Understanding Tomorrow Begins Today: The Operational Environment Through 2035

Understanding Tomorrow Begins Today: The Operational Environment Through 2035

Ian M. Sullivan, John C. Bauer, Eric L. Berry and Luke Shabro

The Operational Environment Provides Opportunities and Challenges

The Operational Environment (OE) is a combination of conditions and variables that impact a commander’s decision-making process and his/her ability to employ capabilities.  The factors that define a given OE stretch across the Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic (DIME) spheres and form the broad setting in which the Army and any of its units, along with its joint and combined partners, conduct operations.  Our ability to conceptualize and understand the OE and its lattice-work of variables – the political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical terrain, and time factors (PMESII-TT) – allows us to not only conceptualize, plan, and train for the types of missions we will face in the near-term, but also to explore the types of capabilities and processes we will need to develop and/or adopt to contend with the threats we will face in the future.  Our analysis of the OE indicates that key potential adversaries are focusing on developing capabilities and employing hybrid strategies that will provide direct challenges to Army and Joint and Combined forces.

The OEs of today and the future will be marked by instability.  This instability will manifest itself in evolving geopolitics, resurgent nationalism, changing demographics, and unease with the results of globalization creating tension, competition for resources, and challenges to structures, order, and institutions.  Instability also will result from the rapid development of technology and the resulting increase in the speed of human interaction, as well an increasing churn in economic and social spheres. A global populace that is increasingly attuned and sensitive to disparities in economic resources and the diffusion of social influence will lead to further challenges to the status quo and lead to system rattling events like the Arab Spring, the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Greek monetary crisis, and BREXIT.  Also, the world order will evolve with rising nations to challenging the post-Cold War dominance of the US-led Western system.  New territorial conflicts will arise in places like the South China Sea, compelling us to seek new partnerships and alliances, while climate change and geopolitical competition will open up whole new theaters of operation, such as in the Arctic. 

The combination of this instability with the dizzying advances being made in technology and the increased velocity of human interaction means that the OE will present an array of threats that will be lethal and multi-domain (land, sea, air, space, and cyber.)  Our adversaries will hide in and among populations and in complex terrain, and endeavor to mitigate many of our own traditional technological advantages and force us to operate with degraded capabilities.  They will adopt hybrid strategies that take advantage of a range of capabilities that deny us a conventional force-on-force fight.  They will use proxy forces that provide plausible deniability, yet directly allow them to not only shape the battlespace, but even achieve their objectives without risking a wider conflict.  Similarly, they also may choose to work with, sponsor, or support terrorist or criminal entities to achieve a similar end.  Irregular operations, often in concert with proxies, terrorist, or criminal activities, operating within a “gray zone”[i] short of war will challenge our ability to come to grips with the enemy and perhaps present an unfavorable cost-benefit equation to our political leaders.  Our adversaries will rely on strategic capabilities, such as weapons of mass destruction, information operations, and direct cyber-attacks designed to give us pause in responding to their actions and provide them the strategic space they need to operate.  Finally, they will develop conventional force structures capable of providing anti-access and area denial capabilities designed to keep us from entering forces into a battle space, or at a minimum, provide an operational barrier that we will have to spend time and resources to breach.  When considered together with the likelihood that our adversaries initially will choose the time and place of the fight, the Army will be faced with the potential of being overmatched in terms of capabilities and out of balance and position in terms of deployment and timing.

We Will Face Thinking, Adaptive Adversaries

The United States under these conditions will have to contend with the emergence of potential near-peer rivals, well-positioned regional adversaries, increasingly capable and dangerous ideologically-driven terrorist groups, as well as sophisticated and ruthless international criminal syndicates.  These adversaries will employ a combination of capabilities that blend traditional terrorism and criminal activities with those once thought only to be within reach of nation-states to drive their own agendas, will remain an enduring threat. 

The nation-state adversaries that will challenge us over this time period can be divided into several categories.  At the high end will be the near-peer competitor, a nuclear-armed state whose strategic forces, conventional military capabilities, and ability to project power approach those of the United States.  Although we currently do not face a near-peer competitor, both Russia and China could approach this status in the mid-to-long term[ii].   Nuclear-armed regional powers are the second type of threat.  These states maintain capabilities in all domains and can project power regionally, both conventionally and through the use of surrogates.  Their ultimate trump card is a nuclear umbrella, which can be projected out to the intermediate- or even intercontinental-range.  Russia, China, and North Korea fit this bill today, and Iran could become such a nation over the mid-to-long term.  A third type of threat is the non-nuclear regional hegemon, which possesses well-equipped militaries capable of operating across all domains.  Although lacking a nuclear deterrent, these states can find other ways to build a deterrent capability, such as developing unique irregular capabilities, cyber capabilities, or other weapons of mass destruction.  Iran currently fits this archetype.  Non-state actors, such as ideologically-driven terrorist groups and international criminal syndicates also will take advantage of some of the same factors that nation-states have considered, but will match them with a willingness to rely on other, non-conventional capabilities to achieve their own objectives. 

