Episode 58: General James McConville: Not Fighting the Last War Better


In co-operation with the Irregular Warfare Initiative of the Modern War Institute, Peter Roberts sat down for a conversation with Chief of Staff of the US Army General James C McConville, Laura Jones and Kyle Atwell on where and how the US Army is adapting to new challenges, why land forces are poorly funded between wars, and whether armies of more limited size can walk and chew gum (that is, fight the sub-threshold and prepare for high-intensity combat operations).

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  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, the weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall, and every week I'll talk to a guest around the Western way of warfare, national security and the Western approach to war. This week we're doing something a bit different, a joint episode with the Irregular Warfare Podcast team from the Modern War Institute at West Point. The team there arranged for me to have a conversation with the Chief of Staff of the US Army, General James C. McConville. So, the format is a bit different from what you might be used to, but I wanted to push this to you for two reasons. First, because of the guest, I mean, it's not easy getting (inaudible 00.57) of the head of the US Army. And second, because the team at MWI are so impressive and this episode might provide a gateway for you to their show. The moderators for this conversation are Laura Jones, a US Air Force CV-22 Osprey pilot just finishing an appointment in Japan and starting a PhD at Tufts University. And Kyle Atwell, a US Army Special Forces operator who's just completing his PhD at Princeton. Kyle is also the co-founder of the Irregular Warfare Initiative. These two are so impressive, they deserve a show each. Maybe we'll get to that at some point in the next few months, I really do hope so.

     

    But the main protagonist on this episode is James McConville, currently serving as the 40th Chief of Staff of the US Army. A native of Quincy, Massachusetts, He's a graduate of US Military Academy at West Point and holds a Master of Science in aerospace engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also a national security fellow at Harvard University. McConville's commanded at every level including a tour as the Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault, and has held multiple joint staff positions. Kyle and Laura did a magnificent job of moderating the discussion and cutting a 90-minute chat down to something manageable and digestible. So, let's dive straight in.

     

    Laura Jones: Today, we're here to talk about the role of land forces in great power competition. General McConville, you recently released a white paper on competition and another on multi-domain operations which addressed this question. Can you start by outlining the characteristics of competition that you see as most relevant to the army land forces today?

     

    James McConville: Well, we find ourselves in the United States Army at an inflection point. We spent the last twenty years in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria conducting what some would call irregular warfare type operations, counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism. And we find ourselves in a situation where we're facing, what some would describe as great power competition, but what we want to do, the characteristics of the competition that we see is that we must compete with competitors. And great power competition between China and Russia does not necessarily mean great power conflict, and quite frankly can't mean great power conflict, but the characteristics of the competition that we will participate in has a human dimension to it and that's where land forces come into it. The fact that we need to have positional advantage and that means the characteristics of having our forces with calibrated force posture in a place that we can provide reassurance to allies and we can also put ourselves in a position for deterrence of those who may wish us harm. We also need to have a capabilities advantage. So, we're developing six modernisation priorities that give us the ability to compete both below the level of armed conflict and above the level of armed conflict. And these include things like Long Range Precision Fires, Future Vertical Lift and some other capabilities that are going to give us the speed, the range, and we have a new concept we call convergence to bring this all together that's going to give us decision dominance, that'll give us over-match in this competition.

     

    Peter Roberts: I mean, I think it's fascinating that you talk about this inflection point. You talk to a lot of military leaders around the world at the moment, everyone's talking about this inflection point. Lots of them talk about it in terms of technology or capabilities as you touched on the end. But I have a feeling from something that you said earlier, right at the start of your answer there, you were talking about an inflection point in terms of ways of fighting but it feels to me like it's not just about the ways that you're thinking about engaging with adversaries but it's about the very ideas of the force itself. Have I got that wrong or is there something to that? Where do you see the inflection point? Is it this technology basis or is it in the ideas?

