The Weaker Foe

Preparing for the Possibility We May be the Near-Peer Competitor (Part One)

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.” - Malcolm Gladwell [i]

For 70 years now the United States has fielded the most powerful military forces in the world. We came out of World War II with the strongest Air Force, the strongest Navy, the strongest Army, the strongest Marine Corps, and the strongest nuclear force. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union reached a rough parity on land and in nuclear weapons through sheer numbers, but they never matched the American military in technology, in logistics, or in the professional expertise of our forces. Since the demise of the Soviet Union no military has had anywhere near the raw military power of the United States. We have enjoyed absolute dominance in the air and at sea, and significant advantages in forces, technologies, and logistics on land, resulting in overwhelming victories in the major combat operations of JUST CAUSE in Panama and DESERT STORM in Iraq. This power and dominance shaped the development of American military forces; physically, mentally, and culturally. This two-part series will focus on the land power and Army implications of such development. Part one of this two-part series will focus on the challenges ahead, while part two will focus on how we can adapt to meet those challenges.

A sculpture near Ground Zero titled, "De Oppresso Liber"or "To Liberate the Oppressed," the motto of the Special Forces.

A sculpture near Ground Zero titled, "De Oppresso Liber"or "To Liberate the Oppressed," the motto of the Special Forces.

The Army that exists today is one that has never known parity with another. Forged in the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of the Hindu Kush, ours is an Army that expects to be tactically dominant, is not concerned with attack from the air or sea, never worries about how it will get into theater, controls the tempo of operations, and most importantly, has never fought a battle against superior numbers, superior technologies, or superior operational methodologies. Today’s Army thinks and acts like a large bureaucracy because it is one; it avoids taking risks because it does not believe it needs to do so to win (or at least that is the perception). Today’s Army generally employs two types of solutions to the problems confronting it in combat: mass and technology. Mass because we have the largest force and technology because today we have the best technologies. Today’s Army thinks in terms of conventional and symmetrical operations rather than innovative and asymmetrical ones. Even our Special Forces have fallen into predictable patterns of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (the Horse Soldiers of 2001 are long gone).[ii]

While many military professionals have read last year’s farsighted novel Ghost Fleet, how many have concerned themselves with its scenario or considered the implications on how our Army should prepare for future warfare?[iii] The mindset of the Army is nowhere illustrated more clearly than in our capstone doctrinal manual, Army Doctrinal Publication 3-0, Unified Land Operations. The Army’s sense of dominance and disdain for opponents is signaled by only four paragraphs in the entire document addressing the “threat” and even then really only to differentiate between state and non-state threats. Similarly, “enemy” forces are only discussed in the context of what our forces might do to them, not a single time in the entire document what they might do to us.[iv]

Strategic Foresight

Effective organizations engage in strategic foresight, which is the consideration of alternative futures to inform strategic planning, decision making, and organizational development. Those engaged in strategic foresight recognize self-delusion and wishful thinking as barriers to effective preparation for the future.[v] Instead, they adopt a global viewpoint and scan trends, forces and actors, and map the social, technological, economic, environmental, and political factors, plus additional considerations such as education and demographics. For example, the economic trend lines are all in China and India’s favor between now and 2050, by which time China’s economy will dwarf our own.[vi] Along with economic strength comes military strength. Already the rate of US economic capability to invest in military forces and new systems and capabilities is declining relative to China.[vii] Iran too is gaining on the US in rate of development and deployment of UAVs, stealth technologies, and C4ISR.[viii] What will the impact be when that country has cycled through two or three generations of systems development and the US has the same planes, submarines, missiles, and tanks that are currently fielded?

...the US Army may be in the position of those armies and non-state enemies we have fought since World War II...

