WASHINGTON — The U.S Army plans to spend roughly the next two years finalizing key decisions on what its future formational design will look like in the 2040s, the service’s four-star general in charge of modernization and requirements said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Global Force Symposium last week.

“2040 seems like a long way away,” Gen. James Rainey, Army Futures Command boss, said in a March 29 speech, “but I believe we have about an 18 to 24 month window that we need to pursue with a sense of urgency to figure out what’s going to be different, what’s the operating environment going to look like; not to get it right, but to make sure we don’t get it really wrong and to be in a better position than whoever we’re fighting.”

AFC “has a responsibility to find that deep future operating environment, and we need to start iterating on the concept. We hope to be in the draft concept business by this fall, probably,” he said.

The command was established in 2018 to help the service focus on modernizing the force. Taking over the command last fall, Rainey is its second commander.

Working with Training and Doctrine Command, AFC will need to figure out how the Army will fight in the future – specifically a 2040 benchmark – and then design fighting formations that can support that, Rainey told Defense News in an exclusive interview at the show.

The Army is well on its way to fielding over 30 weapon systems and other capabilities in 2030 that will enable the service to fight across all domains against adversaries able to deny access to key terrain, Rainey said.

“We’re going to buy vehicles, systems, weapons, radios, but we need to transform our formations as a formation,” he said in his speech. “We buy things, but we fight formations, so everything we do material-wise needs to be ‘how does this fit into a formation?’ And we’ll make better decisions, candidly. And most importantly, we’ll put better-capable formations on the battlefield.”

There are still a variety of questions that need to be answered as the service builds its future force, and many of these need to be considered quickly. “Let me talk about the sense of urgency to 2040,” Rainey said in his speech. “When I say 2040, I’m talking about a fully fielded Army of 2040. To do that we will have to be in full-up aggressive fielding mode by about 2035.”

If capability needs to be fielded by 2035 to build the force of 2040, “they probably need to be prototyping, in low-rate production, something like that, in that space by 2031,” Rainey said.

Right now the Army is working on a five-year defense-spending plan that covers fiscal 2025 through 2029, he pointed out.

Concepts that are drafted over this time will need to be “rigorously, aggressively” verified through experimentation, according to Rainey. The Army’s Project Convergence “campaign of learning” effort is one of those places for experimentation, but the service will experiment persistently through other means like theater-located exercises to better craft concepts.

Science and technology priorities will also need to be set and finalized by the Army secretary and chief, Rainey said. “I think by this fall, we need to start getting more clarity” but will likely not work on funding plans until the next couple of five-year budget planning cycles, he noted.

The Army plans to complete an initial concept within the next six months, according to Rainey, so that TRADOC Centers of Excellence and AFC Capabilities Development and Integration Directorates in partnership with U.S. Army Forces Command can develop new individual warfighting function concepts like fires, intelligence and maneuver starting in FY24.

Rainey has landed on a few ways he knows formations will need to change and what they will need to have.

“We have a lot of light formations in the Army,” he said. “I believe that we need to increase the lethality and survivability of our light formations.”

Giving this capability to the lighter formations will also help the Army lighten its logistics tail of heavy formations, something that will be necessary in contested environments in the future, he said.

Formations must also have appropriate human-machine integration, Rainey said. “This is the game changer.” The challenge right now, he said, is that much of what is being done is aspirational, like replacing a tank with a robot tank.

“I’m all for that, and we should be working on it, but that’s kind of blinding us to what’s absolutely doable now,” Rainey stressed, such as offloading work like menial tasks, riskier tasks from soldiers and giving those to machines.

And lastly, Rainey said, formations need to have redundancy and reliability in a contested environment. “You can’t have single points of failure,” he said, and “we need to engineer out complexity.”

Rainey stressed in his interview with Defense News that while AFC is looking toward 2040 and some of that might require minor adjustments to weapons development plans or procurement decisions, “the success of our modernization is based on us being consistent, so we don’t want to lose the focus.”

Gen. Mike Murray, AFC’s first commander, who preceded Rainey, “did a great job of getting the requirements documents very close to right” and there is no plan “to move the goalposts,” he said.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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