Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Force Planning Considerations for the Force of the Future
Force Planning Considerations for the Force of the Future

Force Planning Considerations for the Force of the Future


Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter


Congress and the Pentagon are pursuing a number of initiatives that should significantly reshape tomorrow’s force.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter has advanced a “Force of the Future” project with a series of proposals that focus on personnel system reforms and better talent management practices.[1]  Somewhat related is the Department’s professed pursuit of an Offset Strategy that seeks to develop advanced technologies in order to establish the sort of monopoly in critical future war-fighting domains we obtained in the 1980s with precision attack and stealth technologies.[2]  The Congress, led by Sen. John McCain at the Senate Armed Services Committee, is pursuing more sweeping changes in personnel compensation, acquisition practices, general officer reductions, and civilian overhead cuts to generate more agility and innovation from the Pentagon.[3]  Not all of these initiatives are coherently linked to existing problems or anticipated shortfalls, but there is merit in seeking greater efficiency and in regaining lost competencies after fifteen years of continuous engagement in protracted stability operations.  Hopefully, from the various threads of this reform movement, a coherent and sustained approach that better postures U.S. forces for future wars will emerge.[4]

Little of the effort to date has touched on the key considerations and critical trends that impact the design of future combat forces.[5]  To advance the discussion, this short E-Note raises six major considerations that might offer the Pentagon’s planning community some insights into translating strategy aims into the character and capacity of tomorrow’s fighting force.

Accept Uncertainty as an Enduring Reality

Historians have noted that our ability to predict the time, place, and character of wars has been “uniformly dismal.”[6]  Mr. Gates made the same point when he was Secretary of Defense.  This consideration has to be central to force planning and dealing with risk.  When one thinks of general considerations about force planning, one cannot escape the conclusions of Colin Gray:

We will certainly be surprised in the future, so it is our task now to try to plan against the effects of some deeply unsettling surprises. The key to victory here is not the expensive creation of new conceptual, methodological, or electro-mechanical tools of prediction. Rather it is to pursue defense and security planning on the principles of minimum regrets and considerable flexibility and adaptability.[7]

Minimizing regrets is not achieved with better computer-aided powers of prediction, or by maximizing investments in a narrow or specific war-fighting area.  As we cannot predict the future with consistent accuracy, we should not be tempted to believe that there is some wonderful methodology that enables American planners to gaze deep into the 21st century with precision.

Instead, as Professor Gray noted, “Expect to be surprised. To win as a defense planner is not to avoid surprise.  To win is to have planned in such a manner that the effects of surprise do not inflict lethal damage.”[8]  Surely, tradeoffs and resource constraints are crucial to the exercise of strategy as a pragmatic tool, but so is the recognition of uncertainty.

Anticipate Hard and Protracted Wars

Avoiding “lethal damage” by surprise also involves assessment of the character of future warsThere are more indirect methods as suggested by the discussion about Gray Zone conflicts, and there are rising powers capable of more direct forms of sustained attrition.  As noted by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin E. Dempsey, in his Quadrennial Defense Review risk assessment two years ago, we need to prepare for more difficult conventional fights.[9]  The Chairman reinforced that assessment of risk in the National Military Strategy, warning that, “We are more likely to face prolonged campaigns than conflicts that are resolved quickly…. [T]hat control of escalation is becoming more difficult and more important.”[10]  We have not taken this into consideration with respect to land power.  As the Army for the Future report concluded, the Pentagon’s planning guidance does not provide for an Army “sized nor shaped for conducting any kind of large-scale, long duration mission at acceptable risk.”[11]  This conclusion has been confirmed by other think tanks.[12]

Conventional deterrence remains a strategic priority but is strained by the rank of rising powers or revisionist states bent on seizing regional hegemony. Deterring rising competitors will be more difficult as they acquire more advanced capabilities.  There is more to deterring a major state like China than buying a lot of robots or costly 5th generation aircraft.[13]  Our potential adversaries know our vulnerabilities, they are adaptive, and they will construct combinations that will outmatch some of our own niche capabilities.[14]

Stop Mirror-Imaging

While many states might want to emulate some of our critical military systems, just as many will seek unique solutions to their security dilemmas that feature their own culture and context.  We should not assume that all opponents will fight us in our preferred conventional paradigm.  Future threats will be increasingly using unique hybrid options to converge modes of war. The convergence of conflict modes is far deeper than the recently rediscovered nexus of criminal and terrorist organizations. One of the Joint community’s leading analysts on future operating environments, Jeff Becker, has projected a future with protean adversaries and novel combinations of threats from numerous kinds of opponents. Adversaries, unable to confront superior capabilities within service domains, are experimenting with combinations of overlapping capabilities that can cut across seams or boundaries between services, or avoid them altogether.

