Small Wars Journal

Unified Quest Army Future Game

Wed, 05/16/2012 - 9:54am

We are in the midst of a uniquely challenging time in our Army’s history, although frankly it seems like we can always say that.

We still have a significant number of troops in combat in Afghanistan and continued involvement in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and other places around the world and ensuring their success is our main effort. North Korea and Iran remain challenges we cannot ignore. We are on the front edge of a drawdown in an era of fiscal austerity. Lastly, our national strategy is shifting to focus on the Asia-Pacific region and broadening to a construct of “prevent, shape and win.” 

At the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, we consider these challenges and our national strategy, and determine how we might best shape the future force. One way to accomplish this is through our “Unified Quest” series of seminars, workshops and symposia.

Results from the UQ series will inform our revision of the strategic concepts found in the Army Capstone Concept and the Army Operating Concept.  Results will also help us implement Unified Land Operations Doctrine (ADP 3.0), particularly in consideration of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF).  

The capstone event of this year’s Unified Quest is the “Army Future Game.”  This war game will examine the role of the Army as a decisive, adaptive force across a range of military operations.  During the war game, held June 3-8 at Carlisle Barracks, two working groups will address operational scenarios set in 2020 in the PACOM and CENTCOM theaters.  Free-play “Red Teams” will employ anti-access and area denial operations within an overarching hybrid strategy to enable a rigorous examination of key proposed concepts. Additionally, a strategic working group composed of more than 60 senior leaders and subject matter experts will examine key strategy and policy issues relevant to shaping the Army of 2020 and informing the Quadrennial Defense Review.

In the Army Future Game we are going to wrestle with some critical challenges. For example, we’ve steadily improved our integration and interoperability of special operations and conventional forces over the last decade of combat.  A key issue is how this integration should evolve to best defeat future threats.  Additionally, we’d like to develop thoughts on how we accomplish this at home station, at our national combat training centers, and in regional engagement activities.

We’ll also consider how we overcome the hybrid strategy of adversaries that combine the capabilities of conventional, terrorist, criminal, proxy, and irregular organizations and forces. To do this, our scenarios will cause our “Blue Forces” to closely examine how innovations across DOTMLPF might help defeat hybrid strategies.

Overall, we’ll examine about a dozen of these kinds of issues.  This analysis will provide us strategic and operational insight and potential implications for Joint and Army concepts.  Ultimately, we’ll develop recommendations to posture both the institutional and operational Army to successfully execute their roles during the 2018-2030 timeframe. 

This event will help leaders shape our Army as the operational environment changes, and as we transition our national strategy.  We’ll see the next step of this process in July, when the Chief of Staff of the Army leads a senior-leader seminar to review the insights and recommendations of the Army Future Game.  At that point, I’ll bring you up to date with what we think we have learned.  In the meantime, if you have thoughts on integrating special operations and conventional forces, or how we might defeat hybrid strategies, then please join in the conversation.  The more voices in the discourse, the better chance we’ll have of getting this right.  


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Sat, 05/19/2012 - 1:38pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I would argue that the vital national interests of the U.S. could be better articulated than they have been in recent national security strategies and the 2012 defense strategic guidance. I think it is because they are not directly and systematically addressed in the guidance documents that the services have struggled in charting their long-term. In the absence of a clear basis for prioritization, the services have pursued options which are optimal to the operational areas of emphasis in the defense strategic guidance, etc. For the U.S. Air Force and Navy, the operational solutions are relatively straightforward and familiar. Air-Sea Battle is but a recent formulation of established service-based ways and means designed to meet the policy pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region, the global commons, and an acknowledgement that the kind of easy port access offered for our wars in Southwest Asia cannot be presumed upon.

The Army has decided to explore the option of preparing for hybrid conflict, but there are potential problems with this that ought to be considered. First, the construct of hybrid conflict is highly contingent, as the term implies. So, preparing for it over the long-term runs up against the dynamic character of warfare, hybrid or otherwise. Because the character of hybrid conflict is so contingent, its relative significance to U.S. interests will also be variable and could very well decline in importance(if one were to accept that it is highly important to American interests now). Second, a commitment to preparing for the breadth of threat aspects encompassed by hybrid conflict tends towards profligacy and hubris. The U.S. Army has long held to the mantra of being the best-led, best-trained, and best-equipped land force in history. How will it reconcile that identity with the stress and strain of maintaining readiness for hybrid conflict during a period of declining budgets?

