Developing Mission Focus to Ensure Military Expertise and Esprit de Corps in Army of 2020

The Army faces a number of challenges as it transitions from a force tempered in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations to an Army fully capable of unified land operations and decisive action. Fiscal constraints and changes in the recruiting environment, including the decreased number of Americans eligible for service,1 will surely impact the Army. Meanwhile, there are internal challenges the Army and our profession must address, otherwise we risk eroding the ability to fight and win our nation’s wars. The greatest challenge the Army will face in the upcoming decade is developing a strategic vision that galvanizes mission focus to maintain our operational and tactical military expertise.

Over the last decade, the Army, its Soldiers and its leaders were motivated to maintain military expertise and combat readiness because of the mission focus that regularly scheduled deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan demanded. As combat deployments decrease in the near-term, the Army will shift its mission focus to other existing or emerging threats through mission-essential task list (METL)-based training.2 The more realistic and relevant the training environment, the more Soldiers will strive toward achieving individual and collective technical and tactical proficiencies. Each unit’s mission focus – a combination of its aforementioned METL and training environment—will help drive disciplined training.

As we transition to an interwar period, the Army faces unique challenges in maintaining an adequate force size and structure, as well as tough, realistic training. Reflecting on similar periods in Army history will help us identify and navigate the challenges of the coming decade. Two excellent historic periods from which the Army can draw insight for the coming decade are post-World War II and post-Vietnam. These two eras are vastly different from each other, and one of the fundamental differences was in the Army’s ability to maintain a mission focus during the transition from Vietnam. The challenges the Army is facing as it draws down from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan could have outcomes similar to those encountered in these two eras unless the Army develops a strategic vision that provides mission focus to instill military expertise and combat readiness.

Post-World War II

After the Allies declared victory at the conclusion of World War II in 1945, U.S. civilian authorities and the Army shifted their focus toward demobilization. From 1945 to 1947, the Army struggled to stabilize the rapid turnover of personnel, thereby overwhelming its efforts to focus on training, despite indications that a future conflict was possible in Korea.3 It was not until 1947 that the military was able to begin small-scale joint training exercises similar to those executed in World War II.4 However, these exercises would fail to prepare the Army for its initial Korean War engagements.

By the end of World War II, the U.S. Army was arguably the strongest Army the world had ever seen, comprised of an astronomical 6 million Soldiers.5 However, almost immediately after victory, civilian authorities shifted their focus to the demobilization of forces, resulting in 10 understrength divisions with 684,000 Soldiers.6 These drastic cuts were executed in accordance with the nation’s focus on recognizing what it perceived to be an enduring peace. It was not until Congress passed the Selective Service Act (SSA) of 1948 that that Army began to sufficiently address the personnel shortages that would enable it to train and prepare for future missions.7

While the Army was stabilizing its endstrength in late 1947, it simultaneously began training exercises to teach new recruits and regain tactical competencies not practiced in the previous two years. It conducted Exercise Seminole in October 1947, combining the Navy’s amphibious-landing techniques and the Army’s armored tactics. In December 1947, the Army conducted another joint training exercise, this time with the Air Force during Exercise Snowdrop, a battalion-sized airborne maneuver that provided Soldiers and airmen valuable training in deep snow and freezing temperatures. The Army then conducted Joint Exercise Combine III with the Air Force, Navy and Marines, which focused on coordination of bombardments, air support and airborne missions. Finally, Exercise Assembly in May 1948, the high point in the early development of joint training, was a division-size exercise conducted by 82nd Airborne Division and two Air Force troop-carrier groups. This was the first field maneuver at the division level in three years and a first for many of the new recruits.8

These exercises would fail to prepare the Army for the Korean War for two reasons. First, most units that would fight in Korea were executing occupation duty in Japan and were unable to participate in these exercises. Second, the units that would fight in Korea had not benefitted from the SSA yet and were still undermanned and ill-equipped.9 Ultimately, following Task Force Smith’s defeat at Osan, Korea, in 1950, the United States had to quickly increase the Army’s authorized force levels and refocus on regaining its military expertise to adequately prepare additional units for the Korean War.