     

    James McConville: I think it's both. You know, we talk about, in one of the papers, we talk about these multi-domain operations and, you know, we have built our army basically from the 1980s. If you go back, you know, our concept for fighting was air, land, battle. Notice two domains. Air and land battle. And what we've done over the last, really, 40 years since I came into the army is we've incrementally improved those systems and we've really developed that air, land, battle concept that we've used in some of the more major conflicts that we've been involved in. But the future that we see is an environment where we're going to be tested in multi-domains, so, not only on the land which we've mostly been contested in and not only in the air where we probably been contested up to maybe 1,500 feet. We're going to be contested in the air. We're going to be contested on the sea. We're also going to be contested in cyber and space. And we're going to have to be able to operate in all these environments, you know, so we're standing up, first of all new concepts and new doctrine, we're bringing forward a combined joint all-domain command and control system, some people call it JADC2. We've actually added a C to it because we think we're going to operate with allies and partners and we think that's extremely important. We're also developing new organisations that are going to help us compete in this environment. A multi-domain taskforce. It really has two primary tasks.

     

    One is to provide long range precision effects and we talk about precision effects, we're talking about an intelligence capability, we're talking about an information operations capability, we're talking about a cyber capability, electronic warfare capability and space capability. All within this organisation that can operate below the level of conflict. But also we are developing Long Range Precision Fires. Hypersonic capability. A mid-range capability that'll have anti-ship capability and then a prison strike capability. So, we see in the future we won't be out-ranged and we won't be outgunned, and this is going to give us the capability to penetrate integrated air and missile defence capability. Many of our competitors have established what they call and we call Anti-Access Area Denial capability that will maybe prevent us from using the systems that we need to use. So, we are developing systems to help the joint force actually penetrate that capability. The other organisation we've developed with good effects is the Security Force Assistance Brigades and we've developed those of each of the combatant commanders and they work alongside with organisations like Special Forces who have always had the foreign internal defence capability. But what they are designed to do is work with conventional forces, develop their capabilities and capacities so each country can provide additional security and also be a much more capable partner. So, that is all going on inside the concepts that we're discussing.

     

    Laura Jones: So, I was listening to the AFSOC commander speak the other day and he got me thinking about the military being at this inflection point as you say. Prior inflection points and strategic shifts have come about after great loss or failure and we're coming into this one after twenty years of tactical battlefield successes. So, how do you think we transform from multi-domain operations in the army we need in the future after no motivating failure and an attached funding boost?

     

    James McConville: Well, that's the challenge for the Chief of Staff of the army, is, you know, we want to win the first battle. Historically, some of the things I've read is this history of the army coming out of wars, we always bring the army down, we don't spend a lot of money in the army, every chief can tell you that story. It's very hard to come up with a compelling reason why you need to invest in an army during peace time. And what we're trying to do is not fight the last fight better. We're trying to make sure we can win the next fight. In fact, we want to win the first fight of the next battle. And ideally we want to show such credible combat capability that we don't even fight that first battle. That we have the over-match that we need. And we see us getting that through speed, range and convergence within the joint force which gives the over-match. You know, one of the projects we're working on is, we call it Project Convergence and we just are getting ready to do Project Convergence 21, which is going to be with a joint force. But we did it during '20 when we brought a lot of army systems together. And using the technology we have and taking advantage of artificial intelligence and taking advantage of being able to move data very, very quickly, we were getting lethal effects in tens of seconds versus tens of minutes and in the fall we'll do the same thing with the joint force and we're looking forward to that. So, any sensor can pick up potential targets, work back to an integrated battle command system and then get it to the right shooter or archer or however you want to (TC 00:10:00) describe it, the right arrow.

     

    And so you can provide that capability extremely quickly. And then next year we'll actually do that with our allies and partners. So, that's where we're going in the army. That's where we're going in the joint force.

