A Dual Approach to Military Innovation
“The problem of military innovation is necessarily a problem of bureaucratic innovation,” Stephen Peter Rosen writes in Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. While bureaucracies are not supposed to be good at innovation, Rosen points out, “Bureaucracies do innovate … even military ones, and the question becomes not whether but why and how they change.” He goes on to analyze military innovation in peacetime, wartime and in response to technology.
Even though today’s challenges don’t neatly fit into one of Rosen’s three categories, his book is a fascinating read for any soldier or leader associated with an army in the midst of change—i.e., every soldier and leader in our Army today.
The U.S. Army remains at war and faces rapid shifts in technology. Further, as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command paper “The Operational Environment and the Changing Character of Future Warfare” points out, together with the rest of domestic and international society, the Army faces the huge and ongoing tectonic shifts caused by the information age overtaking the industrial. Whether this is an era of unprecedented change, only historians will be able to say. But without doubt, this is an era of significant challenge to Army leaders: how to think and adapt through such a period?
Back to Its Roots
To answer this question, the Army reached back to its AirLand Battle roots using an analogy: AirLand Battle drove Army modernization, which delivered the “Big Five”: the Apache AH-64 helicopter, UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter, M1 Abrams Tank, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle and MIM-104 Patriot Missile System. Similarly, Multi-Domain Operations doctrine will drive six Army modernization priorities: long-range precision fires, the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift, the Army network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality. This analogy, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. Further, in today’s environment of accelerating change, the Army needs a dual approach to innovation—an approach that forces near-term innovation and mid- to long-term modernization—not a single arrow to create the future.
AirLand Battle emerged from the inadequacies of “Active Defense” doctrine. The shift from Active Defense began by critiques of Active Defense and discussions of the “extended battlefield” and “integrated battlefield.” These discussions finally birthed what became the battle operating systems—intelligence, maneuver, fire support, air defense, mobility/survivability, combat service support and command/control. The lively doctrinal discussion within the Army congealed into AirLand Battle and was formalized in the 1982 edition of Field Manual 100-5: Operations.
The concept was criticized at the time for its lack of reality; none of the capabilities—materiel or nonmateriel—that AirLand Battle required existed at the time it was introduced. In retrospect, the debate was much ado about nothing. The U.S. Army Materiel Command ultimately produced the Big Five, for even if the concept writers did not know, Army senior leaders knew the materiel capabilities required by AirLand Battle were about to come on line.
The Army also attended to the nonmateriel programs necessary to translate AirLand Battle into reality—for example, performance-oriented training methodologies, combat training centers and the Battle Command Training Program, the NCO Education System, and the central selection process for battalion and brigade command. Later, the Army’s Concept Based Requirements System and its DOTMLPF approach (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and education, Personnel and Facilities) emerged to formalize the relationship between concepts and materiel and nonmateriel requirements necessary to translate concepts into reality.
Lack of Clarity
A second major criticism of AirLand Battle also emerged: lack of clarity. This criticism also fell by the wayside, for by the late 1980s the Army had finished producing the set of warfighting doctrinal manuals from squad through division and corps as well as a set of skill manuals that put meat on the bones of the original idea. In fact, it could not have been otherwise. No concept is born fully developed. Doctrine may be the engine of change, but use informs doctrine—use at home-station training, at the training centers and during exercises, whether large-scale field exercises, command post exercises or evaluations during a Battle Command Training Program.
Today, Multi-Domain Operations is the doctrinal concept designed to drive materiel modernization and develop new nonmateriel processes and programs. Once again, the concept-reality gap and the lack-of-clarity criticisms are used by some to argue against the Army’s approach. Critics are necessary; they help keep the Army’s eyes on what is yet to be done. But these two criticisms should not be viewed as IEDs on the road to the Army’s future. Neither is the question I am about to ask.
Is the AirLand Battle/Multi-Domain Operation analogy sufficient for the Army as the driver of change? Or is it necessary but insufficient? I shall argue the latter.
Time and Technology
Two significant and relevant differences between AirLand Battle and Multi-Domain Operations seem to exist: time and technology, and they are related. (There may be other differences, but these two are enough to make my case.) A close look at the developmental timelines for the Abrams tank, the Black Hawk helicopter and the Patriot missile system reveals they entered service in 1980–81, which means they were designed, prototyped and in production, or close to it, before AirLand Battle emerged as official Army doctrine. The requirements for the Big Five were written in the early 1970s. The Army’s senior leaders knew the Abrams, Bradley, Apache, Black Hawk and Patriot were far along the developmental and acquisition processes when the Army adopted AirLand Battle. Hence, the AirLand Battle concept never really drove Army modernization in the ways that Army folklore has it.
But the relationship between those five systems and AirLand Battle was an important one: The doctrine explained the necessity of materiel acquisition. The systems may not have gone into full production had they not been linked to the compelling doctrine AirLand Battle became (and, of course, had the money not come from the Reagan administration).
