ARMY WAR COLLEGE: A massive wargame held here this week to explore the “Deep Future” of warfare in the 2030s demonstrated a stark truth — one that Clausewitz enumerated in his famous work, On War — there’s no substitute for sheer numbers, no matter how much high technology the Army buys.
That’s an unsettling answer at a time when the deep, decade-long spending cuts called sequestration threaten to slash both the Army’s numbers and the research and development money that ultimately gives birth to the most useful technology.
It takes a decade or two to take new technology from the laboratory to the battlefield or to grow a young second lieutenant into a commander. So Army leaders are painfully aware that if they want to get ready for the 2030s, they need to make some key investments now. To do that they need to sell them to skeptical civilians at the very moment when the rush to cut the budget makes it all too tempting to slash programs that only pay off in the longer term.
It’s especially difficult for the Army, which has poured more money into cancelled acquisition programs than any other service over the past two decades. With Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down, the Marines are returning to their seaborne roots; the Air Force and Navy have a high-tech concept known as AirSea Battle. The Army is having an identity crisis.
Precisely because the Army is the largest service, precisely because it is the most diverse, it spends the most time and effort getting all its internal factions to agree. By the time that anything like a vision has made the stations of the cross to get approval and input from all the requisite generals, it’s usually watered down and bloated up into cluttered, incoherent PowerPoint slides (“my instructions were to put all the ideas up there,” one briefer said) that are unintelligible to outsiders – including the people who sign the Army’s checks.
When I said this, in blunter terms, to a room full of generals, colonels, and senior Army civilians here, I was surprised by the response: a lot of rueful laughter, nodding heads, and — most surprising — a fist-bump from a two-star general.
It’s true, another two-star said. “Because we are the most complex and dysfunctional of the organizations in the Department of Defense, we have meandered all over the place,” the major-general sighed. One civilian official, he said, had even warned him that “one thing you’ve got to do is decide what you’re going to do: You can’t change your minds every year-and-a-half.”
This week’s wargames and the associated conference of senior officers – involving more than a hundred people from the Army, other services, civilian agencies, foreign allies, and even an advisory body to the UN – are part of an Army program called “Unified Quest,” an ongoing effort to figure out the future of the service. The Army organizer, the Training And Doctrine Command (TRADOC), has given the other armed services, civilian agencies, and even me, a journalist, extraordinarily open access to some brutally honest discussions.
“I feel like I’m leading a root canal,” said one general moderating Thursday’s discussion.
“The Army is almost unique in its ability to have a self-critical discussion like this and be a true learning organization,” the Stimson Center’s Lincoln Bloomfield told me after we both participated in a previous conference at Fort Belvoir. “If you had a similar gathering at a civilian agency the culture would tend to produce talk of inputs rather than outputs, efforts made rather than results achieved. As the September 19 House hearing on Benghazi made clear, the State Department has no institutionalized process for lessons learned.” The Army has an entire organization devoted to dissecting what went wrong or right.
Facing An Ugly Future
The most striking case of the Army’s capacity for self-criticism that I saw came on Thursday afternoon, when a colonel and his staff briefed senior officers on how the wargames were going downstairs. (The fictional scenario was deemed too sensitive for me to sit in on the turn-by-turn planning, unlike the previous game, but I was allowed to attend the conference on the condition that I not identify any participant by name).
As in the past, TRADOC was actually running two wargames side-by-side, each fighting the same enemies in the same scenario but with significantly different assets on the American side. The “evolution force” assumed the Army sticks with its current 30-year modernization plan (although funding for it is in real danger): The only new systems in its arsenal would be ones whose key components have at least proven they can function in the lab. (The government calls this “Technological Readiness Level four” (TRL 4). The “innovation force,” however, assumed the Army had the funding – and enough luck – to get more radical technology ready in time, ranging from robotics to rapid deployment to “potential game changer technology in directed energy” (such as lasers to shoot down enemy missiles, microwave blasts to fry enemy electronics, and artillery railguns).
