Future Missions Through the Lens of the US Army Operating Concept

Future Missions Through the Lens of the US Army Operating Concept

A Small Wars Journal discussion with Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster by Octavian Manea.

Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster is Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General, Futures, US Army Training and Doctrine Command.  He served previously as Commanding General, Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning from June 2012 to July 2014. From 2010 to 2012, he commanded Combined Joint Inter-Agency Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency) in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was commissioned as an officer in the United States Army upon graduation from the United States Military Academy in 1984. He holds a PhD in military history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam”.

We’ve seen recently the major strategic challenges (mainly high-end adversaries) driving the DoD 2017 budget.  From the perspective of the US Army Operating Concept what are the most relevant trends we need to keep in mind that are most likely to contribute to shaping and changing the character of armed conflict?

As we try to understand the problem of future armed conflict we consider four main areas that exhibit both continuities in the nature of war and changes in the character of warfare.  We make grounded projections into the future by first considering potential threats, enemies, and adversaries in future operating environments.  We consider threats emerging from nation-states as well as non-state actors and so-called hybrid enemies that are non-state actors that enjoy state support.

These threats include Russia and its aggressive actions such as the invasion of Ukraine and their actions in the Middle East where they’ve allied themselves with a murderous regime and with the Iranians in pursuit of a strategy that is perpetuating the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Russia is waging limited war for limited objectives and conducting sophisticated campaigns that include the use of unconventional forces operating under the cover of very significant conventional force capability.  Russia’s aim is not defensive; its actions since 2007 are part of a broader effort to collapse the post-World War II and post-Cold War security order in Europe.  Russia has combined military force with other activities to change the geopolitical landscape on the Eurasian landmass. In Crimea and Ukraine Russia was able to accomplish goals at little to no cost, consolidate gains and portray the response of US and NATO allies and those supporting Ukraine as escalatory.  What Russia has done highlights the need to revisit deterrence theory and make it relevant to the geostrategic problem set on the Eurasian landmass.

What we see with China is similar.  China is also using conventional and unconventional capabilities to change realities in the South China Sea.  China is building islands and positioning military capabilities there in an effort to intimidate the countries in the region and establish a degree of hegemony. China’s actions in the South China Sea lead to questions about its intentions and its commitment to uphold a rules based international system. In both China and Russia what you see is a renewed need for deterrence, especially a focus on deterrence by denial -the ability for nations to convince a potential adversary that he can’t accomplish his objectives.  The military has a very important role along with diplomacy, economic policy, and informational efforts because an integrated campaign is necessary to counter those who are employing a sophisticated strategy.  Countering propaganda, and disinformation, for example, is important.  Russia has been particularly adept at sowing conspiracy theories in Europe and doing its best to undermine the NATO Alliance in particular.

And we should not forget about Iran which has been supporting proxies across the Arab world but especially in the Middle East in a way that I think, along with the rise of ISIS, set the conditions for this disastrous sectarian civil war and humanitarian crisis. They’ve done this by essentially applying the Hezbollah model to the Greater Middle East where they have weak governments in power that are dependent upon Iran for support while Iran grows militias and other illegal armed groups and supports them because they can be turned against those governments if those governments act against Iranian interests.

Potential threats, enemies, and adversaries are important for us to consider but we also need to consider the missions we need to conduct in the future.  Army forces are essential to deterring conflict.  As part of the Joint Force, they’ve prevented great power conflict for over 70 years now.  Forces positioned forward are particularly important to deterrence.  When facing countries that wage limited war for limited objectives it is important to ratchet up the cost at the frontier and also to let the enemy know they cannot accomplish their objectives.  And the Army has an important role because, as Thomas Schelling wrote in the 1960s- the army gives you a brute force option which is the ability to compel outcomes without the cooperation of the enemy. Our stand-off capabilities will remain very important for our joint force and for multinational forces such as NATO.  The role of land forces is becoming even more important, I think, to the deterrence mission.  Another mission that we need to conduct is what we call expeditionary maneuver: the ability to deploy rapidly into unexpected locations and transition quickly into operations and to do so with forces that have the mobility, protection and lethality to overmatch the enemy and operate in sufficient scale and ample duration to accomplish the mission. If you look how these forces will be employed it will be in the context of coping with a hostile nation-state’s capabilities, especially long range ballistic missile capabilities which today are analogous to the V1 and V2 threat to London in World War II.  They are also important against groups like Daesh who has established a terrorist proto-state in Syria and Iraq. Army forces are critical in denying enemy safe havens and support bases, in defeating enemy organizations, in establishing control of territory to deny its use to the enemy, in protecting populations and in projecting power outward from land into the maritime, aero-space and cyber-space domains.  For example, what we see today is that Russia has established air supremacy over Ukraine from the ground so Army forces have to be able to conduct joint multinational combined arms maneuver.  And Army forces have always had the mission to integrate efforts of multiple partners to consolidate gains to translate military success into sustainable political outcomes.

