It’s Time to Move the Army Ladder

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If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.

Steven Covey


For 20 years, the U.S. Army has fought militarily inferior enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars have been inconclusive. Now, the Army is embarking on an effort to compete with China and Russia — two advanced nuclear powers with the potential to compete toe to toe with the United States in almost every aspect of conflict. Unfortunately, absent fundamental changes the Army is likely to fail in this effort, as it has failed in every major modernization push since the “Big Five” effort of the mid-1970s.

The Army — the service that operates on the ground, where people live — has a substantial role to play in solving the problem of war against an adversary like China or Russia. It has taken several steps to modernize its forces, but it is not clear that it has done so effectively. To the contrary, the Army risks incrementally “managing” the problem one technological step at a time, rather than stepping back to ensure that it is tackling the right strategic problem and then making the more necessary bold moves — albeit not without risk — required to achieve an adequate long-term solution.

Modernizing the Army will be as challenging as it is necessary. Make no mistake, fundamental change to how the Army thinks about the future is required to successfully confront the country’s security challenges. For over 30 years no other military in the world has had the capabilities and capacity to resist the U.S. military. However, that superiority has come with a cost. In recent decades, the military has only had to make minor adaptations against known battlefield requirements in mature theaters. And this is understandable — when you are the best army in the world and your nation dominates its chosen adversaries, “status quo” or “marginal change” are the words of the day. For an army accustomed to dominance in any theater and incremental modernization programs, the required leap into the unfamiliar will be unnerving to many. It is a leap, however, that America’s adversaries are already undertaking. The Army cannot fall further behind.



To be prepared to win a war in the information age, the Army will have to change its foundational theories of warfighting, its institutional frameworks for developing combat capabilities, how it views risk, and how it generates combat power. These changes will include developing a theory for information age warfare, changing how it allocates risk between current and future forces, changing the roles and missions of its major warfighting organizations, changing its warfighting functions, and reimagining its approach to operational energy. Any one of these would be a formidable task, and yet to be successful the Army should tackle every one of them.

Organizational Change of the Army Over the Last 20 Years

The Army’s recent modernization efforts have been met with mixed results. To assess these efforts, we’ll use a three-step model of organizational change — unfreeze, change, and freeze. Simply put: Open your mind, make the changes you need to, and then institutionalize them. Significantly, operational and institutional conditions internal and external to the Army (e.g., the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis and the rise of the Islamic State in 2012) undermined the ability of successive Army chiefs of staff to implement their agendas.

Gen. Pete Schoomaker: “Serving a Nation at War” (2003 to 2005)

As chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Pete Schoomaker implemented a successful transformation of the service — one that is a textbook example of how to unfreeze and change an institution, and then freeze that change in place. In fact, his changes to units and doctrine were so successful that the Army is now challenged to unfreeze them. Schoomaker benefited from a rare confluence of external national strategic and internal Army operational and institutional interests. The entire country was changing to wage the “Global War on Terror.”

Schoomaker became the Army chief of staff in the summer of 2003 on the heels of the invasion of Iraq. During his transition he determined that the Army needed to make fundamental changes to support war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He directed the establishment of 16 distinct task forces, each led by a general officer — often separate from the existent staff — to redesign critical institutional and operational functions and processes. The most well-known of these was Task Force Modularity, which created the brigade combat team that would serve as the basis for rotations and readiness for the next 15 years. Other task forces included one that created the Army force generation model, one that stabilized personnel, and one that redesigned basic training to shift the burden of combat preparedness from the first unit of assignment to the training base. To guide the entire effort, he published his vision of the change — Serving a Nation at War: A Campaign Quality Army with Joint and Expeditionary Capabilities — and designated the Joint and Expeditionary Capabilities Task Force as the lead integrator of efforts in accordance with the vision.

The pace of the change was historic by any standard. By creating task forces outside the institutional framework and placing general officers over them, Schoomaker rapidly unfroze the Army bureaucracy. The wars ensured widespread demand for change — the necessary forcing function — despite the fact that the Army’s initial efforts were often disjointed and contentious.  Additionally, the operational force was heavily involved in the design of the changes as well as their implementation. The 3rd Infantry Division took a concept and reorganized the division prior to its second rotation into Iraq in 2005. In less than two years, the Army had “unfrozen,” “changed,” and then was beginning to “freeze” its primary adaptations to the Global War on Terror, including modular brigades and an Army force generation model that would remain relatively intact for the ensuing 16 years.

