Future warfare requires 'disciplined disobedience,' Army chief says

By C. Todd LopezMay 5, 2017

Future warfare requires 'disciplined disobedience,' Army chief says
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U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, talks with Observer Controllers
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WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- Following every order to the letter is largely understood to be a way of life in the Army. But that may not always be the best course of action. In fact, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley said he expects Soldiers to know when it's time to disobey an order.

"I think we're over-centralized, overly bureaucratic, and overly risk-averse," Milley said while speaking Thursday at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C., as part of the Atlantic Council Commanders Series.

That overly bureaucratic environment may work in garrison, during peacetime, he said, but it's "the opposite of what we are going to need in any type of warfare -- but in particular, the warfare I envision."


During last year's Association of the U.S. Army symposium in October, Milley laid out just exactly what his vision of future warfare would be. He said then that he expects conditions "will be extremely austere. Water, chow, ammo, fuel, maintenance and medical support will be all that we should plan for."

He also said that Soldiers could expect to be surrounded all the time, so they will always need to be on the move if they hope to stay alive.

"In short, learning to be comfortable with being seriously miserable every single minute of every single day will have to become a way of life for an Army on the battlefield that I see coming," he said.

Leaders on the battlefield could expect to be out of contact with their own leadership for significant periods of time. Those officers would still need to accomplish their commander's objectives, even when the conditions on the battlefield change and they are unable to send word up the chain of command.

"We are going to have to empower [and] decentralize leadership to make decisions and achieve battlefield effects in a widely dispersed environment where subordinate leaders, junior leaders ... may not be able to communicate to their higher headquarters, even if they wanted to," Milley said.

In that environment, Milley said, the Army will need a cadre of trusted leaders on the battlefield who know when it's time to disobey the original orders they were given and come up with a new plan to achieve the purpose of those orders.


"We're the military, so you're supposed to say, 'Obey your orders,'" Miley said. "That's kind of fundamental to being in the military. We want to keep doing that. But a subordinate needs to understand that they have the freedom and they are empowered to disobey a specific order, a specified task, in order to accomplish the purpose. It takes a lot of judgment."

Such disobedience cannot be "willy-nilly." Rather, it must be "disciplined disobedience to achieve a higher purpose," Milley said. "If you do that, then you are the guy to get the pat on the back."

Milley said that when orders are given, the purpose of those orders must also be provided so that officers know both what they are to accomplish and how they are expected to accomplish it.

To illustrate his point, Milley offered the example of an officer who has been ordered to seize "Hill 101" as part of a larger battle plan.

"I've said the purpose is to destroy the enemy," Milley said. "And the young officer sees Hill 101, and the enemy is over on Hill 102. What does he do? Does he do what I told him to do, seize Hill 101? Or does he achieve the purpose, destroy the enemy on Hill 102?"

The answer, Milley said, is that the officer disobeys the order to seize the first hill because following that order would not achieve his commander's purpose. Instead, he takes the other hill.

"And he shouldn't have to call back and say 'hey boss ... can I go over to 102?' He shouldn't have to do that," Milley said. "They should be empowered and feel they have freedom of maneuver to achieve the purpose."

Right now, Milley said, the Army already has doctrine that describes what he envisions for the future: "mission command" doctrine. Part of that doctrine, he said, instructs commanders to tell their subordinates the purpose of what they are doing. "That's important for subordinates to understand the why, the purpose," he said.

But the Army, he said, has a hard time practicing what it writes into doctrine.

"My point is what we do in practice is we micromanage and over-specify everything a subordinate has to do, all the time, in regulations, in ALARACT messages, in rules," he said. "That is not an effective way ... to fight. Not an effective way to conduct operations. You will lose battles and wars if you approach warfare like that."

"We must trust our subordinates," he added. "You give them the task, you give them the purpose, and then you trust them to execute and achieve your intent, your desired outcome -- your purpose."

Getting Soldiers and leaders to do that will require training, he said. And it will require encouraging them to operate that way.

"You have to train to it, you have to prepare for it, and you have to live it and do it every day," he said.


Milley acknowledged that it's impossible to predict exactly how warfare in the future will play out, but he did say there are some "broad outlines" that can be drawn upon to help with the development of decisions regarding doctrine, organization and equipment. Technology, he believes, will have a huge impact on warfare.

"I think we are at the intersection of a variety of technologies that are happening in time and space, all about the same time, that are going to have a fundamental change or result in fundamental change to the character of warfare."

One technology of today that has already been around for a while, he noted, are precision-guided munitions.

"For a long time, the United States dominated precision-guided munitions," he said. "Now, precision-guided munitions have proliferated throughout the world."

Information technology also will have a dramatic effect, he said, citing the iPhone as an example. He said that today, through existing technology, one has access to high-quality imagery, communications, and real-time data on the location of people, equipment and formations, for instance, nearly anywhere on Earth.

"I would argue that we are at a point where ... almost anything militarily can be seen," he said. "So when you combine the ability to see ... with precision-guided munitions, that's like going from the smoothbore to the rifle. That's going to rapidly and radically increase lethality on the battlefield."

He noted that robotics are now used in the air and sea domains but currently play a limited role on the ground. Over the next decade, however, he expects to see a "rapid introduction of robotic systems in ground warfare."


Demographic changes also will affect the character of war, he said. In particular, he pointed to increases in urbanization.

According to Milley, social scientists predict that by 2050 about 90 percent of Earth's projected population of more than 8 billion people will likely live in "highly dense, complex urban areas." As a result of that shift, he said, it's probable that armed conflict will occur in those same densely populated areas.

"The U.S. Army has been optimized to fight in rural terrain, to fight in the plains of Northern Europe, North America [and] the deserts of the Middle East," he said.

Optimizing for urban warfare, he said, will require changing not only how Soldiers fight, but how equipment is used.

"A tank's barrel can elevate to a certain degree," he said. "In an urban environment, it might need to elevate to almost a 90-degree angle. That has huge implications."

Likewise, much consideration must also be devoted to such practical matters as the wingspans of unmanned aerial vehicles, casualty evacuation in densely populated areas, and the ability of current command and control systems to function in the concrete jungles of the future.

"The list goes on and on," he said. "There are about maybe 100 or 150 significant implications to that fact of urbanization and the likelihood that armed conflict is going to be more in urban areas than not."

Right now, he said, the Army has optimized for non-urban areas. But he said, "we are probably going to have to shift gears significantly over the coming decade or so to optimize the Army, or land forces -- I would argue the Marines as well -- to be able to operate successfully in combat operations in highly dense, complex urban areas."

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