Keep Eyes Wide Open to Defeat Future Threats

By Brig. Gen. Paul ”Greg” Smith, U.S. Army Retired

On Jan. 11, a swarm of cheap drones armed with explosives descended on a Russian military base in Syria.  Most of the drones were destroyed by conventional anti-aircraft weapons, but the drone swarm assault was shocking.  Although the Syrian rebel attack did no cause widespread destruction, the potential for devastation and mass casualties is easily imagined because the Russians had no coordinated defense against a large number of armed drones.

With better planning and coordination, swarms of drones – little more than children’s toys – could become a deadly weapon of choice against conventional forces.

This incident raises the question: What threats are U.S. Army warriors likely to encounter in future ground combat operations?

In order to answer this, we must consider future opponents.  The 2019 National Defense Strategy indicates that the U.S. anticipates a future threat comprised of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, with the addition of transitional terrorism.  In my opinion, we are unlikely to engage in head-to-head ground combat with any of these nations.  Rather, it is more likely our forces will clash with their proxies or ”volunteers” in combat operations in contested areas like Syria or Ukraine, or in failed states like Libya or Somalia.  As we have learned, terrorists may strike anywhere.

Predicting the future of land warfare is beyond my pay grade, but the following trends are worthy of consideration as we equip and train for future ground combat.

Unconventional Warfare

Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov published an article in 2013 in which he articulated a far-reaching strategy of unconventional warfare. Gerasimov’s theory was that the Russian military should exploit available opportunities to confuse opponents and create chaos.  Tactics included computer hacking, media deception, economic instability, social media tampering and political manipulation. Does this look familiar?

Ground forces engaged in combat operations against Russian-backed forces are likely to encounter disinformation, deception and sudden breakdowns in computer-supported communications, navigation and target acquisition systems.  So how do we best prepare to counter the ”Gerasimov Doctrine”?

As a retired Army officer, I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but the Marines have the right idea on this.  As of this year, Marines are required to pass an annual basic skills test that consists of task like map-reading, first aid, field radio operation and other ”legacy” skills.  The Army needs to develop a similar requirement.

Our young warriors must be able to shoot, move, communicate and defeat our enemies with or without our highly sophisticated, but highly vulnerable, technology. We also need to plan for redundant technology to support communication, navigation and target acquisition functions, even if that means pre-positioning stocks of field radios, compasses and paper maps.  We learned this the hard way during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, when the cellphone grid became overwhelmed and our command-and-control capability was seriously degraded.

An Increasingly Dirty World

Nations that pose a future threat either have, or shortly will have, strategic nuclear capability.  It is likely these nations also have a tactical nuclear capability that can be delivered by armor, artillery or aircraft.  We also know that chemical weapons have been employed against civilians in Syria.  If Bashar al-Assad is willing to attack his own people with chemical weapons, is there any doubt that he would order their use against opposing forces? The only question is, to what degree will ”dirty weapons” be employed by our opponents or their proxies?

I remember my days as a young soldier carrying out operations in Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear and a protective mask.  Yes, it was miserable, sweaty and probably unhealthy, but we learned to fight while protecting ourselves from chemical and nuclear threats.  Perhaps it’s time for today’s warrior to incorporate chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protective measures into tactical training again.  Survival on tomorrow’s battlefield may depend on it.

According to the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization, more than half our casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom were due to cheap roadside bombs made from materials that were available locally.  This reality is surely being noted by our enemies, and it is almost certain that future terrorists and insurgents will use IEDs against our ground forces.

As noted preciously, the use of inexpensive drones as aerial explosive delivery devices is now rearing its ugly head. We can anticipate that as these devices become more available and affordable, their use as weapons will increase.  The appearance of small drones on the battlefield as insurgent weapons will come as no surprise, but their deployment in swarms or waves could be lethal as they overwhelm conventional air defenses.  We would be attempting to swat flies with hammers.

