A new kind of threat requires significant changes in the way that soldiers make decisions – doubling down on the importance of environmental training.
In a recent Foreign Policy piece, Elbridge Colby, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development (2017-2018), argued that the United States military needs to prepare to fight a limited great-power war, one in which the U.S. can counter a fait accompli targeting one of its partners. The Army in particular, he writes, “should practice fighting Russians and spend less time on counterinsurgency operations.”
Colby is not wrong – and the U.S. military recognizes this. As strategic adversaries such as China and Russia embrace new technologies such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnologies, hypersonics, and machine learning, the American way of war must quickly evolve and adapt. To address the ‘return of great power competition,’ Former Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper recently initiated a modernization strategy, the scope of which the Department of Defense has not seen since before the Vietnam War. This aggressive strategy balances modernization, readiness, and force structure to secure and maintain unquestionable overmatch against any adversary, anywhere, under any circumstances. This strategy seeks to promote a culture of innovation, discipline, and accountability while increasing force readiness.
Colby is correct that this type of conflict environment and objective requires “significant changes in the way the U.S. military is sized, shaped, postured, employed, and developed.” But a recent visit to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk suggested that more must be done. A new kind of threat requires significant changes in the way that soldiers make decisions – doubling down on the importance of environmental training. While JRTC claims that it is training soldiers to fight a near-peer competitor in a decisive action multi-domain environment, in many ways its training modules reinforce counterinsurgency (COIN) era decision-making. JRTC, the largest of three U.S. Army training center, is failing to adequately prepare the Army for the next war.
With a group of Princeton University students affiliated with the Center for International Security Studies, we visited JRTC over Easter weekend to gain a broader understanding of how the Army is training for a great power conflict. The first such group in memory, we were given significant access, engaging with the Commanding General of Fort Polk, BG Patrick Frank, other senior leaders assigned to Fort Polk and JRTC, and senior leaders from the rotational unit engaged in training, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. Additionally, the group experienced an overflight of the nearly 90,000 acres of training area, observed a brigade-level combined arms rehearsal, and culminated with a walk through of the combined arms live fire exercise with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, as they moved through a breech into their final objective.
The visit was educational, broadening our perspectives about life in the Army, training doctrine, and more. But it also left us with questions about how prepared we are to train for near-peer competitions.
As Colby and the National Defense Strategy suggest, any conflict with China and Russia is unlikely to begin as a clear-cut, all-out battle between two great powers. Instead, Moscow and Beijing will likely target American strength and the U.S. alliance network by focusing on vulnerable U.S. partners, possibly in the form of a territorial fait accompli – as Russia did in Ukraine. The training scenario we saw at JRTC reflected this – the near-peer competitor, Ariana, had invaded a third country and the U.S. forces were charged with dispelling them. The goal was decisive action: to remove the near-peer competitor from the third country as quickly and efficiently as possible, and to return the third country to some semblance of normalcy.
Colby discusses the broad Army- and military-wide changes that may be needed to better prepare for and fight a war with a near-peer competitor. But changes at the brigade level (a group of approximately 3,500 soldiers) require further nuance and changes all the way down to individuals. At the end of the day, our Soldiers, Sailors, Airman, and Marines will be the ones fighting the war.
What does the U.S. need to do differently in this sort of environment, at the brigade level? For one, it needs to emphasize different capabilities. Conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, have accustomed American forces to fighting enemies with fewer technical capabilities, less training, and weaker organization. If the U.S. were to fight a Russia or a China, the adversarial forces would likely have equal – or better – capabilities, greater access to technology, more training, and better organization. Indeed, when we asked JRTC staff – which explicitly trains at the battalion and brigade level – about what they needed to train for war with a near-peer competitor, and how the JRTC scenarios were accomplishing that mission, they pointed to improved capabilities that were provided to the enemy forces in training scenarios.
Adding capabilities to training, however, is relatively easy – but retraining the ways in which Army leaders make decisions is more difficult. In the current COIN environment, information operations (IO) plays a central role in the thinking of company and battalion commanders as they work to gain the support of the local populace against insurgents and to ensure that local citizens can help sustain stable governance. The Petraeus Doctrine, which holds that force will be less of a factor in future conflicts, trains commanders to think carefully about IO to ‘win hearts and minds,’ often placing it at the fore of their thinking. Such a focus on popular IO takes a long view of a conflict that requires the support of the local populace to sustain efforts and minimize threats from developing within the population. In a near-peer conflict like the ones that Colby envisions, however, the military goals are more immediate: to dispel foreign forces from a territory. And with a more capable opponent, time is of the essence. IO will of course remain important – but it is no longer the top priority for a commander. Instead, he or she must leave the bulk of IO work to public affairs officers (PAOs) and others, prioritizing speed and efficacy of maneuvers over gaining local support. Speaking to JRTC staff members, some expressed concern that shifting commanders away from the tendency to handle public relations first was a difficult transition, and that many were taking time away from other, more important objectives, to handle public relations themselves.