Gen. Ray Odierno: Army 2020 (2011 to 2014)

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno entered office intending to reset the Army in order to recover from the effects of 10 years of counter-insurgency and to re-establish the Army’s capacity to fight high-end conflict. Unfortunately, the favorable circumstances that enabled Schoomaker’s successful tenure no longer existed. Although Russia asserted itself by attacking Ukraine in 2014, and China was expressing its intent to be the globally dominant military by 2049, the mood in the United States favored retrenchment. The United States sought a complete withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and reduced its troop presence in Afghanistan. However, with the rise of the Islamic State, the Army remained engaged in Iraq. The force reductions in theater coincided with the Budget Control Act, which threatened to reduce the Army to an end strength of fewer than 400,000 active personnel, from a high of 520,000 during the surge from 2008 to 2010. As a result, what was initially envisioned as a more sweeping change was hobbled by unfavorable budgetary trends and public opinion.

Odierno’s most successful change was Army 2020, which was predominantly a redesign of key Army elements that had been optimized for counter-insurgency operations and required revision to be more globally relevant under the budget pressures caused by the 2008 economic crisis. Army 2020 was executed within the existing Training and Doctrine Command organizations and ultimately resulted in changes to 17 Army warfighting units, most significantly a redesign of the Army brigade combat team. Simultaneously, Odierno directed a study on the rise of Russia and the implications of its military modernization. The European Strategic Assessment Team raised the level of awareness across Army headquarters of the developing gaps in the service’s preparedness for fighting a peer adversary. (The European Strategic Assessment Team presaged the more detailed Russian New Generation Warfare Study, which led to the “multi-domain operations” concept.) Odierno created the Strategic Landpower Task Force with the Marine Corps commandant and commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, and supported the development of a new warfighting function, “engagement.” He also notably directed the Combat Training Centers to transition from mission-ready exercise rotations (events intended to rehearse units for counter-insurgency deployments) to direct action rotations to assess brigade readiness for major combat operations.

However, Odierno still faced significant demand for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which frustrated reform efforts. Additionally, he fell victim to policy resistance to what Defense Secretary Robert Gates called “next war-itus” and an Army not yet ready for major intellectual change. As a result, he was unable to completely “unfreeze” the Army at the same scale as Schoomaker. The Strategic Landpower Task Force and engagement warfighting function, for example, did not take hold due to internal resistance.

These brief examples show two ways in which the Army sought change — one that used task forces outside the institutional Army during a time of national and institutional consensus on the key threat to U.S. security, and one approach that worked within existing Army processes as the country was grappling with economic turmoil and strategic ambivalence. Schoomaker determined that the depth and breadth of change demanded task forces external to existing institutional organizations and processes. Odierno, on the other hand, set out to rebalance — not necessarily transform — the force.

Gen. Mark Milley: Army Futures Command (2015 to 2018)

When Gen. Mark Milley became chief, the threats from Russia and China were becoming clearer (albeit still not understood on the scale necessary), and the rotational demand in Iraq and Afghanistan was significantly reduced. So, although the internal and external consensus was not as strong as that under Schoomaker, it was better than that faced by Odierno. Additionally, Milley was committed to overcoming problems in acquisition that had plagued the Army’s Acquisition Category I programs for at least 25 years. Milley chose a hybrid of the two previous change models. He reorganized the Army command structure and created Army Futures Command to lead the force’s modernization. The command’s creation was clearly intended to “unfreeze” the modernization enterprise, and in some key areas it has. Most significantly. Perhaps, it has tied requirements around development, science and technology, and acquisition together under a single 4-star general working in conjunction with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology. This is meant to ensure a fully integrated, top-down equipment modernization effort.

However, Army Futures Command by itself has not — and cannot — “unfreeze” the entire Army independently. The Army as a professional body should collectively recognize that these impediments exist, and that — absent collective action — they will preclude the service from achieving the fundamental change required to prepare the Army to fight and win a 21st-century conflict against a China or a Russia.