We know that most IEDs and drones depend on electronic control for direction and detonation. We must employ tactical-level devices designed to jam electronic control of explosives and drones when contact is likely.  We also need to continue to develop effective small-unit tactics to detect and bypass IEDs as well as defensive strategies to protect against drone strikes.

If our enemies choose to wage war with proxy forces, as I believe is mot likely, they will certainly be comprised of non-uniformed fighters who strike quickly and then fade away into the civilian population.  Effectively defeating insurgent forces requires the support and cooperation of the civilian population.

COIN Never Loses Value

Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Col. Conrad Crane did some brilliant work in developing FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency in 2006.  Leaders at all levels would do well to read, understand and implement the philosophy and tactics contained within this manual, which has withstood the test of time.

The Army’s civil affairs capability is one of our most effective weapons in battling insurgent forces.  Civil affairs soldiers are trained and skilled in establishing positive relationships with civilian populations and gaining their trust.  This paves the way for intelligence professionals to gather valuable human intelligence and special operations forces to eventually disrupt and destroy insurgents.

Most civil affairs units are located in Army Reserve, which inevitably delays deployment. Although Army Reserve civil affairs soldiers are skilled and ready, it takes time for them to separate from their civilian lives and transition to their military duties.  The Army would do well to expand the number of civil affairs units, and to position a larger share of these forces in the active component.

Robots at War

We use robots on the battlefield for intelligence-gathering, threat detection and explosive disarmament. They have saved numerous lives by taking on particularly hazardous tasks.

Disturbing reports, however, have been coming out of Russia regarding the development of unmanned combat vehicles. The Soratnik series of vehicles are being tested under combat conditions in Syria.

Russian proxies are likely to employ these vehicles in future warfare because Russian developers will be eager to field-test unmanned vehicles in combat.  The Soratniks can be defeated using current anti-armor weapons and tactics, but there may be an opportunity to neutralize them by disabling their remote command systems.  Regardless of our approach, we need to develop effective tactics to defeat unmanned combat vehicles because we will encounter them on the battlefield, and they may be there in large numbers.

The creation of the U.S. Army Cyber Command was a giant step in the right direction.  Because much of the command’s activities are classified, we’re not aware of the many effective initiatives that are underway.

Boost Cyber Command

However, we do know our enemies probe our vulnerabilities on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I would argue that 19,000 personnel in Cyber Command are not enough to maintain the impenetrable cybersecurity shield that must protect our military operations, government systems, energy infrastructure and financial data.  We must also develop offensive cyber strike capability to cripple our adversaries’ networks and infrastructure.  Although the picture of hackers in uniform might be distasteful, two can play at Gerasimov’s game.

We must not only keep pace with our enemies in cyberwarfare, we must achieve cyber supremacy – just as air supremacy is our goal in the skies.  In much the same way that ground forces call for close air support, land commanders should be able to call for ”close cyber support” for electronic signal detection, jamming protection and tactical interdiction of enemy cyber capabilities.

Perhaps it’s high time to consider more in-depth partnerships with our leading universities and high-technology corporations that employ the world’s most sophisticated computer scientists. Maybe it’s also time to consider enlisting soldiers with unique skills who might not meet medical or overseas deployment standards. A wheelchair-bound computer science genius might be a better cyber warrior than an Airborne Ranger with a 300 score on the physical fitness test.

Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said, ”Those who are victorious plan effectively and change decisively.”  Too often in American Military history, we have been caught flat-footed at the outset of hostilities because we have focused on planning to fight the last war.  Although there are few predictions that are certain as we attempt to foresee the future of ground warfare, I know of thing for sure – the next ground war will present weapons, tactics and challenges we’ve never seen.  The time to anticipate and prepare for the next war is now.


Brig. Gen. Paul ”Greg” Smith, USA Ret., is the former land component commander of the Massachusetts National Guard.  He also served as dual status commander during Superstorm Sandy and joint task force commander during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings response. He is a 2005 graduate of the U.S. Army War College, where he continues to serve as visiting instructor.  He is also a counterterrorism instructor at Nichols College, Mass.


Army Magazine – Vol. 68, Nº 7- July 2018.


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