Kill the Homothetic Army: Gen. Guy Hubin’s Vision of the Future Battlefield
No one wants to show up at the next war prepared for the wrong war. The mistake can be catastrophic. The Great Powers marched confidently into battle in 1914 prepared for previous wars, resulting in horrific casualties in exchange for negligible results. In that case, the mistake was universal, giving none of the belligerents a strategic advantage. In 1940, France went to war having made the wrong bets about what the future would be like. Germany, in contrast, had bet correctly, giving them a strategic advantage that resulted one of the greatest military upsets in history. They had grasped better than their opponents the implications of new technology, adapting how they organized themselves and fought to make the best use of it.
Today’s militaries, hoping to be Germany in that scenario, have been struggling since at least as far back as Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to keep up with rapidly evolving technology that most believe has precipitated a “revolution in military affairs,” even if the term itself has fallen out of fashion. In the 1990s, the focus was on networked warfare and precision-guided, stand-off munitions, “information dominance,” and speeding up the “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act loop.” The call was made to “break the phalanx,” which yielded today’s brigade system. Then came “transformation.” The list has expanded, and, in 2018, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley wrote in the forward to U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, that “emerging technologies” are “driving a fundamental change in the character of war.” They have “the potential to revolutionize battlefields unlike anything since the integration of machine guns, tanks, and aviation which began the era of combined arms warfare.” Per Milley and Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army had to commence a profound revision of its “warfighting techniques” and how it built “the fighting forces we need in the future.”
There is much to be said for and against “multi-domain operations” and that particular Training and Doctrine Command publication. Here, however, I want to present a distinctly different perspective on the future battlefield that comes appropriately enough from the army that knows best the pain of betting wrong, the French army. In the 1990s, Guy Hubin, then a colonel and now a retired general, drafted a provocative vision of the future of warfare. Hubin’s vision offers several advantages over Training and Doctrine Command’s. One is methodological: Hubin uses an intellectual approach, informed by the writings of Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Gen. André Beaufre, which translates into a more intellectually coherent interpretation of recent developments and vision for what to do about them. Hubin goes further than multi-domain operations in his call to restructure how army forces should operate and be organized; he offers a clearer and distinctly French take on mission command or “command by intent”; and he makes a case for radical non-linearity that stands in stark contrast to Training and Doctrine Command’s seemingly anachronistic linear vision of the battlefield, which features a clear front and distinct zones demarcated by their distance from the front. Finally, Hubin, standing on Beaufre’s shoulders, is in a better position to grapple conceptually with a key challenge: the integration of military and non-military levers of power, of armed violence and political and information warfare, which requires the clear subordination of the military to political ends dictated by civilians. Multi-domain operations, in contrast, identifies the adversaries’ coupling of political and other forms of non-military action with military operations as a particular threat yet offers, at best, a muddled idea for how to deal with it.
In the French army, Hubin spent most of his military career with airborne and special forces units but has a background in France’s armored units and spent two years at the U.S. Army’s armor center at Fort Knox, where he was able to observe experiments with new technologies. These and parallel technological developments in France, among them the development in the late 1980s and early 1990s of France’s main battle tank, the Leclerc, with its advanced networking systems and ability to fire on the move, spurred him to contemplate what the new technologies meant for tactics. The result includes two books, Perspectives tactiques (Tactical Perspectives) — first published in 2000 but now in its third edition — and La Guerre: Une vision française (War: A French Vision), published in 2012. Perspectives tactiques, for a while at least, was required reading at the French army’s equivalent of the Command and General Staff College, the Cours Supérieur d’État-Major, known since 2018 as the École de Guerre-Terre. The book is the French national security community’s primary point of reference for discussions of future warfare and, in particular, networked warfare. It has informed the French army’s effort to integrate new technologies and rethink unit structure and tactics now associated with its SCORPION modernization program, which has become a major building block of the French military’s effort to implement multi-domain operations. One cannot credit Hubin with the French army’s embrace of collaborative warfare, for example, which is a capability SCORPION is bringing to a larger number of vehicle types and weapons systems, but one can argue that Hubin informs how the French army thinks about collaborative warfare and its significance for modern warfare. Similarly, SCORPION involves rethinking how units organize themselves, sustain themselves, and fight. The conversation in the French army about how to do all this did not end with Hubin, but arguably it started with him.
