Guest commentator: Bill Hix on preparing for wars of the future

Today’s post critiques a recent essay entitled “Six Ways the U.S. Isn’t Ready for Wars of the Future” by my war college classmate, retired Admiral Jim Stavridis.

I want Lawfire® readers to see the differing perspectives because, among other things, understanding what (and how) top-level warfighter-clients think is critical for lawyers and others seeking to provide meaningful advice, particularly at the strategic level.  (It also illustrates the depth of knowledge about these complex issues such advisors need to have.)

In Admiral Stavridis’ essay (which I highly encourage you to read before tackling this critique) a great question is asked: “What are the key areas in which the U.S. must invest to prepare for deterrence and combat operations in the 21st century?”  He goes on to list “six ‘top of mind’ technology zones to watch”: artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, cyber, space, biotech, and special forces.

Retired Army major general Bill Hix, currently the managing partner for Next Horizons Partners LLC and formerly Director of Strategy, Plans & Policy for the US Army, sees it somewhat differently (full bio below).  Like Jim, Bill has the proverbial “big brain,” and he very graciously has agreed to offer us his insightful observations and views.

Bill doesn’t disagree with everything Jim says; indeed, he is more concerned about key matters that aren’t in the essay.  For example, he points out the too often overlooked disruptive potential of operations against the electromagnetic spectrum upon which most of the other technologies depend.

Bill takes special exception to Jim’s insistence that “[m]assive formations of armies locked in combat appear increasingly unlikely because of the cost of maintaining such forces in peacetime.”  He points out that the Chinese and the Russians do, in fact, have “mass” in their military formations.  However, he seems most concerned that such a perspective undervalues the importance of deterrence.

Put another way, if you really want to make combat between “massive formations” of enemy forces “unlikely”, you need to clearly have the ability prevail decisively in just such a conflict – and your potential opponents need to know that.

MG Bill Hix, USA (Ret.)

Bill also is extremely concerned about the absence of a coherent theory of victory and an accompanying operational concept for peer-level warfare.  This is does get into the weeds of strategic thinking, but that is exactly what’s necessary when confronting truly formidable powers like China and Russia.

All the technology in the world doesn’t help if you really don’t have a plan as to how to use it most effectively, along with a clear understanding of the end state you want to achieve.

Bill has no particular bone to pick about the importance of Special Operations Forces (SOF); indeed, as a former Green Beret, he suggests they can be vital.  The unanswered question is, however, this: in the context of today’s environment how do you get them to the fight, and sustain them there?  This is especially problematic with respect to a peer (near-peer?) adversary like China with powerful access-denial capabilities.

Anyway, here are Bill’s comments:

The Admiral seems to have phoned it in, ignoring the ever increasing complexity, speed, violence and lethality of multi-domain peer-on-peer, warfare with the US recognizing five, land, air, sea, space, and cyber, Russia adding information, and China taking a more expansive view, recognizing “electromagnetic, psychological, and intelligence,” and a “network domain” … roughly analogous to the current U.S. concept of the cyber domainand consideringcognition biology,” and “(artificial) intelligence.”  

Artificial intelligence (AI), yes, cyber, space, and autonomy, of course, and by all means biology, especially with the Chinese flirting with biology, along with cognition as military domains.

The impact of electromagnetic spectrum operations

But the Admiral brushes by electromagnetic spectrum operations that hazard AI, cyber, space, and autonomy, as well as the uber networks envisioned by the Army’s Project Convergence and Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concepts, and the existing networks upon which our current way of war depends.  This is another area where we suffer at our peril: complacency regarding our adversaries’ substantial quantitative and qualitative advantages.  

The dangers of dismissing the potential for large-scale combat operations

Having also run a future warfare assessment as a brigadier general, in my case for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Admiral’s dismissal of large-scale combat is predictable and dangerous whether on land, at sea, and in the air, waged symmetrically and/or asymmetrically.

Both Russia and China have mass and are making significant investments in conventional military capabilities … for a reason.  Land, strike, and air missile defense (AMD), predominate with Russia and air, strike, AMD, and maritime are most evident with China, but the People’s Liberation Army in the Northern Command, particularly in what used to be the Shenyang Military District, is a harbinger of things to come. 

