The Army, arguably too often, wraps ideas in layers of buzzwords, jargon that must be navigated to get even the most basic sense of what is actually being said. Dave Johnson, a retired colonel and an intellectual force in the defense community, warned of the danger of this. “I often fear that these terms are employed by those who peddle them to look like they are part of the ‘in’ crowd,” he wrote to a group of strategy professionals. “Or, worse, they do not know the origins and meaning of the ideas and doctrine and do not want to be found out. No matter what the case, it confuses the hell out of the rest of the force.”*

The Army cannot afford for its future-focused operating concept to confuse the hell out of the force. The operating concept should establish the basis for reasoned exploration of emerging operational approaches, tactics, techniques, and procedures that are observable in ongoing conflicts, that develop as a function of new technologies, and that bubble up from the field as units train with what is in the motor pool right now. An operating concept must establish the conditions and provide a framework for the testing of ideas, technology, and even outside-the-box ideas about warfare. The concept must enable experimentation to push the boundary of what is possible with what we have in the force and what might be possible coming from technology and adaptation of new systems. Finally, the concept must offer solution paths to operational problems across the global range of military operations. This is a tall order, to be sure, and we must bear in mind the admonition of Michael Howard that while any concept we are working on now is most likely wrong, the challenge is to not be too badly wrong. And, perhaps most importantly, concepts should not be confused with doctrine.

The 2022 National Security Strategy depends upon the demonstrated capability of US armed forces, particularly their agility to respond to a range of national interests. It states, “Our starting premise is that a powerful U.S. military helps advance and safeguard vital U.S. national interests by backstopping diplomacy, confronting aggression, deterring conflict, projecting strength, and protecting the American people and their economic interests.” This will remain true for future strategies through 2050, the timeframe considered in this exploration of the Army’s operating concept after next.

Our proposed concept must truly empower the practice of mission command. Given the uncertainty of what the future might hold, the start point for concept development must begin with a method of at least determining the range of potential futures our Army might face—again, recalling Howard’s admonition of being not too badly wrong. We must bear in mind that the concept must not optimize the Army for one potential future, but rather establish an Army prepared for any in the full range of potential futures.

A proven method to think about the range of operational problems our Army might face in 2050 is the alternative futures method of critical thinking. This approach is most useful when a situation is viewed as too complex or the outcomes as too uncertain to trust a single outcome assessment. First, the concept development team must recognize that there is high uncertainty surrounding the topic in question, the waging of war in 2050. Second, the team must recognize that its members need to consider a wide range of factors that might bear on the question. And third, they must be prepared to explore a range of outcomes and not be wedded to any preconceived result.

There are multiple ways to begin the process of concept development. A dedicated team can spend months organizing, brainstorming, and developing multiple futures, for example. Alternatively, a larger-scale effort can make use of a multiday workshop bringing together a variety of participants. Such an undertaking often demands the special skills of trained scenario-development facilitators and conferencing facilities. This technique is a sharp contrast to contrarian techniques, which try to challenge the high confidence and relative certitude about an event or trend. Instead, multiple futures development is a divergent-thinking technique that tries to use the complexity and uncertainty of a situation to describe multiple outcomes or futures that should be considered, rather than to predict one outcome. Such an investment in time, energy, and resources is absolutely necessary to successful concept development.

This approach is useful in highly ambiguous situations, when analysts confront not only a lot of known unknowns but also unknown unknowns. What this means is that the concept development team recognizes that there are factors, forces, and dynamics among key actors that are difficult to identify without the use of some structured technique that can model how they would interact or behave. Given the time and resources involved, scenario analysis is best reserved for situations that could potentially pose grave threats or otherwise have significant consequences. Waging war in 2050 clearly meets this description. Based on our experience we know that, difficult as it may be, involving policymakers, or at least staff members who work directly with policymakers, in the alternative futures exercise is the most effective way to (1) communicate the results of this exploration of alternative outcomes and (2) sensitize them to key uncertainties. Most participants find participating in the process of developing such scenarios is as useful as any finished product that attempts to capture the results of the exercise. Policymakers and concept development teams can benefit from this technique. Future operational and organizational concepts—called O&Os—will derive from the results of the critical thinking method.

This stated, we still need a concept relevant to the strategic context and operational problems of twenty-first-century warfare. We have concept developers in Army Futures Command, and their concepts, properly, continue to update the Army’s capstone doctrine of multi-domain operations. The next exploration to account for the changing conduct of warfare will likely focus on systems and their dislocation. It is imperative to identify the conditions we must consider when developing the concept for the second quarter of twenty-first-century warfare, through 2050.

