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RMA, Cold War End for Army

“Ideas matter.” So says the first sentence in the Army’s newly published Capstone Concept, titled Operational Adaptability: Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict. It bears the imprimatur of its primary author, Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a revolutionary thinker. Not surprisingly then, its the most revolutionary document the Army has produced in a long time because it discards two very big ideas – actually it discards one and demolishes the other - that have driven Army doctrine and weapons buying over the past three decades.

The first idea retired by the new capstone concept is AirLand Battle, the big think the Army came up with in the early 1980s to defeat Soviet Shock Armies if they tried to blitzkrieg their way across the North German Plain. AirLand Battle was important as it gave the Army intellectual focus around which it could rebuild institutionally after the pain of Vietnam and develop the “Big Five” weapons systems, and in so doing produce the force that steamrolled Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991’s Desert Storm.

The second idea, the one the concept demolishes, was always rather foggy and not very intellectually refined; not surprisingly it also led to the Army’s biggest weapons buying fiasco: the Future Combat Systems (FCS). This was the whole “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) idea, more commonly known by its bastard child “transformation,” that dominated military thinking during the 1990s. RMA proponents said technology had fundamentally changed the way war would be fought: far seeing sensors and precision strike meant wars would be fought at a distance by soldiers staring at plasma screens.

The dubious RMA concept didn’t survive the reality of brutal, bloody and very human war fought at close range: in Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001; Objective Peach in Iraq in 2003; Fallujah in 2004; the IED war in Iraq that began in 2003 and continues today and has spread virus-like to other world battlefields; the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006; and pretty much every firefight in Afghanistan over the past eight years.

The RMA said electronic eyes would provide near perfect situational awareness of the enemy’s whereabouts. Nope. Humans hide, move and seek the means to survive. War is an endless action-reaction cycle where even the most adaptable combatant will realize only a temporary advantage until the enemy in turn adapts. There is a constant ebb and flow to initiative. Because of that inescapable reality, “the Army must take an evolutionary approach to capability development rather than pursue leap-ahead capabilities that may prove irrelevant by the time they are mature,” the new pub says. That is the intellectual stake through the FCS heart.

The pub identifies the current and future “hybrid” adversary: “both hostile states and non-state enemies that combine a broad range of weapons capabilities and regular, irregular, and terrorist tactics; and continuously adapt to avoid U.S. strengths and attack what they perceive as weaknesses.” How to counter the hybrid enemy? In a word: adaptability. That's the big new idea the new concept puts forward. In a few more words:

“Countering enemy adaptations and retaining the initiative in future armed conflict will require balanced forces capable of conducting effective reconnaissance operations, overcoming increasingly sophisticated anti-access technologies, integrating the complementary effects of combined arms and joint capabilities, and performing long-duration area security operations over wide areas (to include in and among populations).”

The pub says over-reliance on overhead electronic sensors for information on the enemy’s whereabouts and the seductive pull of computer screens with red and blue icons sets one up for failure in an era where the convergence of the electronic tubes carrying digital data will be targeted. Army forces must be prepared to fight and win on an emerging “cyber-electromagnetic battleground,” where disruptions to network connectivity are the norm.

Soldiers must fight for information, the capstone concept says, one of six “supporting ideas” identified as contributing to operational adaptability:

“Since enemy forces will use countermeasures such as dispersion, concealment, deception, and intermingling with the population to limit the ability of the joint force to develop the situation out of contact, Army forces will have to fight for information… Army forces must gain and maintain contact with the enemy to observe, assess, and interpret enemy reactions and the ensuing opportunities or threats to friendly forces, populations, or the mission.”

The other five supporting ideas are:

• Conduct combined arms operations

• Employ a combination of defeat and stability mechanisms

• Integrate joint capabilities

• Cooperate with partners

• Exert psychological and technical influence

Because the enemy will disperse and fight in small groups, among the people and continually react to Army force initiatives, rarely will a “common operational picture” exist from which everybody can operate in harmony. Instead, soldiers must be able to fight decentralized, with decision-making authority pushed down to ever lower levels, always keeping in mind commander’s intent. Small units that can fight dispersed and yet quickly coalesce will be essential.

For a highly centralized and hierarchically configured institution, that will require some serious adaptation, as the pub acknowledges. It will demand “an institutional culture that fosters trust among commanders, encourages initiative, and expects leaders to take prudent risk and make decisions based on incomplete information.”

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