How the U.S. Army plans to win future wars

As the Pentagon completes its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. Army wants to make sure that the next war is fought on the terms of future conflicts. That’s part of the driving force behind two interconnected plans called Army 2035 and Waypoint 2028 that spell out the changes the Army needs to make to win the wars it expects to fight in the future.

The U.S. Army describes its goal as “maintaining the edge,” an extremely awkward phrase meant to encompass everything that leads to victory in combat. This might include more soldiers, better positioned and longer-range artillery, or simply fighting in the right spot where the opponent is unprepared. If there’s a reason to use jargon when explaining how and why you win, it’s because advantages in battles and wars can take many forms, and it’s hard to guarantee that every one has an advantage.

As part of an ongoing review process, the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has identified four factors the Army needs to address to achieve its 2028 and 2035 goals. Taken together, the Army’s inventory of these factors, released on Aug. 6, sheds light on what kind of wars the Army expects to fight in the future.

The scale of future wars is huge

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it dispatched thousands of soldiers. Between 2010 and 2011, the peak of US deployment, 100,000 troops were stationed in the country, albeit for a relatively short period of time. In 2003, the United States and Britain invaded Iraq with 125,000 troops and subsequently expanded their occupation. These numbers fluctuate as the war progresses, but aside from the initial invasion of Iraq, the troops are mostly used in small counter-insurgency battles. Patrols, small raids, and the occasional gunfight with insurgents located in a neighborhood or city are the default ways of warfare.

In reviewing Waypoint 2028, the Joint Arms Center examined the legacy of this discrete, small-scale battle and found that they lacked the kind of fast-paced, interconnected combat the U.S. Army hopes to fight against other militaries.

A January 2021 document on Doctrine outlines two possible scenarios, revealing how large-scale war is different from fighting an insurgency. The first is that if the battle goes well, soldiers may suddenly find themselves responsible for accepting the surrender of a large group of enemies. Gathering vital information from detained enemies is an essential part of counterinsurgency, but when many defections, such questioning is simply not possible on a large scale, and the Army would rather anticipate this outcome now than lose it in the future something important.

Another change for future wars is that the U.S. Army will not always be able to rely on friendly air support, which has been the default in the early stages of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This may not be the case against great powers, and soldiers should be trained for future big fights, understanding that the enemy may prevent air support or even launch attacks from the air themselves.

The future of war is connected

Wars have become interconnected, as the U.S. Army now knows. Ground-based reconnaissance planes can point laser target markers at enemy tanks, directing bombs dropped by jet fighters closer to their targets. Scouts communicate by radio, and guided bombs read GPS coordinates for more accurate strikes. Such attacks involve military tools on land, in the air, and in space, as well as communications across the electromagnetic spectrum. Putting all these areas together helps to understand how each individual tool could be used by the United States or other nations in the wider war.

To talk about this connectivity, the U.S. military uses the term “multi-domain operations,” another way of talking about tools being connected to each other even if they’re not physically connected. Of course, except in the fields of sea, air, land, and air, or areas that are harder to find, such as cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, these actions also occurred in a timely manner. In addition, the communication link itself is a potential place for error.

Command and control, or the issuance and execution of orders, is critical for the U.S. Army to work together to win battles. The communication channels used, from GPS signals to radios to cell towers to commands in battle, can be jammed and attacked by jammers and intercepted by listening devices. This can lead to situations where soldiers lose contact with each other and their commanders.

As part of its 2028 plan, the Army wants to ensure that battles across time and distance can be won against an enemy willing and able to interfere with all the tools (such as helicopters, satellites and radio transmissions) that currently allow the Army to fight and spread out .

Figuring out how to ensure combat is the task of the future. 2028 and 2035 are still a long way off, and for now, the Joint Arms Center’s recommendation is to start training for future warfare now.

About the author: Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology reporter based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has worked on drones, lethal artificial intelligence, and nuclear weapons at Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and more.

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