Twenty-five years after Desert Storm, very little in the conventional operational environment has changed when it comes to preparing for war against a peer competitor. After 9/11, the ground services took a doctrinal knee. Over nearly two decades the military spawned a generation of officers schooled in counterinsurgency. Today’s doctrine makers have only vicarious experience with fighting big wars. But while we still seek to find our doctrinal legs for conventional wars, technology hasn’t taken a knee. And, absent a few exceptions, emerging technologies continue to favor the defensive. Artificial intelligence in particular promises to make the battlefield transparent allowing near perfect targeting of mechanized forces. An enemy’s defensive cyber capability mated to a cutting-edge integrated air defense network might well impede the ability of American airpower to conduct an offensive air campaign. Russia has developed a sophisticated suite of long-range precision missiles networked to unmanned sensors that would allow them to conduct their own version of AirLand Battle, but in reverse.
The bottom line is that the pendulum has hit the doctrinal stops. The three components of firepower dominance—lethality, range and precision—have all increased killing power by at least by a factor of four or five just in the past three decades alone, while the speed of ground maneuver is exactly where it was during the Battle of France in 1940.
What is to be Done?
The Army is currently positioned along the doctrinal highway somewhere between visioning and concept development. Its emerging concept, Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), rightfully recognizes that that the hidden hand of technological innovation has added new layers to the complexity of operations. It was hard enough to add the air in AirLand Battle. The challenge is much greater when the Army seeks to add cyber and space to the calculus of battle. For the first time since the Cold War, the Army has built a doctrine around a threat rather than capabilities. The Army’s brain trust that developed AirLand Battle willingly limited the scope of its doctrine to fighting a war in central Europe.
MDO doctrine, however, expands the scope of conflict to embrace “competitive” phases of conflict against Russia and China. The authors of MDO seek to move warfare “beyond joint” with the concept of “convergence,” an idea first expressed in Army After Next writings in the nineties as “interdependence” or “joint interdependence.” The two terms together take multiservice integration to a new and higher level in the hope that traditional service-specific friction might be reduced in future conflicts.
The doctrine’s fatal flaw mirrors mistakes made when armies of the past failed to keep pace with technological change. I’ve read and re-read multi-domain doctrine many times. After receiving briefings on war games conducted by Army Futures Command, I am convinced that doctrine makers now perceive the battlefield as dominated by the offensive.
To a degree, this bias is understandable. When the Army hit the conventional war “pause button” in 2001 it was still under the embrace of Desert Storm, our last successful big war. Desert Storm was an intellectual lure because it redeemed the Army from the stigma of Vietnam. It remains emotionally compelling because it separates the Army’s intellectual community today from the frustrations of fighting unfulfilling wars in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, Desert Storm is a terminal off-ramp—a dead end along the doctrinal highway. The Great Wheel would never have succeeded had Russians been on the other side of the berm.
My thoughts are observations, not criticisms. I’m a student of the history of doctrine, not a bomb thrower. I’ve been around a long time and tend to take a longer view of events. My concern is that, after eighteen frustrating years of counterinsurgency warfare, the Army has pushed the “resume play” button perhaps a bit precipitously.
We have time to figure this out. But one thing is certain: any doctrine founded on a false premise cannot be sustained. The services are fortunate in that multi-domain doctrine is still evolving somewhere along the temporal highway short of the point where units are formed, and systems funded. By all accounts the capabilities of the Army’s big six priorities for weapons, (Long-Range Precision Fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicles, Future Vertical Lift The network, Air & Missile Defense and Soldier Lethality) remain viable regardless of which side of the duality they serve.
As mentioned above, the Army’s brain trust has time to decide where between the primal dualities the answer lies. Does technology favor the offensive or defensive? I vote for the latter. Only time will tell who is right. The Western powers voted wrong in 1914. The French voted wrong in 1940. History’s cautionary tale is that the side that gets it wrong next time will suffer ill consequences beyond imagining.
Robert Scales is a retired major general and former president of the Army War College. He is the author of eight books on military history and theory and is a frequent contributor to major news outlets. He is a graduate of West Point and holds a PhD in history from Duke University.