  • Russia can be considered our “pacing threat,” and arguably is the most capable of our potential adversaries.  Although not yet a true equal to a joint US military force, the Russian military has made considerable progress in reviving its capabilities to wage modern war, incorporating into to their operational practices lessons learned from Dagestan, Chechnya, the Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria.  Russia is working on a new approach to warfare which combines the use of military force with a broader set of national policy tools[iii].  It has combined this approach – termed Russian New Generation Warfare – with a significant military modernization program, and unveiled new capabilities in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, including the use of proxies – the “little green men” – unmanned and robotic systems, and precision strike weapons.[iv] [v]  It also has worked on developing other capabilities, including airborne forces, chemical and biological weapons, and a sophisticated cyber capability, that could be used in a hybrid strategy against the United States.[vi] Finally, Moscow has a robust defense research and development program, focusing on developing and incorporating new technologies – such as robotics, unmanned systems, and range of information technology advances – into their military force structure.
  • China also is rapidly modernizing its armed forces and considering new approaches to warfare.  Beijing’s rapid development, fueled by heavy investment, a relatively strong economy, industrial espionage, and desire to build military power that will match its perceived place as a “great power,” means that China could surpass Russia in the mid-to-long-term as our most capable threat.  China’s main areas of focus have been in developing anti-access and area denial capabilities, naval forces, ballistic missiles, and a formidable proficiency in cyber and space operations[vii].  It has been expanding its reach away from its shores and out to contested islands in the South and East China Seas – the Senkaku/Diaoyu, Spratly and Paracel Islands, as well as Scarborough Shoal – which means that an increasing number of South East Asian littoral states, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, increasingly could look to regional security partnerships to check Chinese expansion[viii].
  • Although clearly not on the same level as Russia or China, North Korea’s enigmatic political leadership, its large, but outdated military, matched with a relatively sophisticated ballistic missile force and a nuclear capability make it a significant regional threat for the United States through at least the mid-term of this analysis[ix]. North Korea’s economic situation remains dire, but the regime’s ability to focus its resources on the military and security apparatuses at the expense of welfare of its population means that it may remain a credible regional threat, with a nuclear capability that may reach at least part of the Continental United States[x]
  • Iran for at least the near- to perhaps the mid-term of this assessment represents a non-nuclear regional hegemon.  It maintains hegemonic ambitions rooted in its culture, history, and traditions, and since its 1979 revolution, has sought to expand its influence and its Shia form of Islam across the Middle East.  In many ways, Iran helped pioneer some of the hybrid strategies, such as the use of proxies and asymmetric conflict, which have proven successful on the battlefields of Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria[xi][xii].  It also has a well-known civilian nuclear program that could in the mid-to-long-term transition to a military nuclear capability, and has attempted to modernize its own anti-access/area denial capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz region.
  • The most capable of the non-state actors today and through the mid-term will be ideologically-driven international terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, al-Qa’ida, or Lebanese Hizballah, who are capable of targeting US interests at home and abroad.  A separate category of non-state actor, international criminal syndicates, create further complications, as their capabilities and interests span international boundaries.  They ruthlessly intimidate or eliminate their rivals, and even directly challenge governments, as we have seen in Mexico, or previously in Colombia. Both terrorists and criminals may partner with, or accept the support of nation states to acquire advanced weapons, take advantage of the availability of commercial technologies, develop their own unique capabilities, and deftly use social media and cyber capabilities to wage their own information operations.  Further, they may often hide and operate within an underdeveloped, or under-governed locale, or even within a failing or failed state, and often within complex urban environments.

Understanding the OE is the First Step in Maintaining Multi-Domain Dominance

The key to prevailing under the conditions presented in the OE out to 2035 is to take better advantage of its factors, variables, and realities than do our adversaries.  Although the nature of war is a historical constant, its character and means have, and will, continue to evolve.  The potential adversaries noted above already are researching, adapting, and in some cases adopting new technologies, like robotics, unmanned systems, three-dimensional printing, advanced sensors, anti-satellite and other space capabilities, and whole suites of capabilities within the cyber realm.  Coupled with the advantage of time, distance, and space, we will face adversaries who can overmatch our capabilities, and selectively out-gun, out-range, and out-protect our potentially outdated and out of position forces.   We will need to work with our traditional allies and forge new partnerships to mitigate or eliminate our adversaries’ time, space, and distance advantages, while developing new capabilities, force structures, and doctrine which allow us to maintain our dominance and overmatch against an adversary in a hybrid fight, perhaps in a gray zone, and arrayed against layered anti-access/area denial capabilities that are replete with new technologies and innovations.

