Recently, the US Army has been developing a new vision of the future battlefield and how its forces will succeed there. Called Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), this new concept of warfare will enable the force to deal with future fights that span the land, air, maritime, space, and cyber domains. In many ways, MDO is a reaction to a decade of counterinsurgency (COIN) and its effects on the force. The contention is that the Army’s effectiveness at adapting to the threat of insurgency has dulled the skills required to face down a peer or near-peer competitor, like a rising China or Russia. In short, MDO advocates argue that there is a dangerous change underway in the threat environment for which the Army is unprepared. MDO represents the Army’s doctrinal response. For this response to be effective, and avoid previous doctrinal pitfalls, the Army and its civilian leaders must first appreciate the history of and motivations behind previous innovations in the Army. Multi-Domain Operations does not represent the first time the Army has turned against COIN. We are in many ways walking a well-worn doctrinal path, though one often only partially understood by scholars and historians. In the past, the Army engaged in surprising innovations that were based on changes in the threat environment and the availability of resources to address those changes. A number of these innovations confound cultural and bureaucratic perspectives on military innovation. As I discovered while researching and writing a new book, Military Realism: The Logic and Limits of Force and Innovation in the US Army, an analysis of the origins of doctrinal innovation and continuity in the Army from JFK to today offers an important perspective on military innovation. Those lessons from the Army’s own history should inform the way the service thinks about future war, including the move to Multi-Domain Operations.

Scholars of military innovation would not be surprised to see the Army turn its back on COIN. Many of them explain the Army’s historical disdain for COIN by drawing on military and bureaucratic culture. They have been expecting the current revival of conventional warfare and the renunciation of COIN. After over a decade of fighting in COIN wars—a form of warfare especially abhorrent to US Army culture—the Army is returning to a culturally approved way of fighting: conventional combat operations against a peer or near-peer competitor. However, there is reason to believe that cultural and bureaucratic approaches to military innovation have their limits. They underestimate the capacity of flexible thinking about future war among military officers. Attributing innovation primarily to its culture gives the Army too little credit. I propose an alternative way to understand military innovation, especially innovation aimed at future war.

The experience of and preparation for war establishes a military realist mindset among officers. This mindset has two components. First, an officer appreciates the escalatory and interactive character of war. To impose its will on an adversary, no matter the political circumstances, each belligerent must surpass its opponent’s escalation. War is highly dependent on the reactions that one’s actions inspire in the adversary and vice versa. Clausewitz expressed it best: “I am not in control, [my enemy] dictates to me as much as I dictate to him.” Put another way, the enemy gets a vote. The unpredictability of this violent interaction produces widespread uncertainty. This uncertainty helps explain why military officers are often less optimistic about the efficacy of force than their civilian counterparts. The second part of the military realist mindset is a deep appreciation for the physical and psychological friction that always accompanies the use of force. No matter what the political circumstances, the physical world (i.e., time, terrain, and limited means) always hinder the use of force. The simplest maneuver is difficult amid this constant friction. Add to these elements the active resistance of an unpredictable enemy and it is a wonder anything gets done. Awareness of these sometimes-insurmountable obstacles also fuels military officers’ caution about force. The military realist mindset, then, is the source of the “military conservatism” that has often been remarked upon.

I argue that senior military leaders initiate changes in their ways of war when existing doctrine no longer plausibly addresses the most dangerous threats. The threat assessments that drive innovation are not motivated solely or even primarily by parochial interests but rather by a pragmatic concern with dangerous accumulations of military capabilities, usually residing in nation-states, which can impose their will through the escalatory logic of force. Unlike parochial explanations based on culture or bureaucracy, I argue that military leaders regularly overcome parochial resistance to innovation, even seeing beyond their own formative military experiences. The story of innovation in the US Army is inspiring: instead of recurring stagnation, the Army often overinnovates to deal with changes in its threat environment and in the means available to combat those threats. In short, military realists are not doomed to fight the last war.

Consider the Army’s response to the nuclear revolution. Much has been written about the advent of the Pentomic divisions under Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor. Indeed, the birth of the Pentomic concept is often considered one of the most radical and ridiculous innovations in US Army history. Those inside and outside of the Army have derided the idea that the Army could engage in meaningful maneuver on a battlefield scorched by tactical nuclear weapons. However, given the threat environment facing the Army in Europe, tactical nuclear weapons represented the most plausible path to resisting the gravest threat, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The Soviets had numerical superiority in conventional forces and an offensive doctrine based on armored thrusts, supported if necessary by tactical nuclear weapons. The Soviets did not dismiss the idea of the nuclear battlefield. For its part, the Army was compelled to deal with this threat in a period of plummeting resources. The threat environment and the means available to address it recommended the Pentomic solution. Far from fighting the last war, the Army was building forces and doctrine to prepare for a kind of war in which the lessons of the last one seemed irrelevant.