Another important trend is the limitations the US is placing on ourselves even as our opponents leverage emerging capabilities in information, human development, and technologies. For example, Russian propaganda outlets and terrorist organizations are using social media to create and distribute false information in a way that is rapidly consumed by the American public to weaken the actions we take to oppose their efforts. Our laws prevent us from responding in kind, and in many cases from even using our Intelligence Community, Department of Defense (DOD), or Department of State (DOS) capabilities to determine when this is happening to us.[ix]

Based on analysis of what they learn, strategists employing strategic foresight envision possible, plausible, and probable future environments. This is far different from the scenario-based planning currently employed by the Department of Defense in our Capabilities-Based Planning (CBP) System. Unlike the Cold War threat-based scenarios, CBP scenarios specifically do not represent alternative futures, but rather are contrived and agreed upon by all military services to provide context to examine certain force structure decisions, in other words the exact opposite of the strategic foresight approach.[x] This lack of foresight enables DOD and the military services to see the future world as they want it to be, not as it likely will be. The result is that the US military stays physically, mentally, and culturally in our comfort zone, unwilling and largely unable to think the unthinkable; in a few decades the US Army may be in the position of those armies and non-state enemies we have fought since World War II, struggling to cope with deficits in forces, materiel, technologies, and personnel. In DOD terms we may very well be the “near-peer competitor;” smaller, technologically weaker, with older and less capable systems than those against whom we are called to go to war.

Consolidated B-32 Dominator Bomber factory in Fort Worth, Texas, 1944.

Consolidated B-32 Dominator Bomber factory in Fort Worth, Texas, 1944.

In strategic terms, such a future scenario is plausible, possible, and, increasingly probable. That does not mean that such a future will definitely emerge. Many discontinuities could occur that may change the path of current trends. Events such as large-scale economic collapse of emerging powers, major wars, political upheaval, and the regeneration of American economic growth could alter the path of existing trends. This would allow for the US military to retain its dominance. But, as former Army Chief of Staff General (Retired) Gordon Sullivan cautioned two decades ago as the environment was changing and US military investment was declining after the end of the Cold War, “hope is not a method.”[xi]

The implication for the US Army is that we must take that first step and admit we have a problem. Our problem is that we are thinking and acting as if it is guaranteed that the Army will remain the strongest in the world. While possible, that situation is not certain and perhaps not even probable. So, what are we going to do about it? One thing is certain. If we continue to think, act, invest, develop, and operate like we are always going to be the strongest, and then we are confronted with the case that we are not, we are going to lose a war the nation is going to need to have us win. If we act like the sole superpower and then are confronted with being the near-peer competitor, we are not going to be able to physically, mentally, or culturally adapt effectively and we will lose. This is far different from being strategically surprised by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yes, we were strategically surprised, but the Japanese advantage was always going to be temporary. American industrial, economic, natural resource, and population strength was such that in an industrial-age war we were always going to win, it was just a matter of time. In the future none of those conditions may be true.

Attributes of Weaker Foes

So, where do we go from here? The first step is to seriously consider how weaker foes thought, acted, and adapted when they were fighting against militarily stronger opponents. Consider the cunning of Francis Marion, “the Swamp Fox,” and Daniel Morgan as they fought irregular campaigns in the Carolinas during the Revolutionary War. Or even Washington’s strategy of exhaustion to defeat a British army operating at the end of ocean-spanning supply lines and his tremendous risk in the daring attack at Trenton.[xii] Or Communist infantry infiltration attacks to overcome the mechanized and technological superiority of United Nations forces in the Korean War.[xiii] Or the cunning that went into ambushes and sneak attacks that drove the Russians out of Afghanistan and have stymied our operations there for fifteen years.[xiv] Or the asymmetrical standoff IED campaigns waged against Coalition forces by the insurgents in Iraq, presenting us with problems for which conventional, largely road bound forces were ill-prepared. The list of campaigns waged by weaker foes against stronger conventional forces is a long one and it is important to note that the weaker side does not always win.[xv] What does emerge though are four attributes that are manifested in the physical, mental, and cultural qualities of these weaker forces: cunning, risk-taking, problem-generating, and asymmetrical operations.


