The Army’s decision to close some key innovation programs closely associated with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is ill-advised, according to retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, who led coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
Units like the Fort Meade-based Asymmetric Warfare Group, composed of seasoned soldiers and tasked with expediting new tactics and equipment to battlefields, “need to be empowered” and "given more authority, because they have been proven to be successful,” Barno said Monday at the Association of the U.S. Army.
Larger bureaucratic structures in the Army will find it difficult, if not impossible, to deliver those creative solutions, according to Barno, who visited the Asymmetric Warfare Group while researching his book, “Adaptation under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime.”
“[The Army’s] deactivating the Asymmetric Warfare Group … The Rapid Equipping Force is now going away," Barno said. "The Red Team at Fort Leavenworth has now been notified they’re going to be shut down. These are moves in the wrong direction. You’ve got to have those pioneers out there breaking the ice. … Stripping them out of the system is not going to make the system more nimble. It’s going to have, I’m afraid, the opposite effect.”
The Rapid Equipping Force, headquartered at Fort Belvoir, found ways to use commercial products to address urgent requirements around the globe. And the Red Team, also known as the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, was tasked with teaching ways for Army leaders to avoid “group-think” and to view dilemmas through multiple perspectives, sometimes finding problems they didn’t know existed.
The closures are casualties of the Army’s shift away from counter-insurgency and towards large-scale warfare against near-peer enemies.
“Those organizations exist[ed] because the regular structures didn’t do what they needed to do under extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” said Nora Bensahel, a defense policy scholar who co-authored “Adaptation under Fire."
“We’re both very disappointed, although perhaps not surprised, that when those circumstances change and budgets get tighter, that they’re going to be on the chopping block, because they exist to circumvent the regular system," she added.
Barno and Bensahel’s book deals with how militaries can prepare for future wars without fully knowing what those conflicts will look like.
Right now, the Defense Department is prioritizing buying weapons systems and developing doctrine designed around a potential conflict with an adversary like Russia or China.
Even though the Pentagon has a poor record of predicting what future wars will look like, Barno and Bensahel argued Monday that what’s more important is changing once that future war starts and quickly shedding strategies and technologies that are failing.
“We believe that there’s now, what we characterized in our book, an adaptability gap, and that gap is growing,” Barno said.
Several key factors make that gap much larger today: strategic uncertainty around the globe, with the United States now facing a multi-polar world order; new domains of warfare, to include cyberspace and outer space; and a period of rapid change across society.
“It took 38 years, for example, for radio to reach 50 million people around the world. Facebook did that in one year,” Barno said. “That also is affecting military technological change. We’re seeing huge leaps ahead in weaponry and capabilities and the role of the internet … in ways that we’ve not experienced in warfare before.”
Adaptability problems could compound during this period of exponential change. And there are numerous causes of concern when it comes to the U.S. military’s ability to adapt, according to Bensahel.
Leadership can be risk-averse, and there is often excessive amounts of doctrine that is difficult to revise, she said. There’s also “structural tension” between the combatant commands, which prioritize the needs of today’s troops, and the armed services, which are training and equipping for a future war, Bensahel added.
The book does present solutions to those problems, including the risk aversion among senior leaders, which Bensahel said should be countered by adding more intensive writing assignments and role playing at the war colleges “to give people practice in adapting quickly to unforeseen situations.”
Battalion task forces and brigade combat teams tend to be well-honed through combat training center rotations, but major unit exercises don’t test leaders in the same way, according to Barno.
Running an exercise to the “point of failure, so it shuts down the system and gives [senior leaders], for instance, challenges in an adversary that they did not expect … we don’t do that nearly as well as we do down at the tactical level," said Barno.
Though the officers at the tactical level are, realistically, the same ones who end up in senior roles later in their careers, their priorities change once they enter staff positions in a bureaucracy, according to Bensahel.
“Folks at the most senior levels of the service were highly invested in their programs of record, did not want to admit that there were problems with them and did everything they could to prevent alternatives from being explored," Bensahel said.
“Very often, what adaptability at the highest levels requires is taking your playbook and everything that you’ve learned in your experience and either throwing it out or at least questioning the basic assumptions that may have been there throughout your entire career, unchallenged," Bensahel added.
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.