     

    Peter Roberts: There's a really interesting part in that. There's so much going on there, particularly with the speed range in convergence, which is really interesting. But it strikes me that all the things you're talking about, the organisational change, the institutional change, the equipment change, the ways of operating, all of this feels slightly reactive to the adversary. They seem to be driving the pace of change, you know, whether it's their A2AD, whether it's their integrated air and missile defence, whether it's their decision making which is faster than ours. It felt slightly reactive. Do you think that's true or do you think that's misconstruing where you're coming from now?

     

    James McConville: Well I think it's a little of both, I think it's informed but I also think it's also the Western way or the American way of warfare is we want to use fires and in this case we're going to have very Long Range Precision Fires and so we want to work with allies and partners. We always fight as a team so we're developing systems that are going to allow us to do that. We want to be lethal and all the systems developed are going to give us a level of lethality that we have never had before. And it flows all the way down even to our soldiers. One of the systems that we're developing, we call it an Integrated Visual Augmentation System. When it comes to night vision goggle capability I argue, at least try to make the analogy, it's very similar to what happened with our phones. You know, we used to have phones that were on the wall and then we went to cordless phones and then we went to cell phones. But what happens along the way, there were other people that had transformational ideas that came in with a thing that we all carry called an iPhone and, you know, the idea that maybe twenty years ago if a young officer came in to me and said, 'Hey, I've got a great idea, we're going to be taking pictures with our phone,' we would have said, 'Well that's not a very-, how could you possibly with a phone that we had that some people don't even know what it looks like anymore that I used to have, how could you possibly take a picture with your phone?'

     

    Or how could you possible navigate with your phones. We used to have these paper things, I think you might be familiar, old enough, that we called maps, you know, and we used to use those type things. So, a lot of things are transforming but what we're looking at is the focus of the army's still going to always be the person. And what we are doing is equipping that person with cutting edge technology so that they can control maybe unmanned aerial systems and they can get that feedback and they can get data very, very quickly which makes their decision making process much better. It really makes them much more lethal on the battlefield which, at the end of the day, really does matter.

     

    Peter Roberts: One really important follow up to that. You're equipping a person brilliantly and there are lots of great graphs about how much more we're spending per person now on a front-line individual compared to what we used to do even during the Cold War. I mean, it's an enormous difference. But do you think though, we're doing a good enough job equipping our people intellectually for the challenges?

     

    James McConville: We're in a war for talent I like to say. We are trying to move-, one of the components of our transformation is moving from an industrial age, personnel management system to a 21st century talent management system. So, you know, some of the things we're doing in the army right now is we've set up a software factory. And very interesting is we're going to have soldiers that are coding on the battlefield because you start to use artificial intelligence you've got to rewrite algorithms as you're moving along because you expect a thinking adversary to change the silhouettes of their vehicles to do things that you need to change very, very quickly. The thing we've found in our system is we have tremendous talent throughout the army. But sometimes we can't see it because we manage our soldiers by two variables, you're a captain of infantry or you're a sergeant of engineers. Well we set up this software factory, it's very interesting. And we got over 2,500 soldiers that had coding experience. Now some of these had Master's and PhDs in coding. But what surprised me, I met this young specialist who was an E-4 medic and he was as good as the two majors that had PhDs in coding. And again, with this system we had in place, we couldn't see that talent that they had. And in many of these soldiers and officers because we got them in the right place doing what they want to do in the army, you're going to stay in the army and not go out and do something else.

     

    So, we are in a war for talent. We need a whole bunch of different type people. We need people that clearly understand technology but they need to be able to use that technology in a lethal way. So, there's room for everyone in this future force.

     

    Kyle Atwell: So right now we're framing the competition problem set, and, you know, you mentioned that technology and new capabilities play a big role, A2AD seeks to limit our ability to project force in a potential future conflict, talked about decision dominance. When we talk about the army in great power of competition, how much of this is activities leading up to a potential conflict and how much of this is preparing for the fight itself? Is preparation of the environment for the first battle one of the key roles for the army?

