Thinking clearly about the future of warfare


Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is the deputy commanding general, Futures, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.

By Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, U.S. Army

Anticipating the demands of future armed conflict requires an understanding of continuities in the nature of war as well as an appreciation for changes in the character for armed conflict. —The U.S. Army Operating Concept

Expert knowledge is a pillar of our military profession, and the ability to think clearly about war is fundamental to developing expert knowledge across a career of service. Junior leaders must understand war to explain to their Soldiers how their unit’s actions contribute to the accomplishment of campaign objectives. Senior officers draw on their understanding of war to provide the best military advice to civilian leaders. Every Army leader uses his or her vision of future conflict as a basis for how he or she trains soldiers and units. Every commander understands, visualizes, describes, directs, leads and assesses operations based, in part, on his or her understanding of continuities in the nature of war and of changes in the character of warfare.

A failure to understand war through a consideration of continuity and change risks what nineteenth century Prussian philosopher Carl von Clausewitz warned against: regarding war as “something autonomous” rather than “an instrument of policy,” misunderstanding “the kind of war on which we are embarking,” and trying to turn war into “something that is alien to its nature.”

In recent years, many of the difficulties encountered in strategic decision making, operational planning, training and force development stemmed from neglect of continuities in the nature of war. The best way to guard against the tendency to try to turn war into something alien to its nature is to understand four key continuities in the nature of war and how the U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq validated their importance.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, defense thinking was dominated by theories that considered military operations as ends in and of themselves rather than essential components of campaigns that integrate the broad range of efforts necessary to achieve campaign objectives. Advocates of what became the orthodoxy of the “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA, predicted that advances in surveillance, communications, and information technologies, combined with precision strike weapons, would overwhelm any opponent and deliver fast, cheap, and efficient victories. War was reduced to a targeting exercise. These conceits complicated efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq as unrealistic and underdeveloped war plans confronted unanticipated and underappreciated political realities.

War is Uncertain

Although advances in technology will continue to influence the character of warfare, the effect of technologies on land  are often not as great as in other domains due to geography, the interaction with adaptive enemies, the presence of noncombatants, and other complexities associated with war’s continuities. —The U.S. Army Operating Concept

The dominant assumption of the RMA was that knowledge would be the key to victory in future war. Near-perfect intelligence would enable precise military operations that, in turn, would deliver rapid victory. In Afghanistan and Iraq, planning based on linear projections did not anticipate enemy adaptations or the evolution of those conflicts in ways that were difficult to predict at the outset.

Army professionals recognize war’s uncertainty because they are sensitive to war’s political and human aspects, and they know from experience and history that war always involves a continuous interaction with determined, adaptive enemies.

The Army Operating Concept, or AOC, emphasizes the tenet of adaptability and the need for leaders to “assess the situation continuously, develop innovative solutions to problems, and remain mentally and physically agile to capitalize on opportunities.” The AOC also redefines the tenet of depth to highlight the need to “think ahead in time and determine how to connect tactical and operational objectives to strategic goals.”


The U.S. Army’s differential advantage over enemies derives, in part, from the integration of advanced technologies with skilled soldiers and well-trained teams. —The U.S. Army Operating Concept

Science and technology will continue to influence the character of warfare. While the U.S. Army differential advantages over potential enemies will continue to depend in large measure on advanced technology, winning in a complex world requires powerful combinations of leadership, skilled soldiers, well-trained units and technology. There are no technological silver bullets. The Army must integrate new technological capabilities with complementary changes in doctrine, organization, training, leader development, personnel and other elements of combat effectiveness.

Army technological development emphasizes the need for all formations to possess the appropriate combination of mobility, protection and lethality. And the Army places Soldiers at the center of that effort, pursuing “advances in human sciences for cognitive, social, and physical development” while fitting weapons and machines to soldiers and units rather than the other way around.

Our Army is innovating under Force 2025

Maneuvers, “the physical (experimentation, evaluations, exercises, modeling, simulations, and war games) and intellectual (studies, analysis, concept, and capabilities development) activities that help leaders integrate future capabilities and develop interim solutions to warfighting challenges.”

Successful innovation will require focused and sustained collaboration among Army professionals committed to reading, thinking and learning about the problem of future armed conflict, and determining what capabilities our Army and joint force must develop to win in a complex world.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from “Continuity and Change,” a March/April 2015 Military Review article by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster. McMaster is the deputy commanding general, Futures, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. He has a doctorate in military history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. McMaster has served as a U.S. Army War College Fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace and as a senior consulting fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.


This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on innovation. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.