How should US military forces plan for a future that’s nothing but variables?

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The idea is as old as human conflict, even the best plans collapse on contact with the enemy. So how should US military forces plan for a future that’s nothing but variables? Two long-term military scholars ponder this idea in a new book. Authors and visiting professors at Johns Hopkins University, Nora Bensahel and Ret. Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin for highlights.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Alright, so tell us what you looked at in this book. Is this all about Gen. Joffre of latter day Plan XVII, or what is it you’re trying to tell military planners here? Dave?

Dave Barno:  Basically we make the point, as former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates likes to say, the US has a perfect track record of predicting the next war at least since Vietnam – we’ve never once gotten it right. And so militaries plan and they invest resources into developing capabilities. And they train officers and develop them, educate them over a career. But they’re making their best guess about a future that history has shown us will always be wrong. And so our argument is that militaries fundamentally have to be adaptable, they have to make plans, they have to prepare but those preparations are never enough. And what really counts is their ability to adapt when the war happens, and that’s going to become more and more difficult in the future.

Tom Temin: And Nora, does that mean that they shouldn’t bother planning or should planning take a different form?

Nora Bensahel: No, of course, they have to plan. You have to do that, despite the fact that you know, you’re not going to be right. What concerns us the most is that the challenge of adaptation is growing, especially given the trends that we’re seeing in the world right now, the increased pace of technological advancement, the increasing strategic uncertainty around the world, and really questions about what the US role is going to be. The US military have to prepare for so many different contingencies in so many different areas that it’s going to find itself having to adapt to circumstances it may never have expected. So adaptation is always a challenge for militaries. But we are particularly concerned that the US military may not be adaptable enough for the challenges that it faces in the future.

Tom Temin: And that adaptability really has to happen fast. I guess nowadays, I mentioned Joseph Joffre and his Plan XVII. As I recall from my history courses, that he was relieved of command by 1916 in World War I, so he had two years to realize his planning didn’t work out very well. And then they had two more years to finally win the war on the Allied side. But with cybersecurity and pulse weapons and so forth, it could be over in a matter of hours, I guess. Is that part of the problem of adaptability in the modern age? Dave?

Dave Barno:  Well I do think we’re seeing the prospects of decision making, and command and control, and rapid shocks on the battlefield coming at us at a speed we’ve never seen before. And now they’re accelerated by artificial intelligence, and eventually autonomy. And so we may be moving beyond the realm of human beings being able to make all the decisions on timelines that we have grown used to in the past. So this is a huge challenge for the military, in thinking about war in the future, not only are they gonna have to adapt to rapid change out there, but they may have to do it over and over again, on a cycle that’s beyond what human capabilities may even be able to accomplish.

Tom Temin: Because the DoD has been investing in artificial intelligence. We don’t know exactly what they’re coming up with. But there’s a lot of money being thrown at it is your sense that this is the kind of thing they’re throwing it at, as opposed to purely a tactical type of capability?

Nora Bensahel: Well, you need to invest in those advanced technologies. You know, we write about this in the book that the coming age of artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonics, and all sorts of technologies that we don’t even know about today, because they have yet to be discovered. Those are all going to transform how wars are fought, and the means that they are fought with. But that brings up unknown challenges too, because we don’t have a lot of track record on which to draw lessons for the future. We now have two entirely new domains of warfare for generations, it was just land and sea where people fought. Over a century ago, we added air but today we have outer space and cyberspace. And though human activity has been occurring in those domains for decades, they haven’t really been the sites of warfare yet. And so the next war, whatever it involves, is almost certainly going to involve challenges both in terms of threats to our space assets, which underpin a tremendous amount of military activity, command and control, but also civilian life. GPS is just one very central example of that. But also in cyberspace. And that gives US adversaries the ability to reach out and touch the US homeland in a way that they’ve never been able to do before without going through our massive conventional forces. And so those are going to be new challenges, require new thinking about the types of wars we’re in and the types of conflicts without really any historical guide to draw on.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Nora Bensahel and Ret. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, authors of “Adaptation Under Fire,” just out now. And do you get the sense that both military leadership, which has to understand this, and really the political leadership needs to understand this also? Bbecause ultimately, they’re in control of the military. What’s your sense of how well people are onto this concept?

