Affordable, Abundant, and Autonomous: The Future of Ground Warfare
Transitions, whether in professional sports or business, are critical to get right. Those who get them right reap the benefits of championships or market share; those who do not, become easy wins, lose market share, or simply cease to exist (such as Kodak or Blockbuster). Transitions for militaries are no different. Between the world wars, Germany developed its blitzkrieg (“lightning warfare”) doctrine while the French developed the Maginot Line. Thus, as the U.S. Army finds itself in transition after nearly 20 years of fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it must get it right.
This is not the Army’s first major transition. Following the Vietnam War, the Army’s conceptual focus transitioned from counterinsurgency to the employment of new, high-tech armor integrated with state-of-the-art air power to confront the Soviet Union. This new concept, called AirLand Battle, arrived from a wholesale transformation of the Army’s doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership, personnel, and facilities. Today, after decades focused on counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, the Army is transitioning to another battlefield concept known as multi-domain operations. This concept envisions the simultaneous employment of army, navy, air force, cyber, and space forces to compete with, and if necessary, defeat Russia or China in armed conflict.
Despite admirable progression, effective multi-domain doctrine remains problematic due to an overcommitment to legacy platforms. Looking at the factors that facilitated the Army’s successful the transition to AirLand Battle, there is little reason to be optimistic that multi-domain operations will be as successful as AirLand Battle. The Army remains committed to figuring out the force it wants itself to be — one with large, costly, and expensive manned systems — while operating in an environment that seems better suited for the small, many, and smart. Few and exquisite systems are increasingly vulnerable when compared to the benefits of the abundant and affordable. What is stopping the U.S. military, then, from transitioning to a force that is affordable, abundant, and autonomous?
A mix of factors is responsible, but first the case must be made as to why an affordable, abundant, and autonomous force is the better force. A force built on the “few and many” concept is superior because it is quicker, easier, and less vulnerable to produce. It offers greater strategic, operational, and tactical mobility; and most importantly, it can overwhelm its exquisite counterparts in large-scale combat and multi-domain operations.
Production sites of current platforms are extremely vulnerable — more so than any time in history. Currently, M1 Abrams tanks and other combat platforms are assembled at distinct, static geographical locations, reliant on expert professionals in the production of these exquisite capabilities. These manufacturing areas are subject to strikes from hypersonic missiles, proxy forces, cyber-operations, or even potential targeting of critical personnel that could result in the total shutdown of all production in a time of war.
For strategic mobility, autonomous vehicles can likely be designed and constructed with enough simplicity to allow for multiple dispersed factories. These factories could be capable of displacing from one location to another in order to avoid the entire supply chain of a particular vehicle from being destroyed in a single strike. While this may sound difficult, inefficient, or unnecessary, it is important to remember that the Soviet Union’s war capacity was saved by the herculean effort of its citizenry to evacuate over 1,500 factories of military necessity in mid-1941 following the invasion of the German army. Through dispersion and mobility of stateside factories producing an abundant quantity of affordable combat platforms, the U.S. Army can rely on uninterrupted supply from the continental United States.
Affordable, abundant and autonomous vehicles can also significantly enhance operational mobility of U.S. Army forces in multiple ways. In addition to overseas delivery from the continental United States, allied nations can also produce similar affordable autonomous platforms to supply immediate wartime needs throughout a theater of operations. For example, if U.S. or allied forces owned mobile factories in western, central, and eastern Europe, this could mitigate the need for consolidated and time-intensive delivery required of traditional exquisite, expensive manned equipment from ship to shore and onward railyards. Additionally, compared to exquisite platforms like the M1 Abrams tank, the reduced tonnage of small autonomous vehicles enables them to cross many more bridges that would otherwise require extensive Army engineering efforts, all while likely under fire.
Smaller autonomous vehicles may also provide enhanced tactical mobility benefits in comparison to their heavier, manned counterparts. The size and weight of traditional exquisite vehicles prevents them from being able to conduct deep-water amphibious crossings. Instead, the U.S. Army currently relies on complex, high-risk river crossing operations using limited bridging equipment. During traditional river crossing operations, this bridging equipment is vulnerable to enemy fire before heavy combat platforms are able to use them to cross. Lightweight autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, could be capable of conducting massed amphibious assaults independent of extensive bridging support. This would enable Army forces to rapidly surge combat power on the far side of a river well before the need to build more permanent bridging infrastructure for follow on forces.
AirLand Battle doctrine relied on exquisite platforms to “fight outnumbered and win.” During the Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition largely validated this doctrine against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military. That was in 1991. Today, modern technology of massed autonomy and remote controlled systems in the age of multi-domain operations will likely yield victory to those who can mass overwhelming autonomous combat power through sheer numbers during large scale ground combat. Ground reconnaissance and security, normally limited by supply lines and the appetite for risk, can be extended in scope and duration almost indefinitely by abundant, affordable, and autonomous systems. This near-indefinite reconnaissance and security will give Army leaders a marked advantage over their adversaries. Additionally, autonomous systems allow for U.S. Army leaders to conduct infiltration maneuvers behind enemy lines to attack, ambush, or conduct raids against unsuspecting enemy forces.
U.S. conventional forces have only rarely used infiltration as a form of maneuver because it places soldiers at extreme risk of becoming captured or killed behind enemy lines. Today, massed autonomy may yield the extreme benefits to this advantageous maneuver, which was used extensively to devastating effect by China’s military against U.S. forces in the Korean War. Additionally, if “the best tank on the battlefield is yet the one with the best crew” then one can expect a competent crew operating a swarm of a dozen or more unmanned autonomous systems to overwhelm the capabilities of an equally matched T-90 crew in combined arms offensive and defensive operations.
