Where is the U.S. Military Headed?

By Richard Weitz

The third panel discussion at the April 2012 Army War College Annual Strategy Conference assessed the roles and missions of the U.S. Military Services in coming years.

LTG Keith Walker, Deputy Commander of TRADOC and Director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, discussed how the Army was building its 2020 force.

He is helping write the new Army Capstone Concept that is scheduled to appear in May and the Army Operational Concept due this December.

Walker explained that the Army analyzes the future scenarios by organizing seminars and workshops. It also employs a collaborative method of learning, which involves multiple agencies providing different perspectives.

Possible future scenarios the US. military might face range from the following:  the “probable” (such as humanitarian crises) to the “possible” (responding to failed states), to the “unthinkable” (which includes a nuclear detonation and a U.S. loss of access to Panama Canal).

This exercise aims to establish a broad operational environment that will allow the Army to assess hybrid threats involving diverse tools of power. Then the Army develops concepts, strategies, and tactics to counter these threats.

A priority is to acquire and maintain a high level of operational adaptability to manage a range of potential scenarios. To support this objective, the Army has been reviewing its alternative future scenarios more frequently than before, approximately every two years than once every five.

According to Walker, several global trends are currently shaping the operational environment in which various future scenarios might appear.

The dominant ones today are the Arab Spring and similar movements, the U.S. shift towards the Pacific, the effect of cyber warfare, and the economic crisis. Other major “shaping forces” includes U.S. global dominance, radical Ideologies, technology proliferation, growing social media access, demographics, economics, and cyber space trends.

The United States faces a wide range of threats originating from this complex operational environment. These include near peers, insurgents, proxies, states, terrorists, transnational groups, criminal organizations, paramilitaries, and “near-states.

The presence of multiple actors not under central control but armed with technological tools in an information-laden society is a major challenge. Potential adversaries have multiple motivations including competition for wealth, resources, political authority and influence.

The lack of linearity in the environment makes predicting developments harder.

For example, there is no longer a linear relationship between economic and military power or a clear delineation between the conflict and post-conflict phases. The U.S. Army must be operationally adaptive to manage these complex challenges that blur the distinctions that existed in earlier conflicts.

To manage these future scenarios in this dynamic and rapidly changing security environment, the U.S. military is pursuing a strategy of prevent, shape, and win.

Conducting humanitarian, disaster relief, and other crisis responses is a major part of the strategy. The Pentagon will endeavor to provide a stabilizing presence in conflict-ridden zones and deter and defeat aggression.

Maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent is another priority along with countering the proliferation of types of weapons of mass destruction.

Altogether, there are ten major missions associated with the prevent-shape-win strategy:

  • counter terrorism and irregular warfare
  • deter and defeat aggression
  • project power despite anti-access/area denial challenges
  • counter weapons of mass destruction
  • operate effectively in cyberspace and space
  • maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent
  • defend the homeland and provide support to civil authorities
  • provide a stabilizing presence
  • conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations
  • conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and other operations.

The United States will strive to nullify the asymmetric warfare techniques of emerging adversaries, such as their potential use of cyber attacks. They aim to preclude the United States from executing its preferred way of war through anti-access and area denial campaigns, use of violent and coercive methods against U.S. supporters, employing improvised explosive devices, engaging at the small-unit level, using robotics and electronic warfare, and conducting sophisticated information campaigns designed to erode Americans’ will to fight.

The intent is to develop an Army that can conduct a wide range of missions while retaining the ability to focus more narrowly on projecting power to deter and defeat aggression once a specific threat emerges. The combination of a narrow focus within a wide lens allows the Army to adjust more rapidly to potential threats.

The immediate goal is to prevent conflict, shape the environment, and win decisively.

Preventing conflict requires the Army to train, equip, and posture capable and credible forces to deter adversaries. Shaping the operational environment means that the Army must provide a sustained, stabilizing presence to gain access, understand the operational environment, build partner capability, and set conditions for operations; integrate special operations and conventional forces. Winning decisively and dominantly requires that the Army can deploy forces, prevail in war, and defend the homeland in support of joint force commanders.

To meet the above objectives, the United States will invest in leaders who have the capability to adapt to unpredictable scenarios and develop appropriate methodologies and systems to train them.

The Army wants to develop resiliency, critical thinking, comfort with ambiguity, a willingness to accept prudent risk, and psychological strength in soldiers who can accept risk and make rapid adjustments to changing scenarios.

Operational adaptability also requires flexible organizations and adaptable institutions able to support a wide variety of missions and adjust focus rapidly to prevent conflict, shape the operational environment, and win wars.

Walker’s current challenge is to transition from today’s force to the Army of 2020 in an era of fiscal austerity.

The Army has already developed a range of ideas to help it achieve its 2020 capabilities and missions as part of the Joint force:

  • redesign brigade combat teams
  • review logistics concept of support
  • create a new ARFORGEN model
  • maintain an operational reserve
  • create reconnaissance and surveillance brigades
  • project power despite anti-access/area denial challenges
  • create regionally aligned forces
  • integrate special operations and conventional forces
  • improve echelons above brigade (EAB) mission command
  • assign / align brigades to divisions and corps
  • enhance army advisory capability
  • implement a new tactical wheeled vehicle strategy
  • ensure reversibility and expansibility

The Army, along with the Marine Corps, is reducing its specialization by, for example, reducing the types of units it fields.

The Army will go from 18 types of brigades to having only three—infantry, armored, and Stryker. At the same time, some capabilities that previously were under the control of the brigade and the division commander are now being distributed to lower-level units. Still, if the United States became engaged in another major conflict, it would need to resort to national mobilization.