“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate” - Sun Tzu [xvi]

What is cunning? The Oxford Dictionary suggests cunning is, "Skill in achieving one's ends by deceit.” Deceit is not something US leaders and service members practice often. Part of the challenge is the inherent commitment to honor, morals, and fairness in military culture. This is a challenge to mentally overcome to win as the weaker foe. This is not a suggestion that the US military walks away from its values or violate the laws of war, but rather a recognition of ways to be cunning within those values is required. Many US opponents are more cunning at the strategic and operational levels of war, not just the tactical. Examples of cunning at the strategic and operational levels include the Chinese building islands in the South China Sea to extend their territory; Russian campaign and strategy in Crimea and Ukraine; and the Afghan and Iraqi IED campaigns.

Developing and encouraging cunning requires developing creative thinking, innovative approaches to organization and operations, and the foundation of tactical and technical expertise necessary as a point of departure. This must begin at the very beginning, when recruits are not yet culturally indoctrinated. Culture emerges from habit; to inculcate cunning into our culture, habits must be formed that will collectively become part of military culture. Take for example deception. Deception is part science and part art. The art of deception requires creativity and cunning. So, the habit of including a deception component in every operation must become part of the culture. Virtually every leader knows Sun Tzu’s dictum that “All warfare is based on deception,” yet few actually practice it.[xvii]

To a certain extent cunning is about creativity, about finding new and unexpected ways of conducting military activities, new tactics and weapons, and often using old things in news ways. People often mistakenly believe that creativity is innate and can’t be taught. This is wrong. One way is to teach the five creative methods used throughout military history. These include:

  • Evolution – which as it sounds is a series of incremental improvement steps. A good example is the counter-IED electronic warfare protection systems used in Operations IRAQI (OIF) and ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF).
  • Synthesis – which is combining multiple approaches to create something new. The classic example is the tank that combined the mobility of a farm tractor with the protection of steel and the firepower of a ship’s turret.
  • Revolution – which is doing something not tried before. For example, the Human Terrain System used in OIF and OEF revolutionary approach of assigning uniformed military, civilian social scientists, and native personnel in the same formal military organization.
  • Re-application – which is when you take something that works in one environment and re-apply it in another. The use of the Navy’s 20mm Gatling Guns with integrated fire control radar to protect Balad Air Base in Iraq and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is an example.
  • Changing Direction – which as it sounds is making a sharp turn in the course of action or approach. The surge in Iraq is an excellent example of changing direction. 

The teaching of cunning can’t simply be taught through an education in creative methods during PME. They must be practiced in garrison and in training – forces must be organized to be creative. Collaborative creativity must be employed, in which we harness the power of everyone in the organization. Many times it is the private or the corporal who has the “killer hack” that will solve the problem. Creativity has to be rewarded. Time must be set aside in training schedules to foster creativity. We have sergeant’s time every week in most units; why not add a couple of hours of creative time? All of this suggests we need leaders who can lead creative, innovative work.[xviii]

Risk Taking

“We must not be consumed with focusing solely on avoiding risk, but build leaders and institutions that recognize and leverage opportunities”  - General David Perkins, Commanding General, US Army TRADOC [xix]

Success when you are the weaker foe demands risk taking. As mentioned previously, during the Cold War US Army forces could be expected to be significantly outnumbered by well-equipped Soviet forces. Our Army was going to be the weaker foe in land combat. Accordingly, the doctrine that emerged, AirLand Battle, was one that placed an emphasis on taking risks.[xx] After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell apart, the US Army became the dominant land power. The incentive to take risks went away and as a consequence; our emphasis changed from risk taking to risk management. Risk became a bad thing, something to be managed and mitigated, not leveraged for gain. Today, risk management is taught in everyPME course for both officers and NCOs; risk taking in the warfighting sense is taught almost nowhere.[xxi]