We must anticipate more experienced opponents capable of smart swarming and focused attacks on our critical systems and vulnerabilities.  As my colleague Dr. T.X. Hammes has persuasively argued, the future should be replete with adversaries who employ the smart, small and cheap solutions.[15]  Our tactical and operational superiority cannot be presumed.  Tomorrow’s IEDs will not be primitive; the “I” will come to stand for “intelligent,” not “improvised.” In short, we can expect a steadily diminishing technological degree of dominance and constant challenges.  We need to be able to quickly recognize adversary methods, and be prepared to adapt both equipment and tactics on the fly.  Rapid adaptation is not our strong suit, but it will increasingly need to become a core competency.

Buy Some Insurance and Pay the Premium

A force design that places a premium on utility in multiple scenarios is a smart call and should be stressed.  Versatility is based on a breadth of competencies, versus a collection of specialized organizations or players.  It is very difficult for general purpose forces to achieve full spectrum coverage, but having forces prepared for high-intensity combat is the critical task. Some specialized units ready on day one for unique circumstances may also be required. Versatility is dependent upon adequate resources, the time to absorb a wide array of scenarios, and investments in education and flexible doctrine so that leaders are mentally prepared to apply best practices for the scenarios they are expected to be prepared for, and have the requisite critical thinking skills to react to new contexts. Agility is a measure of how easily and how fast an organization can shift between competencies and execute them equally well.[16]  In the past, we measured agility across the conflict spectrum in increments of months. We (and our allies) cannot afford the luxury of months anymore.

A survey of the world’s trouble spots suggests that land warfare has more of a future than many now seem to believe.  Given that we cannot predict the place or nature of future military engagement, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has noted, “we must place a premium on acquiring equipment and providing training that give our forces the most versatile possible capabilities across the broadest possible spectrum of conflict.”[17]  Thus, versatility is not merely desirable, but essential, when enemies are either vague or proliferating, when the time and place of the contest is uncertain, and when technologies are in dynamic flux.  We should ensure that we reestablish and then sustain the core competencies and capacity for high-intensity combined arms warfare.  They are the essential foundation for generating versatility.

Pluralism, Balance, and Generating Dilemmas

One of the principal elements of a sound joint force design is a balanced force capable of generating options for decision makers in many contexts, and at the operational level of being able to generate dilemmas for our opponents.[18]  We may no longer have the overall size of the force we need to execute our national strategy at low risk, but we should be able to preserve a high quality and balanced force as our hedge against uncertainty.[19]

Technology cannot significantly offset the need for balanced joint forces, nor can it guarantee short wars.[20]  Our forces have to cover a wide range of missions and forms of terrain, and they have to be rugged and reliable, instead of exquisite and expensive.  Of late, we have been succumbing, almost sub-consciously, to buying fewer and fewer numbers of more expensive platforms.[21]  The end result is a kind of self-defeating approach in which we generate a smaller force structure unable to sustain desired forward presence tasks, and impose more costs on ourselves than our adversary.

Certainly, advanced forms of technology can benefit U.S. military performance in all domains, enhancing command and control, intelligence, undersea warfare, missile defense, etc.  Over the last generation, America’s prowess in precision strike operations has been materially improved.  But rarely have we applied the same level of investment towards enhancing our land power forces.[22]

This is not to suggest that we eschew strategic or operational breakthroughs. We should explore innovation in all forms in a dedicated effort to arrest the erosion of our military edge.[23] It just means that we need to pursue more than one domain in our set of options in order to ensure that we do not place all our chips on one large bet for advantage, and find ourselves in a strategic or operational cul de sac. We should seek to invest to ensure the Force of the Future is as dominant on the ground as our air and sea services currently are in their respective domains.[24]

Overall, a premium should be placed on forces that can do more than one thing.  Therefore, providing flexibility across all domains should be foremost among the decision criteria we apply to our future military.[25]  U.S. force planning should hedge by providing general capabilities and organizational agility that allow         for both strategic and operational adaptations to unanticipated developments.

Think Total Force

The United States should maximize the use of the Reserves wherever feasible and suitable.[26]  An increased reliance on the National Guard is not without additional costs and higher risks since the Reserve Component is not maintained at the necessary level of combat readiness.  Given the time required to bring the reserve assets up to combat standards (large-scale combined arms maneuver in particular), there are limitations as to what can be expected, but that does not mean we should accept the status quo, especially if we really need the Reserves to be more operational.  Assessments of how much risk we incur by counting on the National Guard should be made, with an eye to defining required response timelines and for considering Guard readiness investments to meet these timelines.[27]  Increased utilization of hybrid units (comprised of higher levels of full-time personnel), greater access to advanced training facilities and simulators, and additional paid drill time may be needed.[28]


Given the range of adversaries that we face, the United States cannot gamble its future security entirely on a single dimension or domain of warfare.  Our opponents have a say in the character, frequency, and ferocity of tomorrow’s wars.[29]  Future policymakers should not be simplifying potential opponents’ strategic calculus and allowing them to dedicate their preparations for fighting U.S. armed forces with only a singular approach or contested domain.  As the Pentagon’s senior leadership has stressed, we cannot invest in silver bullets.[30]  This is why strategic balance and operational breadth are so valuable.[31]  The foregoing considerations offer insights to guide the development of a winning Force of the Future.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the policy or position of the Defense of Defense.

