Soldiers today find themselves deployed on missions in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa — all serving, but conducting vastly different missions.
"One of the things that's changed in the world is the velocity of instability and the necessity to deploy our capabilities simultaneously to several different continents at the same time," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Army Times.
What hadn't changed — until now — was the Army's AirLand Battle operating concept. In place since the 1980s, when the Army was preparing to fight the Soviet Union, the concept focused on a massive, tank-on-tank battle in the plains of Central Europe.
This outmoded strategy has been thrown out the window, and the Army this month is unveiling its new concept — one that radically shifts how the Army will train its soldiers, organize the force, buy new equipment and grow its leaders.
The new strategy, named Unified Land Operations, is the first step in a long-term process that will determine the Army's way ahead.
"In the past, we maybe focused on one big fight somewhere," Odierno said. "We believe, with the new Army operating concept, we have to be able to do multiple small-scale things simultaneously. You've got to be a bit more flexible, a bit more adaptable. You've got to be able to get there quickly. You have to develop new capabilities in understanding the economic, political and cultural environments. You have to be prepared to operate around the world."
An operating concept provides the "intellectual foundation" upon which leaders will build the future of the Army, explained Gen. David Perkins, the commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command.
The idea of an operating concept may seem abstract, but it can drive everything the Army does, from doctrine, training and materiel to leadership, facilities and how the force is organized. It will likely mean changes to what soldiers learn in basic training and influence what majors are taught during Command and General Staff College. It will likelyshake up training scenarios at the National Training Center and drive how the Army buys new vehicles or gear.
It also will likely mean more fellowships for officers to learn how other government agencies work, and more joint assignments for noncommissioned officers.
Entering 'the unknown'
AirLand Battle, with its guiding principle of "Fight Outnumbered and Win," dictated that the Army would fight at the operational and tactical levels, and described the battle space as Central Europe.
"It envisioned a clash between NATO and the Soviet Union, and not only did it define the enemy, where it was going to take place, but it also defined the coalition," Perkins said. "It defined the future as an exquisitely well-known enemy, an exquisitely well-known location, and an exquisitely well-known coalition with very well refined tactics, techniques and procedures, and a fairly refined decision-making process."
Under Unified Land Operations, the guiding principle is "Win in a complex world."
In coming up with the phrase, Perkins said words have meaning, and the order of words have meaning.
"One of the things people say is, 'Win? That's not for the Army to decide. You don't win at the tactical level, you win at the strategic level,' " Perkins said. "That's exactly right. This [operating concept] deals with the strategic level of war. That's a huge decision."
The new operating concept envisions a joint force working in a wide range of locations and scenarios, mirroring the reality of today's fights. Soldiers could find themselves in a megacity with governmental partners or in uninhabited and ungoverned terrain. Or anywhere in between.
Soldiers also have to contend with multiple domains — land, sea, air, space and cyber. They could be partnered with Navy ships, Marine grunts, Air Force jets and other agencies like the State Department.
"It's a complex world. It's unknown and unknowable," Perkins said. "When I was a lieutenant in Germany, we never talked about someday you might have to go to the Balkans, some day you might have to go to Africa. It was, every quarter, 'Perkins, you drive to this grid on the inter-German border, you walk it, you know it.' Now you may go to Africa, you may go to Korea, you may go to Europe, you may go to Afghanistan."
Unified Land Operations will help the Army build a force "to deal with the unknown" and succeed amid "constant change," Perkins said.
The Army also is focusing on more than just fighting.
"If you look here [at AirLand Battle], you have to fight to win," he said. "What we're saying here [in Unified Land Operations] is if you focus on winning, you may not have to fight. Now, we're not backing away from fighting. We're saying, depending on how you define it, there are different ways to get after that."
One way to win might be to deter aggression in the first place, Perkins said.
"You may win without fighting, but you cannot win if you are unable to fight," he said.
More emphasis on the soldier
The U.S. Army has in some ways lost its technological superiority, so Unified Land Operations has to be less materiel-based than AirLand Battle, Perkins said.
Back in the 1980s, the Army determined that in order to overcome the Soviet Union's superior number of tanks, it needed a heavily-armored vehicle that could move fast and shoot accurately on the move, Perkins said. It also needed a helicopter that could "fly deep and engage the tanks."
As a result, AirLand Battle led to the M1 and the AH-64 Apache.
The Black Hawk, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Patriot air defense missile joined the M1 and Apache for AirLand Battle's so-called "Big Five."
The Army's new operating concept envisions a new "Big Five":
■ Optimized soldier and team performance.
■ Capabilities overmatch.
■ Joint/interorganization interoperable.
■ Scalable and tailorable joint combined arms forces.
■ Adaptive professionals and institutions to operate in complex environments.
"The world has become very flat, so almost any technology, to some degree, that we have, our enemy can get a hold of it if they're willing to pay for it," Perkins said. "Our soldiers just have to be better than their soldiers, their cognitive capability just has to be better."
In some ways, soldier adaptability is already evident today, Perkins said, citing as an example the 3,200 soldiers deploying to Africa to help battle the Ebola crisis.
"We don't have 'The Ebola Brigade,' so are you scalable and tailorable?" he said. "There's probably going to be a lot more Ebola-like problems. There are probably going to be a lot more problems [where] acquiring and engaging targets is not going to solve them."
Lessons learned, applied
Much of the new operating concept was informed by the Army's experience over the last 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Perkins said.
"What is one of the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan?" he said. "Every day it was something different. Things constantly changed and the enemy constantly adapted."
The wars also showed the Army couldn't fight alone, he said.
"You see a lot of scar tissue learning from Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "This is not to re-fight Iraq and Afghanistan again, but we also don't want to fall into some of the same traps that sometimes we fall into."
The good news moving forward is that the force has combat experience and most of today's soldiers grew up in a complex world, Perkins said.
"We probably have the most experienced Army we've ever had," he said. "This is the first time that an all-volunteer force has fought for such a long time. We have an incredible amount of capability and hardened experience in combat, and we're sustaining that."
It's critical for the Army to continue growing strong leaders, Odierno said, calling it "an essential advantage."
"What a captain has to do today is very different from what I had to do as a captain," he said. "We need an Army that can be adaptive, innovative, exploits the initiative, and can solve problems in many different ways."
In the coming months, the Army will conduct war-fighting challenges to further refine and develop the operating concept.
These 20 capabilities are required for the Army to "win in a complex world," according to the newly published pamphlet outlining the Army operating concept.
They include the ability to conduct homeland operations to defend the nation against emerging threats; develop resilient soldiers, adaptive leaders and cohesive teams; conduct effective air-ground combined arms reconnaissance; establish and maintain security across wide areas to protect forces, populations and infrastructure; deliver fires to defeat the enemy and preserve freedom of maneuver and action; and design Army formations capable of deploying rapidly.
"We are becoming a [U.S.]-based Army, so getting somewhere and transitioning quickly and being effective, we have to figure out how to do that," Perkins said, as an example.
The Army Capabilities Integration Center will conduct these challenges, running through five of the 20 capabilities each quarter, Perkins said.
"That's part of our learning process," he said. "We're going to be doing this every year. It needs to be a constant process of innovation."
The Army operating concept will undoubtedly have a "very wide-ranging" impact on how the Army is run and does business, Perkins said.
"AirLand Battle accomplished its purpose, but the world is different now," he said.
Unified Land Operations
Read the entire operating concept here.
Or check out the abbreviated PowerPoint version.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.