When the Army Futures Command was established in the summer of 2018, it was charged by then-Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark Esper to, “…remain open to change… to remain flexible… to remain accessible. That is the purpose of this command.” Less than two years later the Command’s Futures and Concepts Center, led by Lieutenant General Eric J. Wesley, embraced these ideas of flexibility and accessibility when it committed to continue executing the Future Study Program amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic came to U.S. shores, it threatened the momentum of the Army modernization enterprise at a critical juncture in its study of the Army operating concept, Multi-Domain Operations. In many ways the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic could not have been worse: General John M. (Mike) Murray, Commander of Army Futures Command, had recently presented the results of a study to General James McConville, the Army Chief of Staff, regarding the required capabilities and associated formations to execute multi-domain operations with a modernized force. GEN McConville approved the findings of that study, dubbed the MDO AimPoint Force, as the force design to orient Army modernization efforts across the enterprise.
While serving as a mechanism to steer and focus modernization efforts across the Total Army enterprise toward achieving an MDO- ready force by 2035, the MDO AimPoint Force implies no end-strength, stationing, or specific structural decisions for the Army. The AimPoint Force, as the name indicates, serves only to orient the modernization enterprise on a common set of organizations and associated capabilities.
The Future Study Program, an annual series of table-top experiments and learning events designed to shape and inform modernization decisions by Army senior leaders, had planned to conduct its first experiment on the AimPoint Force in May of 2020 at the U.S. Army War College. This exercise was designed to examine calibrated force posture, one of three MDO concept tenets, by developing and evaluating force posture options in both the European and Indo-Pacific regions, based on the AimPoint Force. This classified exercise would be the first iteration with the AimPoint Force and would serve as the analytic cornerstone for a series of experiments that would inform future decisions regarding structure, posture, and potential trades against aging legacy capabilities. The event was to examine the entire conflict continuum, from regional competition through large-scale armed conflict, examining force-on-force comparison of U.S. and threat capabilities.
COVID-19 restrictions, however, presented the command with a vicious dilemma. Delaying experimentation indefinitely would have unforeseen impacts on the pace of modernization efforts, potentially missing key windows of opportunity for senior Army leaders to make decisions on the development of the future force. Conducting the experiment as planned, however, might endanger the command’s most precious resource: its uniformed, civilian, and contractor personnel.
The solution was to operationalize Secretary Esper’s charge to remain open to change, flexible, and accessible. Inside of just a few short weeks, FCC planners adapted the Future Study Program to conduct the experiment in an unclassified, distributed environment. Employing the AimPoint Force against recent historical case studies in each theater enabled the command to leverage the talents of over 120 members of the Army modernization enterprise, all operating from home, using online collaborative tools and file-sharing through the Defense Technical Information Center. Adapting to the environment and employing available technology allowed FCC to meet the original intent of the experiment: develop and compare calibrated force posture options for the AimPoint Force in EUCOM and INDOPACOM.
Of course, there were limitations on the experiment to keep it unclassified. Since force-on-force discussions tend to turn classified rather quickly, the revised design limited the scope of the event to regional competition, heightened by limited escalatory activities. Limiting the discussion to the competition period allowed participants to avoid the classified, technical aspects of employing future capabilities against specific adversary forces, while still allowing them to discuss how to employ organizations and their capabilities in ways that advance national security interests short of armed conflict. The group drew upon a wealth of information available in open-source, public documents, and known trends. As a result, the experiment was still able to produce several force posture options in each theater, as well as producing baseline data for future experimentation.
There is still significant work to be done through future table-top experiments, wargames, and other studies to address the important issues associated with large-scale armed conflict against near-peer adversaries. The Future Study Program will continue to examine calibrated force posture and the AimPoint Force when the environmental conditions are once again conducive to more traditional wargames. Still, this experiment allowed the Army Modernization Enterprise to begin iterating on the problems associated with calibrated force posture by making the most of the time, talent, and resources at AFC’s disposal during these challenging times.
The event produced insights beyond the intended learning demands in regards to the nature of competition, the U.S. Army’s role therein, and the nuances of running a complex event in a distributed environment. It provides a useful template for other distributed events as the Army Futures Command remains open to change, flexible, and accessible for any challenges on the horizon.