Preparation for hybrid conflict is ultimately more about capability and less about capacity. The irony could be that in the pursuit of broad capability the U.S. Army could arrive at a hollow force through a shallowness of capacity or, by way of compromises in policy execution, a lack of proficiency in essential capabilities. A conscious focus on enduring national interests could better mitigate the risk of a hollow army than by focusing on hybrid conflict.

The lists of national interests vary slightly depending on who you ask, but I would offer the following list of interests for guiding capability and capacity development:
1. Defend the Homeland
2. Prevent Great Power Conflict on Eurasia
3. Protect Access to Strategic Raw Materials
4. Protect a Liberal International Economic System
5. Promote Stable and Responsible State Structures

The challenge for the Army is in quantifying the risk of any given force structure and doctrine in terms of these interests (or any alternative list). As Mr. Jones suggests in his reply (my apologies to him for appropriating his argument!), the "opportunity costs" for the nation may not justify having a standing force oriented on hybrid conflict. It might be more efficacious to build an army around something more discrete and reflective of landpower's unique contribution to securing vital interests.

I should emphasize that none of this is to say that the effort invested in the UQ events has been unintelligent. On the contrary, the resources invested have been impressive, and there has been a sustained commitment to draw upon insights from the field, academe, etc. It is only to suggest that the Army does not truly understand the events' ultimate value to the nation until the capabilities it desires can be described in terms of the long-term risks the nation incurs by acquiring those capabilities.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 05/19/2012 - 8:22am

In reply to by Bill M.


Historically America focused on two vital national interests:

1. Maintain access to resouces and markets.

2. Not allow any single enemey, or enemy coalition, to dominate the Eurasian landmass.

Based on these vital interests, and in accordance with our geostrategic strength and the express will of our populace and founding principles of our nation, the primary task for the Army in times of broad, messy peace as we have enjoyed for the past 25 years, is TO STAND DOWN. The Army's mission in time of peace is to be prepared to expand to a warfighting force in times of war. The Cold War forced a continental European geostrategic perspective onto America, and thus the need to sustain a large peacetime army through the Cold War. That threat is gone (for now) and we are freed of that mission, so the Army's #1 job is to effectively mothball itself to hybernate through the peace. The Army has never liked that reality and always fought that reality, but has always ultimately had to live that reality. The Cold War ran so long, though, that we all seem to have forgotten that reality.

Many argue that the Army was not prepared for WWI or II due this approach; yet our Army was a decisive land force in both conflicts and America was never seriously threatened in either. Allowing allies to fight their own wars is not a bad thing, it is an American thing. Helping allies then win those wars is an American thing as well. It is an approach that has saved countless American lives and dollars, and that also did not enable allies to rationalize that they could skimp on their own militaries as our current policies do.

Post Cold War we added a new, and I believe very dangerous, vital interest. The idea that we make ourselves safer when we make others more like us. It is extremely idological and arrogant and it fails to recognize that every culture is very different, and that values and forms of governace vary and evolve at different rates everywhere. America's founding principles are sound, but we stopped selling those in 1950, and began selling American modern values in about 1990. No country would have been more likely to go to war with 2012 America over a demand to adobt 2012 forms of American "enduring and universal values" and form of democracy than the America that existed prior to 1945. Should we blame others if they push back as well?

I think we need to drop this modern "vital interest" of forcing modern American values and forms of governance onto others. It is very judgmental and mistakes the foundations of stability. It is not the nature of our governance and values that makes Amerian stable, it is the fact that they are OURS. That both are heavily evolved and tailored of, by and for this particular nation. They fit us awkwardly, and others not at all. If we most prosthelytize, then I suggest this modification: "We make ourselves safer when we are perceived as the nation that helps others to be more like themselves."

So, the Army meets to wargame how to fight the peace. Wrong mission. Other services and SOF have broad peacetime missions, but the Army is more than any other a warfighting force. Perhaps much of the Air Force as well (how much air power is needed in peace, when we have so much naval and Marine air?). We need to take a hard look at what our nation needs and provide that in a manner rooted in our history and prepared for the present and the future.

Consider what happens when Presidents do not need to go to Congress and ask for not just the permission to engage our Army some place, but to first fund the creation of that very army. But for the large standing army necessary for waging Cold War and carried over into the following peace:

1. Would we have escalated Vietnam into the major conflict it became?

2. Would we have invaded Iraq to change Saddam's regime?

3. Would we have lingered in Afghanistan to attempt to create a new state IAW with what we believed to be acceptable governance?

Such adventurism has not made America stornger or safer. It is not the Army's fault we did those things, but having too large an Army standing by ready to go certainly enabled some bad decisions over the past few generations. Time to get back to our roots. When we buy excessive or inappropriate military power at the expense of other national programs or debt reduction, we make our nation weaker, not stronger. We need to War game that.

