force now holding the firepower advantage.
Desert Storm taught the U.S. military that heavy-armored ground units would never achieve the desired velocities to execute an operational offensive/tactical defensive maneuver. The only answer was to elevate maneuver into the third dimension. Our contemporary model at the time was the truncated aerial envelopment by the 101st Air Assault Division to Forward Operating Base Eagle, located a few kilometers north of Basra. Had the war lasted only a day or two beyond its 100-hour limit, the heliborne soldiers of the 101st might well have been able to cut off the retreat of Saddam’s Republican Guard back to Baghdad. Such a bold maneuver would have robbed Saddam of his only loyal troops and might well have sealed his fate in 1991, thus avoiding the disastrous repeat campaign in 2003.
Our group understood that the technological means for conducting an aerial maneuver campaign were impossible in the 1990s. But we also predicted then that the course of technological evolution over the coming three decades might allow the ground services to reduce the weight of maneuver forces sufficiently enough to propel them into the third dimension. We concluded that the newly emerging miniaturization revolution would reduce the size of every major element of a ground maneuver force from combat vehicles to artillery to logistical facilities. We foresaw that the primitive Internet had the potential to allow forward maneuver units to call forward materiel “just in time” from locations far to the rear. We forecast the appearance of an “unblinking eye” of orbiting drones that would provide virtually everything necessary to support ground operations from overhead intelligence, to armed drones delivering instantaneous killing power, to supply drones capable of delivering ammunition and fuel to units spread across a non-linear, distributed battlefield.
In 1997, we discovered that the Marine Corps was thinking like we were in the Army After Next program. That service, too, realized that massive armored formations were a thing of the past. Like us, they believed that a firepower-intensive battlefield would dictate that ground units break up into smaller, discrete units when in contact with the enemy. Marine Sea Dragon exercises conducted at 29 Palms Training Area in California suggested that emerging communications and sensing technologies would allow small, squad-sized units distributed across wide areas to kill the enemy from a distance using Navy gunfire, Marine aircraft, and attack helicopters. I was encouraged to see that, 20 years on, the vision of Sea Dragon lives on in the new Marine commandant’s planning guidance. The document resurrects the concept of distributed operations, which calls for marines to fight in autonomous, small units in order to remain effective and lethal on a firepower-intensive battlefield. Similarly, the document restates and reinforces the Marine Corps’ commitment to aerial envelopment from the sea by its organic ground-air teams.
By the end of the 1990s, our Army After Next effort had begun to flourish. The Army committed to lighten up by building a new generation of fighting vehicles and weapons capable of aerial transport. The initiative was labeled “Future Combat Systems.” And then came Sept. 11. Over the next eight years, the Army and Marine Corps began to reverse progress by loading up on a new generation of heavy ground vehicles capable of countering the IED threat. The technological advances necessary to permit our forces to “see first” and kill from a distance never matured in time to fulfill the promises of Army After Next. By 2008, the vision of aerial maneuver was dead. And the bill for the cancelled Future Combat Systems program was north of $20 billion.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the only concept left standing for the Army is multi-domain operations. This at a time when the technological advances promised in 1997 are becoming reality. The miniaturization revolution we forecast then is now a reality. A battalion’s worth of communications gear now fits in a soldier’s hand. Shoulder-fired missiles now reliably kill tanks. The drone swarms we predicted are now ubiquitous. Robotic vehicles are no longer science fiction. AI now allows maneuver units to see, sense, and kill with near perfect fidelity. Long-range precision missiles soon will be capable of clearing a path for a flying maneuver out to ranges of a thousand kilometers or more.
The most pervasive and impactful argument against the Army After Next approach in the 1990s was the contention that an enemy’s integrated air defenses could defeat an operational aerial maneuver. That argument is even more compelling today. In fact, enemy air defense systems have become threatening enough to earn the “anti-access/area denial” moniker. According to the concept of multi-domain operations, “penetrating ” and “dis-integrating ” the enemy’s anti-access/area denial umbrella becomes the equivalent of an assault on an enemy’s operational center of gravity.
I agree with this premise. No offensive doctrine or concept can succeed without American airpower absolutely dominating the third dimension. Defeating the Russian air-to-air threat is assumed given the enormously asymmetric advantage of U.S. air forces. Enemy ground-based air defenses are another matter. The Russians in particular have invested heavily in an enormously complex, integrated and dense system of sensors and missiles. Multi-domain operations and Army After Next offer two competing approaches to taking down an enemy’s anti-access/area denial system. Multi-domain operations seek to punch through and collapse the bubble (by definition, an attrition approach). Aerial envelopment seeks a maneuvering approach that exploits speed-to-range far enough to a flank in order to find the “white spaces” where the umbrella is thin or nonexistent. Either approach will be costly. But contemporary history has shown that ground-based air defenses are relatively static and, given persistence and sacrifice, will eventually be defeated from the air.
The differences between these two doctrinal approaches come down to whether or not American ground forces should play to their strengths or the enemy’s. Why would the U.S. military not choose to fully exploit its dominance in the air rather than play to Russia’s advantage by matching its ground forces tank for tank? A Cold War slugging match will only produce casualties the American people won’t accept but the Russians and Chinese surely will.
I’m not suggesting that the Army cease or delay its efforts to develop multi-domain doctrine. I’m proposing that Army Futures Command investigate the possibility of a parallel path with an open mind. It will cost nothing but brainpower, time, and digits to add another dimension to our future-gazing efforts. The archives of the Army, Marine Corps, and Department of Defense agencies such as the Defense Science Board and DARPA are rich in experiments, wargames, and scientific studies that prove the worth of the Army After Next concept. Let’s reopen the books and take a fresh look.
During our Army After Next days when the team would return to the lessons of history, one example haunted us then and haunts me still. The French army stubbornly adhered to a unitary approach to preparing for World War II. French officers were intellectual slaves to a firepower-attrition doctrine last practiced in 1918. The Wehrmacht left firepower behind to focus on speed. It melded the internal combustion engine with the wireless to produce blitzkrieg. In May 1940, it blew through masses of superior French artillery to reach the English Channel in six days. France had the advantage of quality and quantity. Germany had a better idea. America should pay attention.
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.