The key analogy the Army is using just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The impact is positive and negative.
On the positive side, this time the Army’s key operational concept is helping drive the developmental and acquisition processes, and that’s a good thing. Materiel development has the chance to refine the concepts, and vice versa, also good. Further, as materiel development and concepts emerge, the Army can make iterative adjustments concerning solutions to its warfighting challenges—again, good. Finally, collaboration among the U.S. Army Futures Command, Training and Doctrine Command and other major Army commands may achieve the level of coherence necessary to achieve positive results over time.
But there’s a downside. The Multi-Domain Operations concept and associated modernization priorities and warfighting challenges are mid- to long-term-focused. There may be some near-term spinoffs the Army can incorporate into its force structure or use to adapt its institutional processes. These spinoffs, however, will be the exception, not the rule.
So, the second impact the relationship between Multi-Domain Operations and its relationship to the six Army modernization priorities is this: The Army needs a near-term forcing function for innovation, otherwise real change will always be in the out years. Today’s rapidly changing environment, however, cannot wait for the out years. The Army needs a near-term goal that accomplishes two objectives: stimulate rapid and near-term change, while also accelerating the mid- to long-term goal embodied in the connection of Multi-Domain Operations, the six modernization priorities and the warfighting challenges.
Transform a Stryker BCT
One near-term goal to consider might be to transform a Stryker brigade combat team into a “technology- and training-enhanced” brigade combat team (T2e BCT) with at least the following characteristics:
- An ability to succeed in an expansive or constrictive battlespace against a variety of enemies, state and nonstate.
- Techno-enhanced soldiers and leaders with next-generation individual weapons and equipment as well as appropriate biofeedback devices.
- Artificial intelligence-enhanced protection from enemy air, missile, artillery and cyberattacks as well as enemy influence operations; and artificial intelligence-enhanced military decision-making processes.
- Embedded semi- and fully autonomous systems as well as appropriate cyber capabilities throughout the battle operating systems.
- A capacity to integrate joint, combined and multi-agency actions at lower tactical levels.
- Use of advanced virtual and distributed augmented-reality training and leader development simulations.
Forming such an operationally capable brigade combat team by 2020 or 2021 would accomplish both objectives. In addition to providing a much-needed operational capability, a T2e BCT would stimulate rapid and near-term change for most of these “new” capabilities that are already available or can be made available in the near-term—using the “off-the-shelf” approach is a powerful driver of innovation.
Further, the capabilities of a T2e BCT are directly related to Multi-Domain Operations, the six modernization priorities and the Army’s warfighting challenges. Therefore, like the Stryker brigade combat teams were in the early 2000s, the T2e BCT could be a new, quickly fielded operational capability and a learning platform for the Army. Creating a T2e BCT—or something like it—in two to three years is a challenging, but achievable, goal. And it’s in line with one of the original intents of the SBCTs: to provide the Army with a way to continually integrate evolving technologies and emerging training methodologies.
This era of rapid and accelerated change poses significant challenges to Army leaders. Unlike during the period of AirLand Battle, today the question of how to think and adapt through such a period requires an answer with two parts. The first part of the answer the Army has pretty much right: use the Multi-Domain Operations concept to drive mid- to far-term materiel requirements and meet its warfighting challenges. The second part, however, seems absent.
A dual approach to creating the future presents difficult leadership and management challenges to the Army. Meeting the leadership challenge will require multiple secretaries of the Army and chiefs of staff as well as multiple commanding generals of Futures Command, Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army Forces Command and Materiel Command to remain committed to the dual approach.
And since the dual approach must have at least an adequate stream of money, the leadership challenge necessarily includes multiple secretaries of defense, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs and congressional support. The managerial challenge comes from the fact that the multiple commands necessary to execute do not “self-synchronize.” Hence, the Army will have to create some form of “board of directors” mechanism with sets of milestones and metrics.
These kinds of enterprise activities are always hard, but the Army has done this before—in fact, twice in my career span.
The first time was from 1972 to 1995. This period went from Gen. Creighton Abrams to Gen. Carl E. Vuono. This set of leaders led and managed the Army’s recovery from Vietnam through its performance in the First Gulf War. In the process, they fielded the Big Five and much more, developed and implemented AirLand Battle, and transformed many of the nonmateriel processes necessary to execute what that doctrine called for.
The second time was from 1991 to 2007, from Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan to Gen. Peter Schoomaker. This set led and managed the Army from the downsizing after the Gulf War, through a decade of increased operational requirements, to the beginning of the 9/11 wars. In the process, they digitized the Army, created Force XXI and the Stryker brigade combat teams and modularized the Army. Success in using Multi-Domain Operations as a driver of mid- to long-term modernization as well as something like a T2e BCT to drive near-term innovation will require a similar enterprise strategy.
The Army can do this.