Gen. James E. Rainey is a four-star Army general and the commander of the Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas. Last week, he was the last speaker at a two-day conference I attended in Fayetteville, the AUSA Warfighter Summit & Exposition.
I stayed around until his talk Thursday afternoon because Rainey is one of the most important generals. The five-year-old Army Futures Command is driving modernization of the Army. How the Army will fight and what weapons and technology it will use are being studied and developed in Austin and in AFC-connected operations around the country, including Research Triangle Park.
That will have an impact on soldiers at Fort Liberty, 10 miles on the other side of town from the Crown Complex where the private, influential AUSA – the Association of the United States Army – was meeting. Fort Liberty is the largest Army base in the country, by population, with nearly 48,500 soldiers. It is the headquarters of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, the Army’s Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations Command, the U.S. Army Forces Command, and the U.S. Army Reserve Command. There are nearly 40 generals at Fort Liberty; all of them are paying attention to what Rainey’s folks are doing.
The military – including the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard – supports more than 650,000 jobs in our state, and contributes around $80 billion to North Carolina’s economy, second to agribusiness. The Army’s part of the larger Department of Defense modernization push will impact many North Carolina companies who do business with the service.
Here were some key takeaways from his speech:
– In a fight against a large adversary, like China, the enemy will be able to see U.S. forces, unless they get better at avoiding surveillance. In the counter-insurgency conflicts of the past 20 years, the enemy wasn’t watching from space, firing long-distance missiles or fielding swarms of autonomous drones. “We are going to be fighting under constant observation, and in some form of contact at all times. The enemy is going to be able to see us somewhere – electromagnetic spectrum, digitally, from space.” This is going to require counter-measures in order to survive in a transparent battlespace. “We’re going to have to figure out how to fight when the enemy’s going to know where we are, or prevent him. So concealment, deception, camouflage, constant good tactics.”
– A high modernization priority is what the military calls “fires” – such as artillery and missiles. Rainey says: “We’ve got to get out of air defense doing inbound and field artillery going out-bound. We’ve got to blend those two great teams together.”
“I personally think fires is going to move back up ahead of maneuver to the top slot. We’re going to maneuver to place fires versus using fires to condition maneuver.”
– ”Some people disagree with me. I think the probability of urban combat is indisputable, as much as we would like to bypass urban areas.” Rainey says no officer starts military planning by saying “I think I should go into an urban area, at least not anybody who should have a job too long.” But it may be unavoidable. “The enemy has to avoid us, and the only way they can do that is intermix with the civilian population.” And so the Army needs “really, really good rifle squads and tanks and a whole bunch of other capabilities,” not to do “big gigantic urban clearance attrition, but you’re gonna need to move into and through an urban area.”
That is “something we’ve got to get back,” says Rainey. “We were pretty focused on it 10 years ago.”
– He talked about the integration of humans and machines in the battlespace. “Not just robots. We are a bit away from putting a Ranger cap on a robot.” But he wants to use robot technology to reduce the risks to soldiers. “We should never again trade blood for first contact. Whether it’s an [improvised explosive device] or a minefield. The most precious weapons system we have still is the U.S. Army soldier. How do we offload risk from our humans onto robots, and at the same time free up and preserve our humans to do the things that only they can do?”
– Artificial intelligence can help decision-making but it won’t make the decisions. “Ethical decision-making in combat, we’re never going to offload that on a robot.” Beyond that, there are practical problems with machines making decisions in combat. “You come to a fork in the road. Every single piece of data is going to tell you to go left. But a good commander is going to sit there and go, ‘If it’s so obvious that I should go left, the enemy’s got to know that, so I’m going to go right.”
“That kind of creative genius warfighting,” says Rainey, “data’s not going to get you to that conclusion. We’re going to use data to inform decision-making by commanders, not make decisions for our great NCOs and officers.”
– One of the big challenges the military has is rapid development, acquisition and fielding of new equipment and technology. The acquisition process is complex. The military doesn’t have some technology that is used by business and consumers. “We should be able to look at something happening on the battlefield and turn that into a no-kidding capability in the leading edge of our formations inside of about 18 to 24 months.”
“We’re probably about six to 12 months away from being able to talk about the next ‘How we’re going to fight in the next operating concept.’ And I think that’s going to create some real opportunities for industries because there’s going to be some big ideas out there. Some things that are going to fundamentally change the way we fight.”
— The days of large, fixed command posts in forward areas are probably over, because they are too easy to target by a large adversary. “I will tell you, if we fight somebody good . . . battalion and below are not going to be able to have a command post. I don’t think so. Probably not brigades. It’s not going to look like it does now, not all this kit.”
– AFC is working to solve communication challenges and improve command and control networks. “If you’re in a tank, you should be able to dismount and take your tablet with you and walk into . . . a building and it should still work. You can get out of your car with your phone and stay on a call with your spouse, and walk into your house. Why can’t we fight like that? The days of units being able to complain why can’t they establish communications, we’re going to take those excuses away from you, in a good way.”
Defense technology conference
The day before the AUSA Summit, at Fayetteville Technical Community College, the Defense Technology Summit was hosted by the North Carolina Military Business Center and the North Carolina Defense Technology Transition Office.
One of the speakers was U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who said there was much that could be learned from the war in Ukraine.
“We’ve seen what modern conventional warfare looks like. And we’ve seen things on the battlefield that we’ve never seen before. If you separate the disastrous humanitarian toll that’s being taken on the Ukrainian people from the insight that that provides us for the future of warfare, I can’t help but think that the collective minds in this room and the defense industrial base [can] take those learnings. While Putin is spending the next decade or 20 years to rebuild his military, we can have a significant quantitative advantage [than] we have ever had.
“And guess who else is watching? China. And we’ve learned a lot in Ukraine that has application in that theater. So this is an opportunity for your best minds, your most creative and innovative thinkers, working with the DOD, to seize this moment.”