  • Such a contest will be increasingly lethal in terms of precision, range of engagement, and destructive power – both focused and widespread.
  • It will be waged in all domains, where our best advantage may be our ability to effectively and efficiently synthesize and orchestrate our own power across the ground, air, sea, cyber, and space domains.
  • It will occur in and among populations and in complex terrain where we will need to develop capabilities to effectively visualize, integrate information, and target within a highly congested and confused battlespace.
  • And it will offer challenges in time, location, and situational awareness which if not mastered, or at least mitigated will compel us to operate with degraded capabilities.  

In short, we will need to present our adversaries with multiple dilemmas, perhaps employing elements of hybrid strategies of our own to target our adversaries’ critical vulnerabilities, some of which may reside outside the military sphere.  Understanding the OE is the critical first step in this process, which in turn will allow us to create the concepts that will lead to the adoption of new doctrine, new capabilities, and new processes that take advantage of advanced technologies and the dramatic increase in the speed of human interaction to adapt faster and to maintain our own ability to overmatch any potential adversary at the point of decision.

End Notes

[i] The “gray zone” is a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve political-security objectives with activities that cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale directly military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs norms, or laws.

[ii] For the purposes of this paper, the near-term may be considered the period 2017- through 2022, the mid-term, 2022 through 2027, and the long-term 2027 through 2035.

[iii] Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, “Crimea and Russia’s Strategic Overhaul,” The US Army War College Quarterly:  Parameters, Autumn 2014, http://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/Issues/Autumn_....

[iv] Johns Hopkins University-APL, Little Green Men:  A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare 2013-2014, 2015, http://www.jhuapl.edu/ourwork/nsa/papers/ARIS_LittleGreenMen.pdf.

[v] Valery Gerasimov, “The Value of Science Is the Foresight:  New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations,” Military Review, January-February 2016, http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryRevi....

[vi] Johns Hopkins University-APL, Little Green Men:  A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare 2013-2014, 2015, http://www.jhuapl.edu/ourwork/nsa/papers/ARIS_LittleGreenMen.pdf.

[vii] Anthony Cordesman with Joseph Kendall, Chinese Strategy and Military Modernization in 2016:  A Comparative Analysis, CSIS: Washington, DC: December 5, 2016, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/161208_Chines....

[viii] Richard A. Bitzinger, Alliance Requirements Roadmap Series:  Third Offset Strategy and Chinese A2/AD Capabilities, Center for a New American Security, May 2016, https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS_Third-Offset-Stra...

[ix] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Report to Congress:  Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” January 5, 2016, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/Military_and_Security_D....

[x] OSD, “Report to Congress:  DPRK,” and Mike Wall, “North Korea’s Missile Threats to US May not be Empty for Long,” Space.com, February 13, 2017, http://www.space.com/35681-north-korea-intercontinental-ballistic-missil...

[xi] GEN Lloyd J. Austin III, “Statement of General Llloyd J. Austin III, Commander U.S. Central Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Posture of U.S. Central Command,” March 8, 2016, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Austin_03-08-16.pdf.

[xii] Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Commander,” The New Yorker, September 30, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander.


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I have read this article twice now and am puzzled - purely from a 'Small Wars perspective.

The authors early on refer to: 'Our adversaries will hide in and among populations and in complex terrain, and endeavor to mitigate many of our own traditional technological advantages and force us to operate with degraded capabilities.'

That is hardly new, whether it is the jungles of South-East Asia, the cities of Iraq, the arid, hot mountains of Dhofar or the scrub and cities of Somalia.

Is there any sense that the US Army has learnt from its recent 'Small Wars' that it has NOT truly had an 'Understanding (of) the OE'?

Can technology, which is implicit throughout, provide the understanding? Compared to years of on the ground presence, language and cultural knowledge, let alone geography and much more.

To davidbfpo:

I leveled the same criticism toward the authors' references to "New Generation Warfare", which is merely a regurgitation of Soviet doctrine that evolved from the 1920s, revised for today's technology.

You must admire the contortions of logic at work in this article and others, as well as on on various threads at SWC.

Basically, the need for thought leaders in the national security community to fulfil their academic requirements, the need for sub-communities to preserve or increase their share of public resources, and the overarching American fear of complacency, all have come together to fuel an ongoing chain reaction of re-education.

As I noted on SWC, the U.S. was an unrivaled master at cobbling together disparate elements (intelligence officers, mercenaries, SOFs, organized criminals, local auxiliaries) into formations that could unleash subversion, guerrilla warfare, and ultimately regime change on a variety of target countries throughout the world. These "active measures" - to borrow the Soviet phrase - were complemented by nuclear superiority, conventional weakness and a willingness to rattle the nuclear saber judiciously.

