Updating Our Mental Model of a Military Fighting Force

What the American collective conscience thinks war is, is looking backwards through a doorway in time

Here’s a few stream of consciousness observations on what’s useful and what’s less useful when it comes to our mental model of a military fighting force circa 2021. The model could use an update. There’s a Russian propaganda commercial. And there’s a Senator tweeting it out. And there's a political fight about how much we should or shouldn’t care about diversity in our ranks.


My two cents: 1-The military should be some cross section of the population it serves. That a society has a permanent “warrior class” that lives separate and to different standards is something that tends to not end particularly well. 2-War is about violence and death. But it’s always been about as little violence and death as it takes. As with anything…there’s opportunity to optimize.

For background: I spent 10 years on active duty as a naval officer mostly in the Naval Special Warfare community assigned to SEAL, Boat or Special. Reconnaissance Teams. I’m not a SEAL. I was a science project they repurposed to create new tech enabled operational capabilities. One day I’ll write something on exactly what I was…as soon as I figure it out myself. The main point is that I served in multiple conflicts in both operational and staff capacities alongside the most elite of the elite and the most common of the common.

Now on to the observations.

-By far the thing that makes a single human the most valuable in a combat theater circa 2021 in their ability to work with communications and IT infrastructure. Never go anywhere without your comms person was a rule that has only gotten bigger since I left the fight. Making radios talk, finding the satellite and making networks network anywhere anyplace is THE skill that enables modern military operations. In a small team there has to be one ace and no one can be a tech rock. If you’re standing up a large presence than there has to be a scalable IT capability. It’s not an enabling support function. Beaming trons from wherever you are IS the point today.

There will be a day, and in some places it’s already here, when the ability to deny the transmission of signal will be the same as actually controlling territory with the threat of effective physical violence. We once realized that if planes could fly unencumbered over top of a city, we owned the city strategically. The day is coming when if only our signal can transmit over that same city and we’ve denied all others, we’ll own it too.

What does that fighting force look like?

-Physical requirements are decreasing not increasing. The allies stormed the beaches at Normandy with a bunch of chain smokers who never saw the inside of a weight room. Technological advances over the last 80 years have actually reduced the physical burden on soldiers, not increased it. The notion that our modern soldier requirement is some uber strong man is an invention of 1980’s cold war propaganda movies augmented by the fact that we apply the standards we see in SOF fiction towards your average infantryman. Related: What’s an infantryman in 15 years…?

-Physical requirements are not what most think they are. It’s far less common to be stressed to peak physical output than it is to be carrying an annoying amount of weight for long times while being uncomfortable. On a mission I can’t ever remember saying “thank God my mile is sub 6 minutes and I can still bench 300 lbs”. But I absolutely remember saying, thank God I don’t have a bad knee or a bad back or JFC it’s cold. Fitness is far more about endurance and resilience than it is winning the NFL combine. It’s a weak link requirement…not a strong link requirement. Meaning you gain little from having the strongest link and gain much from having strong weaker links.

Also, mental fatigue is much more common than physical. If you’ve ever cared for a newborn you know more about this experience than you think.

The Special Forces are a very small part of the military. Alone, they represent near zero modern military capability. This is called out by them in their stated principles. They rely on massive logistics infrastructure and support of conventional forces. And they are extremely expensive and unscalable. They are critical to specific missions many of which will require a revision in relevance going forward. But they play an outsized perspective of what we think the modern fighting American looks like because they make more interesting characters in our current cultural dialogue. Frankly, they sell more books and make for better movies. But they’re not beating China.

-Boots on the ground missions are being automated out of the military workforce just like similar jobs are being automated out of the private sector . One of the programs I was responsible for was our drone program. The mission was to eliminate the requirement for boots on the ground for as many applications as we could. Operation Red Wings which, at the time, killed more SEALs than any mission ever, would never have happened if the initial reconnaissance mission were a drone flight. My skipper reminded me that nearly every day. So, as early as 2010, we’d wiped out the need for human presence for more missions than you’d think.

Drone technology has accelerated exponentially since. We flew a helicopter on Mars last month. We’re way closer to an army of drones and networked precision platforms than most of us think we are.

Usually this is the point where someone says, “you can’t replace human presence for certain things”. That’s absolutely correct. But you sure as hell can for many many things. Which means boots on the ground requirements are decreasing…not increasing.

-Actual pilots in aircraft, for many/(most?) missions, are optional. And they have been for some time. We may never get rid of the pilot. But it won’t be because we can’t. I’ll reference the helo on Mars again…

-We’re 15 years past the heaviest combat of our last war. More importantly, we’re THESE 15 YEARS past the heaviest combat fighting of our last war. What the American collective conscience thinks war is, is looking backwards through a doorway in time where we are presently beyond the most dynamic advances in information transmission and organization, quantum computing, and data storage that history has ever seen. Not recognizing what hasn’t passed through the modern technology filter is always the trap of warfare.

-An 18 year old recruit today was born after 9/11 AND the invasion of Iraq. Google purchased Youtube before they made it to Kindergarten. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed before they got to second grade. Women were allowed into the service Academy since before their parents were born. And they’re entering a military where the highest valued skills are in technology, engineering and communications. Yet our views of what a modern fighting force is, have not been adjusted for the current reality.

This list is not exhaustive but I think it gets us where we need to if our commitment to the exercise is some honest reckoning about what it takes for fight the 21st century wars that I hope don’t ever come. I’ll end with two questions.

1-If this is not true, what observations/experience lead us to that conclusion?

2-If it is true, what updates does the mental model of our American fighting force require?