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Commentary: The Army Can Lead Into the New Military Age if Given the Chance

Absent a strategic vision and refreshed or rewritten doctrine, the Army could find itself struggling to explain and defend its value in a rapidly changing strategic environment.

By Lt. Gen. John R. (Bob) Wood, USA (Ret.)

All of the U.S. military services are modernizing their forces to counter the rise of peer rivals and the onset of new game-breaking technologies. The Army, in particular, is facing difficult decisions as it tailors its structure for a new type of combat. Yet its challenges actually could open the way for the Army to set the pace for the rest of the U.S. military, and there is historical precedent for this possibility.

The key is how the Army is positioned to maintain its priorities with severely constrained resources and alternative strategic choices on a global scale. The Army currently is identified as the bill payer within the Defense Department budget. As overall military spending is constrained, Army programs fall prey to the budget axe.

This is not unusual for the Army. Past cycles have featured the same effect wherein the Army bears the brunt of budget cuts as defense spending is flatlined or reduced. We saw this in the late 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s.

Take the 1950s. During that time, the Army was the lead in developing booster rockets that led to the launches of the country’s first satellite and first man in space. But by 1961, those functions were given to the Air Force and the new civilian space agency, NASA. Concurrent with that migration was a national change in strategy that favored massive nuclear deterrence and retaliation over combat ground forces. The Army was left with a low-intensity-conflict mission on the ground instead of a space-based capability.

Today, with the rise of peer competitors in the Indo-Pacific region and other changes, the Army must make some choices and tradeoffs. The trap to avoid is deferring or ceding key emerging capabilities just to preserve force structure. When this has happened in the past, it took many years to recover.

The service already is equipped to pivot as needed, pending sufficient budgetary support. And, as in the early 1950s, the Army can show the way in a pivotal area of technology that will be vital in the coming years.

That area is cyber. Recognized for some time as an important warfighting domain, cyber now is viewed as possibly the make-or-break domain in future combat. As the military strives toward multidomain operations, it looks to incorporate cyber seamlessly with the other four domains—land, sea, air and space.

Just as the Army led the way into space in the 1950s, so can it lead the force into cyber integration or convergence in the next two decades. Its forces already are incorporating cyber into their operations, training centers are focusing on it as part of operational scenarios, and new systems are being designed with cyber capabilities and security embedded from the start. And, the Army has a remarkable strength to leverage in the area of cyber—the Army National Guard and Reserve. They are a major source of cyber expertise from the private sector, and they also play a crucial role in ensuring the Army has strategic depth of its capabilities.

But all this can be achieved only with a strategic vision for the Army that focuses on goals rather than on actions. This vision would build around the new security challenges we face worldwide, and it would tap the wellspring of innovation that has consistently given the United States an edge. It also would be developed with budgetary constraints in mind. Systems would be a means, not an end, but they would play the key supporting role in achieving this vision.

Strongly in support, the Army needs new operational doctrine that outlines its direction in countering rapidly emerging and diverse theater threats and incorporating equally diverse technologies. Army FM 3-0–Operations, last published in 2017, needs to be reviewed, at least, and rewritten, as needed. And, a number of other doctrinal publications—such as FM 3-12–Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare, FM 3-13–Information Operations—must face similar scrutiny.

Thankfully, the Army already is moving in this direction. Maj. Gen. Neil Hersey, USA, deputy commanding general for operations at the Army Cyber Command, has called for the Army to unify its different information activities instead of conducting separate operations. The first steps in rewriting doctrine are already underway. This effort promises to give commanders a unified information-based approach to reinforce other battlefield functions. This convergence of information-based activities is part of its Information Assurance doctrine.

However, absent a strategic vision and refreshed or rewritten doctrine, the Army could find itself struggling to explain and defend its value in a rapidly changing strategic environment. Such added clarity in vision and doctrine, coupled with reinforcement of the Army’s advancements in cyber operations, can move the Army to the leading edge of modern military warfare. Such a move would ensure the Army is not seen as a bill payer in some “new-age” strategies.

Lt. Gen. John R. (Bob) Wood, USA (Ret.), AFCEA’s executive vice president, served more than 36 years as an officer with combat experience in the U.S. Army.