To reintroduce risk taking in the Army and make it part of our culture we must change the way they talk about risk. As an example, current Army doctrine articulates the principle of “accepts prudent risk.”[xxii] Why is “prudent” a part of the doctrine? Risk decisions are by definition a judgement on potential gain vs potential loss. The challenge is that by adding the word prudent to the principle we are being cautious about the very concept that requires us not to be cautious. This places a brake on risk taking by telling subordinates that if they take a risk and fail, it wasn’t “prudent” and they will be held accountable. Why would any subordinate take risk under those circumstances? The conversation must be changed, instead focusing on how to take risks to take advantage of opportunities. The new leadership principle ought to be, “takes risk to leverage opportunities.”

Success when you are the weaker foe demands risk taking...

The current view toward risk is signaled by our obsession with risk management. Today’s commanders are judged on their ability to manage risk with an aim toward member welfare and safety.[xxiii] That is not a bad thing. Leaders ought to take precautions to ensure safety in training, in garrison, and to the extent they can even in combat. However, to fight and win when we are not the strongest force, risk decisions will have to be made. Then Colonel, now General, Dave Perkins made such risk decisions routinely during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. To maintain momentum for the attack on the approach to Baghdad he deliberately separated his armored vehicles from his wheeled vehicles, exposing the unarmored and largely unarmed wheeled vehicles to possible attack by Iraqi forces. His risk paid off, the wheeled vehicles were safe and the armored vehicles able to reach their objectives more quickly. Later during the famous Thunder Runs into Baghdad he made the decision to stay in the center of the city after his forces had penetrated, even though his route in was not secure, his fuel and ammunition resupply was under attack, and his command post had been destroyed by an Iraqi rocket. His reasoning was that the risk was worth it if it hastened the fall of Saddam’s regime. Again his risk paid off, the crisis with his lines of communications was resolved and two days later the Iraqi capital fell to Coalition forces.[xxiv] But, in many cases risk management has turned into a compliance issue, a checklist to avoid anything bad happening, and not how to make a risk decision.

Thunder Run into Baghdad

Thunder Run into Baghdad

Risk taking is an attribute. Like all attributes, risk taking requires knowledge and skills to translate the inclination to take risk into reality on the battlefield. Chief among those skills are critical and creative thinking. Critical thinking in complex environments to see the risk opportunity, creative thinking in order to develop innovative courses of action to take advantage of the risk opportunity. Although embracing complexity is important, responding to these complex situations in innovative ways can be risky. Risk taking and innovative thinking are intertwined. Innovative thinking involves identifying novel approaches to a problem.[xxv] The good news is today’s Army spends significant effort in developing leaders as critical thinkers, with significant blocks of instruction in many PME courses devoted to critical thinking. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about creative thinking, which is left virtually untaught. If we expect to develop creative, innovative, risk-taking leaders for the future, we have to start by teaching them to be creative thinkers, not just critical thinkers.

Risk taking also has to become part of the organizational mindset in our units. This requires that we create situations in training that force our units to take risks. We can do this at our Combat Training Centers by creating situations in which our opposing forces (OPFOR) have an overwhelming overmatch. In the past we typically would attack or defend with 3:1 ratios. Such ratios are designed so that if you execute the warfighting functions to standard you will win, or at least draw with significant losses on both sides as typically happens in a force-on-force instrumented battle. That ratio of enemy to friendly should be increased to 5:1 or 6:1 so that it is not possible to win without taking significant risks, while still executing the standard warfighting functions to standard. After action reviews then need to talk specifically about risk taking to reinforce the mindset and the skills. The same should also be done at every opportunity at home stations, so after a while service members never think about warfare without thinking about risk taking.


