This increasingly complex security environment is defined by rapid technological change, [and] challenges from adversaries in every operating domain ... we must make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important to field a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting Joint Force. America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.— 2018 National Defense Strategy
Throughout history we have adapted our Army to changing conditions. In the face of major strategic shifts, we have done more than adapt; we have fundamentally restructured our institutional base. Following the near disaster of the Spanish-American War, Secretary of War Elihu Root modernized the Army’s institutional structure to account for America’s increasingly global role. In the first year of World War II, Gen. George Marshall merged 20 Army agencies into three commands — reforms vital to win the war. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Gen. Creighton Abrams established U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and U.S. Army Forces Command to transform a troubled Army, ill-prepared to fight the Soviet military, into the one of Desert Storm.
Today our country is engaged in long-term strategic competition with determined adversaries. Within this is a protracted struggle among militaries to out-innovate one another during a period of rapid technological change. Our military capabilities, relative to those of our adversaries, will depend on the relative responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency of our force modernization enterprise. The U.S. must produce better war-fighting solutions, faster, with greater return on investment than anyone who might threaten the U.S. or its allies.
In the last 50 years, the Department of Defense has undertaken or been the subject of more than 63 acquisition reform initiatives. Intermittently, over the last 20 years, the Army adjusted different parts of its force modernization enterprise — we modified our concepts framework, refined how we determine requirements, consolidated research and development activities, etc. However, these disjointed efforts have not allowed the U.S. Army to outpace adversary modernization, which has been steadily narrowing U.S. military advantages for nearly two decades. We need a solution that addresses the problem holistically.
Force modernization encompasses everything we do to transform the Army we have today into the one we need, by making changes across DOTMLPF-P (doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, policy). This includes anticipating future military problems, developing how future organizations will fight with new technology and concepts, and following-through to ensure timely delivery of the right war-fighting capabilities. Successful force modernization requires sound assessments of the future, clear strategy and close collaboration among all force modernization functions — e.g., concepts development, requirements determination, technology development and acquisition.
Before Army Futures Command, or AFC, the interoperating components of our force modernization enterprise were distributed across the Army. Key functions were led by different leaders with different responsibilities and visions of the future. The structure, processes and governance of that enterprise lent themselves to stovepiped execution of force modernization functions. AFC will unify that enterprise, integrate force modernization functions and synchronize Army-wide processes so that the whole works together to deliver overmatch at scale.
The geopolitical and technological changes to which we are responding
The period of U.S. military dominance that followed the end of the Cold War is fading. So, too, are the circumstances that, for the last 70 years, mitigated the risk of large-scale war among nation-states. These include challenges to the post-World War II, rules-based international order and shifting balances of economic power. The U.S. military, particularly the Army, must be prepared to win large-scale ground combat against any adversary while accomplishing a wide range of other missions.
Meanwhile, the character of war is changing. Perhaps by as early as 2030 our Army may be dramatically challenged by a convergence of factors, including advances in low-cost sensors, precision-strike technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, directed energy, biology, quantum computing and information technologies that will fundamentally change how we fight. Meanwhile, geostrategic changes — including urbanization and demographic shifts — may change where and why we fight.
Historically, we have paid a significant price for failing to anticipate changes in the character of future war. For example, in our Civil War and World War I, all sides suffered tremendous casualties because 19th century war-fighting methods did not account for new technologies. When the automobile and airplane signaled a new era in ground combat, internal disagreements and cultural resistance slowed the Army’s adaptation. Similarly, for the last nearly 30 years, internal debate has hindered efforts to fully integrate information age technologies into our war-fighting formations.
By contrast, Russia and China have focused on future war since observing U.S. Army capabilities in Desert Storm. Both countries have reorganized, recapitalized and professionalized their land forces. In addition to industrial espionage, they use aggressive research and development in strategic sectors, limited fielding, large-scale exercises, and trials in combat to find effective, cost-efficient ways to challenge the U.S. across the range of military operations.
Why our legacy force modernization enterprise was inadequate for the future
Before AFC, the Army modernization enterprise’s critical interoperating components were dispersed across Training and Doctrine Command, Army Materiel Command and multiple separate organizations, including parts of the Army Staff and Army Secretariat. The offices of the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Army were the first place those chains of command intersect. As described in the Decker-Wagner Army Acquisition Review, the process of identifying military problems, developing solutions and delivering them is inhibited by organizational structure. Too many could say: “No, coordination costs — principally time — were high, and well-meaning key players optimized for their process at the expense of the desired outcome.”
Talented scientists, engineers, concept writers, capability developers, testers, costers and acquisition professionals all worked to accomplish their missions as they understand them. However, different visions of the future; war-fighting function perspectives; modes of communication; and divergent measures of merit (e.g., program cost, schedule, and performance versus operational outcomes and lifecycle sustainment costs) lead to uncoordinated and, occasionally, antagonistic execution. This friction is amplified by diffusion of responsibility and focus on process rather than outcome.
To modernize at the pace of 21st century technological change, AFC will manage constant experimentation and relationships among the exploration of war-fighting concepts, organizational designs and technologies. Solution development will tightly integrate science, technology, engineering, manufacturing, war-fighting
and sustainment expertise. For example, the development of a solution involving optionally manned fighting vehicles would include the maturation of cooperative robotics technology, development of cost-effective manufacturing techniques and discovery of practical techniques for employment. By identifying and addressing interrelated issues early, the Army can pursue better-informed solutions, understand opportunities and reduce risks.
By including many different and informed perspectives early, we will sometimes change the kinds of solutions we pursue. AFC will not produce better tools if what we need are different tools — AFC will not pursue the contemporary equivalents of better horse cavalry if we need motorized units, or build better howitzers if we need deep-attacking loiter munitions. AFC will not squander the Army’s finite resources and institutional credibility on massive programs that over-promise, under-deliver and then die of their own fiscal weight.
Rather than making singular bets on capabilities with underappreciated risk, AFC will encourage failing early and learning fast in pursuit of solutions. AFC will conduct war-fighting and technology experimentation together, producing innovative, field-informed war-fighting concepts and working prototypes of systems that have a low risk of proving infeasible or being rejected by future war fighters. With the benefit of knowledge gained by analysis and early experimentation, the Army can be risk-informed to ensure the combined goals for a chosen solution are beneficial, achievable and affordable.
AFC will not overemphasize the materiel at the expense of the non-materiel. There are no game-changing technologies. There are only game-changing combinations of war-fighting concepts, technologies and organizations. It is through their integration that AFC will deliver overmatch to our soldiers.
Gen. John Murray is the commanding general of U.S. Army Futures Command.