Urban warfare is the next battlefield frontier, and the Army will have to rethink both its command structure and soldiers themselves in order to adapt, the service’s top general said Tuesday.
This is nothing new. We’ve been saying for 30+ years that an increasing urbanized world means changes for both the traditional culture of fight-em-in-the-wilderness, and the special operations culture of sneak-by-when-they’re-not-looking. For special ops, it probably means more clandestine operations and tradecraft. (Something to learn from Russian use of SOF in the war to undermine Ukrainian independence, here).
However, it’s encouraging to see a general, the guys we pay to think big, indulging in some big-picture thinking. All the rest of the Army is off the clock when they’re thinking big, not that it stops us.
The Army isn’t going to an all-special operations model, but there’s some inspiration the conventional Army can take from that culture, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at the Future of War Conference in Washington, D.C.
“I think you’ll have smaller organizations, in 10 years and beyond,” he said.
That might look like company- or battalion-sized operational units, he added, but it wouldn’t mean doing away with brigades and divisions.
There’s a limit to how much span of control one individual has, whether he’s directing men or directing drones.
“The fighting element will probably end up having to be much smaller,” he said. “Think of special operations — that may be a preview of how larger armies operate in the future.”
One future factor that seems to be not overly considered is the increased lethality of fires. The same sorts of reasons that once militated against massing in the Pentomic Division days of battlefield nukes now apply to anyone fighting a conventional military. The artillery fires of the 21st Century are not like anything we’ve seen before, and while we developed much of the technology, we haven’t developed doctrine to support it, and we haven’t fielded it in quantity.
Meanwhile, regional and near-peer powers retain and make technical progress in non-nuclear WMD.
The future will also bring more unmanned capabilities and, as a result, possibly a lower risk for loss of life.
“We’ve lost a lot of soldiers in the past 15 years who were driving convoys, from point A to point B, and were attacked by [improvised explosive devices], and they were delivering food or ammunition,” Milley said. “Think about, if you could, a logistics convoy delivering the required supplies to a forward unit, but there’s no drivers in the convoy.”
And this also moves your war into the electronic and cyber domain, where the US military has not displayed world-class aptitude.
That technology already exists with driverless cars created by Google and others. It will take some time to make something that can negotiate rough battlefield terrain, Milley said, but it will happen.
Of course, lefties dread and fear the Army, which goes back to their ancestral memories of pogroms in the night, or worse, a draft notice to be evaded.
To those on that end of things, any change in the military brings us further down the slippery slope to overt Francoism, and means that Doctor Strangelove will be immersing us in nuclear Armageddon just for the sheer atavistic joy of hearing the bang.
Then the question becomes whether that lowers the bar for risk when deciding to go to war, said Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America think tank and moderator of the session with Milley.
Then, there’s this:
Soldiers will have to be highly trained in discriminating fire, able to quickly and effectively tell who is a combatant and who is a bystander. Leader development will be key, Milley added, and lessons could come, again, from the special operations community.
“We’re probably going to have to have more mature, more seasoned leaders at lower levels than perhaps the organization design calls for now,” he said.
For example, special operations companies are led by majors instead of captains, as they are in the conventional Army. But special operations also often has the benefit of older, more experienced soldiers rather than brand new, 19-year-old privates.
“Our leaders at the pointy end of the spear are going to have to have very, very high degrees of ethical skill and resilience to be able to deal with incredibly intense issues in ground combat,” Milley said.
So the next task, over the following 10 to 15 years, Milley said, is figuring out how to recruit and quickly train the type of people who can take that special operations-style expertise and bring it to the regular Army.
SOF Maturity for General Purpose Forces?
Hard to do. And not because GPF guys are bad (after all, who’s the recruiting pool for most SOF?) But because there is no royal road to maturity, and no short course to combat and tactical judgment.
Basically, you can’t make privates into SF or SEAL type guys in the time you have for training a private. Truth be told, it takes ten years to make a versatile, well-rounded SF guy. You get some good work out of him during those ten years of seasoning, sure, but it takes that long just to be exposed to a significant percentage of the mission sets that come with the job. (We’d guess something similar applies over in the Teams — a 3-year or 5-year Frogman is a pretty good asset in most missions, but he’s still learning more than he’s teaching. But that’s just a guess; we don’t pretend to grasp SEAL culture or to speak for our web-footed friends).
You can make privates into Rangers in about double the time it takes to make them nugget infantrymen, but (1) you need a wide recruiting base and (2) you absolutely need attrition in your pipeline. You can’t make everybody SF-like (and we’re aware of the important limitations on what the Chief was saying) for the same reason all the kids can’t be above average. Indeed, the stuff the Chief was carving out from SOF that he wants to see in the regular forces — the maturity, the low level leadership — are just the things that take longest to inculcate.
But there will be a Future Army, and it will be Different
There’s a line from an Al Stewart song (a song about smuggling guns, actually):
In the village where I grew up nothing is the same
But still, you never see the change from day to day
When we cynically dismiss Big Think conferences and the brainstorming of senior generals and their horse-holders, we forget that, even though we never see the change from day to day, the Army that holds your retirement parade isn’t the Army you were sworn into a generation earlier. Otherwise we’d still be this Army:
…or this Army:
And we think you’ll agree that, for better or for worse, we’re not that Army any more.
Everything we take for granted today, such as attack and utility helicopters, anti-tank missiles, and satellite communications, was once somebody’s crackpot idea that caught the imagination of some general and took off.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.