Old Culture and New Mission in the U.S. Army

The prolific Tom Ricks offered an essay contest recently on his Foreign Policy blog Best Defense. The question was, "What is the single most important thing the U.S. Military should do to adjust to the emerging realities of the Information Age?

It baffles me that in the 21st century the U.S. Army, the most professional fighting force on the face of the earth, is still infatuated by a future of combat centered on tank battles in the fields or valleys of Eurasia.

While I applaud Mr. Ricks' recognition that adjustment to the Information Age is necessary, he is asking the wrong question. There is no "most important" thing; there is no single magic lever to pull that will solve the world's problems. To claim otherwise makes one sound like they are trying to hock a diet pill.

The key instead is to pull multiple levers, to varying degrees, at different times. Therefore the better question might be, "Where is a good place the U.S. Military can start to adjust..."

The best place I can think of to start, at this particular moment in history, is with a change in Army culture.

It baffles me that in the 21st century the U.S. Army, the most professional fighting force on the face of the earth, is still infatuated by a future of combat centered on tank battles in the fields or valleys of Eurasia. Truly no one, myself included, knows what the next war will be; and the U.S. Army should absolutely be prepared for large scale conflict.  However, in the information age surely we can accept as a planning assumption that neither the Russians nor the Chinese are likely to be so foolish as to take on the United States Army in a tank on tank, soldier to soldier, missile for missile ground war. The tools for much less costly and far more effective conflict are readily available in commercial off-the-shelf applications, advanced narrative delivery—through diffuse social media applications and whole of government efforts—and cyber warfare. Only after having crippled the U.S. information infrastructure would these potential foes mount a physical assault—if at all necessary.

As the Army refines Army Doctrine Publication 1, The Army, our core competencies should include information warfare in addition to the current list of combined arms maneuver and wide area security. Warfare in the information age is being fought for superiority in the information domain. A quick search of the media will reveal a host of articles on ISIL, Russia, China, and others conducting superior information warfare while U.S. strategic leaders struggle to understand Twitter. As the most technologically advanced force on earth, information warfare should be a primary method we employ in combating our enemies.   

Because doctrine is the basis from which we develop our methods in practice, and because Army Doctrine Publication 1 effectively defines Army Culture—what the U.S. Army is about—it stands to reason that this is an important step in changing the Army’s culture to more adequately address the likely challenges of future conflict. One of Ricks’ respondents, Col. Chip Bircher, supports this same conclusion in his essay, stating simply, “Doctrine defines how we operate, and even how we think about ourselves.”   

But what to me seems obvious is somehow lost in the bog of bureaucratic defense modernization. The former Commander, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Gen. Robert Brown regularly discusses people as the most important advantage for the U.S. Army. Still, the Army spends more than $1.6 billion on development of materiel capabilities while only investing approximately $50 million on developing human capabilities; and there appears to be serious discussion to lower even that number.

This is not surprising given that our leaders have made their careers through tactical command positions where success was defined by how well they maneuvered against a superior force at a combat training center. To the majority of senior Army leadership, a focus on "decisive action" (in what used to be referred to as high intensity conflict) remains the key to success, because it was the key to their success. Our most senior leaders are combat arms professionals and they are good at it. Direct conflict won through superior tactics is bred into the Army's DNA, as is evidenced by the swift victories in Operation Desert Storm and the initial ground invasion phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  However, no matter how many tactical battles we may win, I doubt you will hear a resounding “yes” if you ask any soldier who was there if we won in Vietnam, if we won in Iraq...or if we're winning in Afghanistan.  

One Brigade of the U.S. 3rd Armored Division masses in northern Saudi Arabia in preparation for the invasion of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, February 1991. (U.S. Army photo)

The problem is that we have become so demonstrably good at tactics that no other force on earth would stand a chance going toe to toe with American military might and ingenuity; and they all know it. So, they find ways to avoid our strengths while attacking our weaknesses.  The same ingenuity that helped mold the U.S. Army of the 20th century now seems so lacking in our culture that we have become mired in 20th century thinking. Imagine a combat training center iteration where a successful information campaign prevents the opposition forces from even crossing the international border—inconceivable.    

Currently the Army maintains an inventory of approximately 300 personnel whose expertise is the coordination and synchronization of information related capabilities. Beyond that, field-grade officers receive a mind-boggling one-hour long block of instruction during Command and General Staff Officer School (intermediate level professional military education) while most company-grade leaders receive no formal education or training in information operations.  

None of this is to say that kinetic operations are a thing of the past. In fact, the Project on Asymmetric Narrative Approaches argues correctly that, “a bullet still sends a message.” However, the aforementioned lack of understanding leads to information as an afterthought when planning operations. Other nations plan and execute actions to create information effects; the U.S. Army sprinkles “information operations fairy dust” on operations after-the-fact. Even the officers trained in information operations have been removed from the Army's primary tactical formation, the brigade combat team. The value of this decision can only be positive if the rest of the organization understands the powerful impact of information. The whole team must understand how to synchronize their words with their deeds and images to send a coherent message that can break through the static and counter the onslaught of effective enemy efforts. Increasing the amount of commissioned and non-commissioned officer education and training in the field of information warfare, at least on par with that of maneuver tactics, would develop a force that thinks about and understands the impacts of information on the operational environment. Without that capability, no amount of tactical success will ever again lead to strategic victory.

By changing our culturally biased thought processes to better balance our predilection for direct tactical combat with the consideration for the impacts of our actions on the information environment we stand a better chance of being prepared for the more likely future of conflict. By delineating information warfare as a core competency and increasing the number of personnel trained and educated in understanding information warfare the U.S. Army can begin to truly develop its capacity to manage the changing realities of the information age. Perhaps then we will move from a force trapped in the industrial age to one capable of winning our nation’s wars in the information age.

Daniel W. Clark is a U.S. Army information operations officer and the director of communications for a civilian flight training and flight services corporation. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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