Dave Barno:  I think we’re probably disadvantaged by the fact we have been so successful as US military over really decades, that our last 20 years of irregular warfare have been inconclusive at best. And some would argue that that is in a different category. But the reality is that the US military has been the most dominant, the most respected, most capable military in the world, probably since, certainly the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. And so I think our political leadership and military leadership have been lulled into a sense of security that, you know, this is the best military in the history of the world I sometimes hear, which is an overstatement at best. But if you believe that you’re undefeatable, then you will not take the challenges that we’re presenting in this book about what this next war is going to look like and how big a shift you will have to make in order to be successful in that war in the opening days and weeks. And I think we’re at some risk of hubris from our past track record.

Tom Temin: And at the time, when many new weapons platforms are under development, there’s talk about a, there’s a new bomber that’s at some stage of development. There’s a sixth generation fighter, there’s a whole raft of types of new naval weapons that are just about to be designed and launched for the long term. So it seems like those programs would have to be readily and quickly adapted to a new form of thinking, less they get saddled with yesteryear’s weapons with today’s problems.

Nora Bensahel: Yeah, and that problem, I think, is already underway, that we seem to be perfecting the technologies that we’ve used successfully in the past and may not be paying enough attention to the leap ahead technologies that will characterize the future of warfare. The other problem with that is that all of the weapon systems that you mentioned, even if they end up being the right ones for our future conflict, they’re enormously expensive. And so investing in some of the capabilities that are more adaptable, that are multi purpose, that in the coming environment are cheaper, and therefore expendable – you know, swarms of drones may cost a lot of money all together. But if any individual drone can be taken out without a huge cost to it, the fact that the future environment is likely to be so lethal means we need to be thinking about new ways of warfighting and new technologies and tactics in that, and our over investment in some of the legacy systems of the past may prevent us from doing that.

Tom Temin: And there’s another issue that the technologies that will be needed for this type of a deputation and adaptability are pretty much commodities that get into the open source community that China, Russia, Iran, and pretty much anyone else that wants to get their hands on, a lot of the software can do so. And so it’s a matter of how smartly will apply it, then it is of the power of the tool itself. Is that an issue?

Dave Barno:  I think that’s true in terms of a much more broad access to highly advanced technologies. That’s certainly the case with China. And this is the first time the United States is going to have to encounter an adversary who has a technological capability and access and reach to maybe as good as or better than our own. I think there’s a human dimension that as well. And that’s one of the things we emphasize in the book is how you prepare leaders to be adaptable to think on their feet, to be trained in exercises that put them through unexpected situations, to deal with free play adversaries, and some of their training programs that force them to do things are dramatically different from what they have planned. The US has always had a very strong advantage in terms of our human capital, we’ve been able to apply in warfare, and we think it’s time to double down on that, but change the way that we develop and educate those leaders.

Tom Temin: So ultimately, it’s the economic system and the system of liberties that are in some ways, ironically, the opposite of military culture, that are the ultimate strength of US military.

Nora Bensahel: Well, the people have always been the most important asset in the US military. And we don’t see that changing in the future. The technology’s important, of course. But what’s more important in a certain sense, and we look at this historically in the book, is when a conflict arises, you’re stuck with the technologies you have whether you guessed right and built the right ones or the wrong ones. And so people who are in charge of those fights, whether that’s at the tactical level or up at the strategic level, need to think creatively under fire. That’s why we called the book “Adaptation Under Fire,” to figure out new and creative ways to use the systems that they have to lead their people to address challenges that they may not have faced before. And the human ability to do that, to be flexible to think creatively under extraordinary pressure, and to come up with new ways of doing things under incredibly short timelines, we think is the most important attribute of an adaptable military. And that’s why the recommendations in the book, some of which Gen. Barno just mentioned, the recommendations are designed to improve the US military as well.

Tom Temin: Dr. Nora Bensahel and Ret. Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno are authors of “Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime.” Thank you both so much for joining me.

Nora Bensahel: Thank you very much.

Dave Barno: Thanks, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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