Jack Watling, The Arms of the Future: Technology and Close Combat in the Twenty-First Century (Bloomsbury, for the Royal United Services Institute, 2023)

There is an ongoing debate in the US military establishment about the changing character of war. Officially, we acknowledge the need for significant change over continuity, yet very few agree on the details. Ongoing conflicts raise questions. In particular, just how will the rapid diffusion of low-cost unmanned systems and an array of accurate, lethal top-attack munitions impact warfare and US defense priorities? How should tomorrow’s landpower adapt to the purported changing character of war. What is now a legacy capability and what are the new priorities shaping US military investments? A new book, The Arms of the Future: Technology and Close Combat in the Twenty-First Century, gets to the heart of that debate, taking a forward-leaning look at these questions and urging adaptation. It races up to and past what a prior article in these pages called “the inflection point between evolutionary and revolutionary adaptation.”

The author’s thesis is clear: despite more than adequate evidence of the need to change how armies fight, they are not modernizing or restructuring their forces properly. Rather than transform the force coherently, “Armies today are largely seeking to retain tried and tested structures while adding new capabilities onto their platforms.” Bolting new capabilities onto existing platforms, the author contends, is inefficient and adds costs.

The author of this consistently informative and often provocative book is a senior research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. Jack Watling is widely recognized as an international expert in land warfare and has drawn accolades for a series of consistently penetrating monographs and commentaries on the ongoing war in Ukraine. His latest product is not simply an academic exercise; it is built upon extensive interviews, experimentation reports, direct observation, and interviews from exercises and contemporary wars.

Watling’s design builds from the bottom up, logically tracing from tasks to structure. His ideas are already influencing European military thinking, particularly how the British Army intends to fight—more dispersed and also more lethal. They are wholly deserving of serious attention by the US defense establishment as we adapt American defense priorities after Ukraine. It’s going to take innovative thinking and creative applications of tactics, techniques, and advanced training to address the action/counteraction dynamics inherent to war.

The book has two major sections. The first lays out the author’s projection of the future operating environment. In five concise chapters Watling details the transparency of the battlespace, the contested electromagnetic spectrum, the limitations of protection amid rising lethality, the complexity of combat support, and the enduring reality of urban operations. There is little variance with the US Army’s projected operational environment with the exception of TRADOC’s forecast on climate change.

In the chapter dealing with protection and enhanced lethality, Watling’s judgments on the trends and tradeoffs in mobility, firepower, and armored protection were notable and are a significant theme in animating his force design. He argues against slow and evolutionary change:

Today improvements in lethality are improving exponentially. Improvements in protection by contrast have begun to advance logarithmically with smaller gains requiring ever-greater resource to achieve. This has far-reaching consequences for how militaries think about and design their fighting systems.

The best chapter involves the longstanding problems associated with urban warfare. While the advantages that Western militaries bring to bear are often negated in urban terrain, there are options and opportunities to succeed in urban battles as shown in detailed studies of US-directed operations against ISIS in Mosul in 2014. Watling draws on insights from other contemporary conflicts in Narakano-Karabakh, Iraq, and Ukraine. The ongoing battle for Gaza may add a new chapter and force us to recall old but ignored lessons about fighting in cities. The author clearly thinks control of urban nodes is critical.

The second part of The Arms of the Future is devoted to exploring the implications of the projected security environment for force design. Dr. Watling devotes separate chapters to each component of a modern combined arms system. His task organization is illustrative but not prescriptive. Watling offers an inherently integrated and mutually supported force design with four subsystems. The first is the maneuver system, which the author tasks with reconnaissance, screening, and counterreconnaissance. The battle group he proposes for screening is comprised of four companies—support (including headquarters), reconnaissance, mechanized infantry and light cavalry. The second is the fires system, comprised of four components—command and control, target acquisition, lethal fires, and nonlethal fires. For fires, Watling develops a formation with three layers: long-range rocket artillery, cannon, and loitering munitions. Third is the assault system. Watling frames his design for this component on an urban assault battalion that has three armored assault companies, an engineering company, and a robotic autonomous systems company. Each assault platoon includes six vehicles—two tanks with smoothbore cannon (fifty-four tons or less) and active protection for kinetic vertical attack and four vehicles with 30- to 60-millimeter cannon for suppression and countering unmanned aerial systems. Finally, there is the support system. This includes command and control, mobile combat support elements, force/hub protection assets, and electronic warfare and information operations resources.