We live in dynamic times, it is time for a dynamic response. It needs to start at the very top though, but until then, the military needs to selflessly lead the way. Is it the SECDEF's job to protect the department or the nation? Time to volunteer for major cuts and to shame congress into doing the same across the board. We must defend our nation from ourselves first, no others truly pose much of an existential threat.

Bill M.

Sat, 05/19/2012 - 1:39am

In reply to by rmihara

Please suggest some recommended vital interests the military should be prepared to defend that are addressed in the Defense Strategic Guidance. Of course our adversaries will seek to exploit our perceived weaknesses as adversaries have done throughout history. The DSG addresses asymmetric threats and more traditional threats, and most admit that none of us know what the future will present, so you need a military that can address a wide range of threats. Many SWJ members are convinced all future threats will be non-state actors, but that is dangerously near sighted. We can't wargame everything, but if we can prevail in a significant hybrid fight, then for the Army it would seem they would have sufficient capacity and capability to address a wide range of unpredictable threats. What do you think we're missing?


Fri, 05/18/2012 - 10:26pm

This diverges a bit from what Gen. Cone is asking for from the SWJ community. However, I think what has been abandoned in advance of these scenario-driven exercises is the need to determine what is sufficient for securing vital national interests. Instead of defining that threshold, the Army has sought to be competent across all of the primary mission areas outlined in the defense strategic guidance (January 2012) and has invested its intellectual energy in exploring scenarios which (1) best fit the focus of the current presidential administration [i.e. Asia-Pacific region, etc.] and (2) highlights the need for a desired force structure. Intelligent threats will always seek to attack our weaknesses. Preparing an army principally on that convention is shadow boxing. The target is a mirage because the future conditions of conflict are so unknowable.

The Army's experimentation ought to be premised on an understanding of what the nation's enduring interests are. This is the escape from tactical and operational myopia. Anti-access/area denial, as an example, is a perennial issue that has primarily risen to prominence because of contemporary obsession with China. The critical issue is not learning how to answer transitory aggregations of operational methods (hybrid, 4G, etc.) as applied by hypothetical threats. The matter at hand, for the Army and her sister services, is how to best protect what is truly vital and also be able to scale up to advance other important interests. It is a matter of determining where the line is for achieving acceptable sufficiency in capability.

Having defined sufficiency, the Army can then move forward to address challenging and relevant scenarios to guide doctrine development and force modernization without incurring as a great a risk of giving in to tacit assumptions and hidden biases. When strategically-based, venues such as the Army Future Game could then provide the military with the basis to better inform leaders at the policy-level by giving them a proper picture of what is in the realm of the possible and hopefully avoid fatally flawed military misadventures.

GEN Robert Cone

Fri, 05/18/2012 - 3:07pm

I would like to thank everyone for your collective feedback. Your thoughts are shaping our approach to the game.

Our preparation of the Army for current and future challenges is fundamentally based upon a close examination of the lessons of the past, supported by rigorous analysis founded in plausible & challenging scenarios. I expect future conflicts to be complex, characterized by a range of threats that are likely to blur the distinctions of past conflicts and challenge us in new ways. Our adversaries will seek to attack our will to fight, avoid our preferred methods of war, and exploit both strategic and other levers to set conditions that force us to fight where they see advantage. History and recent experience indicates that this sort of complex environment can be created deliberately or by happenstance as multiple opportunists join the fight.

We will include scenarios that likely place us at disadvantages compared to today, such as the inability to secure basing and overflight. We will also examine challenges to capabilities where we currently have competitive advantage or even overmatch, such as low and high technology threats and anti-access/area denial techniques.

Your comments about ‘words and narratives’ are interesting. We are investigating how we effectively address friendly, adversary and neutral viewpoints.

Again, thank you for the feedback please keep it coming. Following the AFG, I plan to come back to this forum and share the insights and recommendations it produces.

GEN Cone

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 05/17/2012 - 9:55am

In reply to by gian gentile


No arguments. I spoke to temporal, operational effects rather than larger, long-term strategic effects in Iraq. At a strategic level we removed the natural buffer between Shia Iran and the Levant and Sunni Arabian Penninsula of a problematic Saddam-led Iraq with a vision of replacing it with a democratic buffer built in our image; but that was a decision far above any military leader.