The high-tech option certainly got there faster: It deployed an “operationally significant” force to the crisis zone within 16 days, compared to 45 days for the less advanced alternative. True, the Army can already drop a battalion of paratroopers from the 82 Airborne Division’s “Global Response Force” anywhere on the planet overnight and deploy a full airborne brigade in 96 hours, but those are relatively lightly armed foot troops. It takes weeks or months to move in heavy artillery and armored vehicles. When airborne troops deployed to Saudi Arabia to deter Saddam Hussein’s armored legions from invading In 1990’s Operation Desert Shield they were described by an authoritative Pentagon study as “the speed bump.” Even if every single missile the 82nd carried destroyed an Iraqi tank, one veteran of the operation told the conference, “we were still short.” So closing that gap between the rapid-deploying light brigades and the slower-moving heavy hitters is crucial to the Army’s crisis response. Simply put, said one participant, “there’s less time for bad things to happen.”
Where things went sour was when the simulated US force actually closed for battle, even in the high-tech version. “When the innovative force met the enemy and got in, it just didn’t seem that technology gave you the advantage that you wanted,” said the colonel leading the briefing. Though he didn’t characterize what happened as a “defeat,” he acknowledged that progress stalled, calling it an “operational pause.”
Why? “I don’t know,” the colonel said, pointing out that the final turn of the game was still in progress and analysis had barely begun. “I just know it’s worth doing an [analysis] to break apart why the units had to stop. Were they overwhelmed?”
Diagnosing The Dangers
Institutions, like scientists, learn more from failure than from success, and the point of playing wargames is to push your force to the limit and see where it breaks so you can fix problems before they occur in real life. The Army is just beginning in-depth analysis of this week’s wargame, but first impressions suggest three major fault lines:
Part of the problem may be with the Army’s evolving concept for future warfare, “Integrated Distributed Operations.” IDO calls for fast-moving units to strike at multiple points, each moving independently rather forming a single battle front (hence “distributed”) but coordinating maneuvers and concentrating their fire (hence “integrated”) through secure communications networks. In part, the idea is to make up for smaller forces with superior speed and flexibility. But in the wargames, the enemy fought on doggedly against the more agile Americans and kept US units from joining forces.
“You didn’t get the shock [effect] you were looking for,” said the colonel, “and they couldn’t make [US-controlled areas] contiguous, even when they were reinforced over and over again.”
Part of the problem may be technology: Adversaries around the world are catching up. By the 2030s some countries – or well-connected non-state forces such as Hezbollah – may challenge or even exceed American capabilities in a few key areas. “When you get to near tech parity,” said the colonel, “the engagements are intensive, they’re longer than what we were expecting to see, and… the way we’ve chosen to go in doesn’t allow the commander to have options.”
In a study of more than a dozen militarily relevant technologies, from armor protection to bioscience to robotics, the Army analysts predicted the US would stay on top throughout the 2030s in just two: the “Internet of things” and “synthetic biology.” Barring additional investment, the study said, armor, robotics, and electromagnetic rail guns would remain solid areas of American advantage until about 2030, while computing, night vision, and drones (unmanned air vehicles) would stay in the US column only until sometime in the 2020s. Cyberwarfare, chemical weapons, and artillery of all kinds – from ballistic missiles to rockets to conventional howitzers – were all areas where some adversaries might well have the edge on the United States already.
Overall, said one general, “we believe [that] our advantage is sustainable through the next two decades or so, but as you get into the 2030-2040 period [and] if we stay on this path, we very likely will put our soldiers in the future at risk. They will lose the competitive advantage that we’ve come to know and love.”
Even in the alternative future where the Army was able to make additional investments in breakthrough technologies, however, the high-tech force still ran into trouble. A crucial problem was that we were sometimes just so badly outnumbered that no amount of technology could make up for it.
“We’re finding the mass, in certain situations, isn’t there,” said the colonel running the briefing.
The general was blunter: “We started running out of numbers,” he said. “At some point those numbers still matter.”
Three recent wargames and a RAND study all agreed the Army would need to field 20 combat brigades against a threat on the scale of North Korea, the general continued. But the Army is currently shrinking to 32 brigade combat teams, which would leave very little margin for error or other simultaneous contingencies.
The mandatory 10-year budget cuts known as sequestration will make all this much worse.
So far, although the Army is in the process of shedding 80,000 soldiers – from 570,000 at the height of the Iraq war to a planned 490,000 in 2017 – it is mostly giving back its post-9/11 buildup and streamlining support functions such as headquarters and supply. In the current reorganization, “we just eliminated overhead,” the general said. But that plan predates sequestration.
As sequestration bite deeper, “we’re going to start seeing further reductions,” the general said. “It’s not just going to be brigade headquarters or a sustainment battalion, [but] the core fighting capability of the Army.”