US Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, an expert on managing uncertainty in armed conflict, addressed senior military leaders recently from 32 African nations at the African Land Forces Summit.
The summit was sponsored by US Army Africa for the purpose of raising understanding and cooperation among African military leaders, as they work to advance common objectives of security, stability and peace on the African continent.
McMaster, the Director of Conceptual Development and Learning Army Capabilities Integration Center, said militaries must recognize that while they can’t predict future threats, they “need to come as close as possible.”
He said that in the 1990s, American military planners “embraced an unrealistic vision of what future threats might look like.” Planners, he said, made the erroneous assumption that precision weapons would have the same capabilities in land conflict as they do in the air and at sea.
“We learned that there can never be the same degree of certainty on land as there is in aerospace and maritime,” McMaster said. “For starters, you are dealing with people, non-combatants on land.”
McMaster said the American military was forced to quickly adapt to an evolving enemy in Iraq, and most of the adaptations were made by troops in the field who had regular contact with the enemy, not by planners in remote locations.
“If you’re in an operational force, the motivation to adapt is right in front of you,” said McMaster, who commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment during its 2004-2005 Iraq deployment.
He said the deployment in the volatile region of Tal-Afar demonstrated the American military cannot rely on technological might alone, but must also work to raise its awareness of the culture, religions and social fabric of the areas in which it operates.
According to McMaster, the key to matching doctrine to current and future threats is to draw on the knowledge of Soldiers who have recently returned from combat operations.
“You are never going to get it completely right. You are never going to see the future with the clarity you would like to see it,” McMaster said. “What’s critical is to not be so far off the mark that you can’t adjust, that you can’t adapt, once the true demands of conflict become apparent to you.”