Monday, November 28, 2011

Army Seeks Answers, Combs Through 'Alternative Futures'

Escalating cyber threats, a struggling economy, the rise of China, and the unpredictable impact of the Arab Spring will dominate the next decade. At least, that's the best collective guess of a conclave of academic experts, government officials, and military officers from the U.S. and abroad, convened by the United States Army. Their objective: This March the service plans to revise its Capstone Concept, issued in 2009, to outline the Army's missions for the post-Afghanistan, post-budget-cut era. The road to that rethinking is a series of conferences and wargames called Unified Quest 2012, which kicked off at the end of October with a symposium to predict the future.

Instead of seeking – or simply imposing – a consensus around a single, supposedly authoritative vision of the world to come, the Army deliberately solicited a range of plausible "alternative futures." "We're not going to get 2020 right," said Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, deputy commander for "futures" at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which convened the conference. But, Walker went on, "if we don't consider all the possibilities of what we might have to do for the nation and try as hard as we can to get as many diverse views as we can, then we're guaranteeing we'll get it wrong."

There were certainly some sharp differences about what the Army should prioritize. At the final session of the "futues" conference, as excitement about cyber-war rose among the assembled experts, counterinsurgency crusader John Nagl spoke up sharply. "I want to push back pretty hard against this cyber [emphasis], not because I don't think it's an emerging field of conflict – it is – but I don't think it's the Army's primary responsibility," said Nagl, an Iraq veteran and retired officer who now co-chairs the Center for a New American Security. "The Army's going to be judged [by] how well Afghanistan turns out, and in the near future I think we should be thinking about... building partner capacity" – military jargon for advise-and-assist missions like those planned for Afghanistan after U.S. combat forces withdraw. Another attendee countered that given the spread of hacking technology, even counterinsurgency conflicts will have a cyber aspect in the future. "I don't disagree with that," replied Nagl, "but the Taliban isn't going to beat us with cyber."