Standing on the Shoulders of Foch and Beaufre
Before diving into Hubin’s arguments, one should take a moment to note something of which Hubin himself and his French military readers may not even be aware because it is so much a part of French military discourse: the influence of Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s Principles of War (1903), both directly and interpreted and supplemented by the mid-century works of Gen. André Beaufre. Foch and Beaufre provide Hubin with a basic intellectual framework as well as a critical working vocabulary instantly understood by French officers. This framework helps make Hubin’s ideas more coherent than Training and Doctrine Command’s pamphlet. It also provides Hubin a means to think and write about technology’s effects without dwelling on the technology itself. This is important: Hubin is not a technologist per se, and that lack of specificity regarding the technology about which he writes helps keep his arguments current even as the technology itself rapidly evolves.
Foch articulated a number of “principles of war” that remain enshrined in French military culture. Current French doctrine calls out three: economy of force, concentration of efforts, and liberty of action. Foch also identified as principles “security,” strategic surprise, decisive attack, and intellectual discipline, which refers to subordinate commanders’ having the intellectual wherewithal to be entrusted to understand and execute their superiors’ commands as they see fit without either following prescribed steps slavishly or thinking they know better.
Hubin is interested in the ramifications of emerging technologies on the application of the principles of war (e.g., their implications for economy of force, concentration of efforts, etc.). From there, he extends his arguments to force organization and command and control. Armies will have to organize in a radically different way. Commanders will have to command differently. As we shall see, a fundamental insight for Hubin is the idea that new technologies will render concentration of efforts nearly impossible to the extent that concentration of efforts is synonymous with the physical concentration of military assets. What will matter the most on the modern battlefield is precise, flexible, and dynamic economy of force, which requires new ways of organizing forces and new ways of commanding them.
Hubin identifies in Perspectives tactiques three specific new capabilities new technologies brought about that he believes are changing warfare profoundly: the ability to know precisely and in real time where all of one’s own forces are, the ability to fire without stopping, and precision indirect fires.
Knowing where everyone is gives one an unprecedented ability to fine-tune economy of means. It also facilitates dispersion: There is less need to group together to facilitate communication or avoid friendly fire incidents. Meanwhile, not having to stop to fire, according to Hubin, means, obviously, that one can keep moving, which is a growing imperative in the age of precise fires. It also undermines the linearity that historically has characterized battle: Stopping to aim and fire as either an attacker or a defender means taking up a fixed position relative to the adversary, and a typical maneuver is to have some troops fix the enemy while others attempt to go around or behind it. Now there is a front, a flank, and a rear. There is an axis of movement. Polarity. If one can keep moving, there is much less need to assume a fixed position relative to the adversary and, therefore, much less linearity or polarity. This also means, Hubin points out, that the two sides are more likely to get mixed up together. (Hubin uses the word imbrication, which, in English, is mostly reserved for geology to describe overlapping deposits or rocks.)
Meanwhile, precision indirect fires have several implications. They encourage and facilitate dispersion, because one can hit any target within range regardless of where one is, and because concentration has become increasingly hazardous. Also, as with the ability to shoot on the move, precision fires undermine linearity, with important implications for how forces are arranged in geographic space and how they move. Until recently, Hubin explains, the approach has been for some troops to move forward to engage and destroy the enemy, while others stay behind in the rear to support the forward troops. “In war as in love,” Hubin writes, citing Napoleon, “one has to get close.” This reinforces the polarity evident in tactics and maneuver, for there is a front, a back, and an axis of movement. Commanders arranged their subordinates accordingly, with bodies on the move accompanied by flanking units, van guards, and rearguards. Precision indirect fires, however, inverts the relationship. Combat forces’ job now is to find the enemy and, ideally, concentrate the enemy’s forces so they can be destroyed by indirect fires, which, from now on, will do the killing. This implies a weaker degree of polarity, especially if one assumes imbrication.