Civilian and Military leaders alike need to develop a greater appreciation that these conflicts are largely "lost" or "won" at the policy/strategy level long before the first Military commander receives an order to plan or act. Even after those first decisions are made, there comes along an array of off-ramps for policy makers to take, but too often by that point they are waiting for some military victory to somehow overcome that initial unwinable concept, so the offramps are not taken, and the conflict drags on. Certainly military force can temporarily suppress the ability of some popualce to resist or revolt, but if the overall strategic construct is fatally flawed such populaces will act out again once conditions are ripe.



gian gentile

Thu, 05/17/2012 - 5:57am

As an aside and not to move in a divergent direction from General Cone's post, but I am unclear as to what "success" we have had in Iraq, as Bob Jones asserts. What I ask have we the United States gained in Iraq in terms of appreciable strategic and policy goals. To be sure one can point to operational successes, but operational success is not an end in itself in war. In short for the entire American blood and treasure spent as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, maimed, and displaced what has this war gotten us?

I would suggest to General Cone that as we think about the future we ought to do it based on an honest and objective assessment of the recent past in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we think that military force as it has been applied in Iraq and Afghanistan has been successful in a Clausewitzean political sense, then we are looking into the future on the wrong basis.

Lastly Bill M said that the we were slow to learn in Iraq. But I disagree. In fact the evidence shows quite conclusively that at the tactical level we learned and adapted very quickly from the start in Iraq. The key point here and related to General Cone's post is that in war an army can learn and adapt perfectly, but then still lose the war.

The American army has come to believe that if it just "understands" the situation, that if it is a learning organization then voila any war can be won or conflict resolved. But this attitude is reflective of the continuing darker side of the Army, a side that since the Vietnam war has buried itself in the tactics and operations of war, but has lost the bubble about war's totality.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 05/17/2012 - 4:52am

In reply to by Bill M.

Just to tag onto Bill's post a bit. It is not the change in the threat from "regular" to "irregular" that (IMO) causes us such problems, it is our inability transition our own thinking in terms of how our purpose for action changes from when one is fighting some largely conventional force to defeat their legal security forces, and equally to being able to sort out the many divers purposes for action of various non-state actors that are apt to emerge to fill the vacuum our actions have created. In Iraq (far more hybrid and complex than Vietnam, I believe) we faced Sunni Resistance, Shia Revolution, Kurdish Separatists, State-based UW actors from Iran, Non-state UW actors from AQ; and then the guerrilla fighters recruited by AQ from insurgent populaces across the region. All looking very much the same, yet all there for very unique purposes demanding tailored solutions for effective resolution.

Far more than the surge, I think much of our success in Iraq was simply that our boundaries largely matched with these various factions, so while the conflict as a whole was a hybrid mess of discrete purposes for action, many commanders only had to deal with primarily one aspect of the problem, so tailored solutions emerged more appropriate to each. (Of note, in Afghanistan the Revolutionary Taliban [Big T] and the Resistance Taliban [little t] distinction is one we fail or refuse to recognize, so we pound away at the resistance driving the roots deeper as we trim the branches; and largely ignore the revolutionary issues between the Northern Alliance- based government we put into power, and the Taliban-based government we drove into exile. We attack the symptoms while we ignore the problem, and certainly do not distinguish by purpose for action.)

Our thinking is so canalized by our dated doctrine and our own ideological framing of the conflict that we can't see the forest for the trees.

So, for my input, please make "purpose for action" a major focus for such a wargame. It is not if one is "regular" or "irregular" in costume, or how one dances that matters, it is understanding why one came to the party in the first place that holds the keys to finding some natural stability. Or, if artificial stability forced through security forces (as exists in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and as has fallen in other ME states recently) is the goal, be honest about that goal and focus on it. Sometimes suppression is good enough, but less so in the modern age than it was in the eras of most of the histories our doctrine is based upon.

GEN Cone,

Thank you for posting in SWJ. Some initial thoughts on the wargame and beyond. In the first part of your post you mentioned the broader approach of shaping and preventing, which I think we have been doing moderately well since the end of WWII. Of course we'll probably never know how many conflicts we deterred with our capacity building efforts, presence, treaties and so forth. What has changed (since the end of the Cold War) is we're now in a multipolar world again, and not only see the emergence of powerful states (economic and otherwise), but also more powerful non-state actors, so "our (U.S. only)" ability to shape and deter even without defense cuts is on a downward slope. If we can effectively lead then "our (including our network of allies and partners)" ability acting in a unified way to shape and prevent is greatly improved. After years of doing coalition operations we still aren't good at for a lot of reasons, one of the most significant reasons is our inability to rapidly share information and intelligence to other than NATO allies. Not sure how you wargame this, but it needs to be addressed at the most senior levels.