Less remarked upon is the replacement of Pentomic with the Reorganization Objective Army Division (ROAD). Upon entering office, the Kennedy administration vowed to reduce America’s reliance on nuclear weapons and revive conventional warfare as part of flexible response. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced to Congress that ROAD, as one pillar of this effort, would be a decisive break from the nuclear-centric Pentomic concept. In fact, ROAD was not the brainchild of Kennedy’s whiz kids. The Army itself devised this innovation, which civilian leaders then claimed as their own. The piggybacking of civilian authorities on innovations born in the Army is a running theme. Kennedy’s return to conventional warfare should have been welcomed by a US Army culture less than two decades from its WWII finest hour. Indeed, S.L.A. Marshall argued that the Pentomic concept was a threat to that very culture. Nevertheless, the Army rejected Kennedy’s sidelining of tactical nuclear weapons. Senior Army leaders recognized the flaws in Pentomic divisions but sought to resolve them rather than abandon tactical nuclear weapons. Interestingly, Kennedy brought Maxwell Taylor out of retirement to help him implement flexible response. Though Taylor approved of the revival of conventional forces, he sided with his fellow military realists in the Army in rejecting Kennedy’s attempts to consign tactical nuclear weapons to the doctrinal ash heap. The ROAD division, with its continued focus on the nuclear battlefield, had originated in the Army years before Kennedy became president. US Army culture should have jumped at the opportunity to return to conventional warfare under Kennedy. Instead, senior Army leaders preserved a revolutionary way of warfare that required it to rethink its whole approach to fighting and abandon WWII nostalgia. Even if we consider these innovations wrong-headed, they are inconsistent with the parochial approach to military innovation and, I argue, more consistent with military realism.

Another inflection point came with the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union confronted the Army with a new world where its established doctrine had no target. Army leaders built a new concept of operations around a new post–Cold War mission: power projection to protect vital US interests. Once again, this time because of the post–Cold War peace dividend, the Army would be forced to prepare for this mission amid declining resources. In response, the service began to embrace ideas associated with the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Senior Army leaders thought that by exploiting RMA technologies, some of which existed only on paper, the Army could remain lethal while becoming light enough for global power projection. For instance, new sensor technologies would provide real-time situational awareness and targets for precision-guided weapons. Mass would be replaced by information. To realize this vision the Army would need to reduce its reliance on the heavy forces associated with the Cold War and WWII. Some have argued that the Gulf War convinced the Army that its legacy forces were still relevant in the post–Cold War world. On the contrary, in the early 1990s senior commanders, such as Gen. Fredrick Franks, thought the Gulf War exposed the incompatibility between those forces and the Army’s new power projection mission. The solution was a lighter force that exploited RMA technologies to reduce its resulting vulnerabilities.

Like McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld came into the Pentagon determined to innovate. The Army, to him the least innovative and most traditional service, would be a particular target for disruptive innovation. Rumsfeld argued that the Army had to leave behind its attachment to the outdated heavy forces that had manned the front lines of the Cold War. Instead, it should adopt a lighter and more flexible force capable of global power projection and exploiting the technologies of the RMA. As just noted, but unbeknownst to Rumsfeld, the Army had already initiated this process. In fact, advocates of the RMA in the Pentagon acknowledged that some of its key elements had their origin in the Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine of two decades earlier.

Enamored with RMA technologies, the Army would be disappointed in the coming years when they did not materialize. One consequence of this technological overreach was that the Army was unprepared for the insurgencies it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. During those conflicts Army leaders complained about their extreme lack of the situational awareness promised by the RMA and the vulnerability of their lighter forces to conventional weapons and improvised explosive devices. The Army had once again innovated in unexpected ways. Although we might disagree with the wisdom of those RMA-based innovations, they nonetheless confound the expectations of those wedded to cultural or bureaucratic explanations that expect resistance to such innovation. In addition, once more civilian authorities erroneously saw themselves as the drivers of that innovation. Instead, military realist concerns for changes in the threat environment, combined with a lack of resources for addressing those changes, led to these unexpected innovations. The Army was deep into the process of transforming for the twenty-first century when it found itself embroiled in two counterinsurgencies. These operations exposed weaknesses in the transformation agenda but also led to one of the most surprising innovations in US Army history: the rebirth of COIN.