Another ramification of precision indirect fires has to do with logistics: The intrinsic inaccuracy of indirect fires in the past — especially against moving targets — has meant that achieving desired effects usually requires large quantities of ammunition. This, in turn, has required a massive logistical umbilical cord that limits maneuver and reinforces polarity with respect to the existence of a front, a back, and an axis of movement. Units break that cord at their peril. The French word for this cord is the noria, which refers to the chain of trucks or other vehicles that go back and forth to keep forward units supplied. Against the noria, Hubin contrasts the idea of “pulsation.” Logistics will “pulse” needed material as needed, when and where it is needed. Pulsation implies discontinuity, which normally would mean the death of the noria system and, ultimately, of ground maneuver, but now the point is to shed linearity and free up maneuver.
These new capabilities, combined with the growing danger to any concentration of forces even at the company scale, tend to push down the size of maneuver units. Smaller units at lower echelons will become more important than larger and higher ones. Platoons with two or three patrols will have the role battalions once did. As the pawns get smaller, Hubin argues, at some point, the integration of combined arms — which, in the French army, currently does at the company-level with the Combined Arms Tactical Subgroup — also has to stop. Integration below the Combined Arms Tactical Subgroup will have to give way to cooperation. Different elements will act to achieve the same goal, just not necessarily within the same unit. This compares with Training and Doctrine Command’s approach to multi-domain operations, which appears to stick to the brigade as the essential maneuver pawn à la Douglas Macgregor while piling onto the brigade’s list of organic capabilities.
The Death of Homothety
The armies that will do best in the future, Hubin argues, are those that embrace the death of what he calls homothety. Homothety is a term Hubin borrows from geometry that refers to the dilation of a shape in space in relation to a fixed point. The shapes (imagine triangles or rectangles) are congruent, with one being a scaled-up version of the other. They also have a particular physical relationship to one another in space, given that one is a dilation or projection of the other relative to a specific single point. In geometric terms, the two shapes are homothetic in relation to that point. Hubin uses homothety to describe the structure of different ground force units at different echelons (i.e., division, brigade, company, etc.), their relationship to one another in space, and also their relationship to a fixed point. Each echelon is a dilation of the same form, and each is homothetic in relation to a fixed point, i.e., a single point of command and control at which all lines ultimately converge, and also a fixed space within which units operate. Homothety denotes fixity or rigidity of shape (though not scale), of command and control structure, and of the physical area of operation.
Hubin’s vision is not dissimilar from Training and Doctrine Command’s insistence that there be “flexible command relationships” that “allow for the rapid reallocation of multi-domain capabilities and formations across functional components and echelons to achieve convergence.” Training and Doctrine Command wants to “allow the creation of favorable force ratios through rapid task organizations [economy of means] and re-organization of reinforcing fires and capabilities among echelons.” Naturally, multi-domain operations requires a more horizontal flow of information and more flexible lines of communication. Hubin, however, wants to go further. Hubin wants to break the rigidity both of the shapes of army units and of their physical relationship with one another, more specifically their homothetic relationship relative to a fix point, and, likewise, the fixed area within which each echelon operates. Armies will need to be able to adjust who is subordinate to whom, create or suppress levels of responsibility, and permanently adapt the size and maneuver space of a given echelon. The “rectilinear shapes” of brigades and battalions are “inherently constraining” and no longer necessary, so armies had best be willing to back away from them. Everything must be fluid. The only predefined structure that will remain, he writes, is the platoon, the artillery piece, and the “engineering group.” Sometimes, several of these will be grouped together. Likewise, subordination will have to be flexible. One will see an armored unit engage under the orders of one commander but then pass under the command of another six hours later and end up under the orders of a third the next day.