“The reason why most entrepreneurs fail is because our education system trains people to be employees, not entrepreneurs.” - Robert T. Kiyosaki [xxvi]

Want to win as the weaker foe? You have to be an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is someone who sees an opportunity or a gap in capabilities and comes up with a novel solution to gain an advantage. An entrepreneur is a risk taker, because along with great risk comes great reward. An entrepreneur is decisive, taking action where many would wait for the organization or more certainty. Finally, an entrepreneur is a leader, willing to go along a different path than the traditionally accepted one and able to lead others in the pursuit of a goal. As the quote above suggests, an entrepreneur is not one who waits for others to tell them what to do and how to do it. If we want to win as the weaker foe and generate unforeseen and challenging problems for our enemies, we need to develop our people as entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, when we examine our PME we find that while we teach leadership in the sense of enabling a group to accomplish a goal, we spend little time teaching our leaders to be entrepreneurs, instead teaching them to be employees. Take for example the Command and General Staff Officers Course. A review of the curriculum reveals that it is almost entirely about the execution of processes, such as the Joint Operational Planning Process, or the Military Decision Making Process. The remainder of the course is about how things function, such as the joint and interagency team and Army Warfighting Functions . Only on a few occasions are the skills and attributes necessary to be an independent thinker, problem-solver, and problem generator taught.

Want to win as the weaker foe? You have to be an entrepreneur.

The same is true of leader development in our units. There is precious little opportunity for the development of entrepreneurs. Most training is dictated by systems centralized at the Army level, such as the Combined Arms Training System and Digital Training Management System, neither of which supports anything other than cookie-cutter approaches to training. Much of the training and leader development is mandatory and compliance-based, in other words it is employee training, not entrepreneur training. Leadership training is the hardest hit, as it is usually placed on the training calendar after everything else, when there is almost no time left. Want to win in the future as the weaker foe? Then put leader development on the calendar first and fill in the rest with the mandatory training. Focus that leader development on independent thinking, creativity, and opportunities to learn how to generate problems for future enemies.

Marines on patrol in Afghanistan in 2009 noticed a motorcyclist pass by, and moments later an IED exploded. “It’s like being kicked by a horse, a horse with a foot that could cover your entire body,” said one survivor of an IED attack. Peter van Agtmael | Magnum Photos

Marines on patrol in Afghanistan in 2009 noticed a motorcyclist pass by, and moments later an IED exploded. “It’s like being kicked by a horse, a horse with a foot that could cover your entire body,” said one survivor of an IED attack. Peter van Agtmael | Magnum Photos

Probably the clearest and most immediate example of the weaker foe generating a problem for the stronger is the IED campaign conducted by Iraqi insurgents against the Coalition Forces during OIF. Unable to stand up to Coalition Forces in direct engagements in 2003, anti-coalition elements quickly shifted tactics to employing IEDs against Coalition convoys, patrols, and operations. For the remainder of OIF the IED campaign was the largest casualty producing means, dwarfing every other cause of battle death in Iraq.[xxvii] There was a saying in Iraq that perfectly described the US inability to overcome the problem presented by the IED campaign, “until you learn to hit a curve ball all you are going to see is curveballs.” I don’t know who originated that phrase, but the metaphor is perfect for the military as a “wanna be major leaguer” suddenly thrust into a major league environment of 21st century combat that was significantly more challenging than the opponents in DESERT STORM and JUST CAUSE. The Iraqi IED campaign was so effective that the Taliban and other insurgent forces in Afghanistan quickly and effectively followed suit. The high technology-centric military answer was never able to overcome the simple problems presented by numerous IEDs planted each night by individuals or small groups of insurgents.[xxviii]

Problems generated by weaker foes are most effective when they are unforeseen by the stronger force. This confronts stronger, generally more conventional and conservative forces with not just physical problems, but mental and moral problems. In the case of the IED campaign, coalition forces were physically damaged through almost daily losses, mentally frustrated by the inability to solve the IEDs problems as fast as new ones were presented, and morally weakened as military members and civilian bystanders alike continued to be killed and wounded by a largely faceless and elusive enemy. The question for the US as the potentially weaker foe in future large-scale campaigns is “how do we generate the capability now to be a problem-generating force later?”