Hon. Robert O. Work, Undersecretary of the Navy, reviewed how the Navy planned to meet its future missions in an age of austerity.

By Work’s reckoning, the United States was about to experience its fourth post-WWII defense drawdown following those that occurred after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan Buildup.

In Work’s view, President Obama is not saying military power will be less important in U.S. grand strategy, only that its role will change.

For the past decade, the other elements of U.S. power had supported the U.S. military; now the military and other elements of U.S. power will support the U.S. economy.

According to Work, Obama would have made this strategic change even without the U.S. budget problems since we stand at a global inflection point, having ended what had been one of the most combat-intensive periods in American history, when the United States had been at war for more years than we have been at peace.

According to the Obama Administration’s new Strategic Guidance, the U.S. military is to become smaller and leaner, but more agile.

Work identified the key elements of the New Strategic Guidance as follows:

  • Requires we maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent—if possible with a smaller nuclear force.
  • Places great emphasis on sustaining freedom of access throughout the global commons, tying these efforts directly to the health of the global system of commerce and America’s continued economic growth.
  • Prioritizes sustaining U.S. global freedom of action even in the face of increasingly sophisticated anti-access and area-denial threats.
  • Emphasizes non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability to reduce the demand for significant troop commitments to nation-building or stability operations.
  • Rebalances the focus of U.S. military forces toward the Asia-Pacific region
  • Calls for a long-term strategic partnership with India, to support its role as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the Indian Ocean.
  • Continues to maintain U.S. and allied military presence in—and support of—partner nations in and around the Middle East and Persian Gulf, but with less emphasis on large numbers of boots on the ground.
  • Reduces our land-based posture in Europe while increasing forward-stationed naval forces.
  • Calls for innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve security objectives in Africa and Latin America.

The new construct supports a strong Air Force, cyber capabilities, and Navy and Marines, with even the Middle East treated more as a maritime theater.

Meanwhile, the Army will decrease in size, with no more than 50,000 U.S. ground forces deployed on a major stability operation at any one time.

The new approach also assumes that the United States will fight with allies –and these will be genuine and not junior partners—and will enhance its non-military tools to decrease the strain on the armed forces.

The Navy Battle Force will have 300 ships with a focus on flexible payload space and open combat systems.

But Work stresses the need to consider the entire national fleet, which includes many more assets than just the Navy Battle Force: the Coast Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, Special Mission Fleet, Prepo Fleet/Surge Sealift, Ready Reserve Force, Maritime Patrol and Recon Force, Naval aviation, Navy-Marine SOF/Cyber, and industrial base partners.

The goal is to create a Total Force Battle Network that has enhanced capacities for distributed and disaggregated operations which emphasize versatile platforms optimized for networked operations.

The Total Force Battle Network focuses on the aggregate combat capability of all manned and unmanned platforms, sensors, and combat systems in the National Fleet, linked together as a cohesive force.

The Navy and Marines Corps seek agility and flexibility by purchasing adaptable platforms with flexible payload bays that can change their weapons and other loads as needed to fulfill diverse missions.

Dr. Tom Mahnken, who is affiliated with the U.S. Naval War College and the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, discussed the challenges armed forces confront during peacetime in preparing for future wars.

During these periods, military establishments have considerable time to experiment with new concepts, but they confront considerable uncertainty about the nature of their next war since every war is unique and recent experience can mislead. The military’s challenge is peculiar in that it can only practice its profession intermittently but on an unpredictable schedule.

The political elite decides how much risk to accept of a major conflict catching the United States by surprise, but often the official U.S. National Security Strategy is not the best place to look. Experience often provides a more insightful database.

The United States has historically used force to pursue five goals: defend the U.S. homeland and American citizens, protect U.S. allies, ensure the free flow of goods and services, prevent any other state from becoming too powerful, and promote the common good by, for example, assisting with humanitarian disasters and preserving free access to the global commons. These enduring goals constrain the types of future strategies the United States will pursue.

Another constraint are the nature of the main challenges which the Pentagon will face. At present the main challenges are Islamist extremism, rogue states like Iran and North Korea that seek nuclear weapons, and the rise of China. These are all long-term challenges that require genuinely whole-of-government and multinational responses.

But the United States must also prepare for unanticipated contingencies.

The military also faced certain internal challenges.

Mahnken stressed the imperative of preserving the new non-core capabilities that the U.S. military painfully acquired during recent counterinsurgency and counterterrorist campaigns. These are precisely the skills that the military historically forgets following conflicts. Although these capabilities and missions can often be better undertaken by civilian agencies, Mahnken doubted that these agencies would perform them, meaning that the military must prepare as if it will be acting on its own.

The U.S. armed forces also need to recpaitilize and recover their core capabilities, which were severely taxed during the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with only the poor civilian economy masking the detrimental effects of maintaining such a high operational tempo.

According to Work, whereas normally the military improves its equipment during a war and then cuts back afterwards, on this occasion the U.S. military’s equipment will be weaker after the war than when we started.

The Navy is most concerned about replacing its strategic submarines, whereas the Army is most concerned about restoring its aviation fleet of helicopters.

But the hardest challenge is pursuing modernization while keeping readiness high to avoid a “hollow” army. Work estimates that adequately recapitalizing and resetting the force will require two years of elevated defense spending even after the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan ends.

Finally Mahnken emphasized that the U.S. military must retain and cultivate good officers who can think strategically and think ahead, relying on these deep thinkers to avoid the pitfalls of “next war itis” and “last war itis.”

Having studied history, Mahnken warned that too often military commanders end up fighting the wrong kind of war.


"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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