The focus of the Army is ground combat and the way the Army fights is through fire and maneuver.
So, it makes sense that the job of figuring out where technological advances, doctrine and tactics meet would be at the epicenter of innovations in ground combat — the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Columbus, Ga.
To see how the center brings those ideas together in a fast-changing force, Army Times talked with Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, commander of MCOE, ahead of this year’s virtual Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition, which begins Oct. 13.
While tech gets the headlines and cool videos, it’s how that technology is implemented by the service that makes the difference, Donahoe argued.
Some of that can produce fairly large-scale changes, and so soldiers are likely to see a rethinking of formations, such as the brigade combat team, that have been around for a generation or more.
He pointed to the French and German militaries in the early days of World War II. By most measures, the French had a better tank, but they didn’t have the doctrine, organization or tactics to go with it.
Donahoe compares the period the service is in now to the 1970s, post-Vietnam, when the . Army was coming out of a long counterinsurgency campaign and had combat-experienced leaders in the formation.
As recently as when he was serving at MCOE in 2013, captains were still being prepared for that COIN fight, as they had to be; they were headed out on deployments just five or six months later.
But since then, Army leaders have been looking more at regions like Crimea, the Donbass region of Ukraine and areas around China to determine what they’ll need for the next deployment, rather than Helmand province, Afghanistan or Baghdad, Iraq.
“We’re doing a real deep look at the BCT, as the Army moves from the BCT to the division as the unit of action,” Donahoe said. “We are in the process of developing the organization for the division cavalry squadron.”
“What does that look like from 2020 to 2028?” he said. “What capabilities and organization shape the battlefield against a near-peer competitor?”
In some ways, it could look like a mid-1990s cavalry squadron that Donahoe commanded as a young officer. But in many ways its capabilities will be vastly transformed.
That’s because autonomous devices mean a different kind of force that’s viable in combat.
“You take the model of the divisional cavalry squadron from the mid-90s and make it incredibly more lethal in its tasks,” he said.
That’s happening inside the BCT as well.
The Army began a process in 2018 to convert some Stryker brigade combat teams to armored BCTs and some infantry BCTs to SBCTS in an effort to get heavier for the big fight.
At the same time, those IBCTs will likely change, too.
The MCOE team and its partners are looking hard at a light BCT and developing concepts for a motorized IBCT in an effort to maximize the technologies the Army is bringing into its formations, he said.
None of these concepts are yet ready for prime time, but they’re being put through the intellectual paces as the force restructures.
Again, there’s history to draw from.
An Army chief of staff white paper published in 1984, “Light Infantry Divisions” had a similar effect.
Those formations were positioned to be half the size of mechanized divisions and could be quickly deployed to remote regions, bringing mostly combat arms troops with a lesser need for support personnel.
That also meant more machine guns, antitank weaponry, and lighter, more mobile artillery.
At that time, the Army had seven mechanized divisions, four armored divisions, two infantry divisions, one air assault division, one paratrooper division and one high-technology division — the 9th Division at Fort Lewis, Wash. — and an additional nine separate brigades.
The light infantry division aimed to better position the Army to get into the contingency fight, able to deploy on short notice across the world in a variety of scenarios.
The 7th Infantry Division became the test bed for the new concept.
The move also allowed for the reactivation of 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., which had been deactivated in 1958. It has been the most deployed unit since 2001.
MCOE is in constant coordination with the other centers of excellence as it works through implementing new technology and tactics, Donahoe said, with the overarching goal of a fully capable multi-domain operations force.
The ultimate configuration of the brigade is not yet decided, but it will likely be smaller than it is today, as it divests some of what it now does to the division, he said. It will remain mobile.
A change soldiers should anticipate is that robotics and artificial intelligence will make first contact with the enemy unmanned, "whether robotic scouts or at the edge of a minefield,” he said.
That will then allow the soldiers in the force to better move outside of that contact into a position of dominance to exploit their advantages.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.