Preparing for an era of uncertainty
As the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan and places less emphasis on COIN operations, how will it prepare for the next unpredictable conflict?
The reduction of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan certainly does not mark the end of the counterinsurgency (COIN) mission there. However, it does signal a need to think about how military training and simulation requirements might change in the coming decade. With U.S. and NATO forces likely to face unexpected opponents operating in unexpected ways in unfamiliar settings, simulation-based training needs to emphasize creativity and adaptability, as well as hone more conventional skills.
After 9/11, a heavy emphasis emerged on training for COIN, stabilization and counterterrorism missions. Doctrine was duly developed. Simulation packages followed suit. COIN-themed add-ons were created for existing software. Interactive cultural awareness and language packages, such as the Tactical Iraqi and Virtual Cultural Awareness Trainer series, were developed. So, too, were COIN-themed serious games such as “UrbanSim” and “Elusive Victory.”
Visitors to the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference could find companies willing to sell everything from armed drone simulators (complete with simulated jihadist training camps to target) and Humvee turret mock-ups (with simulated insurgent ambushes), to companies specializing in prepackaged Iraqi or Afghan villages for field exercises, or offering a roster of Arabic-, Dari- or Pashto-speaking actors.
With thousands of U.S. troops likely to be in Afghanistan for several more years, such training needs will continue. But what about preparing forces for the next conflict, in one or five or 10 years? If there is one thing that has been predictable about U.S. and NATO military engagement in the post-Cold War era, it is that it is largely unpredictable. When the Berlin Wall fell, no one imagined that NATO forces would conduct stabilization missions in Bosnia or Kosovo. Intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq seemed implausible before 9/11, and few anticipated the years of COIN that followed. Certainly no one predicted that U.S. and NATO forces would today provide air, naval and other support to rebel efforts to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
Given the dynamics of contemporary global politics — the economic rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China, the ongoing Arab Spring, the challenge of nuclear proliferation, terrorist threats that constantly metamorphose and metastasize — the next major deployment of U.S. military forces will likely be equally unanticipated. Potential state and nonstate opponents have increasing access to a broad range of military technologies, may be embedded in complex political environments or draw on global diasporas, and leverage the Internet for C3I, mobilization, and even offensive cyber purposes. They will likely utilize adaptive and asymmetric means of attack, both kinetic and nonkinetic. How does one train for such a nebulous collection of threats?
Part of the answer is to shift training from its current mission-determined preoccupations with COIN to more generic, full-spectrum war-fighting skills that are likely to be useful in a variety of settings. A second requirement, however, is to also develop training and simulation assets that encourage the kind of critical thinking and flexibility that will allow military personnel to adapt quickly to a range of inherently unpredictable mission requirements….