Yet I must sit still when I am told that Putin is the grandest of chess masters and that we have never seen his tactics before.

Having said all of that, one cannot write a thesis consisting entirely of, "Been There, Done That", or "Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Anti-Castro Cubans".

I have no doubt that the U.S. Army has "learned" many valuable lessons, as it always has. But remember that it was the "first among equals" of the services with regard to the funding from 2001 to 2011, and it wants to retain its slice of the pie by taking point against Russia, from Patriot SAMs, to EM/cyber warfare, to boots on the ground. The same way that the Army got Strykers while the F-22 production line was shut down, they want to do the same with the F-35, B-21, LCS and Virginias. ;)

The U.S. Army also has difficulty -- doctrinally and culturally -- with the idea that they are not necessarily the decisive arm in modern war. That's why they raised such a wail when the Air Force and Navy trotted out the Air/Sea Battle concept, and it's at the center of the ill-defined concept that is Multi-Domain Battle. That's not to say the Army isn't important, or has no role...they're just not always the hub around which everything revolves.

Standing by for incoming hate....

I completely agree. The Army's forays into air defense and cyberwarfare were wise, but the trend in military technology and tactics is relegating ground forces to the status of junior partner. However much the Army trots out "Multi-Domain Battle", the facts are that:

(a) Army BCTs, regardless of composition, are hardly useful in stiffening local security forces as part of FID, whether in Afghanistan, Latvia or Ukraine

(b) A great power war between NATO - in part or whole - and Russia will be concluded before the Army or Marine Corps can surge major ground forces onto the European continent, to say nothing of deploying them operationally in East-Central Europe

(c) The Army is not required in significant scale for Asia-Pacific operations against China, save for supporting air defense, artillery and cyber/EM warfare units

(d) The “correlation of forces” seem to be returning the strategic bomber back to the position of “first among equals”, due to stealth and the need for range and capacity in conducting precision-strike. The B-21, traveling from Whiteman AFB, should be able to strike targets in China or North Korea 7 hours more quickly than a CSG sailing from Guam. A Bomb Wing of 10 B-21s (50% readiness) should also be able to deliver 4 times more ordnance on target than a Carrier Air Wing of 42 F-35Bs. Given the true advent of BVR AA combat, there is no reason why a B-21 would require a fighter escort (it can carry AAMs), and in fact the F-35 is intended to rely upon taking control of smart weapons launched from other platforms, such as strategic bombers. If B-21s are forward-deployed to Diego Garcia or Guam, the advantages in speed are even greater.

Thank you for this piece. Here is my response to the authors:

I. Both China and Russia can be considered contemporary conventional near-peer competitors insofar as both can challenge American conventional power locally/regionally, such as in the East and South China Seas, and Baltic and Black Seas, respectively.

Iran is hardly a conventional regional hegemon, given that it is surrounded by the Arab, Israeli and Pakistani militaries, and its intelligence/SOF/local auxiliaries are bogged down in Syria by only two of the six parties to that conflict. Certainly Iran can launch a surprise attack on U.S. assets in the Persian Gulf region or on population centers, but that hardly makes it hegemonic, regionally or otherwise, and I would place North Korea in the same category.

We cannot confuse capability and intent. Japan has the capability to utterly devastate U.S. forces in the Western Pacific if the political decision was made, but that contingency is not worrying American planners. Iran and North Korea have all sorts of intentions, but their capabilities are rather limited, beyond getting a sucker punch in.

II. China is more of a “pacing threat” than Russia, due to its heavy investment in high-end capabilities with U.S. forces in mind. Gerasimov’s “New Generation Warfare” is merely a reconstitution of Soviet doctrine that emerged during the Russian Civil War. The United States and the West spent many decades countering Soviet “active measures”, and the brief lull of the 1990s and early 2000s, was a mere holiday from the usual onslaught. China outpaces Russia in terms of unmanned platforms, railguns, HGVs, possibly cruise missiles and I/MRBMs, and in the areas where Russia excels, it simply does not have the resources to field those systems in the quantity needed.

Despite some interesting small-scale operations (less interesting for the Georgians and Ukrainians), the Russian military remains weak. If its volunteer/contract ground forces outmatch the U.S. Army in electro-magnetic systems and organic fires, it is because these forces are not part of a Joint Force.

I did the math and despite last fall's RAND report, the U.S. actually has enough standoff platforms at the ready (SSNs, B-52s, B-2s, even including 60% dedicated to Asia) to silence Russia’s A2/AD network in the Baltics if required (Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg), and especially with seven days’ notice (which RAND assumes). Lastly, Russia’s operations from 1999 have all relied on local auxiliaries taking on the risks.

Americans should worry. Anxiety and preparation lead to victory. Americans have excelled at preventing the rot of complacency to creep into their armed forces.