     

    James McConville: Yes, I think it's both, you know. There's a discussion going on, you know, in a lot of the circles that we run in, so, do we just focus on the conflict or do you start to take a look at the spectrum? And as we define the spectrum, you know, there's certainly a competition type phase, and quite frankly when you talk to our combatant commanders we like to stay in competition and then it can move to a crisis type situation which gets you close to conflict and then a conflict type phase. And quite frankly, a large scale ground combat phase is something that I don't think anyone wants, that any of our competitors of potential adversaries want. So, the question becomes how do you compete most efficiently? I like to say there's peace through strength and that strength comes from a whole-of-Government effort, it comes from having a strong military, it comes from having a strong army, and it comes from having strong allies and partners who share your same vision for the war. So, from us it starts with working very closely with our allies and partners. Going to each other's schools. We find that the senior leaders that I interact with, if they've been to our Command and General Staff College, if they've been to our War College, they share very similar values and they understand the way that we're going to fight together. We find that when we train with our allies and partners, whether that's through Special Forces, so, that's through our security force, assistance brigades, whether that's exercises we do with our other units or it's state partnerships with the National Guard.

     

    They all contribute to building more capabilities and capacities with our partners and we find that very, very important. The calibrated force posture becomes really important and we believe that we will be contested on the sea and we'll be contested in the air and quite frankly be contested with some of the systems in place all the way back to the homeland. So, having forward forces, having forward equipment, whether that's permanent or rotational or dynamic forces that are employed, or having preposition equipment, all that becomes extremely important. And then, I talked a little about it before, having the right type of organisations forward, that can help set the conditions. Some of that is setting the conditions for logistics. If we are attacked they know that we can respond with credible combat power. That all comes together to set the conditions in the competition phase. Hopefully, to deter any type of conflict, and if we do and if we can't deter then we're in a position to provide credible combat forces with our allies and partners.

     

    Kyle Atwell: Peter, you bring a lot of guests on to talk about what the future of the Western way of war looks like and you talk about what future conflict might look like, I'd be curious among your guests, do a lot of people think about preparation of the environment as a key function of the army in great power competition? Do they talk about irregular warfare, or is it really focused on, kind of, high-end capabilities and, kind of, penetrating a joint force entry (ph 18.32)?

     

    Peter Roberts: I think more and more people are starting to think about how armies and land forces can shape the environment. And there's a more mature conversation that's starting to happen about it and it's a difficult conversation, right? Because it takes us right away from what we've been content about doing even if not particularly good at it, whether it's nation building or security forced assistance or whatever it is. Actually when we start to talk about the ability to foment insurgencies, to train others, to undertake those things that we used to do really well. You know, the potential roles of sabotage and subterfuge, that potentially some states might need to undertake that were traditionally undertaken by land forces. There's a conversation that's starting about that. But it's really how you transfer all these historical examples into the modern day and how that transfers to our values today which is very difficult for leaders to do, both political and military. And people are having a problem with the language. How do you talk about an army that needs to go in early, that needs to forward deploy, that needs to shape a battle space, in a contest that is really dynamic, that is changing hour by hour? How do you equip people to take in all that data and change their plans on the hoof? I mean, for me, the experience I have with individuals on the ground is, you know, the quality of soldiers really allows them the ability to go and do this. We should have some confidence in it. But it's still the language that I think leaders are having a real difficulty with in how they try and express this as a role for land forces in particular.

     

    Laura Jones: General McConville, to build (TC 00:20:00) on that point, can you delve into the relationship between positional advantage informing this global land power network with this aspect of partner capacity and relationship building in irregular warfare and how operations on the fringe will play into this strategic shift?

