Pentagon war planners have focused a great deal over the past 18 months on how the U.S. will fight on a battlefield of smart weapons and intelligent defense systems — with an emphasis on attacking from a distance.
But in the end, it will still be soldiers and Marines on the ground moving in to seize and hold an objective, and these troops are likely to face the threat of precision-guided munitions.
“I’ll be the first to admit that we have not spent as much time on studying the last tactical mile as we have breaking into a theater and then operating in a more general sense,” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told a National Security Forum held Monday in Washington, D.C. The event was organized in part by the Center for New American Security.
The Pentagon study is related to the Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program, a strategy to exploit technology and new battle concepts to give the U.S. military a demonstrated edge in any potential conflict, Work said.
And people — service members — are central to the effort, he said.
Pentagon officials are consulting with Army and Marine Corps leaders, including Gen. David Perkins, the commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, “and as far as keeping humans completely central in our thinking, we’re totally aligned there,” Work said.
“You’ll see advances in electronic warfare systems along the FLOT,” he said, referring to the forward line of troops.
Work said the problem posed to advancing ground forces by precision-guided munitions is one the U.S. had to counter during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear weapons forced the Army to consider its combat deployment of ground troops on the battlefield.
“We’ve been here before, in the 1950s,” he said. “The Army completely reorganizes its divisional structure — going from its wartime triangular formation to … five battle groups, because they dispersed on the battlefield to avoid an atomic attack … re-aggregate to achieve effects, and then they would disperse again.”
In a triangular formation, each division controlled three regiments, with no brigade echelon. A battle group included five rifle companies, a support company and artillery and service units. They were designed to be self-sustaining, and trained to fight alone or as a combined force.
Work said the Army kept the battle group concept for five years but found it did not work. The technology for dispersing, reforming and dispersing during a combat situation was not there, he said, and so in 1961 the Army returned to its triangular structure.
“You have the same problem with guided munitions. You have to dis-aggregate to keep from getting smashed and you have to re-aggregate … to achieve affects,” he said. “So the next part of the LRRDPP is looking at this problem right now, and we will have a strategic portfolio review that [covers] this specifically.
Work said he intends to have a program with various options or solutions set up in time for the next administration to review.
-Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.