Regardless of the conditions of war (irregular, conventional, nuclear, or a hybrid of any two or all three), in the Army we will need for 2050, both conventional and special forces units will need to mask their formations, and operate within an assured network of shared information and with a scalable common operating picture, to establish a strike zone or kill web for multiple means of fires and effects on enemy formations, while disrupting similar systems of an enemy—likely a peer enemy. As the current war in Ukraine suggests, such a concept must account for the sustainment of war and the necessity to protect the force in what is sure to be a transparent, lethal environment. Significantly, the concept must also stimulate thinking at all levels of war about how warfare is changing and will continue to do so. But, it must also account for what likely remains the same, that the conduct of warfare remains brutal and expensive in terms of consumption rates of supplies, national treasure, and soldiers.

The conditions in which warfare is conducted are changing at an extraordinary speed. The conduct of warfare takes place under the unblinking eye of the video cameras on mobile phones and commercial satellites. Television news companies will use videos under the adage that if it bleeds, it leads, even as news media fact checkers’ job is made exponentially more difficult with the explosion of video footage in circulation. Thus far, the US Army and the entire joint force have been challenged to adapt to such changes, so the next concept must suggest, rationalize, and intellectually lead change.

We must always recognize that every war is unique and that none perfectly predicts the next. Still, our way forward must be shaped not just by the current conflict in Ukraine, but also by recent conflicts in Gaza (2021), Nagorno-Karabakh (2020), Crimea and eastern Ukraine (since 2014), Georgia (2008), Lebanon (2006), and of course the US and coalition counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations of the first two decades of this century. Given this, at a minimum, there are three major implications from the war in Ukraine to date that can and must directly inform the US Army’s development and refinement of its concept for future wars.

The first of those is the necessity for effective conduct of large-scale combat operations over operational distances and extended duration in time. We must recognize that large-scale combat operations can be conducted irrespective of the conditions of warfare and enemy action—conventional, irregular, terrorism, a combination of all three, and even under conditions of the use of weapons of mass destruction. These operations must be linked by strategy to policy objectives, bearing in mind these objectives will change based on shifting political conditions.

The second is the necessity to be able to operate effectively and preserve combat power during the noncontiguous and nonlinear operations that will characterize modern large-scale combat. Again, these conditions of warfare will also include enemy action ranging from irregular warfare to cyberattacks to malign influence and misinformation to terrorism operations.

The third major implication is the necessity to operate effectively against, partner with, and employ hybrid forces—that is, combinations of special operations forces, conventional forces, paramilitary and irregular forces, and others. The area of irregular warfare should not be the exclusive province of the special operations community. It is a form of warfare relevant to the entire force.

Recognizing there are dozens of other observations that have emerged or are emerging, these three major implications are especially relevant and should serve as catalysts for improving US force design, capabilities, operations, and preparedness.

It is important to note, at this point, the relationship between doctrine and concepts. As retired Lieutenant General Don Holder once described it to us, doctrine tells us how to fight, right now, with what we have in the motor pool, while concepts should be a response to the changing conduct of war or strategic context, along with an operational problem existing doctrine won’t solve—in essence, how we might fight, in the future, with the emerging capabilities not yet in the force. In our opinion, we struggle more with concepts than doctrine. But it is crucial to overcome this struggle, not least because concepts can be used in experimentation, to inquire of technology and the industrial base, and, through testing, to act as pathfinders for materiel development.

Here again, learning from current and recent conflicts is instrumental. There are tactics, techniques, and procedures observable in operations in Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and Iraq. All of these are worthy of study. For example, from a host of open-source reporting it appears that the Ukrainians exercise fire control through an app on unsecured cell phone lines. The Ukrainians apparently use these lines since secure lines and networks are easily identifiable and targetable by lethal and cyber disruptive fires. There is a rediscovery of code words on unsecured lines reminding us of our Cold War days, when we used PRC-77 FM radios with no encrypting devices. These are just a few of the adaptations that have been made under fire and in contact—and, crucially, accepted swiftly. Our concepts for experimentation must empower such innovation. We must bear in mind that concepts and doctrine are not dogma and must serve as a basis for agile thinking. We must also remember that what works in Ukraine might not work against the People’s Liberation Army or in some future contingency not currently anticipated. When AirLand Battle was a concept no one anticipated its first use would be in Panama and Iraq. The same uncertainty will exist in the future, and concept development must account for it.

Concepts and experimentation must lead to a more comprehensive view of combined arms with no branch or service bias, insofar as we are able. Our Army must have concepts to empower a shift in culture and true experimentation, not simply the next doctrine. We are observing the self-destruction of the Russian armed forces. This situation means the Russians are no longer a pacing threat. That leaves China, against whom the Army has struggled to articulate its value. The next concept must focus on the operational problems posed by the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific theater. In doing so, we have to make the case for how we contribute to the defense of the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan, Guam, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and other allies and partners.

