The Army Plans Its Warfighting Future

The army undertakes a significant reformation every number of years, as it has again with its vision for Army 2030, which it will highlight at next week’s Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) annual meeting. The army is acting on multiple fronts with well-known advances in talent management, personnel and pay processes, and continued investment in six modernization priorities. It remains to be seen if the sum of the parts will recruit and retain the force it wants while maintaining quality. Its latest warfighting concept, Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), an “evolution” of AirLand Battle, is central to this vision and considered a major part of the army’s largest transformation in 40 years. The doctrine has yet to be published, but when that occurs, it will touch every unit across the army. It has also been subject to a healthy debate that might continue at next week’s convention.

Changes to army warfighting doctrine are not uncommon. There is a well-known army story in which General Donn Starry overhauled its warfighting doctrine based on observations from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Soviet-focused AirLand Battle emerged after an essential and often forgotten flirtation with a concept called Active Defense. The service's preference for a more offensive-oriented approach dismissed this interim step as too passive and insufficient. Of course, AirLand Battle was never tested against its intended adversary, but was “validated” against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.

MDO seeks to extend the traditional battlefield to include space and cyberspace and recognize that the army plays a role in each of those domains in a large-scale combat operation. The concept acknowledges fiscal constraints and the lack of appetite to get bogged down in protracted warfare and seeks to restore the army's ability to fight and win in large-scale combat operations. Modern war is reimagined with ubiquitous sensors, long-range weapons, and a fresh approach to strategic and conventional capabilities. It argues that data can be as important as ammunition and makes a case for the relevancy of a powerful land army and its role in joint warfighting. This thinking shifts from deploying a modular, brigade combat team-centric force that typified the past 20 years toward divisions as its organizing principle. Divisions contain a broader set of capabilities that adapt ground forces to the demands of combat against a peer competitor, and there are significant changes to division structure from reconnaissance to precision fires.

Not everyone is convinced of the approach.

Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege’s (ret.) extensive critique is most salient—that MDO lacks an overarching “theory of victory” and cannot be simply “a contest between [our potential adversaries’] ability to deploy advanced air defense and area denial defense and our ability to overcome them.” It is hardly transformational to seek to reduce an adversary's capabilities before commencing AirLand Battle again. Such an aggressive approach risks nuclear escalation and assumes adversaries will not use nuclear weapons. This may warrant a restated assumption to acknowledge that there is a tipping point with conventional forces below the nuclear threshold that policymakers desire to maintain. It might also require integration into a Department of Defense-wide communications strategy to minimize misinterpretation like that of the Gerasimov Doctrine that stoked the image of a Russian bogeyman.

RAND’s David Johnson faults the doctrine’s bias for offensive action, arguing that a defensive approach may be more effective given strategic goals and the increasing range of weapons. Otherwise stated, MDO might be a rush to jump on an opponent’s sword. Moreover, that rush might inadvertently undermine jointness by advancing army capabilities across all domains for application on its own narrow front and minimize the importance of allies and interoperability.

Those narrow fronts also downplay the nuances between the European and Pacific theaters and consideration that what works best in one might not work in the other. Additionally, they assume adequate forward-deployed forces or sufficient early warning and indicators to build combat power, which might have a deterrent effect from the onset. Added to these critiques is that MDO requires a sustainable flow of soldiers, which may not exist now or in the future. This adds urgency to the army's focus on recruiting and people more broadly as part of its value proposition.

According to Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, “force structure reveals a great deal about a military and its assumptions of what wars it plans to fight and how it plans to fight them.” The army's transformation includes six signature modernization capabilities that will impact structure: long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift, the network, integrated air and missile defense, and soldier lethality. These initiatives were articulated to Congress in 2018, before MDO. This is reminiscent of the so-called Big 5 (Bradley fighting vehicle, Abrams main battle tank, Patriot air-defense missile system, Apache attack helicopter, Black Hawk utility helicopter), which originated in the 1960s before AirLand Battle and still constitutes the core of army force structure. This does not negate the merit of these capabilities and any associated platforms, but they should not necessarily be viewed as consistent with theory. This reinforces the need to respond to disruptive technologies that may dwarf the utility of these efforts and others that may stem from Russian postwar reformation.

Parochialism can stymie differing perspectives even among the senior-most cadre. For the army, European and Pacific-focused officers have different views on theater requirements and consideration of simultaneity or resource constraints. These are among the diverging perspectives needed even beyond the publication of a new doctrine. For MDO to work, the army must challenge its ability to sustain operations. This includes preventing matériel shortages. It also includes the broader mobilization of people in the event of a large-scale combat operation, if it expects a different result from Russia. These are among the reasons why there have been calls for an objective audit of the Russia-Ukraine war—to mitigate institutional inertia and confirmation bias. Healthy skepticism is warranted and welcome, according to senior leaders.

Warfighting constructs typically crave certainty and finality to fight and win on one’s terms. According to Conrad Crane, a better approach is a “series of steps that allows periodic course corrections.” The army is sensibly treating Army 2030 as a waypoint, not a final destination. Its leaders have been heavily engaged on the think tank circuit and can expect to hear contrary opinions at the upcoming AUSA conference. The army will benefit most from those engagements if its leaders consider the critiques and adjust its approach as needed. The beauty of MDO may not be in its present form but in the enterprise's humility and agility to evolve further in later increments.

Colonel Jaron S. Wharton is a military fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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Jaron S. Wharton

Jaron S. Wharton

Former Military Fellow, International Security Program