     

    James McConville: Yes, you can start to think about, positionally as we developed Long Range Precision Fires. And we're in a place where we can hold potential competitors' ships at bay if they decide to do something within that radius that puts them at risk, that may make them think about what they might be considering to do. It's the same thing with positional advantage. If they know we have the ability to penetrate an Anti-Access Area Denial capability that may make them think. If they decide to shoot theatre ballistic missiles at us and they know that we have the ability to not only shoot down their theatre ballistic missiles with our integrated air and missile defence, but we also have the capability to return fire at a speed and range and precision that may change the dynamics of how they think. And so that's how I start to think about the positional advantage. And then, even with the type of forces that you can put in place, it puts a potential competitor or adversary at risk in the idea that they can't just do something and have a fait accompli, they have to think their way through it, that we may respond, that they're not quite sure how we're going to respond. But we certainly have the credible combat forces with us and with our allies and partners in place that have the speed and range and convergence to respond to what they're doing, that at least from where we see, can lead to the deterrence that we need to have.

     

    Peter Roberts: It's an interesting part of that isn't it? Because a lot of people think that various states want to take a chunk out of somewhere as they've done before. And small deployments of formations are not going to be a deterrent. But the fact is that what you're giving them is a porcupine. You're not giving them a small brownie that they can chew. It's something that they just don't want to do as soon as they start thinking about the consequences of their actions, and providing you can get them to that point it's really useful. But it's understanding how the adversary thinks about that, making decisions on force deployment that don't suit us and are force design but really do deter the adversary. And, of course, deterring adversaries happens in very different ways depending on who you're talking about. What might deter the Kremlin doesn't necessarily deter Tehran. What deters Pyongyang does not necessarily work in Beijing. They're all very different and in some ways trying to find a single way of fighting, a single operational design for every theatre just simply doesn't work. I guess, to me, this is the thorniest issue that you've got to deal with, General, right? Is that actually you've got four very different problem sets to look at and how you divide up your effort between each of those is a really complex issue and it must be a huge challenge.

     

    James McConville: Well I think Peter, where you hit the nail on the head is we're not an one option army so to speak, we're not a one con-plan (ph 23.16) type army. We certainly have the ability to see what the intelligence situation is around the world but we always get that wrong anyway. So, we need to be prepared to go anywhere at any time. And one thing that we really haven't brought into discussion which I think is, kind of, different, when you talk about some of the adversaries we've had over the last twenty years. I think it's very, very different when you're dealing with terrorists or you're dealing with insurgence, and when you're dealing with other states. And what I mean by that is, they have a zip code and as a result we know where they live and we know what they do and I think that does change the dynamics. And it also brings into this idea of information advantage or information operations. I think that's a very powerful capability that's out there. You know, the ability to inform and educate other populations to what's going on, I think is extremely important. And I think that's going to be even more important in the future. We see the power of social media or how something's described.

     

    It used to be that everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. I'm not so sure that's the way it is in the future. People can create their own facts and they can share those facts very quickly to a whole bunch of people that are on social media, that iPhone type capability, and anything that we do is what is the impact in the information space and how do we maintain information advantage? Because at the end of the day, the nature is such that there's certainly a political dimension, there's certainly a human dimension. It's about imposing wills in either the will of the people both that are fighting with you and you're fighting against, matter, and the way to get to the will of the people is certainly through that information space.

     

    Peter Roberts: I just think this is really interesting, there's a moment here where information warfare, that the engagement, the contest that we have in the information space at the moment doesn't feel fair because we're playing by rules and the adversary isn't. And yet, suddenly where you come across an adversary where you're engaged in a fair fight and it feels like our future adversaries, our potential adversaries feel like they're equipped to bring a fair fight to us. They seem very different spaces than we've been intellectually and materially engaged in the past twenty, 30 years, right? We've been used to an unfair fight of conventional arms where we've had massive superiority. But we're in a different space now. And the reverse of that is true in information space. We should have, it feels to me like we have Silicon Valley, we have all the great tools available to us and yet we feel as though, to me, we're losing in many ways the information war. Does it feel like that to you?