One of the problems Hubin sees with the homothetic system is that, to a considerable degree, the commanders at the division, regiment, and company level are responsible for the same tasks of “conception,” “conduct,” and “execution.” This already has become problematic. Division-level commanders have little to do with the conduct of operations, and company-level commanders are too busy to do anything beyond execution, and, more often than not, they have to rely on instinct. Most interesting is the fate of the captain, which Hubin aligns with the “group” level, meaning the battalion-level combined arms tactical group. “The group conceives in haste and can only conduct,” Hubin writes, “which means to organize, coordinate, and articulate the means in space and time and monitor the coherence of the action.” But now that warfare is becoming more decentralized, and combat is increasingly the affair of small echelons, the system is losing all of its coherence. There needs to be a new division of labor, one that has nothing to do with the legacy hierarchy of the homothetic system, i.e., divisions/brigades, regiments, and companies, and is built entirely around the functions of conception, conduct, and execution.
Hubin proposes three levels of “tactical organization,” which he lays out in chapter 10 of Perspectives, but is related most succinctly in a clarifying email to the author. One is in charge of “maneuver conception,” which, he explained, “is to say to imagine, create and define what we call the idea of maneuver.” Another level is in charge of execution, “that is to say in charge of the fight with their equipment.” “At this level,” Hubin explains, “we will find patrols of armored, infantry, engineers’ group, artillery observation teams, etc.” Between these two levels, Hubin continues:
I propose to create an original system to control zones of maneuver to be sure that the different tactical pawns fighting in his zone work toward the aim defined by the conception level, i.e. to organize the different movements in his area, to allow an effective circulation of information, to organize what I call logistic rendezvous, and mainly to watch over the safety of the tactical pawns. What is brand new, is that this level is not linked to a tactical structure (platoon, company, battalion) but is attached to a portion of terrain on which the maneuver is evolving. In a way, ground tactical organization will draw nearer to air control organization.
Hubin imagines small units moving around the battlespace passing from the control of different commanders, each responsible for specific zones and responsible for coordinating activities and also providing resupply, in conformity with the objective determined by the “conception echelon.” Units in their space will associate with each other temporarily and flexibly. Implied here is the idea of abandoning traditional correlations between a commander’s rank and the degree of authority and responsibility. “One must break the existing relationship,” he writes, “between the importance of the level of responsibility and the volume of the subordinates.” Hubin argues that such a radical transformation is necessary to derive from the new technologies their full benefit. Training and Doctrine Command, in comparison, comes close to this idea by arguing for granting to “the lowest appropriate echelon” authority to access support from across the range of “domains,” such as intelligence from national surveillance assets, and certainly fires from joint capabilities to which normally only higher echelons might have ready access. As we have seen, however, Training and Doctrine Command appears to be thinking brigades, while Hubin is thinking companies and below. More precisely, Hubin is arguing for no longer even thinking in terms of echelons.
The Principle of Surprise on the Future Battlefield
For a long time, Hubin explains, maneuver was about hiding the bulk of one’s force (the gros), its location, and its intentions. Where was it going? Much of maneuver was about hiding this for as long as possible so as to benefit from some measure of surprise. Meanwhile, opposing commanders have to deduce the answers and, ultimately, gamble. In the future, according to Hubin, this will be more difficult to do because of all the sensors. The challenge will be less getting information than processing it.
This does not mean, however, that surprise will be impossible. Hubin uses the analogy of chess players: Both can see exactly where all the pieces are, yet it is still possible to surprise one’s opponent. The surprises are intellectual. “Surprise is realized by he who has the best vision of the situation, he who grasps the soonest and with the most clarity what is happening, and who knows how to coordinate the apparently incoherent action of his pieces such that the adversary remains eaten by doubt and does not know what move to make.” In any case, nowadays, even the idea of having a gros is questionable to the extent that it implies concentration. Maneuver, in fact, will have “inverted objectives.” Hubin explains that “the goal” of maneuver” will be “maintaining the dilution of one’s forces while obtaining the concentration of those of the enemy in order to give ground-to-ground indirect fires and air-to-ground fires better results.”