Want to win in the future as the weaker foe? Then put leader development on the calendar first and fill in the rest with the mandatory training.

Generating new, challenging, complex problems for opponents is largely a cognitive task, requiring critical, creative, and systems thinking to see and understand opportunities; generate ideas that can become problems for the enemy resident within those opportunities; the tactical and technical expertise necessary to translate those ideas into action on the battlefield; and of course the leadership necessary to develop individuals and units who can routinely generate and take advantage of these problems. As a cognitive task it should be developed in part through education and in part through interactive practicum employing simulations and gaming. 

In fact, current research demonstrates that gaming may be the most important approach to developing leaders who can generate problems for future opponents. Gamers perform 10-20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive abilities. Video games increase “fluid intelligence,” which is the ability to adapt, to meet new problems, and to develop new tactics. Action games, such as Call to Duty, increase visual performance and predictive capacities. This means that gamers see the world differently, an important attribute for someone who must generate unforeseen problems for our opponents. Gamers see more in the environment, can track more opportunities, and make decisions more quickly than non-gamers.[xxix]

The weaker foe must win differently than the stronger foe. The stronger foe can take a linear, systematic, regulated approach to a campaign and win, because combat power, technology and industrial strength are on their side. The problems the stronger foe generate are those of mass, an opportunity not available to the weaker foe. The weaker foe must take a different approach, in which problem-generators produce the come from behind victory, the unorthodox strategy, a heroic effort from an unlikely person, and positive outcomes that weren’t even imagined possible. Gamers even have a name for this, they call it the “epic win.” Gaming increases the possibility that players will envision and carry out the epic win. Gaming is a way to repeatedly fail in a fun environment, but improve, or level up, with each iteration. Additionally, epic wins assist players to develop extreme optimism.[xxx] Extreme optimism is absolutely necessary if one is going to develop and carry out non-traditional strategies and generate complex problems as the weaker foe.

So, to develop entrepreneurs who can create epic wins through generation of unforeseen and unconventional problems we are going to have to take a two-pronged approach: institutional and organizational. The institutional approach must focus on a significant alteration to the learning methodology within PME. Today’s PME employs facilitated discussion (lecture) in combination with practical exercises to achieve very specific learning outcomes tied to general and functional knowledge through summative assessments to produce good employees. What we need is a problem-based learning methodology that employs practicum set within games to identify gaps in knowledge, skills and attributes and use individualized formative assessments that empower connected learning to develop each individual’s entrepreneurial abilities.[xxxi] Practicum should present participants and leaders with many iterations of very complex, transient and uncertain problems that require non-traditional solutions in a variety of environments and situations.

The second prong, organizational, takes place in units. As with cunning and risk-taking, every training event must develop the individual and team’s ability to generate problems for their enemy. Recognizing that there is still a requirement to teach foundational skills such as gunnery, maintenance, and medical; the emphasis with tactical training must be on developing problem-solving and problem-generating skills. Placing friendly forces in positions in which they suffer from significant overmatch by the OPFOR and are presented with multiple, simultaneous challenges are the types of collective, tactical training events we need. The simplistic, situational training exercises, focused as they are on a single primary tasks, for example route clearing, defense of a position, or deliberate attack must go. In their place we need problem-based exercises in which the unit is presented with one or more problems which must be solved through ingenuity and initiative. If we take this two-pronged approach and start soon, we will be on our way to being able to generate problems for future stronger foes in the same way Francis Marion did for Bannister Tarleton’s forces in the Carolinas during the Revolutionary War.


“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources- and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.”  - Malcolm Gladwell [xxxii]

We should teach our planners and write our doctrine not just to be able to shorten wars, but rather also to lengthen them. If we become the near-peer and weaker foe we must be able to survive long enough to wear down the enemy and eventually win. In the future it may be the US that must make the cost of war more than the dominant force is willing to pay. Giap and Washington were masters at that aspect of the operational art; at a minimum we should study their campaigns and learn from them. And, in the coming decades while we are still the stronger military, understanding these campaigns may help us to find ways to defeat them. We should also take a Red Team approach and examine the Taliban’s campaigns since 9/11 to understand how they extended the war for more than fifteen years, rather than our typical intelligence analysis based on how to defeat them in the here and now.