     

    James McConville: Well I think it's something that we definitely have to think our way through. And I think it's something we have to take seriously. And, you know, we do have a Western way of life. We do have American values. And I think the American people expect us to live by those values and so what I wrestle with is, we've, kind of, thought through information operations, I think information warfare is a subset of that. And then, even within information warfare, you have to start to break it down. I think the American people expect from us, expect from their military to tell them the truth, to inform and educate. We're not doing disinformation operations or misinformation operations. Certainly with the American people we have an obligation to be first with the truth with that. We used to have a thing we call deception in the army. Where, you know, if you go back to World War Two, Patton had all these fake tanks and all this stuff put aside, so how do you do that today in the information environment, so you start to show things that are global in nature. And you may want to have some situations where you're not going to share the truth with a potential adversary.

     

    You're not going to show where your troops are. You're not going to tell them exactly what you're doing because you don't want to give them that advantage, but that's something that we have to wrestle with and quite frankly we're wrestling with right now is how to do that properly so we maintain the values that the American people expect us to, but we're also competing in some case and maybe fighting against in the future those who don't play by those rules. Those who play by no rules. And that does put us at a disadvantage. But we're trying to figure that out right now.

     

    Kyle Atwell: It's interesting that we have a question on positional advantage and that led to a discussion on information operations. And then you also mentioned, you know, counter-terrorism in there at one point. And this, kind of, leads to the big question of where do we invest? You know, where do we invest in the pre-conflict preparation in the environment context? Right now we're withdrawing from Afghanistan and we may be reducing presence in other regular warfare or against non-state threats in areas such as Africa. Some have argued that supporting states with internal threats such as counter-terrorism becomes a means of competing in great power competition. I'm wondering where you fall on where we invest in information operations, counter-terrorism? Is the periphery still important? Or do we need to, kind of, re-allocate our resources?

     

    James McConville: I think it's still very important. I don't think violent extremist organisations are going away. I think we need to invest in there, we happen to have the best counter-terrorist organisations in the world and we've got to keep them. And we certainly share relationships between those organisations with other countries. And many of our close allies and partners have great counter-terrorism type organisations and we work very closely together, and I don't see that changing. We need to have that capability, and that is not going away. The difference that I see is, maybe going back to the future in how our Special Forces operate. I think what we're going to see is more building capacity. I think our Special Forces have done a fabulous job of developing that type of high-end capability in countries. I mean you can see what the Special Forces did with the commandos in Afghanistan. You see some of the other organisations in Iraq that they have done. And I think those capabilities are absolutely key for the future because there are many countries out there that have a terrorist problem. And if you look at it, you know, whether it's stage one or stage two cancer, we need to solve it early on.

     

    And if we allow that cancer to grow, we will see strikes in the homeland. So, I think that's extremely important. I think that people are going to operate in the grey space, and so we need to do a lot of work on, you know, some want to call it foreign internal defence or however we want to talk, whether we call it security force assistance or whatever that means. But for allies and partners and partners specifically in some parts of the world, we want them to have the capability and the capacity to do most of their security for themselves.

     

    Kyle Atwell: I would say this goes back (TC 00:30:00) to what you said. You said that we don't have a one mission army, we can have certain sub-units within the army focused on certain tasks, you mentioned special operations forces. It seems like in public discourse there is often a, 'Hey, the army needs to prepare for counterinsurgency,' or, 'The army needs to shift to great power competition.' If I understand correctly though what you're saying is, the army can do multiple things at once.