Evolving Art of Command
Hubin’s vision of the future battlefield has implications for the evolution of command style. Because of the impossibility of knowing how the enemy will react to what one does, he explains, the French army has always taught the imperative of trusting one’s gut. Decide, and decide fast. Of course, he notes, this is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Guessing right can determine whether or not one will be a national hero or a disgrace. This will change: The quantity of data and current and future computing power makes it increasingly possible to run models and simulations and quickly come up with something close to objective answers. That said, Hubin does not stray far from Foch and the French army’s emphasis on initiative and the offensive spirit. According to Hubin, initiative will count more than ever. One has to keep moving, which means one has to be the one with the initiative. Otherwise, one is finished. Part of that involves “resolution,” which Hubin thinks is necessary for risking the intermixing of one’s forces. You want to be inside the enemy’s formations, not the other way around.
Hubin is updating Foch’s arguments about intellectual discipline, which Foch thought subordinate commanders needed in order to adapt and improvise while still fulfilling their commander’s intent. This tracks, moreover, with the French army’s emphasis on “command by intent,” sometimes referred to by the U.S. Army as “mission command” or by the French as “subsidiarity.” Training and Doctrine Command’s multi-domain operations pamphlet calls awkwardly for an “intent-based synergy,” which boils down to unit commanders taking the initiative to realize multi-domain synergies. Hubin, consistent with French doctrine, is pushing the mandate for initiative down to junior officers and noncommissioned officers in a context in which he does not expect unit structures to be relevant. Hubin’s junior commanders need to be able to stride boldly among the hosts of the enemy and place their trust in others they very likely will not know. He admits that this presents a profound challenge for unit cohesion. Historically combat units have preserved cohesion through proximity (ideally by remaining within sight of everyone else) and bonds of familiarity and trust. One fights shoulder-to-shoulder with those one knows and those with whom one has trained. Units also have striven to maintain lines of communication and support. Meanwhile, they would do everything possible to break the cohesion of opposing forces, which Hubin notes is a far better objective than seeking to destroy them materially. On the modern battlefield, proximity is dangerous, and, in fact, the situation in many ways is reversed: The better a force can operate physically scattered and mixed up with the adversary, the more likely it is to succeed. To maintain coherence, commanders at all echelons will have to have a shared understanding of the situation and trust that everyone else is, in effect, on the same page. They will have to have confidence in their shared methods and the accuracy of their technique.
Returning to the Principles of War
Hubin insists on a re-evaluation of economy of force and its importance relative to concentration of efforts. As he argues particularly in his second book, La Guerre, economy of forces too often is seen as something one does simply to permit the concentration of efforts elsewhere. It often is seen as the opposite of concentration of effort. On the contrary, he writes in La Guerre, “concentration of one’s efforts consists of privileging the essential at the expense of the secondary, while economizing one’s forces consists of adapting optimally one’s means in light of the situation and the objectives, both in the principal and the secondary fields.” On the future battlefield, the concentration of efforts will lose importance and become almost impossible to the extent that it is synonymous with the physical concentration of resources. Economy of force will take on new importance and also be conducted differently. The more units “can adjust rapidly, frequently, and fleetingly, the better will be their chances of success.”
This insight also has the effect of inversing other Fochian principles such as security, which, historically, had been thought of in terms of vanguards and other screening forces intended to 1) prevent surprise and 2) preserve liberty of action for as long as possible, i.e., maintaining the freedom to decide when, where, and how to commit the main force. Now, security means not stopping and even mixing with the enemy (imbrication). Moreover, in the absence of polarity, of a front and a rear, security now lies in initiative and in having the best understanding of the situation. “It is understanding, intelligence, and knowledge much more than power that are the origin of one’s liberty of action.”
