This is another article in the #Operating: A Personal Reflection on the Army Operating Concept series.
One of the most ambitious and praiseworthy original aspects of the Army Operating Concept (AOC) is the expansion of its scope to include the strategic and tactical levels of war. As General David G. Perkins reminds us in his preface, “‘Win’ occurs at the strategic level and involves more than just firepower.” Certainly, there are few who would explicitly argue for us to pursue a “strategy of tactics.” Fewer still would dispute Perkins’s Clausewitzian notion that the purpose of an army is to get to the “Strategic Win.” Yet, by its very nature, an operating concept is naturally drawn toward idealized ways of war stripped of strategic and political context, and so we should appreciate the boldness of the effort to break out of this structural trap. Though this aim is achieved in some instances, for the most part this edition of the AOC is more rather than less like previous iterations. Though I cannot offer a complete answer to what an operating concept geared toward getting to the strategic win might look like, I do have a few suggestions toward that aim.
First, I have a few comments on the AOC as an operating concept from the standpoint of a US exchange officer serving in an allied army headquarters. One of the lessons earlier generations of Army officers understood is that sometimes you have to forego the tactics that you would like to use for those that are appropriate to the kind of army you will fight with. In the nineteenth century, that meant tacticians like Emory Upton developed tactics fit not to the tastes of the experienced officers and well-drilled soldiers of the regular army, but for the inexperienced and untrained volunteers who would serve as the privates, non-commissioned officers, junior and even senior officers of a wartime force. The present-day manifestation of this is the need to shape our concepts and doctrine to a coalition force.
We must do so for the simple reason of resources. The cost curves of personnel and equipment and the likely level of future budgets means that, barring the always possible strategic and political shock, we will be a considerably smaller force in 2025 than we are today. Yet, this is not simply a question of pessimism about the future. Any reader of “The Bridge” can imagine a plausible scenario in which one of the several on-going crises causes us to act, but in which the US military at today’s force levels simply does not have the capacity to achieve our desired strategic aims. We may have already crossed the threshold in which we more often than not will need allies rather than simply welcome them. We have a number of staunch allies, the kind we can depend upon for a battalion, brigade, or division, if we face a situation so dire it exceeds our unilateral capability. (As an aside, our constant rejoinder to our air and naval comrades is that armies are the coin of the realm in those high-risk cases; this means we should follow the trail of our own logic and keep that kind of extreme case in our focus.) We need to regain the lost art of simplicity at the tactical and operational levels, as coalitions are inherently less effective tactically and operationally than a single force manned, trained, and equipped to a common standard.
So, how does the AOC look as a template for combined operations? The rapid transitions between dispersed operations and concentration envisioned by the AOC imply what might well be an unreachable goal for force developers in even our best, most capable allies, for they post multiple problems, particularly in a time when all face similar resource pressures. From an ally’s perspective, how are you going to afford the investments to maintain interoperability with the mission command networks, reach the necessary level of intelligence sharing (particularly for those outside “Five Eyes”), deconflict fires, avoid fratricide, and sustain forces? Aside from the likely question of interoperability, the concept suggests a high level of training that is likely beyond the bounds of even the best alliance.
Frankly, I doubt our own ability to achieve the AOC. The jury is obviously still out, for this is a concept and not doctrine. Furthermore, the significant institutional impetus exerted through the Force 2025 will undoubtedly yield excellent results. Nonetheless, the concept in AOC is unpleasantly reminiscent of some of the ideas underpinning the Pentomic Army. The agility described seems too dependent upon the functioning of our digital and space systems, which the AOC notes will be vulnerable in the future, as well as depending upon the reliable working of some technology that we have not even developed yet. Certainly, with a few years of hard experimentation and training, we can probably get to the point where it can work against some enemies, but I fear that it is too complex for use against a particularly capable and well-resourced adversary, or perhaps one who is simply particularly clever in the way that they leverage dual-use civilian technologies.
I understand the pressures that drove the AOC: adverse ratios of force to terrain; the likelihood of operating in urban areas in which flash mobs can be readily mobilized through social media; loss of intelligence dominance due to smart phones and ubiquitous UAVs; swarming autonomous systems; contested air and sea lines of communication; network and space attack; proliferation of WMD; and, most likely, something it has not even occurred to us to be afraid of…yet. In light of this context, TRADOC could hardly issue an AOC touting stolid immobility and reliance on current processes. Concepts are supposed to push the boundaries of what is possible. Nonetheless, I fear that perhaps, like a century ago, we might be in a place where there just is no good tactical-operational solution. If so, then rather than wrestle with an insoluble problem, we should try to make the problem bigger.
This brings us back to the “strategic win.” As the remaining superpower, we are inherently a status quo power. Although I cannot put my finger upon it, I think that should somehow be the cornerstone of our concept for getting to the strategic win. Thus, for instance, rather than trying to develop a way to “win” in a mega-city, we should attempt to figure out how to do the best we can within a mega-city but focus more of our thought on translating whatever that is into strategic effect.
Our other great strategic advantage is the existing network of allies we have and the likelihood it will only increase if the world gets darker. Coalitions bring some tactical-operational liabilities due to differences in language, kit, and modes of working. Most of the references to “multinational” relate to minimizing these and so are really meant in the sense of trying to make our partners look as much like us as possible. But there are also strengths in a coalition and there is no discussion whatsoever in the AOC of how we might leverage those to our advantage. Several come immediately to mind: the diversity of tactical technique and equipment might pose dilemmas for an adversary; similarly, the diversity of equipment provides resilience to cyber-attacks geared to American systems; some partners might have greater legitimacy with the population; some partners might have greater regional or functional expertise. Most importantly, coalitions can bring mass we are apt to desperately need. There are many who ridicule the diminishing capacity of NATO, but we will soon be to the point where saying an ally can “only” bring a battalion or brigade will seem quaint.
Perhaps more importantly, since getting to the strategic win is our goal, allies and partners can bring international legitimacy, basing and access, and the intangible aspect of their own political and strategic influence. This last element derives from any number of sources — history, culture, religion, economy — that might be what we need to achieve our strategic aims. Before now, I would have thought such factors were outside of the purview of the AOC. On reflection, I now realize how wrong I was. We do need to think about how we get to the strategic win, and the Army should think about how that consideration should influence our conduct of operations. That is a very big question we can all pitch into.
J.P. Clark is a U.S. Army Strategist currently serving in London. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or his host country’s chain-of-command.
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