What Should Be Unfrozen Today 

U.S. military supremacy of the last 30 years has frozen the Army’s mindset. It should be thawed. The service would be naïve to think that the global military advantage that America has long enjoyed remains, and it would even be foolish to believe it will continue to remain in the future absent bold investments. Ironically, China and Russia are not frozen by 20 years of warfighting experience and are intellectually free to optimize for modern warfare. Furthermore, they have been forced to modernize by virtue of U.S. dominance over the last three decades.

The primary impediment, then, to properly unfreezing the Army is the service’s self-perception and self-confidence. For the last 20 years, this has prevented needed change. Nothing so focuses an army like war, and nothing is harder than changing an army after one — especially when individual perceptions of performance or experiences seem largely positive. The Army might have faced a similar challenge after Vietnam, but the retrospect of the Army in 1975 was not quite so positive. Readiness was broken, the professional culture was rotting from the inside after 10 years of inconclusive war, and the risk in Europe was untenable. The Army acted on these factors and the future warfighting implications of the 1973 Arab-Israel (Yom Kippur) War. Moreover, the U.S. Army at that time formally studied and understood the cultural changes wrought by the Vietnam War. Alternatively, today’s Army has a generally positive view of its contribution to America’s recent wars — in spite of the ambiguous outcome — especially at the individual level. Most of us who continued to serve, and continued to be promoted, might sub-consciously attribute — if not outright credit — our advancement to our past prowess. It might be fair to say that today’s Army has not sought to understand the changes wrought by  years of inconclusive war against a significantly less-capable adversary.

The truth is, two decades of fighting counter-insurgencies has almost eliminated the Army’s “fingerspitzengefühl” (literally “fingertips feeling,” or a finely honed sense of the battlefield, of one’s self, one’s environment, and one’s enemy) for major theater-scale combat operations. In another four to six years no one in the Army will have served during the Cold War. As it is, the only ones around who did serve then are 3- and 4-star generals (and, notably, are in the same generation who “managed” the dominance of the last 30 years). The counter-insurgency “ladder” may have our mindset against the “wrong wall” and more audacious change is necessary to re-orient.

It is true that Army Futures Command, in collaboration with the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, through the cross-functional teams and work in the equipping program evaluation group, has unfrozen materiel acquisition in the Army. However, much of the Army remains stuck using legacy systems, processes, and thinking. Absent a commitment to multi-domain operations, the Army is left managing technology to improve the current force rather than investing to develop the future force.

The Army should intellectually re-frame and “unfreeze,” beginning with the six areas described below. This would enable the Army to move beyond managing the problem of fighting a war with China or Russia, and begin transforming itself to remain preeminent. They entail a requirement to leave Iraq and Afghanistan behind intellectually and return to first principles, while implementing newly developed tenets of information age warfare. This list is not complete — it is merely a start. 

Where the Army Should Change 

For all the genius of Carl von Clausewitz, Giulio Douhet, Antoine-Henri Jomini, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, theirs are theories of industrial-age warfare. That age has been eclipsed by the information age. The United States lacks a whole-of-government theory — indeed a whole-of-nation theory — of information-age competition and conflict. But for all of the commentary on competition in recent years, the United States is still endeavoring to understand it and its relationship to war in the information age. Among its many challenges, understanding future warfare requires a thorough understanding of the relationship between policy and warfighting in the information age within historical, contemporary, and future contexts.

A Unifying Theory of Competition and Warfare

The need for a broad unifying theory of war is evident in criticisms of the multi-domain operations concept for being too broad in scope and too large in scale. Multi-domain operations is the Army’s official concept for deterring — or if necessary winning — a fait accompli attack by a military peer in their near abroad. Many military professionals wish to remain in their comfort zone of tactical combat while potentially ignoring the new dynamics of information warfare and competition, both of which are now fundamental to multi-domain operations. Yet, as stated above, the multi-domain operations concept is the Army concept — one that describes the operating environment as it is and as we expect it to be, without leveraging the artificial luxury of being self-constrained to bound an easier problem that we prefer to solve. Far from managing the problem, the multi-domain operations concept attempts to solve it. However, even multi-domain operations is narrowly focused on a specific military problem and is not a theory of information-age competition and war. 

