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)

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  1. I remember even before Vietnam was over, the Army was returning towards Cold War issues. A number of doctrines followed – particularly the 2 1/2 War concept (which seems germane to this article). At the intelligence school, we “fought” the Soviets in the Fulda Gap scenario, to the detriment of most of our class who were going to Vietnam. It stayed the guiding concept for quite some time.
    Since most soldiers continue to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s only logical that things appear as realistic in training before they deploy.
    As for “Psychological retraining,” it seems more of a tempest in a teapot idea and to actually say that training needs to “do better” is a studied insult, especially with just a weekend university tour to make such conclusions.

    1. Though I can agree with the major premises of this essay, there are some points I take issue with.

      To begin with, this essay appears to be concerned about doctrines of warfare and training neither of which has ever done any military any good historically. All fine militaries in the past such as the Prussian Imperial German Army or the Wehrmacht did not rely solely on doctrine for their training but primarily on the cultural ties by the population to the military in which they all served. As it regards the Whermacht, Adolph Hitker actually eschewed standard military thinking and doctrine to concentrate on devising targets of importance based upon economics. In the instance of Operation Barbarossa, I would have to agree with his generals on this one whereby they were correct in targeting Soviet points of interest based upon standardized military thinking. However, overall Adolph Hitler’s economic emphasis is what allowed the Third Reich military services to accomp0lish so much on the battlefield in so short a time span.

      Nevertheless, in both world wars, no army was able to compete with the efficiency of either German military. This same concept also holds true for the ancient Greek Hoplite Armies, the Spartan Armies, as well as the famed Roman Legions. All of these militaries were able to field outstanding field armies as result of not only the training but the connection between the populace and these units.

      The British Regiment System has also been shown to be superior in imbuing inherent moral and cohesiveness to its units where similar traits in US Forces has always been a result of individual commanders.

      It is quite true as the author indicates that US Forces have to train for the “next war” but here again the author appears overly concerned with enemy technologies while not realizing that their training strengths and other social factors may have more to do with enemy superiority than advancing technical developments.

      As a Senior Software Engineer who has spent a number of decades in the profession and has seen the disastrous consequences of relying on constantly changing technologies as a bulwark for corporate expansionism, the same of course holds true for military points of view. And the one thing that must be understood is how fragile actual weapons’ technologies are that are reliant especially on software components for which most are. Such a concern for technology has been a primary motivating factor in US weapons development since the mid 1990s while every competent software engineer understands that low-tech can always beat hi-tech due to its increased durability but more importantly, its simplicity.

      The recent low-tech attacks by Houthi fighters against not only the Saudi kingdom’s oil production facilities but advanced US missile systems is a recent case in point. Now it is true that the Houthi drones were far more than model aircraft carrying ordnance but comparatively speaking they would be considered rather low-tech on the weapon system’s hierarchy of technology.

      And yet, the US insists on spending billions upon billions of dollars on weapon systems that in reality are useless in a fighting war (ie: today aircraft carriers simply make great targets). But this is not new to US Forces. In WWII, US Forces consistently used inferior weaponry to their opponents even when more capable weaponry was available.

      All of this comes down to the massive levels of corruption in US political and business environments, and in this case the military supplier business environment. As a result, it does one no good to speak about changing training techniques when the equipment our troops will have to rely on are either too complex and\or simply useless from this corruption. And everyone reading this piece should have by now a good understanding of this situation.

      This corruption, for a large part, impedes the cultural relationship that is required to provide motivated troops for US Forces along with the extension of such corruption that provides for the US getting involved in any and every area of the world with the vague contention of US interests.

      Has anyone ever explained what these US interests are for any particular area we are in? Let’s take the controversial matter of the US relationship with Israel, which has seemingly dragged the US into a lot unnecessary conflicts in that region while at the same time destroying US relations with just about every Arab country there. I don’t see the logic that supporting Israeli prevarications is in the US interest, which has dragged our
      soldiers over there to fight for that nation’s own interests.

      The overriding issue with all such contentions as this author illustrates is that training a military well cannot be divorced from the society at large and the cultural supports or lack thereof that any military faces.

      For example, in the US women have now been incorporated into combat units where in some cases they simply do not belong. And many rank and file soldiers would agree with this observation. However, I didn’t say that women should not be allowed to serve in combat units.