A narrative has built up around recent COIN innovation that maverick officers, aided by intellectuals and others, imposed a new COIN doctrine on an Army determined not to learn the lessons of Vietnam. In reality, the development of COIN doctrine in the Army was internally driven and began much sooner than adherents to this narrative appreciate. While Gen. David Petraeus’s work was vital, the Army was writing COIN manuals for Iraq and Afghanistan before he arrived on the scene. These interim manuals contain many of the same ideas as the more renowned Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency. In fact, the focus on “legitimacy” as one of the main goals of unconventional operations can be traced back to the 1993 and 2001 editions of its Operations doctrine publication, both published prior to the Global War on Terrorism. The Army’s openness to COIN ideas is less surprising to military realism than to the cultural and bureaucratic alternatives. The Army was particularly open to COIN doctrine in this period because of the absence of a more dangerous threat. Contrast this with Vietnam, where the Army was grappling with insurgency in the shadow of the much more dangerous Soviet threat.

Those who see innovation only through a cultural or bureaucratic lens, see the return to conventional warfare in the Army as reactionary. On the contrary, changes in the threat environment, especially the growing assertiveness of China and Russia in recent years, have played a key role in the Army’s doctrinal transition away from COIN warfare. Moreover, critics of this doctrinal reorientation should recognize that Army leaders are not wrong about the adverse effects of prolonged COIN operations on conventional warfare skills. Exemplars of thinking on insurgency, such as Mao Zedong and David Galula, point out the incompatibility of guerrilla warfare and COIN skills and the skills necessary for conventional, combined-arms warfare. The increasingly bellicose behavior of China and Russia has again conjured the specter of combined-arms warfare. Even if we think that a shooting war with either is unlikely, the Army should prepare for such operations to deter adventurism on the part of either power. Thus, recent innovations in the US Army away from COIN are not motivated strictly by parochial interests. Rather, they are based on real differences between conventional and unconventional warfare, and the ways in which preparation for one affects preparation for the other.

As in the past, the US Army is attempting to innovate to address a changing threat environment while political authorities are reducing available means. Sequestration and the end of supplemental budgets for the Global War on Terrorism have shrunk available resources. Since the 1950s, this combination of dangerous threats and limited resources has led not to stagnation but to innovation in the Army. This history offers lessons and warnings for the current appetite in the Army for innovation for future warfare. While the need to deter conventional conflict has increased, the Army must not forget the lessons of a decade of COIN operations. There is reason to be hopeful on this score. Unified Land Operations (ULO), presented in the Army’s most current doctrine, argues that the Army must reinvigorate its combined-arms skills while preserving the lessons of its recent COIN wars. For instance, ULO emphasizes that victory in conventional combat operations cannot be decisive without accompanying stability operations to consolidate the gains made by those combat operations. In addition, the lessons of COIN apply to potential conflicts involving peer or near-pear competitors. The politico-military struggle that is at the heart of insurgency, for instance, was in evidence in recent Russian operations in Ukraine. However, newer doctrinal concepts have the potential to unseat ULO and with it the lessons of COIN warfare.

Multi-Domain Operations has been introduced to help prepare the Army for large-scale combat operations. As the name implies, at the center of MDO is the idea that success in future combat will require the tight coordination of capabilities across the air, land, maritime, cyber, and space domains, as well as across the electromagnetic spectrum. The authors of MDO argue that it remains a concept subordinate to the overarching ULO doctrine. However, the military realist perspective tends to hone in on the most dangerous threats and seeks to address them through innovation. This inclination could lead to MDO overtaking ULO in the minds of leaders in the US Army. Moreover, the problems presented by MDO are so complex that the Army could find itself obsessed, examining all the intricacies of a closed system. Such a preoccupation with the intricacies of future war threatens to blind the Army to the ways in which future wars will share characteristics with COIN wars. In the rush to develop a mode of operations to deal with these complex issues, like the relationship between cyber capabilities and tactical operations, the Army is in danger of a doctrinal overreach that breeds weaknesses into the force. Its enemies will exploit these weaknesses. Keeping ULO at the top of the doctrinal pyramid will not be easy but it is essential for the Army to develop a response to the kinds of gray-zone conflicts that will continue to plague the international order, an order that is the lifeblood of American prosperity and power.

Rather than seeing their military services as perennial obstacles to innovation, civilian authorities need to seek the innovations already underway within their services’ forces. Instead of always fighting the last war, civilians will find that these services are fighting future wars right under their noses. From Kennedy to the present, the saga of US Army doctrine shows that, when it comes to resources and innovation, necessity is still the mother of invention. Civilians might be tempted to conclude that they should reduce available resources to drive innovation. However, the result might be a future-focused force unable to fight the conflicts of today or tomorrow. Rather, the lesson should be a determination to combine necessary innovation—which the Army has regularly shown itself ready to undertake—with retention of present capabilities that remain vital to meeting current and future threats.


Peter Campbell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His research interests include military innovation, civil-military relations, national security decision making, strategy, insurgency and counterinsurgency, the just war tradition, military culture, and cyber warfare. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame and an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.


Image credit: US Army Acquisition Support Center