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Future War/Future Battlespace: The Strategic Role of American Landpower

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz, LTC Raymond A. Millen. | March 2003

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Although the events of September 11th signified the end of the short-lived post-Cold War era, they did not necessarily render obsolete U.S. inter-agency, future war analysis and planning. Rather, future war concepts require adaptation to the strategic environment. In order to link Army Transformation to security environment trends with specific focus on the ?Objective Force? timeframe, this report?s conceptual framework assesses the nature of the emerging security environment, the modes of future armed conflict, the Objective Force characteristic requirements to remain strategically decisive, an Objective Force conceptualization for the emerging security environment, and the enduring relevance of the U.S. Army.

Two conclusions emerge from this report: first, the marked decline of large-scale state-on-state warfare and the rise of ambiguous, protracted, indecisive conflict in complex environments; second, because the collective international community will seek to harness American military hegemony, the United States should adopt a broad spectrum strategy based on partnership and shared risks for long-term national interests.

The future security environment will be characterized by minor conflicts due to the influence of the following interconnected trends: WMD proliferation, globalization (?Golden Straightjacket?), the glare of the information age, U.S. conventional military dominance, the positive and negative effects of rapid change on states, and the rapid diffusion of knowledge and technology.

Largely marginalized by the Cold War, smaller conflicts have assumed greater attention since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with the inevitable fall of rogue states like Iraq and North Korea, major conflicts will become extremely rare as a result of the aforementioned trends. WMDproliferation will constrain states from conventional war because of the increased risks and decreased benefits. To ensure the nuclear threshold is not crossed, states will engage in quick incursions with limited objectives. The increasing globalization of economies will restrain aggression because of the immediate, negative impact on an aggressor?s economy. The glare of the Information Age means that any use of force will gain instantaneous world attention and if aggression is involved, will result in the immediate severance of the aggressor?s external capital flows and markets. Few regimes can survive economic stagnation.

The sheer dominance of the U.S. conventional military will serve to deter most aggressors, and despite theoretical uses of asymmetric methods?anti-access strategies, terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction?to thwart U.S. intervention, aggressors will have to pause and weigh the associated risks. The continued period of decolonization will entail the struggle for resources and power, the opposition to globalization by failing states or non-state actors will result in a backlash against change, and the traditional competition for resources among poorer nations will continue unabated. Ordinarily, the machinations of non-state actors would be of small consequence, but for the greater availability of knowledge and technology. With greater access to WMD, funding and situational awareness, and unconstrained by norms, rules, and laws, non-state entities pose a serious threat to even the United States. Unlike traditional adversaries, these non-state entities seek victory by avoiding defeat. Protracted conflict, ethical, political, and legal ambiguity, and operating within population centers make them particularly virulent.

Three big strategic shifts demand a reshaping of American strategy. First, future adversaries will be much more savvy regarding U.S. capabilities and triggers for intervention. The era of the ?stupid? enemy is over. Second, precision operations are crucial to avoiding the unintended and second order of military effects. Victories whichnadvertently alienate, destabilize, or impoverish neighboring states or regions (those not directly involved in the conflict) will prove counterproductive and debilitating in the long term. Third, the armed forces will most likely be employed to restore and sustain stability rather than to defeat a discernible enemy. Internal conflicts will be more prevalent, which if left unchecked, could grow or become intolerable to the international community. Hence, the security concerns will focus on staunching a conflict early, which will be characterized as protracted, complex, and ambiguous.

The future battlefield/battlespace expands the concept of armed conflict by placing the operational aspects within a broader context to include political, economic, social, ecological, demographic, legal, normative, diplomatic, and technological. Adversaries will employ complexity, ambiguity, and asymmetry to prevent, deter, and complicate outside intervention, and should that fail, avoid rapid, decisive operations. Adversaries will use any device (information warfare, the UN legalist paradigm tendencies, provocation attacks, and human shields) to fetter U.S. military power.

The four distinct but interrelated dominant strategic battlespaces are direct interstate war, nonstate war, intrastate war, and indirect interstate war. Direct interstate war is the traditional and conventional, but is declining in frequency. Nonstate war involves criminal and terrorist actors that thrive among various host states (knowingly or unknowingly) and use information technology for funding, intelligence, and internal communication, command and control. The Al Qa?ida terrorist network is an example. Indirect interstate war entails aggression by a state through proxies. Serbia?s support of the Bosnian and Krajina Serbs is illustrative. Intrastate war involves a conflict between a state and a nonstate actor, such as an insurgents or separatists, or a conflict between two or more nonstate entities. Of the four strategic battlespaces, indirect interstate and intrastate wars will be the most prevalent.

U.S. landpower is vital to operations within the strategic battlespaces. The United States prefers to fight rapid, decisive operations, but must also be adept at protracted, complex, and asymmetric warfare. Without this robust, flexible landpower, the U.S. military would be like a medieval knight or a battleship?very proficient at a narrow range of military tasks.

The Army role in future war transcends traditional warfighting. Although it is integral to defeating an adversary as part of the Joint Force, it must also help consolidate success by providing security and support to partners, other government agencies, and nongovernment agencies in the aftermath. Furthermore, the Army must render stabilization for a challenged state or uncontrolled region. History instructs that success entails military victory followed by a committed peace.

