November 30, 2011

The Future of Land Wars: Intense, High-Tech, Urban, Coastal

After the year 2020 ground wars will be more intense and concentrated in the world's crowded coastal cities. That's the consensus from a panel of experts including current and retired Army officers and professional analysts.

Over the past decade, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have adapted to the low-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by abandoning traditional heavy weaponry for lighter, more mobile systems -- and by adding billions of dollars in aerial-surveillance equipment. While perhaps suited to occupation duty, this gear might not last long against a determined, high-tech foe on a coastal, urban battlefield.

The experts differ on how U.S. ground forces should change. But they all agree that big changes are necessary if American forces expect to win the next ground war.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dave Barno, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security
The typical land battlefield of 2021 will be a complex, often urbanized environment where battles are often fought inside the dense urban sprawl that increasingly proliferates along the edges of the world's great cities. Generals will be loath to conduct large-scale operations in these very difficult environments, but the reality is that more and more of the world is trending in this direction. The ability to operate effectively in this space will be a sine qua non of most future military operations on land.

Littoral spaces guarding the free flow of vital natural resources deserve particular attention in the world of 2021. U.S. and allies' dependence on the unrestricted flow of global energy supplies makes the chokepoints through which that energy transits the new "strategic high ground." Army and Marine capabilities to project power into the littoral spaces which control nearby constricted waters (e.g., the Straits of Hormuz) will be increasingly important.

In the world of 2021, the prime threats arrayed against U.S. ground forces are less likely to be roadside bombs and suicide attackers than ever-improving conventional weaponry such as man-portable anti-tank missiles and small arms. These weapons remain abundant in many of the most likely contested areas around the world.

In this volatile, shifting mix of conventional and unconventional tactics and weaponry -- often called "hybrid wars" -- designing the right systems to equip U.S. ground forces is a monumental challenge. A balance must be struck between protection -- demands for which rapidly escalate in a static hostile environment -- and mobility. The right trade-off for an uncertain future may be highly mobile vehicles which offer substantial infantry protection from conventional weaponry, but not from massive roadside bombs.

In a future of complex urbanized combat, moving protected infantry around the battlefield and building the individual soldier into a highly capable fighting platform is the new material priority for ground-force development. Enabling small units to reliably leverage networked technology for access to fires, to employ unmanned and robotic adjuncts and operate mobile fighting systems will be a key sector for investment.

Ultimately, future ground war will be about small-unit leadership and the ability to conduct highly decentralized, often autonomous operations. It will require leveraging a networked command-and-control capability to rapidly access precision fires or to concentrate with other small units. Priority should be given to the ability to fight and communicate in an urbanized environment, with the highly enabled infantry squad as the new primary fighting unit.