All War is Asymmetrical
Hubin’s arguments about economy of forces leads him to a powerful idea, one that, as we shall see, gives him an edge relative to multi-domain operations: Strategy in the kind of conventional warfare Hubin envisions is similar to the strategy required for waging asymmetrical warfare, particularly as Beaufre described it. Beaufre had written that, in asymmetrical warfare, the insurgent needs to understand that a “decision” cannot be sought in battle — where any concentration of means is suicide — but rather through an “external maneuver.” This means, for example, shaping public opinion abroad or, in general, using whatever levers of power one might have at one’s disposal other than military force to limit the adversary’s liberty of action and obtain an advantage. One must not focus on the tactical fight — wherein the objective is simply to hold on — but instead focus on the strategic level. This means, for the asymmetrical commander, “no axial maneuver, no arrows on a map, and no mass to dissimulate, but on the contrary an isotropic maneuver concerning the entire zone of action.” More importantly, it also means that the entire military campaign is subordinate to non-military maneuvers such as information warfare, psychological warfare, and the whole panoply of things one does to hem in the adversaries’ liberty of action. Correspondingly, this is where the counter-insurgent, the one seeking to defeat an asymmetrical campaign, also needs to focus.
Hubin is arguing that the above description of a correct asymmetrical strategy matches his description of how future conventional battles will be fought. This implies that, instead of seeking decision on the battlefield, future commanders will have to focus on the strategic level, where combat can at best complement the exercise of a wide range of non-combat and non-military activities. Hubin now is back on familiar ground with respect to French military views on two things: the strict subordination of military force to civilian priorities and civilian-dictated political agendas, and the view, rooted in French colonial counter-insurgency doctrine and argued forcefully by Beaufre with regard to great power conflict, that combat be regarded as only one part of a “global approach” or “total strategy.” One can seldom shoot one’s way to victory in most modern conflicts, especially if one wishes to avoid World War III or nuclear Armageddon.
Americans will say they, too, believe these things. They, too, have read Clausewitz. Yet, the literature on multi-domain operations (not to mention the American military’s track record in recent conflicts) betrays a tendency for the American military to revert to thinking of the non-combat “maneuvers,” which are part of the total or hybrid war that multi-domain operations thinkers identify with the Russians and Chinese, as secondary to military activity and, ultimately, subordinate to it. According to France’s leading scholar of military strategy, Hervé Coutau-Bégarie, American military leaders, are guilty of a “cult of decisive force,” which results in “a reticence, if not an incapacity, to understand the subservience of operations to political ends.” Indeed, Training and Doctrine Command 525-3-1 identifies as a major challenge the threat posed by Russian political and information warfare and, for example, Russia’s ambition to use information warfare to undermine political solidarity among NATO allies, yet it suggests the Army can deal with the problem somehow through fires and political action of its own undertaken by special operations forces, as if Green Berets or Army psychological operations officers can somehow shape European public opinion the way they might operate in Anbar Province, Iraq. There is no suggestion that perhaps the Army needs to subordinate itself to a civilian-determined and managed strategy in which its own contribution in the form of ground forces and associated fires are but one means among many to a broad political end. There’s also strikingly little attention in multi-domain operations literature to the limits on warfare with great powers that nuclear weapons imply. For Beaufre, that was the whole point: One cannot fight the Soviets directly because of the risk of nuclear war, so all strategy has to be “indirect” or “total” in the sense of relegating military action to a limited role.
Lessons to Learn
Hubin got some things wrong. He was overly optimistic with regard to the rate at which the technology would evolve and change warfare, and, in particular, he has overestimated the degree of visibility commanders would have, especially of the locations and movements of “red” forces. Thus Gen. Bernard Barrera, the initial commander of the French intervention in Mali in 2013, could lament the “fog of war” in his memoir of the campaign notwithstanding the advanced technology at his disposal. Yet, Hubin believes events in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and Ukraine largely have validated his arguments concerning the effects of new technologies. The real question, Hubin asks, is whether or not armies will do what he believes is necessary, which is to abandon the homothetic force structures inherited from centuries of practice. To this one should add the question of whether the American defense establishment can learn, finally, to think more asymmetrically with respect to the proper and limited role of force relative to non-military means of imposing one’s will on one’s adversaries.
Michael Shurkin is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.