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Missing the Forests for the Trees: The Flaw in Army Future Command’s Vision on Emerging Conflicts

by Yancy J. Bush

A common idiom applied to someone too engrossed in a detail describes that person as unable to see the forest for the trees. They miss the larger context of the situation by only considering a small component of it. This saying summarizes the Army Futures Command’s (AFC) approach towards its mission. AFC focuses too narrowly on a military technical problem and must contextualize its effort to fit into the larger context of the future operating environment (FOE).

The AFC begins its work by utilizing design thinking methodologies to understand what potential futures could emerge. AFC foresees multiple potential futures driven by technological dispersion and changing global order polarity.  Simply stated, the shifting geopolitical environment could produce a bipolar or a multipolar world order depending on how events unfold. Additionally, technological dispersion describes the level of proliferation of technological advancements across the range of global actors.

As global technological access increases, the United States loses many of its advantages within that arena.

The AFC FOE Video linked above looks at the “forest” of an emerging new global order but meets the constraints of the Army to focus on a specific “tree”. Chief of Staff of the Army Paper #1 outlines the efforts of the Army to transform into a multi-domain capable organization and lays out its vision for the future fighting force.

It defines the military problem as a two part issue depending upon the level of tensions in the FOE:

In competition and crisis, how does the Joint Force maintain freedom of action, and impose its will against peer adversaries in all domains to deter conflict while re-establishing a position of strategic advantage? In conflict, how does the Joint Force fight operational campaigns across all domains to defeat state adversaries by winning first battles and avoiding global and strategic escalation?

The key words from both questions are deter and defeat. Joint Doctrine Note 1-19 describes deterrence as a nuanced concept dependent upon the situation in its application but at its heart, deterrence can be thought of as utilizing the threat of military force to dissuade an actor from certain actions. In fact, effective deterrence can lead to competition below the level of armed conflict. Defeat occurs in an entirely military context within the CSA Paper #1 question. FM1-02.1 defines defeat as “to render a force incapable of achieving its objectives.” Both terms rely on the utilization or threat of lethal, military force. Because the Army defines the problem and the underlying context in military terms through CSA #1, AFC constrains its efforts to function within that higher level guidance.

Returning to the “forest” analogy, the AFC defines a key tension within the FOE as technological proliferation. It clearly chose this tension as its key line of effort to prepare the Army to answer both questions posited by CSA #1. Essentially, technology is the “tree” within the “forest” which has caught the eye of AFC.

The AFC designed itself toward accelerating modernization in order to maintain a technological advantage over emerging actors who desire to change the global polarity arrangement. Within this line of effort, AFC created eight cross-functional teams to innovate new approaches to Army-specific acquisition priorities. AFC structures itself in this way to emphasize an entrepreneurial outlook, innovate new solutions, and take risks towards accelerating procurement. Ideally, procurement and fielding timelines can be minimized in order to give the fighting force technological overmatch over peer and near-peer threats within large scale combat operations (LSCO).           

The underpinning theory driving the Army’s vision of the future and the efforts of AFC lies within Clausewitz’s definition of war. Clausewitz defines war as the continuation of policy by other (as in violent) means in order to force your will upon another. Military actively inherently involves lethal force within this theory.  All actions outside of lethal force belong to other agencies and national actors. This includes the diplomatic, informational, and economic elements of national power. The military may support these elements but, as defined by CSA #1, only in a deterrence role implying the threat of lethal force. This western understanding of warfare foundationally anchors the U.S. Army but is not shared by emerging global actors.

As one such actor, Russia’s understanding of the current and future operating environment is grounded in a re-interpretation of the fundamental meaning of warfare. “Now the Russian military is seeing war as being something much more than military conflict.” From their perspective, recent history has not been kind to them as they have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union quickly followed by the absorption of former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. Furthermore, NATO intervention in Yugoslavia sparked fears of NATO interference in the sovereignty of countries which do not fall within the norms of an international community dominated by the West.

According to Charles Bartles in “Getting Gerasimov Right,” violations of sovereignty by the West appeared to evolve from a traditional military-centric technique to a more subversive arrangement. Color revolutions and the Arab Spring represent models for this new form of warfare employed by the West. Information operations combined with unconventional warfare to cultivate an insurgency against the sitting government who then attempt to suppress the insurgency. The crackdown triggers political and economic sanctions designed to further destabilize that government and empower the insurgency. Once the government collapses, the West gains a pretext to stabilize the country by installing a pro-Western regime. Thus the West achieves its policy aims through the use of subversion and non-military power.

Russia responded to this perceived Western shift in warfighting approaches by reconsidering their understanding of war. The Russian Understanding of War outlines this evolution of thought from the traditional Clausewitz definition to what Western audiences call hybrid warfare concept. Perceived threats from NATO and the United States drove changes in Russian operational approaches and behavior. Today, actions typically deemed short of war such as information operations, sanctions, and diplomatic pressure are understood in Russia as being acts of war.

Chinese military theorists go further than Russian theorists in broadening the definition of War. Chinese Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui believe war now involves “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interest.” The Chinese understanding of war encompasses everyone and everything, anywhere at any time. Perhaps this shift foreshadows a declining importance in traditional warfighting capabilities for the defense of every average American’s interests.

The reality of the current operating environment is that the potential for catastrophic misunderstandings between China, Russia, and the United States in the FOE are high. The Army may find itself engaged in a non-lethal war with these powers and not even realize it, leaving the United States at a distinct disadvantage. This tension will not dissipate and will remain a key element of the FOE.

The FOE’s changing understanding of what constitutes war internationally requires AFC to reevaluate its singular focus on the “tree” of technology. As warfighting expands beyond the realm of violence, the AFC should remain focused on understanding the “forest” and articulating how the Army can best serve the Nation within a larger, geopolitical context. The implications of this are not inconsequential for the role of the Military in society and warrant further discussion. However, the current focus of the AFC on technological supremacy should be re-evaluated.

Yancy Bush is a Captain in the Colorado Army National Guard with a passion for studying Military Design Theories and the Military History of World War I. He holds a Master’s Degree in History from Colorado State University and a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Auburn University. He enjoys spending time with his family and taking care of animals on his small ranch.

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