This strategic environment and threat present challenges that simple updates of existing doctrine cannot overcome. We must not just think differently but design the force differently across the DOTMILPF spectrum. For example, we may have to be willing to trade infantry battalions for the things we really need (logistics; fires; air, missile, and unmanned systems defense; engineers; or cyber) and restructure combined arms battalions to truly operate effectively in multiple domains from the physical world to cyberspace. The concept after next must establish the intellectual conditions for these considerations.

The Operating Concept for 2050 and Beyond

Our future operations concepts must expand the vision of combined arms at the tactical and operational levels of warfare. The concept must also build on the utility of our current organizations. Traditional landpower echelons—field and theater armies, corps, divisions, and brigades—should be reimagined and empowered by our operating concept. At the same time, it should envision the breadth of their focus and reach on the battlefields of the late twenty-first century. The operating concept must propose a path toward addressing the question: How will Army units conduct maneuver under conditions of continuous observation connected to lethal fires during defensive and offensive operations?

Combined arms has grown beyond the tank-infantry-artillery-engineer team. Combined arms warfare is a proven approach to multi-domain and hybrid operations. In the twenty-first century, it encompasses extended reach of reconnaissance through drones, extended reach of fires through loitering munitions, and extended protection from lethal enemy fires and cyber disruption. Twenty-first-century combined arms operations require assured command and control through a variety of means that capitalize on systems that are available, secure or unsecured, and adaptable lines of communication over which resupply is conducted and protected, just like forward combat units. Indeed, the notion of front and rear may no longer be useful when conducting operations over distance and on a nonlinear battlefield.

Combined arms will mean direct and indirect fire, coupled with maneuver, cyber, space, electromagnetic warfare, AI-enabled machine learning, and information operations to project the shock of operations to the enemy’s population and political leaders. The shared common operating picture of 2050 will establish a strike zone. This zone will permit enemy targets to be detected, assessed, assigned the correct munition and delivery system, and then hit accurately. Our vehicles and even our soldiers will be nodes on the information network, giving a high degree of resilience to the expanded command-and-control architecture.

The concept must empower practitioners and industry to think through the challenges of fighting at distance. This is more than simply long-range artillery and missile strikes. Fighting at distance is directing fires, maneuver, cyber, and information throughout the depth and breadth of the zone of action, from operational and even strategic depth. Fighting at distance also ensures that successes, and occasional failures, are all tied to achieving the military conditions for attaining policy objectives.

Moreover, by 2050 every campaign will be a global campaign. Such a global campaign will be conducted under continuous surveillance. Accepting this as a fact of warfare in 2050 means Army units must have the ability to mask their movements, in all spectrums. As retired Colonel John Antal describes it, masking is the full-spectrum, multi-domain effort to deceive enemy sensors and disrupt enemy targeting. Masking is essential to survive and win in the modern battlespace and should be either a tenet of multi-domain operations fusion or, possibly, a principle of war for the twenty-first century. Masking protects Army units from the enemy’s striking power.

The concept must also clearly articulate the underlying assumptions contained in the document. Assumptions must not be statements that wish away challenges. They are made in place of facts to be able to continue planning and concept development. The following assumptions should be included in concept development, the second of which is also a forcing function telling other services and commands the Army is reliant upon them to get the Army to the war.

  1. The US Army will have limited forward-based combat forces in any region; the bulk of the Army will be based in the continental United States.
  2. The US Navy, the US Air Force, US Transportation Command, US Space Command, and US Cyber Command will have the capacity and capability to project and protect landpower through contested sea and air lines of communication.
  3. Advances in communications and cyber sciences will allow for secure means of command and control, while some voice and data communications will be disrupted by enemy efforts.
  4. The democratization of the means of warfare will continue.
  5. AI and robotics will continue to evolve in function and utility.
  6. The utility of force as an extension of policy will remain relevant; lower tactical echelons will still rely on fire and maneuver.
  7. The recommendations of the Munitions Industrial Base Deep Dive are in place.

The degree to which Ukrainian forces have relied on and adapted apps for things like targeting is noteworthy. By 2050, and possibly earlier, there could be apps for a much wider range of tasks and functions—overall fire control from observer to battery, logistical planning, pattern analysis, and more. We have to embrace such possibilities by overcoming our bias against change and risk. Thus far, we are constrained in our use of apps, and in fact most of the capabilities derived from the internet and AI, by the security fears that continually drive us to higher and higher levels of classification and hardwired secure lines. We must reimagine what is allowable and necessary in the Information Age.

We know the conditions under which we conduct warfare are changing every day. Our concept after next must explore the utility of levels of command and reimagine corps, division, and brigade commanders and staffs. For example, in World War II, corps were commanded by major generals and were tactical headquarters rather than formations. We must consider a redistribution of functions and responsibilities, as well as capacity, at these echelons of command. This leads naturally to questions like what mix of education and experience ensures that those commanders and staffs in the future will be best suited for the conditions of warfare we anticipate.