      Nonetheless, the way US female soldiers have been installed into the US Armed Forces has little to do with the strengthening of our units but instead in service to political mantras and warped forms of idealism. Unfortunately, military units do not fight real wars under such illusions as diversity and what is fair or not.

      That being said, women who want to serve in ground combat should be allowed to but in those units that are for example female-based but are designed to train and fight at that level of capability. However, there are quite a few examples of women being able to compete equally with men in the realm of combat such as that of the fighter pilot where both qualified women and men can be found that are equal in talent.

      The US Military Forces today are up to their eyeballs in social issues that cannot support the training or strengthening of US Forces to fight on a battlefield with an enemy of equal or even superior capability. This is why I support a disengagement of women from a mixed military back to their original female based components such as the WACs with the US Army. Such a delineation of gender-based units would probably go a long way to reducing the sexual harassment issues that are now plaguing the services and which certainly drive tensions among the genders while reducing combat efficiencies.

      A book could be written on the topics I have brought up but what I am trying to point out is that an enhancement of US Force capability through new training techniques as well as the fielding of these newly trained troops cannot be performed inside a vacuum of analysis that only looks at military requirements without understanding what is affecting such requirements in the first place.

      To accomplish this will require many painful changes in the way the US military procures weaponry, plans for new weaponry, reviews current requirements and pursues training programs that will hopefully allow our troops to benefit on a battlefield with an enemy of equal capability. This includes substantially reducing the current budget for the US military services, which is so out of line with actual needs and requirements that it causes ripple effects of deterioration throughout not only the military but US society in general, while making senior military leaders highly complacent in what is or not at their disposal.

      Right now, there is no proof that US Forces could handle a well trained Russian unit or even their more advanced weaponry. In fact, there is increasing evidence to the opposite.

      And just the use of the following tern the author uses, near-peer competitor, is exactly what I mean by analyzing such needs in a vacuum. First you always have to think of a military opponent as an equal or suffer the classic issue with poor military leadership of over confidence. Second, I have been studying military history and analysis for a very long time and I can categorically state that Russian units are not any “near-peer competitor” but most likely superior to any unit that the US can currently field.

      For some in depth understanding of what I have attempted to describe with my comments here, I would recommend that readers pick up a copy of “The Real Revolution in Military Affairs” by Russian military analyst, Andrei Martynov…

  2. The US Army is not prepared for the next war because ground range training is missing one or two key elements that usually can be recreated in videogames: airpower and artillery.

    JRTC and NTC don’t usually add enemy artillery and airstrikes into the training of AFVs and infantry. Russian and Chinese tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) and MLRS might make mince-meat of US Army armored and mechanized formations. Yes, some Russian Smerch MLRSs are included, but the Russians have hundreds of these MLRS and TBM Mobile Erector Launchers. Mi-8 “Hip”, Mi-24 “Hind”, and “Mi-28 “Havoc” helicopters are deadly and seek to kill AFVs. Russians and Chinese have the “Bigger bang for the buck” with their TBMs, rockets, and Hypersonics.

    So the US Army will be rained upon with rockets and missiles, which kind of makes the Army’s Infantry Squad Vehicle, which is totally open and unarmored, a nice totally vulnerable speeding target to explosives and shrapnel.

    The US Army lacks the air defenses to shoot down these enemy rockets, shells, and missiles. It has some Iron Fist and Trophy APS, and C-RAM 20mm Phalanx, and some Israeli “Iron Dome” SAM launchers, but it doesn’t have the adequate air defenses against MLRS and TBMs. A lethal artillery, rocket, and missile barrage is Russian and Chinese doctrine to soften up Western positions, just like in WW2. SHORADS protects against enemy airpower, but the US Army neglected it for so long and is now bolstering it again, but that will take several years to mature and get up to strength.

  3. This is much more than a training problem. The Army doesn’t like to think about how we are going to resource the next war from a personnel standpoint. Look at the completely ignored selective service system or the management of the IRR. Sure there are deficiencies in training focus and weapons systems, but there is also a failure to do even the most basic planning (and resource planning). That’s a political thing, and it shouldn’t be.

