Future War and the U.S. Army

As the U.S. military winds down six years of major combat in Iraq and shifts resources to salvage a seemingly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has begun to reexamine it strategic planning for the future.  The decisions made during this process will have long-term effects not only on current operations, but future doctrine, strategy, training and acquisitions.  Therefore, the decisions must be made carefully and with a longer-term focus than the current counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.

As warfare or the threat of force is likely to remain a valuable tool for conducting international affairs, the Army must consider the types of threats it is likely to face.  These threats fall into three basic categories:  high-intensity conventional combat against a significant regional power (i.e., China or North Korea), continued global action against Al Qaeda and other counterterrorism actions, or a hybrid conflict where the Army may face a terrorist or insurgent group armed and equipped for conventional combat (i.e., Hizbullah).  Although each of these potential threats may be countered with similar tactical abilities at the small unit level, their operational and strategic challenges will pose a very different challenge for the Army as it is currently organized and equipped today.  Any military action by the United States in the next twenty years will also be greatly complicated by the expected proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities to potential adversaries, particularly in the Persian Gulf and South Asia regions of the world.  Additional gray areas of international diplomacy where U.S. forces may be deployed against a failed state or even a full-fledged state sponsor of terrorism will present unique diplomatic and political challenges further complicating these military operations.  Combined with these potential threats is the high probability the U.S. military will find itself on a nuclear or chemical battlefield where the threat of regional powers armed with ballistic missiles equipped with WMD warheads will immensely complicate not only American strategy, but operations as the entire battlespace becomes threatened with attack.

As the Army continues to develop their strategy for conflicts beyond the current Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, there are also number of potential “wild cards” that could have an unforeseen and potentially significant effect on Army doctrine, training and strategy:

•            The rise of unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) systems, including potentially armed systems, could become a major force multiplier for combat operations, particularly in the urban environment.  The Army has experimented with these systems on a limited basis, but the planned procurements of major new UGV systems was cut from the FCS program.  As all branches of the military begin to integrate unmanned systems of all types into daily operations, the potential for UGVs to take over many of the more dangerous tasks such as disarming or destroying IEDs and potentially engaging enemy armored units, their potential is nearly limitless.  The Army will need to ensure that doctrine and strategy keeps pace with technology development, and their integration with soldiers in the field is handled in a concerted manner.

•            U.S. military forces have basically assumed that air and electronic dominance will be a fixture for future military operations.  But as computer and information technology proliferates and non-state forces such as Hizbullah develop more sophisticated capabilities, the U.S. military could very well find itself in a degraded environment where American dominance in C4ISRT can not be assured.  In addition, the potential for hostile countries to marry WMD with ballistic missiles would intensely complicate the air defense picture at a time when air defense assets are being downsized within the Army.  The ability of U.S. forces to fight dispersed combat in a degraded environment is likely to be a key component of future strategy and tactics.

The U.S. Army has just begun to address many of the issues needed to move into the 21st century and face a new serious of threats.  This effort will be complicated by the need to successfully conclude current operations while recapitalizing most of its combat equipment inventory.  The Army will need to carefully balance a set of fairly well defined threats and capabilities with entirely new kinds of asymmetrical threats from opponents able to exploit new technologies and political situations.  The potentially revolutionary technologies that could change the basic role of the soldier on the future battlefield should also be carefully considered as intelligent and autonomous robotic technologies assume some of the more hazardous tasks of combat.