The third thing we consider is technology that can improve our capabilities.  We are very interested in demand reduction of logistics so we can maintain freedom of movement in action at the end of extended and contested lines of communications in austere environments.  We are very interested in robotic and autonomy enable systems, both air and ground, to help us see and fight across wider areas, to help us make contact with the enemy under favorable conditions, and to help maintain freedom of movement and action along contested routes  and in contested areas.  We are looking to improve lethality, especially through a range of technologies like directed energy capabilities that can allow our forces to pack a greater punch and be more effective against a broad range of enemy threats.  We are also looking at advanced protective systems for both air and ground forces that can protect forces from what we see in Eastern Ukraine such as the long-range ballistic missile threat capability, massed fires and maybe swarm UAS capabilities. And we’re focused on the cyber and electromagnetic capabilities to ensure our ability to communicate freely and restrict the ability of the enemy to communicate freely and also to assure some of our advanced capabilities. Finally, we should also consider the enemy’s technological counter-measures to whatever we develop and we have to be able to counter what we see as emerging threat capabilities.

And finally we look at history and lessons learned.  For example, we can learn quite a bit from Russian operations during the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine and from the ongoing fights in Syria and Iraq.  Recent Israeli operations in Gaza can give important lessons on dense urban terrain.  And French operations in Mali are also instructive.

So to understand what is changing in the character of warfare we look at threats, enemies, adversaries; missions; technology; and the lessons learned.

Living on the Eastern Flank of NATO, I completely understand this renewed focus on threats that are associated with great power politics. But come back a moment to some specific traits of the post 9/11 era-stabilization operations. Counterinsurgency has once again become a dirty word. For some it is a shortcut for costly quagmires. It happened before. After Vietnam, the US Army was pivoting away from COIN - concentrating on Europe, the Fulda Gap and conventional deterrence. It was the age of Air Land battle doctrine and the second offset strategy. We see some of those elements being fashionable again. Today the emphasis is on the resurgence of great power competitions and a third offset strategy meant to mix game-changing technologies with new operational and organization constructs in order to reestablish conventional deterrence. All of these are very important, but isn’t there a danger to concentrate once again only on a certain part of the warfare spectrum-on high end adversaries? Especially in a time when the societal and political trends favoring insurgency and instability potential are increasing?