GPF and SOF are better integrated now than when we started this conflict, but it still isn't where it needs to be. I think SOF has a pretty good idea of how GPF operates, but the opposite isn't true. SOF is still often significantly degraded (freedom of action) by GPF battle space owners. There are no simple fixes, but a start would be mandating that GPF leaders from Bn and up receive education on special operations so they understand why SOF need to operate outside the norm of GPF operations to maximize thier effectiveness.

As for defeating hybrid threats, I can't think of a conflict that characterized a hybrid conflict more than the Vietnam War. Tactically we prevailed, but for reasons I can't explain between the end of the Vietnam War and 9/11 the Army lost that mindset (not the skills). The Army that invaded Iraq in 2003 was very slow on the uptake when it came to shifting from fighting soldiers to militias. I have to assume it was the training leading up to the conflict. Our Army has the skills and equipment to prevail in a hybrid conflict, but they need training scenarios that encourage anticipating and adapting rapidly based on the threat presented. The Army should never again deploy to NCTC and simply fight tank on tank battles, but at the same time they still need to be the best in the world in those tank on tank battles. Scenarios should be unpredictable, soldiers should be put in situations where they are forced to adapt. This isn't hard, it is really just some minor changes in training and powering down to the lowest levels possible. You can trust them if you train them well, don't save money on the training end when the cuts come.

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 05/17/2012 - 12:31pm

In reply to by Charles Cameron

Charles Cameron's post does raise the interesting question as to how deeply one should go into the kitbag of qualitative methods to conduct such a time-sensitive and politically sensitive effort as Unified Quest. In point of fact, one could set off a time and a group of participants explicitly to conduct an exercise in "storytelling" (as understood in the qualitative methods genre). There is a risk that such a thing would be misunderstood - and the real question would be, "What insights do I expect from doing this particular exercise as opposed to doing something else ?"
Only in that way can one really say whether the experiment - and as far as I know, there is little or no precedent - has worked or not. But I can think of a couple of contributors to SWJ who would seem aptly suited for such an endeavor.

Charles Cameron

Wed, 05/16/2012 - 10:30pm

In the Introduction to his autobiography, <A HREF="… Story of an American Jihaadi</A> [link downloads safe copy in .pdf] posted today, <b>Omar Hammami</b> (Abu Mansur al-Amriki) writes:

<blockquote>I find the advice of Abu Muscab as-Suuri that we should document our history extremely important for a number of reasons: 1) events are happening more rapidly in the age of Globalization, 2) the war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalms, and knives, 3) with the internet, recording events and spreading reports of them has become extremely easy (so we should take whatever we can get).</blockquote>

The emphasis on narrative as "more important than ... navies, napalms, and knives" in his reason #2 is what catches my attention here, and it reminds me of a recent article in SWJ by <b>Mehar Omar Khan</b>, a graduate of Pakistan Army’s Command and Staff College in Quetta, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, both at Fort Leavenworth, KS.

Khan <A HREF="">wrote</A>:

<blockquote>We deal in the utilitarian view of the thing called “word”, and happily leave the romance of language to the “wretched” minds of the poets and preachers. To us soldiers, words have uses but we do not like to “waste” our time on the subtle thing called “meaning”.</blockquote>


<blockquote>While the conventional militaries attempt to snuff the life out of words in favor of spicy graphics, checklists, and fancy-looking campaign plans, insurgents sleep with words, and pet them with care we shower on our dogs. While the conventional militaries fight on the back of machines worth heaps of gold, insurgents hunt for words and are invariably hungry for ideas.</blockquote>

I'm one of the "wretched minds" Khan mentions, a poet and scholar of religion, so my question for GEN Cone and those who are planning Unified Quest is: how will words and narratives – not so much in terms of propaganda and deception but as recruitment lit, as moral suasion, as scripture, and as poetry and song -- figure into your game?

Thanks for the opportunity to ask.


Wed, 05/16/2012 - 8:57pm

I agree with Dave, it is excellent to see senior leaders reaching out to the community. I guess the CAC blogs didn't really kick off as expected.

I hope that in these war-gaming series junior leaders 0-3 and below, E-8 and below who recently returned from overseas environments are integrated and leveraged. I'd hate for these future conflicts to be mostly assembled from retired GO's, ORSA specialists, and think-tank "futurists".

It would be interesting to work through hybrid scenarios where the US Army does not have air superiority, or is unable to use FOBs of any kind due to enemy threat.

Will any unclass versions of the results be published?

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 05/16/2012 - 10:32am

I think it is interesting (and good) that GEN Cone posts on Small Wars Journal and uses it as a tool to communicate. Since he is posting here, he most likley is reading it so all of you disruptive thinkers out there who want to be able to influence senior leaders take heart in that someone is listening (or reading!).