The U.S. Army’s Worst Tradition: Never Ready for the Next War

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Army has been consistently ranked as the most capable land force on the globe by defense analysts of all stripes. So why are so many people in the American military community today worried about the Army’s ability to deter conflicts with likely adversaries or prevail against those adversaries in future wars?

The short answer is that warfare, always a mysterious amalgam of art, science, and guts, has become an increasingly complicated and unpredictable enterprise. America’s leading potential adversaries, China and Russia, have shown no small measure of imagination and dexterity in identifying the U.S. armed forces’ vulnerabilities, and exploiting them through the development of subtle yet aggressive geopolitical strategies, and increasingly lethal armed forces.

Both “near peer competitors” may well be ahead of the U.S. military in applying newly emerging technologies—artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems, hypersonic weapons, and nanotechnology—to the ancient military problems of constricting an adversary’s maneuver, neutralizing its offensive weapons, and disrupting its command and control.

These cutting-edge technologies, writes Christian Brose, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “will enable new battle networks of sensors and shooters to rapidly accelerate the process of detecting, targeting, and striking threats, what the military calls the ‘kill chain.’”

Mattis: ‘No Enemy’ Has Done More Harm to Military Readiness Than Congress

How is it that “the most lethal land force in world history” finds itself in this unenviable position? 

While the Army exhausted itself fighting two frustrating and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 19 years, both Russia and China embarked on grand strategies of regional hegemony designed to undermine the rules-based international order that emerged after World War II under American leadership. Both of these rising powers have developed myriad ways to sew discord and dissent in America’s network of alliances and to expand their spheres of influence.

Beijing presents its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the best path for underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa to gain access to modern infrastructure, capital, and prosperity. In practice, it’s plain that under the guise of building ports, roads, and communications infrastructure around the globe, China is engaged in predatory lending practices meant to gain political leverage and privileged access to foreign assets.

In the South China Sea, Beijing has militarized seven hotly disputed islets, and is attempting to pinch the U.S. forces out of this strategically sensitive area entirely, even though international courts have declared China’s claims to these waters to be without foundation.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has run rings around the Obama and Trump administrations in the chess game of international politics. He successfully annexed the Crimea in 2014 from Ukraine, and interfered in the presidential election of 2016 via “active measures,” i.e., information warfare aimed at creating confusion and conflict in the American body politic. Moscow also successfully intervened on behalf of the brutal Assad regime in Syria, and Russia is now a major player in the Middle East.

As demonstrated in the Ukraine, the Russians are the master practitioners of “hybrid warfare,” in which conventional military operations—and the threat of such operations—are closely integrated with propaganda, proxy campaigns, cyber warfare, coercive diplomacy, and economic threats.

Both Russia and China have revitalized creaky and obsolete military establishments into first-class warfighting organizations. The consensus among Western military analysts is that in their respective spheres of influence, both countries have sufficiently sophisticated “anti-access area denial” (A2AD) capabilities to inflict severe punishment on American forces attempting to penetrate those spheres in order to challenge aggression or come to the aid of an ally. 

According to Army General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both Russia and China are “deploying capabilities to fight the United States through multiple levels of standoff in all domains—space, cyber, air, sea, and land. The military problem we face is defeating multiple levels of standoff… in order to maintain the coherence of our operations.”

Gen. Milley and the rest of the Army’s top brass are well aware that their service is currently a rusty instrument for carrying out high intensity operations warfare against either potential adversary. The Army Strategy, an 11-page, single-spaced document published in October 2018, provides a rough blueprint for the service’s plan to transform itself from a counterinsurgency-oriented organization into the leading practitioner of high intensity war by 2028.

It won’t be easy. The Army Strategy calls for truly sweeping, even revolutionary, changes in doctrine, training, and organization of forces.

For the first time since the Cold War, the Army has to reconfigure itself to be able to fight and win in a contested environment, where it will not have undisputed control over the air and sea. At the same time, it must prepare to engage potential adversaries more or less continuously in “gray zone conflict.” General Joseph Votel, the recently retired head of Special Operations Command, succinctly defines this concept as “conflicts characterized by intense political, economic, informational, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.”

The Army Strategy describes four lines of effort to reach the service’s chief objective by 2028, in this order of priority: Readiness, modernization, department reform, and building alliances and partnerships. 

The last two lines are more or less pro forma in every American military strategy document I’ve read over the last 30 years: reduce waste and inefficiency, and work with allies to insure military interoperability. The first two lines are worth a close look, for they illuminate the broad contours of the service’s quest to regain its pre-eminence in great power conflict. 