Understanding the Information Age

The speed and ubiquity of information presents an independent challenge to an organization attempting to “unfreeze, change and then freeze.” Author Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock argues that the information age is destroying our ability to think about the future. He asserts that the information environment creates a fixation on the present. The younger generation even has an acronym for it: “FOMO” or fear of missing out. Even the president of the United States is pressured to make decisions within a 24-hour news cycle or less. The obsession with “now” makes leaders believe that they must sustain their credibility based on performance within the shortened news or review cycle. It will be exceedingly difficult to remain steadfast on long-term investments if the Army cannot resist the stress, pressure, and even public criticism that comes with decisions on short-term adjustments or savings.

Additionally, one of the casualties of a focus on the “now” is continuity of effort and messaging over time. For example, while the Army messaging from 1975 to 1992 about AirLand Battle was remarkable in its steadfastness, the same cannot be said for the Army modernization messaging of the last 20 years, which has been marked by several different major changes.  Changes to the message create confusion, communicate indecision, and cause distrust, which in turn causes people to hesitate to invest in change and thus remain frozen. In fact, most recently we watched this past year as pressure on the Army to address essential issues such as COVID-19 and climate change competed with a focus on strategic modernization. 

Risk Equations 

The Army should take more risk as it approaches the requirements for modernization. The service will have to accept risk in current force readiness — an idea that was unheard of during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — in order to ensure an acceptable level of future force readiness.

Typically, the Army describes three levers when making strategic investments — force structure, readiness, and modernization. And, typically, budget constraints preclude significant investment in all three. Today should pay some of tomorrow’s bills — it’s a math issue. Changing our balance of risk between current and future readiness requires a level of disruption that will make the Army uncomfortable. But the service should, for example, invest more in basic experimentation, research, and development, and less in current readiness and force structure, even if the Army finds this painful to swallow. It will be tempting to optimize for the present. But doing so will sub-optimize the Army’s future at great peril, because it is the future for which our adversaries are optimizing. 


The Army should reexamine its understanding of warfighting organizations at every level and return its focus to the corps and division as the focus of warfighting concept development, experimentation, and training.

The modular brigade is a highly specialized adaptation of a much larger concept for a modular Army at every level — theater, corps, division, and brigade. In other words, the modular brigade by itself was incomplete relative to the intended design. The modular brigade design, however, was an adaption that happened to work within a specific kind of operation (i.e., counter-insurgency) characterized by fixed multinational headquarters in a mature theater. Moreover, due to the nature of the counter-insurgency mission, the general officer headquarters in Iraq and Afghanistan had marginal relevance to the conduct of daily tactical operations below the brigade level, which were conducted with near impunity, and certainly without a requirement for division and corps condition-setting on the scale of large theater war. This led to unrealistic expectations for future large-scale warfare, and an absence of necessary force structure.

Another area in which the incomplete build of modularity blinds the Army is in understanding the interdependence of echelons in a large-scale fight. Brigades cannot protect themselves — nor do they have the authorities and assets to do so — from air, cyber, and space attack. Divisions and corps will have to fight their own fight, protect their subordinate units, and enable their freedom of action. This is wholly different than what the Army has done since 9/11. The Army should rid itself and its stakeholders of the disproven and dangerous notion that echelons above brigade are “mere overhead,” or the equally dangerous notion that they can be instantaneously created as needed in the midst of a war. 

Operational Energy

The Army is behind on adapting to the increasing movement for alternative or “green” energy, addressing the vulnerabilities of industrial-age fossil fuels, identifying the inefficiencies of the end to end logistics chain, and moving toward vehicle electrification (the most fundamental shift in the automotive industry in a century). These interrelated dynamics create an opportunity and a challenge for the military. The Army will likely be forced to shift toward an entirely different enterprise where energy will be organically generated and distributed, with redundancy, in a far more efficient manner.

For example, the Army currently relies on an industrial-age approach that starts at a domestic refinery, moves fossil fuel along rail or in long-haul trucks, moves to ports, then ships to foreign ports, moves again along trucked supply lines and logistics nodes, and ultimately arrives at a designated location for the soldier. This is an exceedingly inefficient and highly vulnerable approach to moving energy on the battlefield. Operational energy improvement will also feature heavily in developing the architecture for Joint All-Domain Command and Control, the creation of energy at the point of need for directed energy weapons, as well as undiscovered technologies that could further increased energy demand. It will even have an important effect on reducing the number of things that a soldier has to transport. Right now, energy demands of the future exceed projected supply. In other words, we need to take a fresh look at energy not just because of the opportunities to eliminate a huge vulnerability in fossil fuel sustainment, but also because we will not otherwise meet our energy demands.

