History never repeats, but it often rhymes, and a wise man listens to the echoes. Today, the Army is exploring a new concept of future combat called Multi Domain Battle, which calls for small, agile units designed to overwhelm the enemy with coordinated actions not only on the land, but in the air, on the sea, and in space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. For old defense hands (that’s us), many of these new ideas echo those explored two decades ago, during an innovative effort known as Army After Next (AAN). So we reached out to Bob Scales, the former head of AAN, retired two-star general, commandant of the Army War College, and recipient of the Silver Star for valor in Vietnam. In this essay, Scales lays out what the Army needs to learn from history, and what it should beware. Read on. The Editors.
This year is the twenty-fifth that I’ve been practicing the dark art of future-gazing. I came to the mission very reluctantly in 1991, when the then-Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, entrusted me with writing the Army’s official version of the Gulf War, Certain Victory. As expected, I touted the virtues of Norman Schwarzkopf’s “Great Wheel” maneuver across the sands of Iraq and Kuwait. But I left the project bothered by the fact that, perhaps, I might have inadvertently reinforced the past rather than fostering the future.
The long shadow of my poorly stated thesis in Certain Victory, which professed the enduring primacy of armored warfare, is with us still. I see it in the writings of the powerful apostles of the Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR), who continue to believe in the eternal goodness of great tank formations, even though history left the ACR-based Army in its own dusty tracks decades ago. (Editor’s note: Among the premier advocates of tank warfare are Doug MacGregor, an influential defense consultant and member of the Breaking D Board of Contributors, and Tom Donnelly at the American Enterprise Institute.)
My epiphany came three years later, when in 1995 another Chief of Staff, Gen. Dennis Reimer, gave me the mission of looking into the deep future of warfare, beyond 2025. As head of the Army After Next (AAN) project, I had access to an enormously talented group of young officers, many of whom are still doing great work today. With the assistance of my deputy, Col. Bob Killebrew, we invented the Army’s first strategic game, which continues today in heavily modified form as Unified Quest.
AAN was a magic time. To quote Bob Killebrew: “We never stopped slam-bang arguments over the direction of land warfare that rattled the windows at Fort Monroe. We were secure enough to tolerate and encourage a kind of no-holds-barred intellectual combat that raged inside TRADOC’s doctrine directorate from 1995-97, when rank bowed to ideas and bureaucracy to improvisation, risky experimentation and, very occasionally, success.”
My team spent two unfettered years looking into the variables that cause armies to change. We wrote a “history of the future” that postulated a conflict environment outside the confines of Western Europe. Out of AAN came a new thesis, one that concluded that the age of massed mechanized warfare was over. In its place came a different force, one based on speed of strategic movement over great distances, with tactical combat centered on forces of all arms fighting in discrete formations. While the “base element of maneuver” might have been a division in World War II and a brigade in Desert Storm, perhaps by 2025 it might be a company of all arms, possessing the power to employ every dimension of ground combat from maneuver to fires, reconnaissance, logistics, and the control of all external amplifiers.
We envisioned an army elevated into the third dimension, with many, if not most, of its primary combat functions performed using manned and unmanned aerial vehicles. We foresaw the power of information science in war. (We even came up with the idea of a “digital warehouse,” symbolically encased in a “cloud,” in which reposed all data essential for battle; too bad we didn’t patent it….). We envisioned an “unblinking eye” that would hover over a fighting force, protecting it from tactical surprise and delivering deadly fires within seconds.
We concluded that the precision revolution was still immature in 1997. The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs never happened. Shock and Awe did not work at the tactical level. Big bombs were inefficient at killing little targets that numbered in the thousands. So we envisioned a revolution in “miniature precision” that put tank-killing power in the hands of every infantry soldier.
Our studies reinforced the truism that Americans were increasingly sensitive to the sight of dead US soldiers. So we postulated that a layered mass of sensors and killing systems might kill the enemy outside the “red zone,” beyond the range of the enemy’s tactical weapons.
Our vision of the battlefield morphed from Desert Storm style “objective-based” maneuver to one centered on area control. When we graphed out the dynamics of an area control maneuver force, it took on an amoebic shape, sort of like brigade-sized autonomous blobs that moved principally by air, disconnected from its logistical umbilical cord.
Our greatest conundrum was firepower. We accepted three immutable facts. First, friendly casualties could be mitigated with additional doses of precision firepower. Second, the lighter the unit, the more firepower it needs to maneuver with fewest casualties. And third: artillery is very heavy. In Desert Storm, it comprised over 60 percent of a division’s weight.
Our challenge was to increase the killing effects of firepower while decreasing its weight. We solved the problem conceptually by envisioning a wide assortment of small precision missiles contained in boxes that could be fired remotely by the thousands. We reinforced these “rockets in a box” with a constellation of orbiting armed drones capable of killing a mass of targets within seconds.
