Preparing for the #FutureOfWar:

Don’t Forget the Past


Mike Denny is an Army National Guard aviation officer and company commander. Formerly, he served as a Field Artillery officer while on active duty. As a civilian, he is an executive management professional and occasional contributor to Task and Purpose, The Bridge, and Red Team Journal. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

As professionals we abandoned the Shako, flame throwers, and battleships for good reason. I’m not a “back to basics” military leader, but there is plenty of utility in not only studying and understanding the past, but in applying the history of war to the future.

Technology enablers change the way we fight, but they do not replace the mastery of our trade or profession if we study, practice, and learn often through painful and monotonous tasks.

In an earlier essay, I discussed using history as a lens to look at current conflict. In that series, Dr. Huw Davies argued that history matters as a means to provide context and can be used for good or evil. I followed up that we can’t allow our collective military history to be a sacred cow, where the legend or myth is unassailable as we examine our future fights. Since last fall, I have continued to recognize that future fights are not uniquely different from past ones. Sure things may be different. For example, the evolution of cyber as a means of disabling hardware may become a terrific enabler. But it is the next step after precision munitions, ISR feeds, and smart weapons that we were the first ones to master and then cope with. Technology enablers change the way we fight, but they do not replace the mastery of our trade or profession if we study, practice, and learn often through painful and monotonous tasks.

A focus on technological forces and hardware has gone awry before in US military history.

Technology is an enabler but not decisive by itself. Precision munitions, digital encrypted communications, UAVs, and night vision are commercially available commodities. No longer do state actors or large mega-power militaries have a monopoly on advanced capability. Our institutions, training, and personnel capacity are our strengths. The US military will maintain unrivaled logistics capacity into the mid-21st century (sorry, China), particularly intra-theater and global airlift. A focus on technological forces and hardware has gone awry before in US military history. I’m not an expert, but I recommend taking a look at the hollow force going into the Pusan perimeter and B.J. Armstrong’s speech on the Nuclear Option. Twenty odd years later, our post-Vietnam force structure was not ready to compete or defeat the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Armies in Europe. It took massive investment in our conventional forces (and strategic nuke forces, not denying that point) and more importantly our training, doctrine, and joint exercise ability.

The infrastructure and requirements of maintaining the field communications networks of the network centric warfare mandated command and control system is killing us….is it really an enabler when it takes so much time and manpower to implement?

Digital networks are cool, until the generators die, the JNN goes down, the air conditioning breaks, and the S-6 section hits an improvised explosive device, or the Battalion Command Sergeant Major has everyone on a police call instead of maintaining the network. Get the idea? We are in need of simple, redundant, and robust networks of digital communications for the future fight. There are basically two pipelines of information flow that need to be defined on the future battlefield. One for logistics and the operational environment, and another for the information battlefield commanders need. The one size fits all approach of previous systems (FBCB2/CPOF/DCGS and the rest of the alphabet soup) doesn't quite meet our needs. The infrastructure and requirements of maintaining the field communications networks of the network centric warfare mandated command and control system is killing us. Combat Training Center observations of many units continue to highlight the struggles of using the every growing number of battlefield systems, and establishing field sites for battalion and above communications is a field problem by itself. As a community we need to ask, is it really an enabler when it takes so much time and manpower to implement?

Education, training, and force structure are our vital foci in preparing for the future fight. The tools of war may change and develop overtime, but these areas are timeless commodities that allow for rapid reaction to crises.

So where do we focus our efforts preparing for the future force? Education, training, and force structure are our vital foci in preparing for the future fight. The tools of war may change and develop overtime, but these areas are timeless commodities that allow for rapid reaction to crises. Allowing for candor and debate to the merits of our strategies prevent repeating the Maginot lines and Task Force Smith’s in the future. Professional development is inexpensive in budget constrained times. The generation of leaders grown by Marshall during the inter-war period saw us through World War II into the Cold War era. Flexible, adaptable, and politically savvy, this school of general’s built an Army worthy of the name. We need to focus our digital resources on the systems and processes that generate the highest return on investment on the battlefield. At the same time we cannot continue to become overly tech focused. Our interwar obsession with precision munitions between the Gulf War and Operation Enduring Freedom resulted in us deciding to not bring artillery to Afghanistan, which was quickly corrected.

Our past lessons provide answers when looked at objectively and all highlight the “oh-crap” moments that are easily avoided. In preparation for #futureofwar preserving and re-shaping our Army’s force structure will be critical to winning our nation’s wars. From the ability to mobilize in the Franco-Prussian War to massing forces in Saudi Arabia before Desert Storm, the ability to mass force structure in time and space to dominate land wars is an important component of landpower. The requirements of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom required the growth of additional Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) and in my own career; I played a small part in creating a surge BCT in 2007–2008. It was ugly, it was painful, and it was very professionally enriching. That unit was sadly stood down last year after three rotations to Afghanistan to be left dormant until needed again. Growing units and institutions takes time, and time is a precious strategic commodity that we may not enjoy in the future. Sensible force structure redesign and growth will not be effective if we can’t rapidly mobilize quickly outside of certain communities such as Marine Expeditionary Units, special operations forces, and the Global Response Force. The days of 96 hour mobilization of an infantry division are a relic of the Cold War, and that presents a problem due to our equipment and digital capacity burdened “light” forces.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we are taking steps in the right direction with BCT manning and equipment changes to adopt tactical cyber units and expertise in our tactical formations. Growing capacity for manned-unmanned teaming in joint operations will be huge battlefield enablers; the AH-64 community with Gray Eagle is setting the stage for future success here. Our expeditionary mindset as an Army is attempting to reverse a decade of the deployment rotational experience, and implement sensible strategically focused units. The Army’s regionally aligned forces are creating a means for units and soldiers to function outside of the comfort zone created over the past decade of the reset-train-deploy cycle.

A thorough study of history and honest self-reflection on our performances are, in my mind, the best preparations for future trials of combat.

General James “Chaos” Mattis has a fitting quote from a viral email on reading, “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead”.

The path ahead is dark. Our future conflicts (once Daesh is #destroyed and Russia kept in check) are unknowable, but should not catch anyone completely by surprise. Preparation for an unknown series of variables can be staggering, pushing leaders outside of their comfort zones of experience in the last war. A thorough study of history and honest self-reflection on our performances are, in my mind, the best preparations for future trials of combat. Until an alien horde invades Earth, our conflict is grounded in a battle against fellow men. Humans are creatures of habit and training by known variables, that is if you care to study an adversary’s history, culture, and doctrine.


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