The Objective Force supports the Army?s role in future war by providing strategic speed, full scale decisiveness, broad band precision, success in protracted, asymmetric, ambiguous, and complex conflicts, the ability to operate in a coalition, and rapid conceptual and organizational adaptation. As the Objective Force continues to mature, the Army must not lose sight of the need for adaptability and flexibility that modularity of the armed forces brings to the strategic battlespace. Transformation must continuously develop new operational and strategic concepts, educate soldiers and officers to implement them, and develop organizations and technologies to ensure they function.

To ensure dominance, Transformation must adopt two parallel tracks: one aimed at direct interstate war, and the other aimed at indirect interstate and intrastate war. Both tracks are naturally mutually supporting but require mutual cognizance to prevent tunnel vision.

The conceptual design of the Objective Force must permit maximum effectiveness in protracted, ambiguous, complex, and asymmetric conflicts. The three components of the Objective Force would be Strike Forces, Special Forces, and Support Forces. Together, they permit the Army to respond to the full spectrum of conflicts and crises with robust capabilities and without eviscerating standing units as occurs currently.

The Army serves a vital role to the Joint Team. It is the most versatile, permitting the United States to respond to every strategic battlespace without causing substantial unintended consequences and political fallout. In short, the Army will be extremely effective at the type of armed conflict that will dominate the global security environment in the coming decade as Transformation continues.


Many American strategists, military leaders, and politicians concluded that all previous thinking about the new security environment and future war became obsolete on September 11, 2001. No one could deny that the attacks were seminal events, driving the last nail into the coffin of the ?Post-Cold War? era. But it is important to avoid overreaction by placing the attacks into a broader historical context. The world was not created anew on September 11. All of the analysis and planning for future war that had been undertaken by the Army, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the other Services was not rendered archaic but needs adjustment and refinement.

To continue to serve the Nation?s interests, the Army?s capabilities, organizations, and operational concepts must reflect the realities of the global security system and the forms of armed conflict that will occur in it. This report is intended to provide a conceptual framework for linking Army Transformation and trends in the security environment. Concentrating on what might be called the ?Objective Force? time frame?the years 2015 and beyond? it will assess the nature of the emerging security environment, the modes of future armed conflict, the strategically decisive characteristics that the Objective Force will need, a broad structure for the Objective Force that reflects the emerging security environment, and the enduring strategic relevance of the U.S. Army.

The report will not, however, examine the full gamut of security challenges that the United States will face in coming decades. Important topics such as nuclear force posture, national missile defense, cyberwar, the role of theArmy in homeland defense, force sizing, and technology requirements must be left for later. The focus, instead, will be on the role of American landpower and the Army in armed conflict abroad. In the broadest sense, this report seeks to both make suggestions about the shape and capabilities of the Objective Force, and to explain why that force will play a vital strategic role in the emerging security environment.

Most of the analysis in this report is at the military strategic level. During the past 5 years several seminal futures studies have been conducted at the grand strategic level, seeking to understand the emerging global security environment. Recent examples include the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review and the reports of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century.1 At the same time the Army, particularly TRADOC, has undertaken extensive analysis and experimentation to understand the operational level of future war. This report will not replicate either of those efforts but will, instead, link operational concepts and capabilities with trends in the security environment.

The primary analytical tool will be strategic battlespaces. A strategic battlespace is a mode of war in which the operational and technological aspects of armed conflict are placed within their broader political, economic, social, ecological, demographic, legal, normative, diplomatic, and technological contexts. By using strategic battlespaces as a heuristic device, Objective Force requirements can be derived from discernible trends in the global security environment. In addition, this report will update the assessment of the global security environment in the Quadrennial Defense Review and the reports of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century to consider the effect that the September 11th attacks might have on American strategy and future armed conflict.

To do this, the report will answer to five key questions:

  1. What will be the shape and characteristics of the future international security environment?
  2. What will be the characteristics of the future battlefield/battlespace?
  3. What are the potential or probable roles and missions of the Army?
  4. How should the Objective Force contribute to the successful execution of those roles and missions?
  5. Why an Army?

The ultimate goal is to build a consensus within the Army on these questions, to use it to shape the Transformation process, and to explain the vital contribution of landpower and the Army to the wider strategic community.

Two broad conclusions lie at the heart of this report. First, a range of factors will make large-scale, state-on-state war rare or even obsolete. Put simply, the costs and risks of traditional, cross-border armed aggression will mount to the point that most states will not consider it. This trend is reinforced each time the United States trounces an opponent decisively. At the same time, ambiguous, protracted, nondecisive armed conflict in complex environments, often involving nonstate participants, is likely to become even more common and strategically significant now that an enemy tiny in size can generate massive effects. All of this suggests that the United States in general and the Army in particular should assure that Transformation leads to an Objective Force suitable for this type of warfare.

Second, as the memory of the Cold War continues to fade, a natural tendency of the international system will be to balance, contain, or counter American power, often using international law or diplomatic maneuvers. The way that the United States exercises its power will determine theextent and intensity of such attempts. A strategy based on partnership and shared risk rather than imposition of force from afar will maximize the degree to which other states accept America?s leadership. Landpower must be a central component of such a strategy.


1. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 200 1; New World Coming:American Security in the 21st Century, Washington, DC: United States Commission on National Security/21st Century, 1999. For an outstanding survey of the official, semiofficial, and unofficial studies of the future security environment and future war undertaken in the past decade, see Sam J. Tangredi, ?The Future Security Environment, 2001-2025: Toward a Consensus View,? in Michele A. Flournoy, ed., QDR 2001: Strategy-Driven Choices For America?s Security, Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2001.