Yes there is a very big danger of this so it is very important for us to recognize how and why we employ military force. The reason is to achieve sustainable political outcomes consistent with the vital interests that brought you into the fight. What it is immensely important is to recognize that the enemy has a say in how they are going to fight you. As Dr. Conrad Crane said - they can choose two ways to fight the US military: asymmetrically and stupid. We can hope that the enemy will choose stupid but it is highly unlikely. Enemies will try to AVOID what they see as our strengths, especially our long-range standoff capabilities, and will do that through traditional means of dispersion, concealment, intermingling with civilian populations, and deception. They will try to DISRUPT our advanced capabilities. There was never a silver bullet in war so if we build a narrow range of exquisite capabilities we can just about guarantee that those capabilities will only have a very limited effect in future war. The third thing our enemies will do is EMULATE those capabilities because technology is the element of our differential advantage over potential enemies that is most transferable to the enemy. China has engaged in the largest theft of intellectual property in history. There is a reason why a J-20 looks like an F-22. We have to recognize that our future ability to fight comes from how we combine capabilities in the context of an effective strategy and how we combine technologies with people and teams in Joint operations.  Finally our enemies will EXPAND onto other battlegrounds and this includes battlegrounds of perception and disinformation and political subversion.  It is very important for Army forces, as part of the Joint Force, to focus on the consolidation of military gains.  Consolidation of gains involves military support to governance, security force assistance, military support to rule of law. These are activities that the Army had always had to do and as Conrad Crane has said, “we have never been able to never do this again.”  We are committed to ensure that when training under the decisive action training environment we are conducting operations against an enemy that is operating across these multiple battlegrounds. What we’ve said in the Army Operating Concept is that consolidation of gains is an integral part of armed conflict and it is essential to retain the initiative over determined enemies and adversaries. Our emphasis on consolidation of gains, as a fundamental part of campaign design, is what enables success and achieves lasting outcomes in the shortest time span. So we will not walk away from the complexity of war and war’s political nature and war’s human nature.  We have to understand what drives conflicts. You cannot figure that out from standoff range. You have to be able to address the drivers of conflict and you can’t do that through targeting alone. You can’t influence and solve land-based political and human problems from standoff range or offshore. When we try to solve complex land-based problems exclusively from standoff range, we often frustrate our ability to consolidate gains. We have to recognize that the enemy has a say in the course of events and that he will fight us asymmetrically. Ultimately wars are contests of wills and you impose your will by operating effectively on land and in and among populations. What all the wars that are going on today have in common is that they are about the control of territory, populations and resources and those wars are currently in areas that exhibited weak governance, weak security and weak rule of law. If we don’t integrate a broad range of activities not just military but diplomatic, economic, political, informational, and law enforcement activities to strengthen and compensate for those weaknesses, we hand opportunities to our enemies.

Let’s revisit your Tal Afar experience with an eye to the future operational environment where (mega)cities, urban slums and operating among populations is becoming the new normal. What are some of the personal lessons that you see relevant for this not very distant future?

Most importantly, we need to generate, develop and maintain understanding in these very complex environments. We need to understand our enemies and we also need to understand the populations among whom these wars are fought. We need to understand the political, tribal, religious, ethnic dynamics that often affect the missions and the security situation. The cultural, social, economic, religious, and historical considerations that comprise the human aspects of war must inform wartime planning as well as our preparation for future armed conflict. In Iraq in particular and across the Middle East if we look at Daesh; they are able to use violence and propaganda to excite historical grievances, magnify sectarian identities, and pit communities against each other and then portray themselves as patrons and protectors of an aggrieved party. Once they are in those communities they establish control mainly through intimidation and coercion, and also through a broad range of other incentives and disincentives they apply among the populations. They use that control of territory to mobilize resources in order to perpetuate and accelerate the conflict usually by committing mass murder and mass rape and mass child abuse.  Daesh directs violence against the other community in order to incite retribution which then fuels the cycle of violence. The cycle of violence creates chaos and Daesh use that chaos to establish control over territory, populations and resources. We need to understand the fear, the sense of honor, and the interests of communities that are party to that conflict.  What Daesh does is they essentially use ignorance to perpetuate hatred, hatred to justify violence, and violence prevents education and perpetuates ignorance, and it becomes a cycle. This is perfect for them. They will have a population that is undereducated, largely illiterate, and susceptible to demagoguery. The cycle has to be broken by defeating the enemy physically and then by consolidating gains to protect populations and territory. What it is equally important is to consolidate gains psychologically by addressing the fear, sense of honor and interests of the communities that are in conflict. This was what was critical in Iraq especially between 2007 and 2010 where we were able, along with Iraqi leaders, to forge what turned out to be a very fragile political accommodation between the parties in the sectarian civil war. I think it is clear in retrospect that we didn’t do enough to sustain that fragile political accommodation and as a result there was a return of large scale communal violence that set the conditions for the ISIL/Daesh to establish control over territory in Iraq and create this horrible situation. The lesson is that we have to understand these complex environments and we have to address what is driving the conflict.  And ultimately what is necessary is mediation between the parties that were in conflict to remove support among the population for murderers and extremists on all sides of the conflict.

Two years after the Crimea annexation what have we learned in terms of the way of warfare practiced by Russia in its near abroad?

