Urban warfare is the next battlefield frontier, and the Army will have to rethink both its command structure and soldiers themselves in order to adapt, the service's top general said Tuesday.
The Army isn't going to an all-special operations model, but there's some inspiration the conventional Army can take from that culture, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at the Future of War Conference in Washington, D.C.
"I think you'll have smaller organizations, in 10 years and beyond," he said.
That might look like company- or battalion-sized operational units, he added, but it wouldn't mean doing away with brigades and divisions.
"The fighting element will probably end up having to be much smaller," he said. "Think of special operations — that may be a preview of how larger armies operate in the future."
The future will also bring more unmanned capabilities and, as a result, possibly a lower risk for loss of life.
"We've lost a lot of soldiers in the past 15 years who were driving convoys, from point A to point B, and were attacked by [improvised explosive devices], and they were delivering food or ammunition," Milley said. "Think about, if you could, a logistics convoy delivering the required supplies to a forward unit, but there's no drivers in the convoy."
That technology already exists with driverless cars created by Google and others. It will take some time to make something that can negotiate rough battlefield terrain, Milley said, but it will happen.
Then the question becomes whether that lowers the bar for risk when deciding to go to war, said Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America think tank and moderator of the session with Milley.
"I think this is a very serious moral debate that has to take place here," Milley said. "On an ethical basis, though, if you remove human death from the equation of war, then the probability is conflict would increase, I suppose."
But in an urban environment, the way soldiers fight has to be weighed against the loss of innocent civilians in a densely populated battlefield.
"America's Army has in the past, and will continue in the future, to place high value on the lives of the innocent noncombatants," Milley said. "That's one of the problems in an urban environment. It's much, much more difficult with noncombatants."
Soldiers will have to be highly trained in discriminating fire, able to quickly and effectively tell who is a combatant and who is a bystander. Leader development will be key, Milley added, and lessons could come, again, from the special operations community.
"We're probably going to have to have more mature, more seasoned leaders at lower levels than perhaps the organization design calls for now," he said.
For example, special operations companies are led by majors instead of captains, as they are in the conventional Army. But special operations also often has the benefit of older, more experienced soldiers rather than brand new, 19-year-old privates.
"Our leaders at the pointy end of the spear are going to have to have very, very high degrees of ethical skill and resilience to be able to deal with incredibly intense issues in ground combat," Milley said.
So the next task, over the following 10 to 15 years, Milley said, is figuring out how to recruit and quickly train the type of people who can take that special operations-style expertise and bring it to the regular Army.
"I don't want people to walk out of here thinking, the whole Army's shifting gears and we're going go to Special Forces on steroids," he said. "That's not going to happen. That's not even close to what's going to happen."
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT