It’s the Boring Things That Will Win the Next War
Robots and autonomous systems. Artificial intelligence and machine learning. Quantum computing and big data.
We treat these as inevitable features of the modern battlefield, and for good reason. The rapid pace of technological development and advances in an array of technologies are changing the way we live and work, and it would be foolish to expect the way we fight will not also be affected. The nature of war will remain the same: Armed actors will employ military force in pursuit of political objectives and to force their enemies to fulfill their wills. But the character of warfare, already dynamic, will likely become even more so, as swarms of drones and strings of code increasingly become tools with which militaries pursue battlefield victory.
Making the Difference
Yet the contours of conflict will not be entirely defined, and victors not solely decided, by new technology. There are a range of other factors that will also prove important—from doctrine to personnel policies to facilities management and beyond. Collectively, these things are more mundane than virtually any technology expected to play a role in future wars. With the exception of specialists with certain professional interests, most people find them comparatively boring. But getting them right could mean the difference between victory and defeat in future conflict.
The U.S. military has a framework for thinking through changes: DOTMLPF. The categories it covers—doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (an additional “P,” for policy, is sometimes included)—give a sense of the wide range of factors that combine to determine how we fight.
In my role as editorial director at the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, I have the privilege to work on a daily basis with talented contributors who write on a range of topics related to the battlefields of today and tomorrow. In the process, I have learned much from them about the technologies that the U.S. Army of tomorrow will quite possibly be equipped with—from tablets that can be used to call for indirect fire to autonomous supply convoys.
I recently had two experiences that gave me an appreciation for the non-technological characteristics of the future battlefield and why Army efforts to adapt in ways beyond fielding new, high-tech systems are just as important to its future battlefield success. In fact, if we focus too heavily on technology—much of which is principally in the materiel category—we risk missing changes elsewhere on the DOTMLPF spectrum that will determine how, and how well, we fight.
In September, I moderated a discussion with Gen. Mike Murray, commanding general of the U.S. Army Futures Command. A few months before that, I recorded an episode of the Modern War Institute Podcast with two guests: Maj. Gen. John George and Adam Jay Harrison. George was, at the time, deputy director/chief of staff of the Army’s Futures and Concepts Center and has since taken command of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. Harrison is the command innovation officer of Futures Command.
To be sure, Futures Command—the creation of which has been described as the most significant reorganization in the service since 1973—has a focus on technology and incorporating it into new hardware that enhances soldiers’ and units’ effectiveness.
Murray described the new Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular that had just begun being fielded to soldiers. The device, he explained, provides soldiers with a number of new features that no previous night-vision device had, including a target-acquisition capability that pairs the goggle to an optic on a rifle. This would, essentially, allow a soldier to “see” around corners—a prime example of the type of technological breakthrough that futurists had predicted for years, but is now a reality.
But George was clear that to effectively compete on the future battlefield, the Army must think more broadly than a new night-vision device, however innovative it is, and beyond hardware in general. “When we talk about modernization, most people think about materiel solutions—the widget, the thing, the piece of kit that we’re going to field,” he said. “What we’re doing now … is really broadening it to the entire DOTMLPF-P.”
Part of the reason that is so important is simply how difficult it is to predict the trajectory of future technological developments. The new night-vision device Murray described was developed and fielded in a remarkably rapid fashion. And yet, most hardware needs take years to be identified, scoped and addressed with new equipment being developed, tested and fielded—even though it’s virtually impossible to know what technology will be available far into the future. Harrison emphasized that point. “If I could tell you what the technology landscape is going to look like in 2025, or next year,” he said, “I would be all in in the stock market.”
But by recognizing that disparity, the Army can take non-technological steps to overcome it, he explained. As important as having the best tech is, it’s equally important to have “frameworks for how we conceptualize how we’re going to compete in the future” that are about to “withstand shock and uncertainty because the rate of technological change [and] the rate of change in the threat environment being driven by emerging technologies.”
Another change that is vital in order to harness future technology is cultural. During a visit to a new entrepreneurial hub in Austin, Texas—where Futures Command is headquartered—in September, Murray acknowledged one of the biggest problems facing Army modernization. “Our Army has had a terrible habit,” he said, according to Defense News. “If it wasn’t invented inside the Army, it’s not worth pursuing.” The vast majority of technological and scientific advances aren’t happening in Army organizations, but in private companies, incubators like the one Murray was visiting, and universities.
To be an effective future fighting force, then, Murray continued, “we’ve got to accept some ideas and really some solutions from outside of the Army if we are to take a very analog organization and move it into the digital age.”
That’s why collaboration with non-Army organizations—things the Army has never done before and that push up against the substantial cultural barriers Murray described—are so important. Harrison told me about a series of partnerships between universities and operational units that would pair “practitioners who have direct exposure to emerging needs, emerging gaps in terms of how they do their jobs in the field” with “researchers who deeply understand the art of the possible with technology.”
When I recorded the podcast with George and Harrison, I asked what Futures Command is working on that might surprise people the most. I was hoping to give listeners the chance to hear about some new autonomous weapon or artificial intelligence-assisted target-identification tool.
Instead, George described some of the questions Futures Command is exploring: Do we need to change permanent change-of-station (PCS) policy? After all, the current move-every-three-years system was created in a different time, with different threats to prepare for. Should we have regimentally affiliated units? The Army reorganized its regiments to meet the needs of the modern battlefield, and it’s worth asking whether we need another change. What does the next evolution in combat training centers look like? The National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center were established in the 1980s because the Army recognized a need to train differently, but there are important questions to be asked now about what training infrastructure best suits the needs of a future force.
Compared to combat robots, PCS policy and training facilities probably seem boring, as do a growing pile of signed partnership agreements with universities, or efforts to change Army culture. But the best tech alone will not win our next war. The boring things will.