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

As professionals, our men and women must be able to think both as the force favored to win and as the underdog. Thinking as the underdog forces you to think asymmetrically, because the symmetric solutions approaches won’t win. Often we hear our peers, superiors, or pundits outside DOD remark that we are asymmetrical because we are so overpowering. While that is technically true, it is a reflection of our hubris, generated by a resource and technological advantage that we have enjoyed for decades, but may not last. True asymmetry is the English longbow against the French Knights; the English raiders against the Spanish galleons of the Armada; the dispersed Boers against the massed English; infiltration tactics against the trenches in World War I; Lawrence’s war of movement against far stronger, but relatively immobile Turkish forces in the Middle East; and Finnish ski patrols against Russian armored columns.

We should teach our planners and write our doctrine not just to be able to shorten wars, but rather also to lengthen them...

Other than the longbow, none of the above asymmetric solutions was a technological one. These asymmetric approaches were tactical and organizational, intended to overcome the stronger force’s superiority in weapons and quantity of forces. In each case the weaker foe conceived of a tactic and a strategy (in the problem-solving sense, not the National Security Strategy sense) that would enable them to compete with the stronger foe and turn the opponent’s strength into a weakness. The time to start thinking about these concepts is now, and thinking asymmetrically is the key. This requires a degree of strategic foresight, which brings us back to the beginning of this article. Strategic foresight can signal a range of possible future forces that may be more capable, more technologically advanced, and more numerous than ours. Armed with that set of potential future scenarios we will be better positioned  develop asymmetric concepts to win even when we are the weaker foe. Then we can wargame those concepts to find points of congruence, aspects of the concepts that are similar across all the scenarios. Those points of congruence point toward the conceptual approaches (tactics, strategies, organizations, processes, education, training, and people) that we can invest in now at low cost to shape the force that can win against a superior force in the future. If we don’t, years will pass one-by-one, then decades, as we complacently rely on our superiority even while it gradually erodes.


“Long-range planning does not deal with the future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.” - Peter Drucker

Between now and 2050 there are likely to be more wars in which the US military participates, more crises that are rapidly responded with armed force, ups and downs in military budgets, reconfiguring of regional alliances, new threats emerging, old threats becoming allies, technologies advancing, and policies and strategies that ebb and flow. It is entirely possible that in 2050 the US Joint Force will still be the strongest land combat force in the world. However, it is also possible we will not, and if current trends persist it is increasingly probable there will be one or more armies that will be stronger and more capable than ours. As this is possible, our strategy must be to take measures today that provide us the chance to win in the future even if we are the weaker foe. If we wait to make the decisions we need to shape the force for the future, it will be too late to make the most important change of all; that of transforming our culture, our people, our leaders and our civilians from those that expect to win as the stronger foe to those who know they can win as the weaker foe. In part two of this series we will focus more specifically on how to adapt our leadership, transform our culture, develop the necessary individual attributes, and train our organizations to win even as the weaker foe.

Jim Greer is a retired U.S. Army officer, the Vice President of the Center for Strategic Leadership and Design at ALIS, Inc., and a former Director of the School of Advanced Military Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of ALIS, Inc., the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: Francis Marion at Burch's Mill, William deHartburn (1833-1870)


[i] Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

[ii] Stanton, D. (2009). Horse Soldiers. New York: Scribner.

[iii]Singer, P. and Cole, A. (2015). Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Harcourt.

[iv] U.S. Army (2011). Army Doctrinal Publication 3-0: Unified Land Operations. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army.

[v] Hines, A. and Bishop, P. ed. (2006). Thinking About the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight. Washington, D.C.: Social Technologies.