Our current system of staff designation dates back to the reorganization begun by Secretary of War Elihu Root at the beginning of the twentieth century, along with the refinement of the American Expeditionary Force staffs directed by General John J. Pershing prior to entering battle in France in 1917. Our staff system—G-1, G-2, G-3, and so on—is likely at the end of its useful life. For example, during a recent (December 2022) exercise at Fort Leavenworth, which we participated in, a staff section called the multi-domain operations center was proposed for a theater army. When asked why the G-3 current and future operations section could not perform this task the answer was these two existing sections were “too busy” with existing duties and did not have the required skills to consider coordinating multi-domain operations.

In examining the process of developing an operating concept for 2050, our ultimate goal is a return to doctrine as a guide, not dogma or field service regulation, bearing in mind both Holder’s guidance that doctrine tells us how to fight, right now, with what is in the motor pool, and Howard’s comment that our doctrine should first and foremost aim to not be too badly wrong. Thus, the 2050 operating concept must empower adaptability in the face of unanticipated conditions of warfare. It must open our minds.

The next operating concept must also account for potential factors derived from an emerging strategic environment that will introduce challenges of conducting operations in a specified period of time. The expected or anticipated conditions are not assumptions, but rather extensions of what is extant now and the expectation that what is available now will only be even more sophisticated in the future. The conditions that an operating concept must account for are wide-ranging, but three warrant specific mention here: the constant battle over information and the narrative, the challenge of getting to the fight, and the integration of technology while conforming to law and moral principles.

First, information has always played a role during the conduct of war. The ever-increasing speed of information transfer and the power of social media will therefore be a factor to consider in the future operating concept. The recent swift collapse of Silicon Valley Bank offers a cautionary tale. The run on the bank and the speed at which electronic banking made it possible for account holders to withdraw billions with a few keystrokes and the click of a button nearly caused another enormous banking collapse—all triggered by the wildfire-like spread of news about the bank’s vulnerability. Given unrestricted warfare and economic warfare, how we confront the battle over information, especially mis- and disinformation, will be vital.

Second, the Army of 2050 will most likely have to go to the war. Accepting that the homeland will also become a part of the extended battlefield, the operations concept must stimulate how our Army will contend with network disruptions when moving from fort to port. It must contend as well with cyberattacks on family support group blogs and even individual soldier and family bank accounts. The requirements supporting going to the war will include sustaining the support of the American people to prevent disruption as the Army mobilizes and moves to the war.

Finally, from a technological standpoint, the widespread use of drones, cyber tools, robotics, and AI—the growth of which will always outpace what we have on hand—demands the concept foster the intellectual agility needed to incorporate off-the-shelf technology into our fighting formations. The anticipated extent of man-machine interface and even autonomous systems must be balanced by the requirement to adhere to the laws of land warfare. It must also balance the even more important obligation to live up to the moral principles underpinning why our republic exists. Units losing their grip on morality are not professional fighting forces—they become berserkers and barbarians. The 2050 concept must reinforce the honorable standards by which Americans fight.

Ultimately, the specific technologies that will emerge between now and 2050 we cannot know. We do know, however, that many of the generals commanding this force of 2050 will be commissioned as second lieutenants in June 2023. Those junior officers will be entering an Army with clear current doctrine, but they should also be entering an Army prepared to develop concepts looking out to the middle of the century. The concept for 2050 must empower the embrace of emerging capabilities and the tactics, techniques, and procedures that employ those capabilities. Additionally, while the operating concept is tactical in nature, it also must establish conditions for thinking about the operational and strategic levels of warfare. It must ensure practitioners think about the conduct of warfare and the waging of war. Indeed, our future-focused operating concepts must, in the words of the 2022 National Security Strategy, empower all levels of command “to innovate and creatively design solutions as battlefield conditions evolve.”

Kevin Benson, PhD, is a retired US Army colonel who commanded from company to battalion level and served as a general staff officer from corps to field army. He was the CFLCC J5 (Plans) at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies.

James K. Greer, PhD, is a retired US Army colonel and former armor officer who commanded through the brigade level. He is currently an associate professor at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies, where he previously served as director. He holds a doctorate in education with a focus on military leader development.

*Email from retired Colonel Dave Johnson, PhD, September 14, 2022, to the Army Strategy Loop. Used with permission. Dave died in November 2022. Our Army and republic lost a great man who made superb contributions to our defense, quite literally until just before he died. May he rest in peace. He did his duty.

Image credit: Spc. Christopher Wilkins, US Army (adapted by MWI)