Their current focus on the so-called grey zone is a reflection of their assessment of current US military superiority, while their investments point to an intent to marginalize that perceived US superiority in order to more aggressively pursue their national and collective interests.

The primacy of deterrence

Gen. Donn Starry, USA, 1925-2011

However, what seems to be lost in our current thinking is the military’s prime role, as noted in Gen Donn Starry’s 1982 version of FM 100-5, is deterrence.  With that short opening line, the manual then, as he had outlined earlier in an article, “Extending the Battlefield,” devoted the rest of that seminal doctrinal publication to winning, the ability to do so, of course, is a necessary precondition to conventional deterrence.

Airland Battle and accompanying modernization of the Army with the Big 5 (Abrams, etc.) and Division 86 restructuring of the Army did not win the Cold War, politics and economics prevailed.

However, it did, along with similar intellectual and technological advances in the Air Force and Navy, make a significant contribution to military deterrence by making it clear to the Soviet Union that the US and NATO could fight and win in Europe, likely without nuclear weapons, a key Starry objective.

Usefully, that deterrence framework pushed competition with the Soviet Union increasingly into other realms of statecraft where the US held an asymmetric advantage.  Such a concept, and coherent development and fielding of modern capabilities relevant to the challenges posed by our adversaries, is missing today.

The need for a coherent theory of victory and an accompanying operational concept for peer-level warfare

That might lead one to conclude that perhaps the biggest way the US isn’t ready is not the Admiral’s rather predictable list, but rather is the absence of a coherent theory of victory and an accompanying operational concept for peer level warfare.  

Multi-domain operations moves the ball a bit, effectively the 21st century conceptual equivalent of what the Active Defense was to Airland Battle, necessary but insufficient. That said, the Army has a way to go, particularly in visualizing and describing its current and future contributions to resolving a potential fight with China.

I have my reservations with Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO), particularly regarding the threat of being targeted and challenges with mobility and logistics, which create new demands on already Navy, Army, and Air Force capabilities. 

Conversely, acknowledging the threats described in the recent book The New Battle for the Atlantic: Emerging Naval Competition with Russia in the Far North, and the often-discussed challenges of war in the South China Sea and Pacific writ large, I’m encouraged by the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept.  

Still, I’d like to see more acknowledgement of the need for/value of power projection and remain concerned with the overall capacity of our maritime forces.  But the Air Force All Domain Command and Control (ADC2) and the Joint Staff’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2 ) concepts don’t really get after warfighting, and reports from the related joint warfighting concept effort are not reassuring.

Special operations forces

On the question of Special Operations Forces (SOF), they certainly has an important role, though, given current investment, it is not an area that would seem to warrant inclusion in a top-six list.  As others have noted, SOF is vital in the so called grey zone of proxy wars (unconventional warfare/information warfare) and partner building (foreign internal defense), both of which play in the realm of political warfare.

However, it’s currently a big reach, other than on the periphery, to get SOF positioned where those forces can infiltrate (beyond positioning early and being “rollover” by invading forces), survive, thrive and contribute in the execution of SOF missions like unconventional warfare (UW) and other traditional missions (special reconnaissance, direct action, etc.) and emerging missions (cyber placement and access, perhaps) in a peer on peer fight.

With most, if not all of the air, space, cyber, and electromagnet domain dominance enjoyed over the last 20 years now contested, if not lost, the challenges are very real.  Some of the work done on Korea remains instructive, as does certain aspects of SOF’s experience in Syria.  While not impossible, there is a lot of work to be done to make SOF viable in this emerging conflict environment.

I had hoped the Admiral would have provided a more comprehensive and nuanced discussion regarding the daunting challenges of future wars, the resolution of which likely defy a mere six of anything


Bill Hix is founder and managing partner of Next Horizon Partners, an innovation and strategy accelerator focused on helping defense, security, and technology customers develop innovative strategies and creative solutions. Formerly the US Army’s Chief Strategy Officer and a retired Major General, Bill’s 37-year military career spanned airborne infantry, special forces, strategy, and innovation assignments in war and peace.  A graduate of West Point, Bill holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Military Art and Science, was a Hoover Institution National Security Affairs Fellow, is a published author and accomplished public speaker, and is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Army Research and Development, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Army Strategist Association.

The views expressed by guest commentators do not necessarily reflect those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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