     

    James McConville: Absolutely. We've got to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time. And I think that's important as we come out of places like Afghanistan and Iraq, we are allying ourselves regionally and the Special Forces groups and the security forces systems PAs (ph 30.31) are aligning themselves, they're working in those countries that quite frankly that we didn't have the time to work very closely in in the past because many were on continuous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. So, in some ways we're going to have more capability to get after irregular warfare or developing foreign internal defence as we move in the future. We are not walking away from irregular warfare. The other thing I would suggest is that we are training our conventional units and the same thing as we discussed with Special Forces, be able to operate in an environment where we are contested in every domain. So, things that we've gotten very, very used to. Having all our communication systems working. But we've got to train where we may not have that. We've got to train where we may not have the positioning, navigation and timing that we're used to having. We have to train where we're going to have more sophisticated competitors with unmanned aerial systems that I would suggest right now that the unmanned aerial system is the IED of the next ten to twenty years. And that's got to be something we really have to get after because from violent extremists to proxy forces to other state systems, everyone's got lethal unmanned aerial systems now and that's something we're going to have to really learn to deal with.

     

    Laura Jones: As we shift gears into the conclusion of this conversation, what do you think are the overarching implications for policy makers and practitioners stemming from these competition papers and the overall strategic shift in the army?

     

    Peter Roberts: I think one of the most interesting things that we've heard there is that whilst the US Army is big enough to walk and chew gum as the General said, actually for a lot of medium players, a lot of the US allies and partners, they don't have and they're going to have to make choices. And you can see this across Europe now, where armies are striving to understand how much CT they have to continue to do, how much counter-terrorism. How much coin (inaudible 32.31) to do or do they have to turn their entire special operations forces, their entire SF, towards a new mission that's ready for some kind of great power rivalry, great power competition. And doing missions and roles that perhaps they were used to doing 50 years ago, but that's a couple of generations before anyone who's in the force right now. So, it becomes some very real and conscious choices that have got to be made. And this affects then not just how they operate but their importance and their centrality to the future operating environment. It cuts across their training. It cuts across how technologically enabled they are or dependent they are and therefore it impacts on the US because it means some of them will be focused more on CT and less on the missions that we're talking about that future proof it. So, there are going to be some really interesting choices that have got to be made and they're not going to be made at the same pace that the US I think is making them.

     

    And to me it feels like the US military is accelerating in terms of how fast it's changing, particularly in terms of irregular warfare. I think the rest of the West is taking some time to see that happening and is going to be lacking. Now this isn't unusual. But what it takes is some political drive to change the land forces and armies towards a new direction. And I think that's something that's going to drive some of the narratives that are happening between the US and its partners over the next five to ten years.

     

    Kyle Atwell: Do the European armies make these decisions in silos or do they, kind of, come up with a division of labour amongst them for who might focus in certain capabilities in a more cooperative sense? Or am I just being a little bit too idealistic?

     

    Peter Roberts: Kyle, it's one of the great arguments that has been happening in NATO and Europe for the past 70 years. It's the idea, should we specialise? Do we trust our neighbours enough to specialise? And the answer is we don't. The reality is that European neighbours don't trust each other and therefore you have so many armoured divisions and you have so many soft teams that are specialised in some things but not in others. And it's why we don't have for example an urban warfare training centre in Europe that will allow people to train effectively. But we don't do a division of labour particularly well. So, they are made in silos. Now whilst the chiefs of the armies talk together the whole time, it's the political decisions on how they divvy up these tasks that make it very difficult for individual forces to make such decisions. It's not a military decision that they're able to make.

     

    James McConville: I think if we take a look at the future and Peter lays it out, I was just over for the conference of the European armies with the chiefs and I had a chance to discuss where we're going in the future. And what we want to be able to do is make every country, ally and partner a valued member of the team. And that's why, as we talk about the transformation that we're going through in our army and, again, I argue that we do it every 40 years, we did it in 1940 right before World War Two, we did it in 1980 quite frankly when I came in the army and that's where most of the things that we have and where I sit right now in 2020 is I'm trying to set up the next 40 years so the chief that comes in 2060 can go ahead and lay it out. And we are actually transforming at a very rapid pace, and, you know, as I talked to some of the leaders, they're very concerned. What they're most concerned with is really the command and control, the joint all domain that I added the C to (ph 35.44). They want to make sure that they're not left behind. They want to be good partners. As Peter said, they don't have the capability to necessarily do everything well. So, they are interested in what we think, but at the end of the day they also are going to follow what their civilian leadership tells them to do. What we're trying to do is build a framework where they can fit in. You know, we just did a war fighter exercise with a corps and we had a British and French division and working very, very closely we found that very, very valuable because we were able to create some very significant effects working together.