Adding capabilities to training, however, is relatively easy – but retraining the ways in which Army leaders make decisions is more difficult.
Another striking example of the type of psychological shifts that will need to take place regards casualties. In counterinsurgency environments, the time horizon of fighting tends to be much longer: an hour or a day here or there is often unlikely to make a huge difference in the broader mission set, since forces are largely in place to prevent the rise of new insurgents. Troops, then, may have more time to tend to their wounded and dead as the pace slows and quickens over the long-term. But in a decisive action Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO) environment as Colby describes, an hour or a day could make a significant difference in the progress of efforts to dispel invaders. American aims are likely to be to remove third-party invasive forces as quickly as possible – every hour matters, and the quick pace will be sustained until the adversaries are fully dispelled. Thus, military leaders will require a psychological shift in decision-making to ask how many soldiers a unit can divert to attending to casualties, which unfortunately are likely to be great, given that such wars will target civilians and service members alike.
Such mental shifts require a fundamental psychological retraining, especially since commanders will be asked to make decisions quickly. But training a change in decision-making patterns is especially difficult when the training environment looks precisely like the wars one has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one of the mock JRTC villages, there was one sign in Russian: Most were in Arabic. The towns all appeared Middle Eastern, plucked straight from U.S. Central Command’s area of operations, and from 19 years of past counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency missions. Local role players wore Middle Eastern clothing and sold vaguely Arab-looking food in mock ‘markets.’
We met with individuals (some former U.S. ambassadors and experienced U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] professionals) representing other actors in the international space, like non-governmental organizations, other U.S. agencies, and local governments. When we asked them how their roles had shifted from training for COIN conflicts to training for a near-peer competition, they pointed to an increased role for local government. They said that in a near-peer competition, like the one JRTC had envisioned, the local government would likely hold more legitimacy than in the COIN environments the U.S. military has been facing recently. After the expulsion of enemy troops, the local government would have a large say in what came after. The U.S. forces, then, they argued, should work with the local government to ensure that the civilian population is left in a stable environment.
Leaving the civilian population in a stable environment is certainly key in any conflict – and in the near-peer fait accompli environments that Colby envisions, a strong population is important to ensure that a reassertion of territorial grabbing by an opponent is more difficult to obtain. However, these individuals’ emphasis on local governance contradicted other statements from JRTC staff members that IO would need to take a back seat to more immediate battlefield kinetic concerns. How can commanders shift their psychological decision-making to focus less on IO in near-peer conflict when the practical training they are receiving at JRTC still prioritizes IO and takes place in settings that look like traditional COIN environments?
Much of what we saw at JRTC was impressive. That it can train up to an entire U.S. brigade combat team with a live enemy force is commendable. That it has approximately 13 real-size villages to train in and has several hundred role players is also impressive. Troops we spoke with seemed to get a lot out of the experience, and upper-level commanders were grateful for the opportunity to work out command and control kinks. Resources are also limited (as they would be in any sustained ground conflict). Completely rebuilding training villages to look like new regions and reeducating role players is difficult.
However, what villages look like and how role players behave can reinforce a soldiers’ psychological approach to a conflict and help them imagine war against a future opponent. Perhaps a complete overhaul is not necessary, but there are a few improvements to the training environment that might ease the transition: for example, if JRTC is training for near-peer conflict, perhaps instead villages should look more like areas where we are likely to fight Russia or China, like Eastern Europe or the Western Pacific, with more developed infrastructure. Whole houses do not need to be rebuilt, but walls could be repainted so they do not resemble a Middle Eastern village, goods for sale could reflect a more developed society, and signs could be written in English, Russian, or Chinese. These relatively small changes could go a long way.
The U.S. Army needs to train for the next conflict. Important parts of this training will and should take place at combat training centers like JRTC, where soldiers are given realistic situations and are placed in the mental state of conflict, requiring them to act quickly. But if our experience at JRTC is indicative of other combat training centers and other training efforts, while the U.S. Army might have shifted its rhetoric about the next war, training has not completely shifted towards a near-peer conflict. Indicators like villages that look like the previous conflict can reinforce old beliefs, and make shifts towards the conditions necessary for a near-peer conflict difficult. If U.S. Army combat training centers such as JRTC want to claim to be training for the Army’s next conflict against a near-peer competitor, it can – and needs to – do better.
Katherine Kjellström Elgin is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, Princeton University. Colonel Peter L. Gilbert is the Director, Logistics Initiatives Group, Department of the Army G-4 in The Pentagon. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of U.S Southern Command, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo Description: 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers enter a JRTC village to conduct maneuvers during their force-on-force exercise in June. JRTC personnel begin planning training as early as 180 days prior to unit rotations.
Photo Credit: Ms. Linda Crippen (TRADOC)