First of all, I think it is important to understand what Russia is trying to achieve.   I believe it is the collapse of post-Cold War security order in Europe. At the same time we need to understand the nature of their strategy; a sophisticated campaign where the use of unconventional forces under the cover of conventional forces with a broad range of intimidating and coercive activities to incite dissent. We also have the sophisticated propaganda campaign with stations like RT to sow doubt among the EU populations. Most of these features have their roots in the old strategy of Maskirovka that Andropov was expert at and one of his protégés, Vladimir Putin, is now in the position to direct what some people call Russian New Generation Warfare. It is important to understand every facet, to include the use of organized crime networks to advance their interests.  Only when you understand an enemy strategy can you begin to understand the adversary’s sources of strengths and vulnerabilities.  Our military and civilian leaders are working on that.

On a hybrid warfare template/strategy, are there similar features with what we’ve seen after 9/11 in the global insurgency era? Aren’t there similar raw materials and ideal societal setting/vulnerabilities that could be exploited-communal/societal grievances? And what are some of the prerequisites of the hybrid defense? What role does good governance play in countering the subversive, non-kinetic dimension of the hybrid warfare?

What has to happen in these conflicts is that the nation that is under threat must be able to harden and strengthen itself against the enemy. Take for example Afghanistan. What is really necessary is that Afghanistan has to be strengthened and hardened against the regenerative capacity of the Taliban which lies across the border in Pakistan. But to do that effectively it is going to take a political accommodation between Pashtun groups because the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is primarily an intra-Pashtun civil war. It also takes a political accommodation between Pashtun populations and the other ethnic groups.  The second thing that has to happen in Afghanistan and in other places is institutional reform by strengthening the security forces and ensuring that those security forces are connected to a version or form of rule of law in which the population believes its interests can be advanced and protected through those state or local institutions and through politics rather than through violence.  The third thing that has to happen in Afghanistan has to do with the behavior of the enemy and external support for the enemy. This has everything to do with Pakistan and using diplomatic efforts to convince Islamabad that it can advance its interests through diplomacy rather than through the support for illegal armed groups and terrorist groups who continue to destabilize the situation not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan itself. The fourth thing that has to happen is to sustain international support. Situations in which a weak government is under siege by powers that are destabilizing require a strategy to address both the internal and external political dynamics.  Consider for example South Korea in 1953.  It looked pretty bleak.  You had a country that was ravaged by decades of war, a country with no national resources, a largely illiterate population, a corrupt government, and a hostile neighbor. The situation looked desperate. We have to recognize that these are long term problems and there are no short-term solutions for these long-term problems.

As the US Army Operating Concept points out, competitors will emulate US military capabilities to counter traditional US power projection capabilities and limit US freedom of action. We already see this trend in Kaliningrad (and to some extent in Crimea) - becoming an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) bubble. As we factor in this A2/AD variable should we re-conceptualize/rethink our ways/paradigms of conventional deterrence as well as the ways to reinforce the vulnerable allies? How do you see the role of land-power in this very A2/AD contested environment?

You are highlighting a very important point. We risk being over-reliant on a concept of deterrence that is associated with the threat of punitive action. There is a time and space dimension of this which really calls for the forward positioning of capable land forces as part of a Joint, multinational force that is a credible deterrent because the enemy recognizes they cannot accomplish their objectives.  To really have effective deterrence you need maritime, air, space, land, and cyber power to be employed in combination. If you lack any of those in sufficient capacity or capability, the joint force is weakened and vulnerable to enemy action. The key is the synergistic effect of joint force capabilities.  Land forces are foundational because of what they provide a joint force commander.  They allow the creation of multiple dilemmas for the enemy. Dispersed land forces are difficult to target and are able to maneuver to place something of value to the enemy at risk. Joint forces allow you to seize the initiative and force the enemy to respond to your actions rather than the other way around.  It is really about intelligence, reconnaissance, fires and maneuver and forward positioned and responsive joint force capabilities to deter by denial rather than by punitive actions later. As General Breedlove in his recent EUCOM Strategy said virtual presence is actual absence.

In your latest Congressional hearing you emphasized that “the competitive advantages that we have banked on over recent years are narrowing” and that “the Army risks losing qualitative overmatch in future conflicts”. What does the Army need in order to penetrate and operate in an anti-access/area-denial type of environment? Its own A2/AD bubble or a sort of protective shield (last year Bob Work was talking about a Raid-Breaker capability connecting the THAAD with PAC-3s and Paladins)?