[1] Ash Carter, Remarks on “The Next Two Links to the Force of the Future” As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, The Pentagon Courtyard, Washington, D.C., June 09, 2016.  Accessed at

[2] Robert O. Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech at the Reagan Defense Forum: “The Third Offset Strategy,” As Delivered, Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA, Nov. 07, 2015.  Accessed at

[3] See the SASC committee press release at

[4] For ideas on this, see the ideas of Shawn Brimley and Loren DeJunge Schulman, “Sustaining the Third Offset in the Next Administration,” War on the Rocks, March 15, 2016. 

[5] F. G. Hoffman and Patrick Garrett, “The Great Revamp, 11 Trends in Future Conflict,” War on the Rocks, October 8, 2014, accessed at

[6] Charles Heller and William Stofft, America’s First Battles, 1776–1965 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1986), xii. 

[7] Colin S. Gray, “The 21st Century Security Environment and the Future of War,” Parameters (Winter 2008/2009), 14–24.

[8] Ibid., 16. 

[9] See the Chairman, JCS risk assessment statement appended to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, 60–65.

[10] Martin E. Dempsey, The National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2015 (Washington DC, June 2015), i.

[11] National Commission on the Future of the Army, The Army for the Future (Arlington, VA: NCFA, 2016), 52. 

[12] Timothy M. Bonds, Michael Johnson, Paul S. Steinberg, Limiting Regret: Building the Army We Will Need (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2015).

[13] Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., “How to Deter China,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015).

[14] David E. Johnson, “The Challenges of the “Now” and Their Implications for the U.S. Army,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2016), 10.

[15] T. X. Hammes, “Cheap Technology Will Challenge U.S. Tactical Dominance,” Joint Force Quarterly, 81 (2nd Quarter, April 2016), 76–85.

[16] Australian Army, Complex Warfighting, Future Land Operations Concept (Canberra: Australian Army, 2004).  

[17] Robert M. Gates, statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, October 21, 2015, 7.

[18] Nathan Freier, “Defining and Operationalizing Balance in Defense Strategy,” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009).

[19] Mackubin Thomas Owens, “A Balanced Force Structure to Achieve a Liberal World Order,” Orbis, (Spring 2006), 307–325.

[20] F. G. Hoffman, “What the QDR should say about Landpower” Parameters, Vol. 43, no. 4 (Winter 2013/2014), 7–14.

[21] Hammes, “Cheap Technology Will Challenge U.S. Tactical Dominance,” 76–85.

[22] Rhys McCormick, “The Army Modernization Challenge: A Historical Perspective,” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2016).

[23] Shawn Brimley, While We Can: Arresting the Erosion of America’s Military Edge (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, December 2015).

[24] For ideas, see Paul Scharre, Uncertain Ground: Emerging Challenges in Land Warfare (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, December 10, 2015).

[25] David Deptula, “Revisiting the Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces,” testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, November 5, 2015, 2.  See also Stephen D. Krasner & Amy B. Zegart, “Pragmatic Engagement,” The American Interest (July/August 2016), 27.

[26] Arnold Punaro, The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves (Washington, DC: Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, January 31, 2008).

[27] Hoffman, “What the QDR Should Say about Landpower,” 13.  See also National Commission on the Force Structure of the Army, Report on the Role of the Army (Washington, DC, January 28, 2015).  For further analysis see Joshua Klimas et al, Assessing the Army’s Active-Reserve Component Force Mix (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2014).

[28] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Beyond the Army Commission: Unifying the Army’s Components,” War on the Rocks, February 9, 2016.

[29] LTGEN H. R. McMaster, U.S. Army, “Continuity and Change, The Army Operating Concept and Clear Thinking about Future War,” Military Review (March-April 2015), 6–14.

[30]  Robert O. Work, “The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners and Allies,” As Delivered, Willard Hotel, Washington, DC, January 28, 2015.  Available at

[31] See Mackubin T. Owens on strategic pluralism in US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower,  Derek S. Reveron, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and Mackubin T. Owens, eds., (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2016), 55.