By Octavian Manea
(Re-published from Small Wars Journal | May 29, 2016) A “future missions” discussion with Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General, Futures, US Army Training and Doctrine Command. McMaster served previously as Commanding General, Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning from June 2012 to July 2014. From 2010 to 2012, he commanded Combined Joint Inter-Agency Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency) in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was commissioned as an officer in the United States Army upon graduation from the United States Military Academy in 1984. He holds a Ph.D. in military history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.
SWJ: We’ve seen recently the major strategic challenges (mainly high-end adversaries) driving the DoD 2017 budget. From the perspective of the US Army Operating Concept what are the most relevant trends we need to keep in mind that are most likely to contribute to shaping and changing the character of armed conflict?
HRM: As we try to understand the problem of future armed conflict, we consider four main areas that exhibit both continuities in the nature of war and changes in the character of warfare. We make grounded projections into the future by first considering potential threats, enemies, and adversaries in future operating environments. We consider threats emerging from nation-states as well as non-state actors and so-called hybrid enemies that are non-state actors that enjoy state support.
These threats include Russia and its aggressive actions such as the invasion of Ukraine and their actions in the Middle East where they’ve allied themselves with a murderous regime and with the Iranians in pursuit of a strategy that is perpetuating the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Russia is waging limited war for limited objectives and conducting sophisticated campaigns that include the use of unconventional forces operating under the cover of very significant conventional force capability. Russia’s aim is not defensive; its actions since 2007 are part of a broader effort to collapse the post-World War II and post-Cold War security order in Europe. Russia has combined military force with other activities to change the geopolitical landscape on the Eurasian landmass. In Crimea and Ukraine Russia was able to accomplish goals at little to no cost, consolidate gains and portray the response of US and NATO allies and those supporting Ukraine as escalatory. What Russia has done highlights the need to revisit deterrence theory and make it relevant to the geostrategic problem set on the Eurasian landmass.
What we see with China is similar. China is also using conventional and unconventional capabilities to change realities in the South China Sea. China is building islands and positioning military capabilities there in an effort to intimidate the countries in the region and establish a degree of hegemony. China’s actions in the South China Sea lead to questions about its intentions and its commitment to uphold a rules based international system. In both China and Russia what you see is a renewed need for deterrence, especially a focus on deterrence by denial -the ability for nations to convince a potential adversary that he can’t accomplish his objectives. The military has a very important role along with diplomacy, economic policy, and informational efforts because an integrated campaign is necessary to counter those who are employing a sophisticated strategy. Countering propaganda, and disinformation, for example, is important. Russia has been particularly adept at sowing conspiracy theories in Europe and doing its best to undermine the NATO Alliance in particular.
And we should not forget about Iran which has been supporting proxies across the Arab world but especially in the Middle East in a way that I think, along with the rise of ISIS, set the conditions for this disastrous sectarian civil war and humanitarian crisis. They’ve done this by essentially applying the Hezbollah model to the Greater Middle East where they have weak governments in power that are dependent upon Iran for support while Iran grows militias and other illegal armed groups and supports them because they can be turned against those governments if those governments act against Iranian interests.
Potential threats, enemies, and adversaries are important for us to consider but we also need to consider the missions we need to conduct in the future. Army forces are essential to deterring conflict. As part of the Joint Force, they’ve prevented great power conflict for over 70 years now. Forces positioned forward are particularly important to deterrence. When facing countries that wage limited war for limited objectives it is important to ratchet up the cost at the frontier and also to let the enemy know they cannot accomplish their objectives. And the Army has an important role because, as Thomas Schelling wrote in the 1960s- the army gives you a brute force option which is the ability to compel outcomes without the cooperation of the enemy. Our stand-off capabilities will remain very important for our joint force and for multinational forces such as NATO. The role of land forces is becoming even more important, I think, to the deterrence mission.
Another mission that we need to conduct is what we call expeditionary maneuver: the ability to deploy rapidly into unexpected locations and transition quickly into operations and to do so with forces that have the mobility, protection and lethality to overmatch the enemy and operate in sufficient scale and ample duration to accomplish the mission. If you look how these forces will be employed it will be in the context of coping with a hostile nation-state’s capabilities, especially long range ballistic missile capabilities which today are analogous to the V1 and V2 threat to London in World War II. They are also important against groups like Daesh who has established a terrorist proto-state in Syria and Iraq. Army forces are critical in denying enemy safe havens and support bases, in defeating enemy organizations, in establishing control of territory to deny its use to the enemy, in protecting populations and in projecting power outward from land into the maritime, aero-space and cyber-space domains. For example, what we see today is that Russia has established air supremacy over Ukraine from the ground so Army forces have to be able to conduct joint multinational combined arms maneuver. And Army forces have always had the mission to integrate efforts of multiple partners to consolidate gains to translate military success into sustainable political outcomes.
The third thing we consider is technology that can improve our capabilities. We are very interested in demand reduction of logistics so we can maintain freedom of movement in action at the end of extended and contested lines of communications in austere environments. We are very interested in robotic and autonomy enable systems, both air and ground, to help us see and fight across wider areas, to help us make contact with the enemy under favorable conditions, and to help maintain freedom of movement and action along contested routes and in contested areas. We are looking to improve lethality, especially through a range of technologies like directed energy capabilities that can allow our forces to pack a greater punch and be more effective against a broad range of enemy threats. We are also looking at advanced protective systems for both air and ground forces that can protect forces from what we see in Eastern Ukraine such as the long-range ballistic missile threat capability, massed fires and maybe swarm UAS capabilities. And we’re focused on the cyber and electromagnetic capabilities to ensure our ability to communicate freely and restrict the ability of the enemy to communicate freely and also to assure some of our advanced capabilities. Finally, we should also consider the enemy’s technological counter-measures to whatever we develop and we have to be able to counter what we see as emerging threat capabilities.
And finally we look at history and lessons learned. For example, we can learn quite a bit from Russian operations during the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine and from the ongoing fights in Syria and Iraq. Recent Israeli operations in Gaza can give important lessons on dense urban terrain. And French operations in Mali are also instructive.
So to understand what is changing in the character of warfare we look at threats, enemies, adversaries; missions; technology; and the lessons learned …
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Octavian Manea (MAIR ’13) was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at SU Maxwell School and a 2013 recipient of a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Security Studies through INSCT.