WASHINGTON — A recent U.S. Army war game against a North Korea-like failed nuclear state with powerful ground forces has exposed some materiel capability gaps that deeply worry Army planners, service leaders said.
After more than a decade of being able to use Kuwait as a staging area for Iraq and Afghanistan, officers worried that the ability to move into more remote areas without a nearby staging area has atrophied. Even more worrying is meeting the “anti-access/area denial” challenge presented by foes with missile and rocket standoff capabilities that would make any attempted forced entry a bloody affair.
The answer, officers say, lies in a variety of solutions, from light airborne forces to mobile firepower to upgraded watercraft.
The officers had taken part in the Army’s latest Unified Quest war game, and went over some of the game’s lessons with reporters during a daylong seminar March 19 at National Defense University in Washington.
“We saw the brittleness of our ability to defeat projected [year] 2020 anti-access/ area-denial challenges of potential adversaries during the game as units became isolated and some withdrew,” Col. Kevin Felix, Future Warfare Division chief at Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), said during a roundtable discussion. While U.S. forces were able to gain a foothold in the contested territory, “there were problems with the buildup of follow-on forces and sustainment.”
Felix added that in the war game, “we found ways to create access” by air-dropping Stryker eight-wheeled vehicles and using the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey aircraft to get small units in quickly. But moving so quickly with such limited numbers meant those units were often quickly surrounded by larger enemy forces.
TRADOC is known to be working on a joint-entry operations concept that would use Army airborne forces to counter an enemy’s potential area-denial tactics.
Speaking at a conference in February, Col. Rocky Kmiecik, the Mounted Requirements Division director at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, said the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., is helping develop the concept by looking at “mobile protected firepower for light airborne infantry.”
The idea is that since the Army divested its light Sheridan tanks, “airborne forces have a capability gap of mobile protected firepower,” he explained. One of the solutions the Army is considering is the Stryker Mobile Gun System (MGS), which is armed with a 105mm cannon.
Kmiecik warned that the Army is still developing its thinking on the subject, and that “we don’t know whether or not the MGS can meet what the light forces need.”
The concern over light mobile firepower was echoed by Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, at a breakfast meeting on March 20.
“Our force is heavy,” he said. “I’m not saying we have too many tanks and Bradleys [armored vehicles], but how do you get to the fight when you need to have the ability to do strategic maneuvering?”
The Army is still “probably a couple of Nobel Prizes away” from being able to field lighter vehicles that have the protection and firepower that leaders see as essential on future battlefields, he cautioned.
At National Defense University, Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, TRADOC’s director of Concepts Development & Learning Directorate, said that while there have been tests in air-dropping the Stryker, the problem remains, “how do you close that gap between early-entry forces and follow-on forces?”
Air-dropping Strykers might be the answer, he said.
Taking to Sea
Another capability that Army war gamers found useful during Unified Quest was watercraft. Since the game took place on something resembling the Korean Peninsula, “there are some new Army watercraft we used to maneuver forces around in this operation very agilely,” Hix said.
These boats “allowed us to get after a series of key places where [weapons of mass destruction were] suspected to be, very rapidly,” Hix said, while having the add-on effect of creating confusion within the enemy’s ranks due to multiple landings in a variety of locations.
The Army’s increasing desire to take to the sea has also been outlined in an Army equipment modernization strategy document released March 4. It offers a path forward for the modernization of the service’s existing watercraft fleet.
The Army’s landing craft utility platforms are old, having been built in the 1960s and 1970s, the paper complains, and are “in need of immediate modernization to provide the Army and the joint force the ability to meet its expeditionary employment concepts,” particularly in the Pacific region.
“Our aged fleet is slow and does not have the cargo capacity to deliver combat configured forces and sustainment materials/ equipment to the point of employment,” the paper continued.
The equipping plan, which stretches between fiscal 2014 and 2048, maintains that the Army wants to make force protection on its watercraft a priority by integrating technologies such as “scalable nonlethal-to-lethal escalation of force, selective integration of structural armor, ballistic glass, and remote weapons and robust communications architecture.”
While adding these capabilities, service planners admit they are willing to accept some risk in areas “such as sea mines, anti-ship cruise missiles, rockets, cannons and mortars.”
Between fiscal 2019 and fiscal 2027, the service also wants to find a replacement for its logistics support vessel while looking to make use of commercial solutions “with military-unique upgrades.”
While Unified Quest exposed capability gaps the Army must grapple with as budgets are being squeezed, the service is looking to innovate both doctrinally and materially as it continues to pore over lessons learned in Iraq.
In remarks at National Defense University on the 10th anniversary of the 2003 invasion, TRADOC commander Gen. Robert Cone concluded that while the United States “collapsed the Iraqis’ air defenses, their command and control, their logistics” in a matter of weeks, “that didn’t stop them from finding an alternative way of waging war.”
The trick, he and other Army leaders have concluded, is to try to understand and anticipate those alternative ways of making war before the enemy does.