To mitigate mounting risks and ensure overmatch, the Army is prioritizing future capabilities in the following areas: combat vehicles, future vertical lift, expeditionary mission command or command and control capability, cross domain fires, cyber and electromagnetic activities, robotic and autonomous systems, advanced protection, and soldier and team overmatch and performance. 

With respect to A2/AD, ground maneuver forces with cross-domain fires with extended range and enhanced precision help the Joint Force to overcome anti-access and area denial threats, support Army operations on land across wide areas, and project power from land into the air, maritime, space and cyber domains. 

To some extent the post-Cold War world was a time of the uncomfortable wars where violence and disorder at the sub-state level remained the main characteristic. This is not going to change. How should victory, success or winning be perceived/understood in such circumstances? It became a very ambiguous concept.

I think we need to put winning back in the center of what we are trying to achieve. We need to define what winning means and that is being able to achieve sustainable outcomes consistent with your vital interests. Obviously you go into an armed conflict because you perceive that your vital interests are at risk. You also need to envision how to get to a sustainable outcome that removes the actual or perceived threat to your vital interests. This is critical to success in war but it is also critical to the ethical conduct of war. As Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “the purpose of war is a better peace.” A just end is critical to the decision to go to war in the first place. This puts a spotlight on understanding fully the complexity of the situation, the political and human dimensions of war, and how the consolidation gains is an integral  part of  war.

If you are going to fight your purpose must be to defeat your enemy.  The concept of defeat should be central: that the enemy is no longer able to effectively pursue its strategy. Even in the most complex situations it is possible to define the conditions that would lead to enemy defeat. There has been a tendency for some to say that the situations are so complex that we really don’t have a clear view of how to win. I would say that that just means you need to think harder while also recognizing the limits of what you can control, the limits of your agency.  Plans must aim to consolidate gains and achieve sustainable outcomes.  And obviously you must be ready to adjust those plans.  The enemy has a say in the future course of events.

Having in mind how critical civil-military integration is in the protracted challenges of the post 9/11 security environment, especially from the perspective of the consolidation of gains which usually are political and societal, shouldn’t we consider the creation of an integrated civilian-military command for expeditionary operations? It is an idea advocated by Zalmay Khalilzad in his recently published memoirs.

The Army Operating Concept recognizes that early and effective consolidation activities must be a fundamental part of campaign design.  Consolidating gains is essential to retaining the initiative over determined enemies and enables success and achieves lasting favorable outcomes in the shortest time span.  To consolidate gains, Army forces often play a supporting role by reinforcing and integrating the efforts of multiple partners.  Success takes time.

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Re: an understanding of the current definition of winning, of consolidating gains and of achieving a better peace.

These are all understood today as "transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines."

The problem is that we now understand that this such objective must be achieved MINUS such things as "universal [Western] values," MINUS "the end of history" (the Western such version) and MINUS the overwhelming appeal of, and an overwhelming desire for, our unique way of life, our unique way of governance, etc.

This being the case, and should we wish to (and/or indeed feel compelled to) retain the above definition of winning, of consolidating gains and of achieving a better peace; then we will need to understand that -- to achieve our such "expansionist" objectives -- we must:

a. Expect that this will be -- not the easy, cooperative down-hill slide that we imaged in "universal values"/"end of history" days -- but, rather, a hard, contested, up-hill slog. And that we must:

b. Gird ourselves accordingly. This, to defeat the state and non-state actors that will, thus, not work with us to achieve the "transformations" outlined in my second paragraph above but, indeed, will work directly against us and stand directly in our way.

> As Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “the purpose of war is a better peace.”

It's a great quote, a terrific quote, but I'd be interested to know whether it's from Aquinas, and if not, who said it -- and where. I found it attributed to von Clausewitz here:

A state or period of armed hostility. Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) advanced the doctrine of war as an extension of politics with different means. He also said the purpose of war is a better peace.


I see St Augustine quoted thus:

St. Augustine emphasizes the idea of restoration of peace as the main motive of war. He says, "'We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace ... '"


Is the phrase in the Summa? I'd find it very helpful to be able to quote it with confidence, it's obviously a central concept in Just War theory.