Army transitions from one of execution to preparation. 

By William Matthews

If its senior leaders are correct, the Army is entering a period of relative peace. The war in Afghanistan is winding down and Gen. Robert Cone, chief of the Army Training and Doctrine Command says his service now is “transitioning from an army of execution to an army of preparation.”

But preparation for what?

How about a world full of “megacities” crowded with 10 million people or more? By 2040, 65 percent of the world’s population will have flocked to megacities, said Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While they will offer more opportunities for employment, greater wealth, better health care and more education for some, they will provide only grinding poverty for many others. A third of the megacity dwellers will exist “in slum-like conditions.” That’s 2 billion people trapped in poverty, she said, during an Oct. 21 panel discussion at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition, of what awaits the U.S. Army in 2020 and after.

Poverty in the megacities combined with weak or collapsing governments poses a threat of violence and insurgencies that could suck U.S. forces in, Hicks said.

But before the rise of megacities, and before 2020, the rise of China will continue, Hicks said. That’s not necessarily bad. China and the rest of Asia will become increasingly important to the United States for economic reasons. The United States’ role will not be to stop China’s rise, but to ensure that it remains stable and does not threaten the U.S. or its allies in Asia, she said.

And the “Arab awakening” will continue, Hicks said. Even as the United States pulls back from the region, there is likely to be a decade of ongoing Shia-Sunni violence that could spill over and drag in U.S. forces.

And look for the “continued atomization of power,” Hicks said. Increasingly, information technology and weapons of mass destruction will give small groups the ability to exert disproportionate power. The United States is likely to confront rogue organizations wielding asymmetric power in the form of short-range rockets, human shields, robotics and weapons of mass destruction.

Increasingly, the United States and other nations will form coalitions to confront these and other emerging problems.

Meanwhile at home, 12 years of war have taken a toll. There is likely to be a decade-long “intolerance” among the public and political leaders for heavy U.S. military involvement abroad, Hicks said. And after a decade of almost unrestrained military spending, defense budgets will unquestionably shrink.

Even so, the military must somehow remain ready to engage, she said, recalling the post-WWI antipathy toward foreign involvement that gripped the U.S. public until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

If Hicks’ vision of the world’s future seems grim, the Army’s vision of its own future is at least somber. The years ahead seem certain to be dominated by “fiscal limits,” said Lt. Gen. James Barclay, the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for financial management.

“You’re all aware” of the “lack of predictability we’re under right now,” Barclay told an auditorium full of soldiers and defense contractors. Right now, there is “no budget.” With Congress unable to agree on a spending plan for 2014, the Army – and indeed the whole U.S. government– is operating under a continuing resolution that temporarily extends 2013 spending levels. And in January, unless Congress stops it, another round of the automatic budgets called sequestration is scheduled to slice $52 billion more from military spending.

There is no sign of relief on the financial horizon. Instead, the Army will have cut back. One reform should be the way the Army develops major new weapons – “we can no longer afford to spend eight to 12 years” to field new equipment, Barclay said.

Instead, the Army may have to rely on technically safer and cheaper “incremental improvements” to existing weapons, buy more commercial-off-the-shelf gear, and perhaps even resort to leasing, Barclay said.

To cut costs but still maintain readiness, soldiers are likely to do more training at home stations, and less traveling to training centers, said Brig. Gen. Wayne Grigsby, director of Army training. Expect more virtual training, including virtual training with allied forces, he said.

Soldiers can also expect to rely more on robots, said Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, the Army’s deputy command general, futures and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.

The Army already uses wheeled and tracked robots to search buildings and inspect suspected roadside bombs. But more sophisticated robots are coming, including “robotic wingmen” – an unmanned aerial systems designed to fly ahead of troops and vehicles and use sensors to scout for hidden enemies.

But any new equipment will have to conform to the Army’s new principle – “cost effectiveness.” That wasn’t so important during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when “we had a big checkbook,” Barclay said. But those days are over. “Now there’s nothing,” he said.