Technology alone would not be enough. During AAN we coined the phrase “The Human Dimension” to anticipate the power of human intangibles in war. I was personally captured by the prospect that enormous advances in the human, cultural, behavioral and cognitive sciences might allow us to make a fighting man enormously more capable in the close fight — and psychologically hardened to the horrors of combat.
Bob Killebrew was an old hand at joint warfare and believed the tenets that drove “jointness” during the Cold War were obsolete. He came up with a new level of fighting intimacy he termed “interdependence.” Interdependent forces would decrease organizational friction, while increasing layers of complexity in a fighting force to include all arms, all services and non-military entities all fighting the same fight. Today the Army calls it Multi Domain Warfare. What’s in a phrase?
AAN never disappeared, it just went dormant — for three reasons. First, of course, was 911. It became very difficult for the Army to envision future conventional warfare as al Qaeda was killing 100 soldiers a week. Our vision of fast, information-laden fighting vehicles gave way to very heavy vehicles whose sole purpose was to protect soldiers from IEDs.
Second, the Army was too quick to operationalize our ideas. Simply put, technologies such as electronic miniaturization, the global network, robotics, drones, sensors, micro-precision, active protection, and virtual simulation were just too immature in the late nineties to allow the tenets of AAN to be properly materialized. Depending as it did on unrealized technological breakthroughs, the Future Combat System was a premature birth.
Third, ACR gurus hated AAN. The successful march to Baghdad in 2003 gave them an infusion of doctrinal adrenalin that led them to oppose the creation of a lighter Army. Of course, by 2006 al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS had put paid to the ACR resurgence, but by then AAN, and its materiel spawn, the Future Combat System, was dead.
But there’s good news today. During the past few years the tenets of AAN seem to be resurrecting themselves. Themes like Multi Domain Warfare (interdependence in other words…), the Human Domain of warfare, robotic warfare, among others, are warming the hearts of retired AAN warriors. Fear of radical change within the Army — prompted by the collapse of FCS — seems to be dissipating, as younger and intellectually gifted officers think deeply about war beyond the fading images of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Three fighting forces in particular are experimenting with some form of AAN today.
First, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) clearly leads the world in implementing many of the tenets of AAN. Their special brand of airborne maneuver was dramatically demonstrated during the early days in Afghanistan, where a small elite Special Operations force hopscotched across hundreds of miles of alien terrain to collapse the Taliban. The sight of B-52 bombers cutting figure eights in the sky as they dropped tons of precision weapons in direct support of elite JSOC teams mirrored exactly how we thought fire support would evolve in the future. In subsequent years, JSOC’s remarkable use of surveillance and intelligence collection technology serves as an analog for how a conventional AAN force might operate some day.
A second, unlikely, player is Russia. Putin’s Little Green Men mirror our ideas with remarkable fidelity. In the Crimea, Ukraine and Syria Russia put in the field interdependent, information-enabled, dismounted small units built around a fighting elite composed of GRU Spetsnaz, Naval Infantry, and other Special Forces. The Russians employ electronic warfare, information operations, drones and disinformation in a remarkably creative, capable and cost-effective manner. An AAN-like approach to tactical warfare allows Putin to match limited tactical actions to a similarly limited strategic end, with very little loss of Russian life.
The third player is the Marine Corps. In 2003, I wrote Yellow Smoke. At the time it was a compendium of all my thoughts about AAN. It had an immediate impact within the Corps. A succession of senior Marine leaders, from Mike Hagee to James Mattis and now Robert Neller, have studied and successfully applied many of the lessons of the book in combat and in subsequent field experiments. The Marines continue their interest in an AAN-like force as evidenced by their recent adoption of several new ideas contained in my follow-on book, Scales on War. Their success applying tenets of AAN are too numerous to recount here. Suffice it to say that the soul of AAN may have started out in the Post-Cold War Army, but it resides today in the Marine Corps.
What about the Army? I’m optimistic. To be sure, future-gazers inside the Army’s training establishment are still wedded to wars on the plains of Europe, and Russian actions in Ukraine give them full reason to re-refocus there. But according to the Army’s latest concept, Multi Domain Battle, future war on land has come to embrace much more than Patton’s armored phalanxes. The Army is increasingly aware that wars will continue to consist of interdependent layers of complexity that demand new approaches.
Many in the Army agree that land war will continue to move into the third dimension and that it will embrace many more interdependent components from a multitude of services and functions. The Army has accepted the fact that America’s demand for nearly bloodless wars will require land forces to win cheaply by finding and killing our enemies at a distance. The sad images of soldiers suffering from wartime trauma reinforce our notions that soldiers can be made better and more resilient through practical application of the human sciences.
I believe the validity of an idea strengthens as it conveys over time. We must gain some confidence in the fact that many of today’s emerging ideas have clearly defined antecedents. Please look a bit closer at these ideas. Perhaps you will see that the art of war changes slowly. But as it changes, it leaves behind distinct markers that have already been discovered — discovered by a remarkable group of visionaries who, at a magical time in our history two decades ago, anticipated much of what we see today and surely much of what is to come.