The quest to enhance readiness begins with plans to increase the size of the regular army to over half a million men from its current level of 476,000. In a departure from recent practice, all units earmarked for contingency operations and overseas deployments will be fully manned and given state of the art equipment before deploying. In order to increase the size of the service, the quality and quantity of recruiters and instructors will be increased.

The focus of Army unit training will shift from counterinsurgency operations to high intensity fighting, where the adversary is assumed to have cutting edge A2AD, offensive weapons, and cyber systems.

Deployments of Army units around the world will be less predictable and more rapid that they’ve been to date, as the Army and the other armed services begin to put the “Dynamic Force Deployment” concept to work. This concept is closely associated with former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. It’s also classified, and few details have been released for public consumption. But the core idea, as Mattis explained in 2018, is for the U.S. military to “stop telegraphing its punches.” Combat forces and their support units will be moving in and out of potential flashpoint areas more frequently and at unpredictable intervals in order to proactively shape the strategic environment.

Improving readiness also involves important upgrades in the Army’s defensive missile systems to counter China and Russia’s formidable A2AD systems. A new lower-tier air and missile defense sensor project will enhance the ability of Patriot missiles to identify and track targets at long range by 2022. Beginning in 2021, Stryker light armored vehicles will be equipped with a new air defense system to protect mechanized battalions and brigades as they maneuver in harm’s way.

Missile system upgrades, coupled with an entirely new generation of combat vehicles, both manned and unmanned, will allow the Army of the future to penetrate adversary defenses with an acceptable degree of loss.

Ensuring readiness to fight is the top priority of the Army until 2022. After that date, the service plans to turn close attention to implementing entirely new operational concepts and “technologically mature” systems that are currently in the research and development phase.

The overarching goal is to be able to conduct sustained “multi-domain operations” against either potential adversary, and win, by 2028. 

In the modernization phase, the Army plans to introduce a host of new long-range precision weapons, including hypersonic missiles that travel at more than five times the speed of sound. An entirely new generation of combat vehicles and vertical lift aircraft, i.e., new helicopters and aircraft with capabilities similar to those of the V-22 Osprey, both manned and unmanned, are currently in the works.

The new Army Network will be an integrated system of hardware, software, and infrastructure capable of withstanding formidable cyber assaults.

The leading war-fighting concept at the foundation of the Army’s modernization effort, though, is clearly “multi-domain operations (MDO).” The first thing to be said about the concept is that it’s very much inchoate. Discussions with several active-duty Army officers suggest even those “in the know” about this classified concept have only a hazy idea of how such operations will work in the field, for the simple reason that many of the systems such operations hope to integrate are still in the early stages of development.

The Army has only one experimental MDO unit on active duty. It is deployed in the Indo-Pacific Command and built around a conventional rocket and missile brigade. The brigade contains a unique battalion devoted to intelligence, information, cyber, electronic warfare and space operations (I2CEWS). According to Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., an editor at Breaking Defense, the I2CEWS battalion “appears to not only pull together data from outside sources—satellites, drones, spy planes—to inform friendly forces of threats and targets, it also wages war in cyberspace and across the electronic spectrum, hacking and jamming the sensors and networks that tell the enemy where to shoot.”

The commander of Army forces in the Indo-Pacific, Gen. Robert Brown, recently told reporters that his experimental brigade has performed brilliantly “in at least ten war games” against what are presumably Chinese and Russian forces. Before the advent of the new unit, American forces repeatedly failed to penetrate either rivals’ anti-access area denial systems with acceptable casualties in war games. 

Another experimental brigade is expected to enter service in Europe soon.

The U.S. Army has a long and unenviable history of being ill-prepared to fight the next war. The French and British had to train U.S. Army units before they were deployed in World War I. The Army entered World War II as the 17th largest army in the world, with underpowered tanks, airplanes, and ancient rifles. The Army that went to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan had trained long and hard to engage in conventional operations against nation states, but was ill-prepared, psychologically or organizationally, for counter-insurgency war. 

The Army’s ability to adapt to new developments has long been hampered by infighting and excessive conservatism in the upper reaches of the service’s hierarchy.

To remedy this problem, in July 2018 the Army created the Futures Command (AFC). Its purpose is to unify the service-wide modernization effort under a single command, and oversee the development of new doctrine, equipment, organization, and training. According to Gen. John Murray, its head, the AFC “will conduct war-fighting and technology experimentation together, producing innovative, field-informed war-fighting concepts and working prototypes of systems that have a low risk of… being rejected by future war fighters. There are no game-changing technologies. There are only game-changing combinations of war-fighting concepts, technologies and organizations.”

To say that General Murray has his work cut out for him is a massive understatement. He surely has one of the most difficult and important assignments in modern military history. 

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