The Army should begin a shift to organic power generation and vehicle electrification. This requires an end-to-end transformation of operational energy generation and management. Such a break from the past, if done effectively, would answer the demands of the Army’s multi-domain operations concept by increasing resilience and efficiency, while meeting the increased energy demands of the future battlefield. 

Warfighting Functions

In the late 1970s and early 1980s. as the Army sought to recover after the Vietnam War, Training and Doctrine Command leadership used the battlefield development plan to drive organizational change. The original battlefield development plan effort created battlefield operating systems, which would later become warfighting functions. Eventually, joint doctrine adopted the functions rubric, creating six joint functions that mirrored the Army functions. A function is very simply a grouping of tasks around a category.

But, unfortunately, within the services functions were aligned with the different branches, and now they are so closely tied to service identities — our tribes — that changing (“unfreezing”) them has become almost impossible. The Army tried to add a function (“engagement”), which is a collection of tasks currently lacking in the existing functions (and which would have enabled and complemented the Army’s evolving role in “competition”), but has so far deferred. The battlefield operating system warfighting functions proved ideal for mechanized warfare. However, they have proven to be an impediment to organizing around the tasks required to dominate warfare in the information age. The challenges in organizing cyber are indicative of this. The military recently added the “information” function to the joint doctrine, further confusing the issue of how to categorize essential tasks. Additional evidence of this is reflected in the current joint concept draft, which federates the writing of separate functions to the services. How the joint force and the Army group tasks into categories affects every aspect of doctrine, organizations, manning, training, and equipping across the Defense Department. Warfighting functions should be unfrozen. 


The Army should stop managing the problems it faces and instead should boldly make investments to solve them. To do so, the service should unfreeze and change its near- and mid-term future force development. And although the future force should be grounded in the lessons of our most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service should try to go beyond those lessons. Importantly, the Army cannot simply add new technologies to old ways of thinking. In the end, the service should field a future Army that can conduct multi-domain operations. To do that, the service should not only continue to adapt the current force, but it should simultaneously, and with prioritized effort, embrace the curiosity and uncertainty of a different future and design the Army that will win in it.

Sir Michael Howard is often quoted about predicting the future: “No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict. The key is to not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust once that character is revealed.” The Army has a concept (i.e., multi-domain operations) that is close enough to the mark to drive future force development. It is time for the Army to break its intellectual logjam and fully commit to multi-domain operations. Some have said that “multi-domain operations is probably not right” as written. But the question isn’t “is it right?” but rather “is it right enough?” The 1982 Field Manual 100-5 Operations wasn’t exactly right either. But rather than manifesting ambivalence, the Army actively modernized, developed, and improved it, publishing a revision in 1986. Absent decisive and consistent movement now it will be exceedingly difficult to change the Army on a relevant azimuth, and instead we will find ourselves later with a perfect concept and an inadequate Army.

For the Army, a scenario in which the U.S. has lost dominance of the global commons is a situation it has not faced for 50 years. Counterintuitively, perhaps, a loss of dominance in the global commons increases the importance of landpower. The Army should develop and communicate that role, because many believe that the future of national security lies almost exclusively with air and naval power.

At the same time, can Army leaders today visualize a brigade devastated, lying in smoking ruins? Those that cannot are not thinking thoroughly enough about the adversaries U.S. forces will likely face in future conflict, and the increasingly evident capacity of our peers. Multi-domain operations provides a proven framework for operating in and winning a fully contested information-age fight. Having begun with Covey, we end with him. The self-examination required to “move the ladder” will require leadership at every level of the Army. It is time to stop managing the problem, and we should vigorously “move the ladder” to develop and implement the solutions envisioned in multi-domain operations.



Lt. Gen. (ret.) Eric Wesley is the former director of the Army Futures and Concept Center and led the writing of the multi-domain operations concept.

Col. (ret.) Robert Simpson has 20 years experience in future force design and development and assisted in authoring multi-domain operations.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. Calab Franklin)