[vi] The Operational Environment Enterprise (2016). Future Operational Environment and Threats: The World in 2030 and Beyond. Presentation at the Association of the United States Army Conference, June 21, 2016. Fort Eustis: Headquarters, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

[vii] Layton, P. (2016). "The Looming Air Superiority Wreck." War on the Rocks. Downloaded at

[viii] Tasmin News agency (2016). "US trying to catch up with Iran in stealth, bomber drone technology." While the article at link may be overstated, it indicates that Iran, in addition to at least China and Russia are adversaries investing heavily in surpassing the US in military technologies and capability.

[ix] Waltzman, R. (2015). "The U.S. Is Losing the Social Media War." Time Inc. Network. Downloaded at

[x] Joint Systems and Analysis Group. Guide to capabilities-based planning. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition. Downloaded at

[xi] Sullivan, G. and Harper, M. (1997). Hope is Not a Method. New York: Broadway Books.

[xii] Weigley, R. (1973). The American Way of War. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

[xiii] Uhle-Wettler, F. (1987). Battlefield central Europe: The Dangers of Over-Reliance on Technology by the Armed Forces. Monograph.

[xiv] Grau, L. and Glantz, D. (2013). The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press.

[xv] Jones, A. (1987). The Art of War in the Western World. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble.

[xvi] Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Cleary, T. (Tr) 2005. Berkely, CA: Shambhala.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] The book XLR8 (Accelerate) by John Kotter should be read by every leader in the military this year and every year until a better one is written. If our leaders at every echelon cannot develop and employ dual operating structures in our organizations we are doomed to failure as the budget, demographic and technology gaps between the US and potential enemies widen in their favor. If you don’t know what dual operating structures are stop what you are doing and watch this video

[xix] US Army (2014).

[xx] Greer, J. (1990). Risk and the AirLand Battle. Monograph. Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies.

[xxi] For example, the Command and General Staff College is the Army’s premier, year-long education for mid-grade officers. For most officers it is the last and best education they will have in the Army. That course teaches risk management to every student in both the leadership and tactics programs. Risk taking in the warfighting sense is only taught in electives to a small segment of the overall class.

[xxii] U.S. Army (2012). Army Doctrinal Publication 6.0 (ADP 6.0), Mission Command. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.

[xxiii] Walters, H., O’Shea, P., Ford, L., Fleisher, M., Adeniyi, M., Conzelman, C., and Webster, R. (2011). Study Report 2011-02: Identification of Brigade Command Competencies. Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Research Institute.

[xxiv] Fontenot, G., Degen, E., and Tohn, D. (2004). On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom through 01 May 2003. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Staff. I had the opportunity to interview Dave Perkins just days after the thunder run of April 7, 2003. His description of his risk decision making process was the single best personal leader development opportunity of my career.

[xxv] Wolters, H., Conrad, T., Riches, C., Nicely, K., Morath, R., and Keller-Glaze, H. (2014).  Technical report 1339: Identification of Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities for Army Design. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Army Research Institute.

[xxvi] Kiyosaki, R. (2015). 8 Lessons in Military Leadership for Entrepreneurs. Scottsdale, AZ: Plata.

[xxvii] iCasualty tracks the casualties throughout the OIF campaign to include the cause of death by weapons system. Downloaded at

[xxviii] The Joint IED Defeat Organization spent over $19 Billion in six years, largely on technology solutions to defeating IEDs, with the unfortunate results that casualties to IEDs increased relative to other casualty-producing means every single year. Article downloaded at

[xxix] Simon, K. (2015). "Science: Are Gamers Smarter that Non-Gamers?" Version Daily. Downloaded at

[xxx] McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York, NY: Penguin.

[xxxi] Popham, J. (2010). Everything School Leaders Need to Know about Assessment. Thousand oaks, CA: Sage.

[xxxii] Gladwell, M. (2013).