     

    You know, the things is that we have got to have an army that can really work across the spectrum because what we're going to see is our competitors or our adversaries are going to look for where the gaps are. We've got to be a multidimensional army that can operate across the spectrum. And the way we need to do that is to get as many allies and partners that share the same values, that share the same vision for the world order that we do so we can work together so we provide the most credible combat force that we can.

     

    Peter Roberts: And there's an interesting point in there, is that sometimes this isn't about capabilities or training, sometimes it's about permissions and risk and willingness. So, whilst we might be constrained, the US, perhaps the UK, perhaps France, might be constrained in how we employ our forces against a certain adversary, there will be those states that aren't. Now they might not be as well trained or perhaps as well equipped but they will have far greater political freedom to wage war in a way that our political masters won't allow us to do. Now that gives us huge advantages as a coalition, enormous ones where the Estonians or the Lithuanians or the Latvians or the Romanians or the Macedonians or the Polish, you know, can go and do things that just won't be allowed politically by us. And this gives us enormous freedom. It also makes us a rather unpredictable adversary when people are looking at us that is always a great thing to be.

     

    Laura Jones: Gentlemen, is there one take away you both would like to leave us with today?

     

    James McConville: We've certainly looked at our history, we've certainly looked at what we've done over the last twenty years and we're not trying to fight the last fight better as, you know, people always accuse generals, so we're always trying to fight the last fight better, and we're actually trying to win the next fight. And we are open-minded going in this. We don't have all the answers. A lot of the things we're doing with Project Convergence is a campaign of learning and actually bringing systems out into some pretty rough areas like Yuma in the desert with 115 degrees and you find out a lot about what can get done. And the things that I've learned is things work very good in PowerPoint but when you actually have to go and do them that's when you get the real learning, when we put systems in the hands of soldiers and they have a chance to operate with that and they have a chance to work with the other joint forces and they work with allies and partners. That is the way ahead. And, again, we are committed to transforming the army so we're ready for the next twenty to 40 years.

     

    Peter Roberts: Well I'd like to finish with a quote from the General actually, which I thought was brilliant. It says, 'Winning matters, we win with our people doing the right things, the right way. When we send the US army somewhere we don't go to participate, we don't go to try hard, we go to win. There's no second place or honourable mention in combat.' I just think that really sums up where we're going with this. And whilst we've had a great discussion that says we've explained how we're getting there conceptually, we've explained how we're getting there with capability, we've explained how we're getting there with C2, even with allies. I have a slight feeling that perhaps intellectually we might need a bit of a kick. And here is where irregular warfare sits at the heart. Irregular warfare relies on none of the above great stuff, it relies on people with great brains thinking in different ways about really big problems. Being enabled, being empowered to go and make the right decisions at the right moment in time which gives us that piece of advantage that allows us to grab success from the jaws of defeat.

     

    James McConville: Peter has said it very well, you know, because the other thing on winning matters is people first and you get the people right and then you win through your people. And I think that's really important. That's an attitude. And as we talk a lot about technology, at the end of the day, (TC 00:40:00) it's really about the people. The people are going to do the winning. And I think without the technology we'll still win with the right people.

     

    Peter Roberts: This show is produced by Peppi Väänänen and Keiron Yates and it's sponsored by the good people at Raytheon UK. You can find out more about RUSI, our research and our thinking at rusi.org/milsi. And do think about subscribing to the Irregular Warfare podcast too. You can find that show on all major podcasting channels. Thanks for listening.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


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Professor Peter Roberts

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