Lingamfelter: Single Points of Failure

I worry about the state of our fighting forces today. In particular, I’m troubled about my Army, the service I love to this day. I can’t recall a time in my childhood where I didn’t aspire to be a soldier. When I entered the Army in May of 1973, it was recovering from the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. There was much malaise within the military. Morale was low. Drug use out of control. Discipline was a shambles. In response, the Army had transitioned from drafting soldiers to an All-Volunteer Army (VOLAR) force. In doing so, however, the standards for enlistment were lowered given the lack of enthusiasm to join the post-Vietnam Army.
There was much evidence that as a fighting force, the Army I entered in 1973 had multiple points of failure to address after the war in Southeast Asia. Indeed, under the Administration of President Jimmy Carter, the term “Hollow Army” emerged to characterize our state of readiness to fight, the lack of reliable equipment, insufficient repair parts, and the deficiencies of soldiers to effectively operate combat systems. But at the same time, as a young lieutenant I saw signs of hope. We tackled those points of failure through new training techniques, including tasks, conditions, and standards that focused our efforts at both the individual and collective levels. We “got back to the basics” in our training and by 1980, things began to improve.
Moreover, the Army’s leadership was very involved in developing a post-Vietnam war fighting doctrine that would dramatically change the mindset of how to engage our enemies in the future. This was particularly the case in Europe where our military forces had planned to implement a strategy we called “the active defense.” That envisioned “falling back” as we fought to attenuate the enemy’s assault until reinforcements could arrive in Europe to gain the offensive. Most of us saw this strategy as little more than a glorious death for those of us “falling back.” But after the Vietnam War the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), under the leadership of General William DePuy dove headfirst into the organization and structure of the Army to design a better battlefield doctrine to fight and win. That new doctrine was Air-Land Battle. It envisioned coordination among land forces maneuvering aggressively against the enemy, while air power would attack enemy’s rear-echelon forces supporting enemy frontline units. In essence, it was the synchronization of combat power at key points on the battlefield to defeat the enemy.
Today, we have a new generation of thinkers who are looking at our conventional warfighting doctrine in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And while the Army of today is not the “hollow” one of the post-Vietnam era, it’s in need of reform after many years of counter insurgency operations that diverted us from honing and improving our synchronization skills to fight conventionally in future conflicts as we did in the First Gulf War in 1991. That new doctrine addresses what is termed Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) warfare that seeks to counter and defeat a near-peer adversary capable of contesting the U.S. in all domains, including land, maritime, air, space and cyber. Sound familiar? It is.
MDO is Air-Land Battle 2.0 that now addresses technology and artificial intelligence (AI) advancements within a larger and more challenging spectrum of warfare. But I’m worried. With a greater reliance on technology and AI, we have created single points of failure that—if disrupted—will grind our warfighting ability to a halt. In particular, our reliance on GPS to guide “smart” munitions and provide location data to our troops on the ground is such a single point of failure. For example, gone are the manual survey teams and gyroscopic systems that provided artillery units with accurate location data. Now these are solely enabled by GPS. And when our satellites are disabled by enemy action, many of our combat systems will be incapable of operating while combat rages on.
The Army must be able to fight in a degraded mode when all the gee-whiz technology fails or is jammed. Therefore, as the Army renews itself with a new doctrine after the counter insurgency years—as it did after Vietnam—it must keep some things in mind.
First, with increased reliance on technology and AI in our combat systems comes the possibility our enemies will counter them with their own technology and AI. Second, when we design our fighting systems, they must have an inherent capability to also operate manually and with human intervention. Finally, as we shape a new doctrine and combat systems, we must avoid single points of failure that could occur early one morning shortly after being called to battle. “Smart” weapons need smart fighters who aren’t hampered by single points of failure. Let’s fix this.
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