Generals are often accused of planning to fight the last war, but the Army is making a virtue of it in the service’s latest projections about future needs and capabilities.
“The most effective way to build capabilities for the future, we concluded, was to make a grounded projection based on what we’re doing today,” said Lt. Col. Mark Elfendahl of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, referring to the kind of counterinsurgency and humanitarian-relief operations in which the service is currently involved.
At a briefing for reporters Monday, Col. Elfendahl discussed the Army’s recently published “Operating Concept, 2016-2028,” which lays out the service’s vision of how it will fight wars in coming years.
But this is a future that looks a lot like the present, and not by accident.
Col. Elfendahl said that, after the expensive failure of the Army’s futuristic plans for generation-skipping technologies like the Future Combat System, the service has learned its lesson.
“Rather than trying to play Buck Rogers and jump out way into the future, [the Operating Concept] is, in a sense, bringing the future closer to us, closer to the present,” he said.
Critics fret that focusing on what the Army calls “wide area security operations” like those in Afghanistan or Haiti risks sacrificing the edge that the U.S. military needs in conventional warfare against “near peer” competitors — nation-states such as China.
Classically, conventional conflicts — what the military calls “combined arms maneuver warfare” — require heavy forces like tanks and artillery, whereas security operations are conducted with lighter, more mobile units.
But Col. Elfendahl called that a “a false choice.” The Army, he argued, needs a “mutually reinforcing set or mix” of conventional capabilities alongside the ability to conduct peace-keeping or counterinsurgency operations.
“The concept [document] recognizes that a given unit, potentially in future conflicts, is going to have to move in a relatively short time from what might be a more combined arms maneuver type of mission set to one that emphasizes wide-area security like a [counterinsurgency] mission,” he said.
The “Army Operating Concept” document makes those kind of security operations one of “two broad responsibilities” the service must shoulder alongside combined arms maneuver.
Col. Elfendahl noted that the document assessed that “the potential for us to go to war with one of those major countries is lower today and projected into the years to come than continued engagement with violent extremists” like al Qaeda.
James M. Ludes, executive director of the American Security Project, a bipartisan think tank focused on emerging national security threats, told The Washington Times that the concept document represented “smart planning by the Army,” given the range of missions it might be asked to take on.
But he questioned the focus on counterinsurgency, noting there are different ways of engaging terrorist groups.
“If Islamic extremism is the principal challenge in the coming years, does that mean more conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan?” he said. “Or does it mean more theaters where we have a smaller footprint, like Pakistan or Yemen?”
If it means more operations that look like those in Pakistan or Yemen, where the U.S. counterterrorism effort is led by intelligence agencies and special forces, “what’s the Army’s role?” he said.
Mr. Ludes also questioned the suggestion that the opposition between conventional and counterinsurgency capabilities is a false choice. “The demands of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it harder to develop leadership with experience and training to conduct maneuver warfare,” he said.
As an example, he noted there had recently been a dearth of brigade-level conventional warfare exercises at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and that the brigade that staged them there had itself been deployed.
“That shows the stress on the force [of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan] has impacted the preparation for combined arms maneuver warfare,” he said.
Col. Elfendahl said it is not clear yet what the precise impact of the new thinking on the Army’s future procurement strategy would be.
“Back a decade ago … we convinced ourselves that because we thought there would not be a peer competitor, we had the ability … to skip ahead a generation and create a very modern futuristic technology-laden system that would allow us to fight wars easily,” he said.
Now, new purchases would have “to be lined up” against new predictions. “There is a lot of thinking that still needs to be done,” he said.