President's Commentary: The Army Confronts Complexity in Warfighting

August 1, 2015
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The U.S. Army has seized on the concept of complexity in warfighting as it faces a multitude of potential threats. Gone are the days when enemies were defined by clear lines, both substantively and operationally. Instead, the Army must be able to operate amid significant force cuts in a dizzying array of environments against widely varied enemies.

These diverse adversaries might resort to conventional or unconventional means or a hybrid. An enemy might not be state-sponsored but still have access to extremely lethal technologies. Its command and control structures might be ad hoc but still equipped with effective off-the-shelf technologies. Operating in their own homeland, these adversaries likely would have better intelligence at the operational level than U.S. forces, and they could dictate the pace, scale and location of a conflict.

U.S. Army forces must fight their adversaries in spite of legal constraints, fiscal limits and the unblinking media eye. Training for this type of fight in the Army’s traditional ways is hard. All of the tools the Army uses for campaigning and large-scale warfighting are difficult to apply to training against this type of diverse, diffuse threat in a complex environment.

The Army now has a generation of soldiers that has fought tactically in this complex environment. Yet these soldiers may not have engaged in an integrated force exercise at the brigade or division level in a long time. The Army is working to scale training to a more integrated command and control that brings together all elements of the Army, joint and coalition team.

Russia already has begun to scale in this fashion. It can fight conventionally or unconventionally using agile forces that are far better equipped in integrated formations. China’s defense forces increasingly are better armed and more integrated as a joint force.

Joint warfighting is a strength of the U.S. Army. It can bring the heft of an integrated force against anyone in the world. But our recent experiences took our focus off exercising the complexity of the joint fight. It is too simple to think that our forces were joint simply because they were deployed in the same battlespace in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is very different from actually fighting the joint fight. As a result, the cohesion of joint warfighting—which must be a superior strength of ours—now is more and more frayed.

The diffused threat picture challenges the Army. The Army wants to return to an integrated fighting posture—with the combined arms team, the joint team and the coalition team operating against a threat that has learned how to run the seams between formations. In a perfect warfighting environment, the Army would see, operate and dominate the battlespace. It could act rapidly and decisively.

However, the U.S. Army—and U.S. forces as a whole—has two assets that can be turned into a potential war-winning advantage: intelligence and the American soldier. While local adversaries have an inherent intelligence advantage on their home turf, the Army can tap a broad range of capabilities to provide real-time intelligence to forces on the ground. The fundamental operator—company, brigade, platoon, squad—can be equipped with a superior understanding of the space in which it fights. When the Army can see forces directly, as opposed to trying to find enemies hidden among civilians, it can bring an enormous amount of effects to bear against the foe.

But no one can count on that conventional warfight continuing or even occurring. In the end, leadership, training and technology will be required. The technology would bring intelligence down to the lowest level, and the leadership would train soldiers equipped with that intelligence to operate with initiative and clear intent from the commander. Similar to the Army’s mission command concept, the key is to arm the initiative of the individual soldier and the small-unit level with discretion in action and the means to accomplish its mission.

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