  4. Peter–you are right, our units do require more air and missile defense. Thankfully, Air and Missile Defense are one of the Army’s ‘Big Six’ modernization priorities–SECARMY knows that now and in the future we have to increase and improve those capabilities. However, you are in error in your assertion about JRTC and NTC “don’t usually add enemy artillery and airstrikes into the training.” The opposing force has fixed wing and rotary wing assets (which he frequently uses), as well as missile, rocket, and cannon fires, in abundance. Putting steel on target with those systems for any military is challenging and takes significant training–so I would hesitate before stating things like “the US Army will be rained upon with rockets and missiles.” It’s not that simple, and Russia and China aren’t supermen. We have pretty good missiles too, you know. And we know ours work in combat, against the best integrated air defense systems the Russians can offer. See strikes on Syria in April 2017 and 2018. Alternatively, the Russian record of missile strikes in combat is disastrous by our standards. Several missiles they attempted to fire on targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea Fleet missed the country entirely and landed in Iran. So their record of performance in regards to accuracy is less than capable of the performance you describe.

    1. Yes, that may be true, but I was thinking of Vostok 2018 (which a Wikipedia search can yield the numbers). It’s “36,000 Russian AFVs and 300,000 troops.” I don’t think that includes the Strategic Rocket Forces of TBMs and artillery, but one can watch the videos to check. China contributed 3,500 troops.

      Western Intelligence are the ones who know how these Divisions performed and the exact numbers used. Just moving those numbers is a logistical marvel…but then again the Russian tanks don’t weigh 70 tons.

      The US Army could improve itself by buying and building both the BAE M8 AGS 105mm at 23 tons and the GDLS Griffin II 120mm at 38 tons for a light and medium tank. Buying both covers light, medium, and heavy tanks (M1A2 SEP V3) instead of purchasing just one for the MPF. See, the US Army CAN prepare for the next war, but it takes funding, motivation, politics, drive, resources, commitment, planning, and so on. There were no US Army M1A2s in Afghanistan although I believe the USMC brought along some M1A1s. Imagine having some light to medium tank support…that would probably have made some differences in the battles.

      1. See this article for info about Vostok 2018. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2018/Also-in-2018/vostok-2018-ten-years-of-russian-strategic-exercises-and-warfare-preparation-military-exercices/EN/index.htm

        For all intents and purposes, it was an exercise in which they had everyone roll out of the motorpool and go to the range simultaneously. Quite different that integrating and synchronizing the war-fighting functions. I like this quote: “Despite the hype, the 13 September activities were more a carefully orchestrated military demonstration than a real military exercise. It was staged for media cameras as a backdrop befitting President Putin’s strongman image and his message of military strength to domestic and foreign observers.” The 36,000 vehicles is of all types, not just AFVs and tanks.

        I’m an Armor officer who commanded a tank company. I also served multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan throughout my career. I guarantee you, if you witnessed a combat training center rotation at JRTC or NTC in the past 5 years, you’d feel much better about our level of training. Especially if you compare it to Russian training standards, maintenance standards, and the ability to fight with all arms simultaneously. And besides building an MPF vehicle for IBCTs, M1A2s are fine-still arguably the best Main Battle Tank in existence. The big discriminator is our crews, pound for pound and across the fleet, are ridiculously better trained than our adversaries. Russian tanks are vastly inferior with an awful operational readiness rate. We generally maintain around 90%. And the 1st Guards Tank Army is basically a small corps with T-80Us and BMP-2s.

  5. Granted–we can give the villages ‘non-Middle Eastern’sounding names.

    Unfortunately, I have concerns the authors aren’t well-enough informed to write accurately on this topic. Full disclosure, I was the Cavalry Squadron Senior Trainer at JRTC from July 2017 to July 2018. Try reading “How Has the Joint Readiness Training Center Changed to Adapt to Large-Scale Combat Operations?” https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/September-October-2018/Doyle-and-Coombs/

    In that article, the second section is called “Breaking Counterinsurgency Expectations.” I can tell you, in 10 rotations, I did not have a single conversation with a Cavalry Squadron Commander about Information Operations, nor do I recall ever hearing or monitoring anyone, in any of the Squadron Staffs I coached, discuss that even once. The overwhelming majority of the time is spent in bettering ourselves at integrating and synchronizing the war-fighting functions against a live, skilled, thinking enemy over 14 straight days of continuous combat.

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