Creating the Army After Next, Again

August 16, 2019
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Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Army began an effort to re-invent itself in anticipation of changes in the political, operational and technological environments. The “Army After Next” (AAN) program was an effort to look into the future of warfare some 25 years in order to frame the major issues that would drive the design of the Army and its modernization efforts. Today, Army Futures Command (AFC) is attempting once again to get one step ahead of the future. It is developing a vision of future warfare, the concept of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), at the same time, it is driving forward with a multi-faceted technology modernization program. In many ways, the AAN effort was a harbinger of the challenges facing U.S. military planners today as the pace of change continues to accelerate. AAN holds some important lessons for an Army striving to re-invent itself and to do so at speed.

In 1997, then Army Chief of Staff General Dennis Reimer initiated the AAN program. No longer faced with an existential threat in the form of a massive Red Army, General Reimer believed that the Army had time to think about the future and shape a course forward that could secure continuing overmatch vis-à-vis potential adversaries. Leading this effort was one of the Army’s most brilliant strategists and historians, Major General Robert Scales, USA (Ret). General Scales and the Army’s Training and Doctrine command spent some three years working on new operational concepts, force designs and military capabilities.

In many ways, AAN was way ahead of its time. As described by General Scales, the AAN effort identified many of the advanced technologies that are only just now impacting military affairs:

We envisioned an army elevated into the third dimension, with many, if not most, of its primary combat functions performed using manned and unmanned aerial vehicles. We foresaw the power of information science in war. (We even came up with the idea of a “digital warehouse,” symbolically encased in a “cloud,” in which reposed all data essential for battle; too bad we didn’t patent it….). We envisioned an “unblinking eye” that would hover over a fighting force, protecting it from tactical surprise and delivering deadly fires within seconds.

The AAN effort recognized that many of the capabilities it foresaw as critical to future warfare were, at that time, premature. Consequently, the AAN program sought to establish a process of evolutionary changes that would allow for advances in relevant technology to influence force design and operational concepts and for those new ideas to guide subsequent rounds of modernization.   

All this sounds familiar. Indeed, many of the features of MDO are directly parallel to those envisioned in AAN. The problem on which the AAN program focused was enabling rapid forcible entry by significant land forces supported by advanced air and naval capabilities. To achieve this objective, AAN looked at options for creating lighter, more mobile, yet more lethal formations, that could be moved rapidly to any place on the globe.

MDO is focused, first and foremost, on defeating adversary anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. It seeks to employ an array of capabilities across all domains to penetrate and disintegrate enemy systems and create opportunities for land maneuver and from the air to deny an aggressor’s objectives and defeat the enemy force.

Today, many of the capabilities that were beyond reach to AAN developers are front and center in AFC planning. The Army is close to deploying new fire systems, such as the Extended Range Cannon Artillery and Long Range Precision Fires missiles that provide greatly extended range as well as higher accuracy. As part of MDO, the Army hopes to marry these new fires systems with forward operating F-35s and possibly a constellation of low earth orbiting sensor platforms to achieve unprecedented responsiveness and lethality. The first battery of tactical directed energy weapons, the Mobile Short-Range Air Defense, will be deployed in 2020. Even the combat cloud envisioned in AAN, now called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, is about to become a reality. 

The AAN project provides several important lessons for AFC and its efforts to use MDO to drive both to a new force structure and an approach to high-end warfare. The first is to develop a clear narrative regarding what MDO is supposed to accomplish and how. As General Reimer acknowledged, one reason AAN failed to take hold in the Army was the inability to clearly explain its concepts to those who have to implement it.

A second lesson is not to straight-line projections of the future. While the AAN project did foresee the proliferation of a number of technologies into the hands of adversaries, notably drones and tactical communications, it maintained a belief in U.S. technological pre-eminence vis-à-vis prospective enemies that turned out not to be the case.

A third lesson is the importance of achieving buy-in from the other Services. The key to success in MDO is the integration of capabilities from across the U.S. military. The Army has made information sharing a critical element of its plans to penetrate and disintegrate opposing A2/AD systems. The ability to integrate long-range surface fires with fifth-generation air operations will be fundamental to winning a high-end fight.

A final lesson is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.  The Army wasted billions of dollars pursuing technological pipedreams. Investments in upgrading fundamentally sound platforms such as the M1 Abrams tanks, Black Hawk and Apache helicopters and the M109 Paladin howitzer have paid dividends for more than 25 years. 

Ultimately, the AAN project was a failure. September 11 and the wars in Southwest Asia focused Army planning and investments on counterinsurgency operations, not mid-to-high end conflict. A second problem was technological hubris. The Army made a terrible bet on a host of immature technologies, most notably the Future Combat System. This should be a cautionary tale for AFC, which is heavily focused on fielding advanced technologies even before operational concepts and force structure are fully defined.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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