Army’s Doctrine Chief: Expect the Unexpected

Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade show Ukrainian marines and national guard troops how to clear a room during a training exercise Sept. 16. Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade show Ukrainian marines and national guard troops how to clear a room during a training exercise Sept. 16. Spc. Joshua Leonard/Army

Though reluctant to reduce military training to a bumper sticker, the Army’s top doctrine commander on Thursday chose “win in a complex world” as the most succinct expression of his approach to future warfare preparations.

“We should expect the unknown, so we can arrive and adopt and innovate,” Gen. David Perkins, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command told an audience at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Who knew a year ago we’d now have thousands of troops in Africa fighting the Ebola virus while we’re also fighting ISIS?”

Perkins, who earned a Silver Star as a brigade commander during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, declined to weigh in on the soundness of President Obama’s strategy for fighting Islamic State terrorists without U.S. ground troops, but he stressed the role of Army planners in “engaging in the conversation, understanding the context and presenting the Army’s capabilities and limits,” with reminders on how various approaches have fared historically, to help strategic planners define the whole picture.

“Defining the future will not mean saying who are the bad guys and which are the hotspots,” he said. More likely planners will ask, “is the future more predictable or less, more chaotic or less?”

Perkins advised Army leaders to avoid “saying what we’re not doing, as in ‘we don’t do windows,’ because then the enemy will put up windows.” Instead, the Army needs multiple ways to innovate, he said.

Adapting Gen. Creighton Abrams’ dictum that “Soldiers are not in the Army, soldiers are the Army,” Perkins stressed the value of training. “We can’t go out and buy a brigade of 3,000 overnight by putting out a bid and taking the lowest,” he said in response to questions from Stimson board chairman, Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr. “We must build from scratch. It takes at least three years to train all the echelons.”

The military’s truly smart weapons are its people, he said. Training must be ongoing and the service must maintain a culture in which generals learn from soldiers who return from conflict and tell them, “That idea was useless.”

Despite the necessary focus on current conflicts, the Army also must keep its eye on long-term challenges. “The tendency is to turn things into a 7-year-old’s soccer game in which everyone’s going for the ball. Some of us need to think toward the year 2025.”

In the current struggle against terrorism, Perkins says, the longtime technological advantages enjoyed by the United States are fading. “We can’t bank on that delta being there, so we have to innovate.”

That means changing the “tactical and operational risk calculus,” which can increase the political risks for leaders, he added. Enemies who blow up marketplaces, film beheadings and embrace martyr status may render the previous era’s responses less effective, but these enemies “still have a support system and an information dimension,” he said, “so we can pull aside the curtain and show where they are.”

In a nod to Americans’ war-weariness, Perkins said, “To win without a fight, we must be able to win a fight. And we must make our adversary sure of that, by keeping multiple options that give them multiple dilemmas,” he said. “War is a series of temporary conditions, and you lose during the transition. Something always changes, so the question is, are we prepared for the transitions?” 

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