So, what is impeding the U.S. military from transitioning to an affordable, abundant, and autonomous force? Four factors: a recent interstate conflict to study, organizational culture, the military-industrial complex, and the Army acquisition system. These same factors worked in the Army’s favor and allowed it to “get it right” with the exquisitely focused doctrinal construct between 1974 and 1991. Yet, these same factors are now working against the Army as it attempts to create a force to “dominate” the fight for multi-domain operations in the near and more distant future. First and foremost, the concept of “dominate” should be discarded. Historically, war is difficult to dominate, and in America’s history, arguably, the only war the United States dominated was the 1991 Gulf War. Expecting domination sets the Army up for unrealistic expectations.
The first factor limiting the Army’s ability to transition from the exquisite to the abundant is the lack of a recent interstate conflict to study. Five decades ago, the Army had the benefit of a true interstate conflict to study: the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, also called the Yom Kippur War. Gen. William E. DePuy sent Maj. Gen. Donn A. Starry, then-commander of the U.S. Army Armored Center and future Training and Doctrine commander, to study the war. His study contributed significantly to AirLand Battle. By contrast, there is no true recent interstate conflict to study. Sure, there were limited cases of Russian armed forces battling Ukrainian armed forces in the country’s Donbas region in 2014, but these were limited tactical engagements as opposed to all-out interstate war (at least for the Russians). Thus, while it can provide a glimpse into what future conflict might look like, it failed to provide conclusive evidence like the Arab-Israeli War. As a result, arguments as to whether future war will favor the few and exquisite or the small, many, and smart is based on hypothesis more than hard evidence. A lack of consensus favors that status quo rather than innovation.
The second factor relates to organizational change: Organizations are resistant to change that goes against deeply embedded cultural norms. AirLand Battle was not disruptive to any of the major branches, if anything, it reinforced the status and embedded norms of the armor and aviation branches, thus, it was readily embraced. However, transitioning the Army, or at least some of the Army, to abundant, affordable, and autonomous platforms would be met with extremely stiff resistance. Tankers and pilots don’t want to control unmanned platforms from an off-set location using a joystick — it goes against every fiber. Thus, these communities will staunchly resist any doctrinal change.
The third factor limiting the Army’s ability to transition to the abundant and affordable is the military-industrial complex, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against back in 1951. His warning remains relevant today. The F-35 has ties to 46 states with 18 of those states originally projected to receive more than $100 million for the project. Large defense contractors intentionally design these type of projects (exquisite and expensive) to be dispersed to as many states as possible to make it difficult for Congress to kill. This also makes production extremely vulnerable since there is no single point of attack (or failure), there are dozens or hundreds — it is the opposite of redundancy and resilience. Production of the M1 Abrams tank, while not as notorious as the F35, has also received significant scrutiny as Congress repeatedly forces the Army to spend several hundred millions of dollars on tanks it does not want. Even with 2000 M1 tanks stockpiled in the desert, members of Congress have fought to increase Abrams production in support of local constituency interests. In cognitive psychology and decision theory, loss aversion explains why people will fight more to keep what they have than to acquire something new. Thus, history has shown that even if the Army wants to move away from exquisite, expensive, manned-systems, Congress will likely make it difficult.
The fourth factor is the Army acquisition system. The Planning, Programming, and Budgeting acquisition system implemented under Secretary of Defense McNamara was designed to gain efficiency. Indeed, it was efficient — back in the 1970s. This acquisition system was designed to produce systems like the Army’s Big 5: the Apache helicopter, the Blackhawk helicopter, the M1 Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and the Patriot Missile System. But this system, often described as “slow and cumbersome,” simply does not work in the 2020s given the speed of technology. While multiple Defense Department Secretaries have acknowledged the problem, it does not appear that much has changed. Until the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting system is overhauled, it will favor exquisite and expensive systems.
Despite these factors working against some divestiture from exquisite, expensive, manned systems, not all is lost. The Baltic states and the Republic of Georgia have successfully transitioned away from previous exquisite investments. It was not easy, but with a much smaller defense budget and a more immediate, or at least proximate, existential threat, they succeeded. They divested completely from fighter and attack aircraft and tanks, and have instead invested in a more mobile fighting force that is harder for their enemy to identify and eliminate in the early stages of a war. The U.S. Army ought to likewise divest, though not completely, from the expensive and exquisite. But it will likely take direct involvement from senior Army leadership at all phases of the innovation process — formulation, adoption, and implementation — to spur a transition to abundant, affordable, and autonomous systems required for effective multi-domain operations doctrine. If not, the Army risks keeping its “Blockbuster” doctrine when it could be developing “Netflix” doctrine.
Col. Liam Collins, U.S. Army retired, is the former director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. As a career Special Forces officer, he conducted multiple combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as well as operational deployments to Bosnia, Africa, and South America. He holds a doctorate from Princeton University, New Jersey.
Capt. Harrison “Brandon” Morgan is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the commander of Attack Company, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, currently deployed as part of a rotational armored brigade to the Republic of Korea. Previously, he deployed as the 1st Infantry Division’s Atlantic Resolve liaison to the Republic of Lithuania and as an infantry weapons platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division during Operation Inherent Resolve, Iraq. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.