Lighting the Path Ahead: Field Exercises and Transformation

Today the US military finds itself in a period of large-scale change in the conduct of warfare. There is wide verbal acceptance in American military circles that we are in the midst of a military revolution, or “revolution in military affairs” that will require a transformation of the US armed forces. Yet despite the rhetoric, the American military is not conducting the kind of Joint and Service field exercises  characteristic of military organizations engaged in transformation.

This report makes the case that field exercises, and the experiments they make possible, play a critical role in enabling military innovation and transformation, which can be defined as innovation on a grand scale or on a scale sufficient to bring about a change in warfare regimes (i.e., a military revolution). Properly undertaken, field exercises are a source of great competitive advantage. Their benefits include:

  • Reducing uncertainty concerning how best to meet emerging threats;
  • Determining the proper mix of emerging and legacy systems in the future force;
  • Enabling militaries to develop and evaluate a wide range of military capabilities and forms of operation, which can be fully and rapidly developed if and when a threat emerges;
  • Generating successes that inspire enthusiasm for, and sustain the momentum of, military transformation and innovation;
  • Complicating the planning of would-be enemies;
  • Identifying intra-regime shifts—major shifts in the military competition that, while they do not require large-scale transformation, do require the military to effect significant innovation;
  • Helping to avoid premature, large-scale production of emerging systems that may appear promising but that actually offer little in terms of military capability; and
  • Identifying and solving the practical problems inherent in developing new operations, force structures and systems that cannot be determined through wargames and simulations.

To meet emerging challenges in such a way as to preserve the current level of national security, the Defense Department must effect significant changes in its approach to Joint and Service field exercises and increase dramatically the priority accorded to experimentation. At present, the Department’s effort lacks focus and is woefully underfunded.

Given the characteristics of field exercises in previous instances of successful military transformation, it would seem that a Defense Department field exercise/experimentation initiative should be defined by all of the following characteristics:

All transformation efforts, to include transformation field exercises, need to be informed and guided by a compelling vision of how future military competitions will be different from those that dominate warfare today. Put another way, the US military leadership must provide a compelling answer to the question, “Why should the world’s best military transform itself?”

If history is any guide, and if the Defense Department is serious about transforming the US military, then field exercises directed toward that end must be initiated now and conducted on a frequent basis. These exercises must be an enduring element of the US military’s transformation strategy.

To date, field exercises and experimentation have been heavily weighted toward the tactical level of warfare. Although field exercises and experimentation should take place at all levels (tactical, operational and strategic) of warfare, primary emphasis should be placed at the operational level.

During the latter stages of the Cold War, the US military invested in a number of high-fidelity training facilities that greatly enhanced the value of its field training. Facilities do not yet exist to support comparable Joint field exercises that enable experimentation in support of transformation. To remedy this, the Defense Department needs to establish, under Joint Forces Command, a Joint National Training Center; Joint Urban Warfare Training Center; and Joint Opposing Force.

Moreover, to employ these assets effectively, Joint Forces Command also requires a budget that is at least an order of magnitude over what it is at present; and Major Funding Program budget authority, similar to the one enjoyed by the Commander-in-Chief, Special Operations Command.

If it is to meet emerging challenges in such a way as to preserve the current level of national security, the Defense Department will have to effect significant changes in its approach to military transformation. One key challenge is to increase dramatically the priority accorded to Joint and Service field exercises, to include their reorientation to address emerging challenges and opportunities stemming from the ongoing military revolution. The potential gains from a properly directed and funded field exercise campaign are clear, and the cost of such an initiative
would run well under one percent of the US defense budget. The risks associated with continuing along the current path are clear as well. They include developing the right capabilities for the wrong threats, and, ultimately, the prospect of paying a price measured in jeopardized security interests, national treasure, and the lives of young American service men and women.

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