At first glance, the lack of a system for command and control and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance seemed jarring. However, the author argues that command is more of an enabling function and tied more to ensuring alignment, sustainment, and coordination. Here the author embraces some insights from Exeter Professor Anthony King, who argued in Command: The Twenty-First Century General for less directive leadership models and for more distributed and participative decision-making. The Arms of the Future reinforces King’s argument that command must evolve with changes in the character of conflict. This topic is the subject of some debate  and should be developed further.

The US joint warfighting community is seeking answers to many questions raised in The Arms of the Future. In particular, the US Army Futures Command and the Marine Corps Force Design are wrestling with the promised potential of disruptive technologies, and the tradeoffs involved in designing tomorrow’s land combat capabilities. Army leaders are seeking more transformative efforts rather than merely modernizing. Separating fact from fiction depends on clear and observable results, either from experimentation or ongoing combat operations, and this is a strength of Watling’s approach.

The Arms of the Future offers a number of conclusions regarding maneuver, armored vehicles, and unmanned systems. With respect to maneuver, the author rejects the “maneuver is dead” school, but still appreciates the appropriate role of materiel attrition to future success. Watling argues for a modern combined arms system fit for purpose rather than a heavier package of impressive and exquisite technological wizardry that is laminated onto existing organizational structures and practice. There is still a clear need for offensive maneuver, as argued by Professor Stephen Biddle, yet the ability to maneuver successfully is going to require rethinking. In that perpetual contest of adaptation in warfare, the combined arms system must continue to evolve. Watling’s detailed ideas on formations and capabilities are worthy contributions to the debate on contours of that evolution.

With respect to armor, The Arms of the Future is relevant to the ongoing debate about the future of the tank. Watling understands that there is a continued role for mobile, protected lethality on the battlefields of the future. He agrees that the tank is not dead but appreciates the need to adapt its employment in warfare. Watling’s arguments align with the respected Israeli scholar, Azar Gat, who has argued for fighting vehicles in the thirty-ton range, with an emphasis on active protection systems over heavy armor and the attendant logistical demands. The US Army’s search for armored mobility that is lighter, hybrid, and highly automated is an appropriate objective, but we must avoid illusions about purely technological solutions. Successful maneuver will require an ability to project ambiguity, deception, and misdirection across domains. “The protection offered by armor may be illusory,” Watling concludes, “but it is in casting illusions that armies can regain survivability.”

Watling’s force design also addresses the growing role of drones and unmanned aerial systems within a more holistic conception of combined arms. This counters former Google CEO Eric Schmitt, a dedicated Pentagon advisor, who visited Ukraine and concluded that the future of war will be “dictated and waged by drones” alone. Watling is acutely aware that drones and AI are being employed with substantial operational impact in ongoing conflicts. Yet, there is more to warfare than strike operations, and the author generates ideas for exploiting unmanned platforms, as well as countering their employment against US forces.

This is a meticulously researched product that makes evidence-based judgments on future force design at a granular level. It is a timely exploration of ongoing changes in the character of warfare and draws upon ongoing trends and prudent extrapolations. Policymakers and military service force developers can glean numerous insights from Watling’s painstaking scholarship. The proposals in The Arms of the Future are highly relevant to American defense requirements, at least with respect to conventional warfare. Unconventional requirements and the special operations community will not find much to delve into. Readers may contest some conclusions, but they cannot doubt that the author framed the right questions and offered actionable solutions. There is a need for objective and urgent testing of concepts and capabilities today. The best place to start would be with the incisive observations and ideas in this book.

Dr. Frank Hoffman is a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. He is a former Marine infantryman.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Savannah Baldwin, US Army