The Army had to spend years reconstituting itself following demobilization. The lessons are clear; civilian authorities will demobilize the Army following a war, but the Army cannot lose its mission focus, otherwise we risk being inadequately prepared for future conflicts. Following World War II, joint training exercises had the potential to be the mission focus the Army needed to maintain its military expertise. These exercises emphasized tough, realistic training that included the coordination and simultaneous employment of all three services. Unfortunately, it took nearly three years to begin this training, at which time the Korean War would start in less than two years.


The Army experienced major transitions again following the Vietnam War. However, unlike post-World War II, the Army quickly shifted its training and mission focus to prepare for the Soviet threat in Europe. The publication Victory Starts Here: a 35-year History of the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command thoroughly describes two significant transition points following the Vietnam War. The first was establishment of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and the second was its revisions of Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations.10 Both these milestones made significant improvements to training and military development in preparation for future conflicts. These two actions, initially meant to prepare the United States for the Soviet threat in the Fulda Gap, would ultimately generate the tactical force that decisively defeated the Iraqi Army in 1991.

Upon conclusion of the U.S. Army’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Army created TRADOC to standardize and focus the Army’s training for and development of future conflicts. At that time, TRADOC was charged with preparing the Army for the increasing Soviet influence across the globe. Amid the Soviet threat, GEN William E. Depuy, TRADOC’s first commander, published the new FM 100-5, Operations, recognizing the fact that the U.S. Army needed to be capable of fighting when outnumbered and win.11 The initial version of FM 100-5 was defensive in nature, due to the extraordinary number of Soviet forces, and focused on the active defense with no consideration of subsequent operations. GEN Donn A. Starry, Depuy’s successor, recognized this flaw while serving as V Corps commander in Europe. Along with the help of GEN Edward C. Meyer, TRADOC began revising FM 100-5 to focus on interdicting targets deep in the enemy rear to disrupt the Soviet second echelon by incorporating the U.S. Air Force, thus developing the AirLand Battle-focused FM 100-5, which the Army used until the end of the Gulf War.12

Nearly simultaneous with TRADOC’s establishment, the Army reorganized itself, establishing the “ToE Army” to standardize deployable units according to the doctrine they were expected to execute. The Army established about 1,200 tables of organization and equipment (ToEs) for deployable combat units and tables of distribution and allowances (TDAs) for non-deployable units, most of which were dedicated to training.13 The reorganization of TDA units included the creation of the combat training centers (CTCs) – the National Training Center (NTC), the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) and the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) – where units would conduct training rotations to be tested on their military expertise.

This reorganization established TRADOC’s Army of Excellence, a title and concept the Army used to describe the Army’s force structure until the modular brigade combat team (BCT) transformation in 2006. The implementation of the Army of Excellence set the conditions for AirLand Battle doctrine, institutional training and, ultimately, established a mission focus that set the conditions for the Cold and Gulf wars.

The Army experienced a drawdown in forces following Vietnam as it did following World War II; however, having learned from the mistakes of the previous drawdowns, the Army embraced a smaller force structure that was focused on Europe’s defense. While the Army’s combat forces focused on training, its research and development divisions created the requisite advancements in military technology. Lessons-learned from the Yom Kippur War of 1973 significantly contributed to the development of weapons and equipment technology. This period invigorated one of the largest modernizations of equipment the Army has ever seen, highlighted by the Big Five: the M1 Abrams main battle tank, the M2 and M3 Bradley fighting vehicles, the Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, and the Patriot air-defense missile. These state-of-the-art weapons would further strengthen an Army focused on the Soviet threat.

The post-Vietnam-era Army made significant improvements that still affect the way the Army operates today. The creation of TRADOC helped synchronize the Army’s mission focus and professionalized the way it trained for future conflicts. Multiple revisions of FM 100-5 demonstrated the Army’s ability to adapt and ensured it had the best tactics for the Cold War’s perceived threats. The addition of the Big Five ensured the Army held technological superiority over the Soviet threat. Significant to our analysis, these three developments were all based on the mission focus of containing the Soviet threat. Although the Army cannot simplify the complex environment of the future into a single threat as we could in the post-Vietnam War era, we should similarly focus on future missions to obtain the same level of military expertise the Army had in the 1980s and 1990s.

Current strategic guidance

The Army has begun crafting a vision for itself post-Afghanistan in its strategic guidance and the evolving operational environment encountered during CTC rotations. The National Security Strategy of 2010 highlighted the Army’s near-term completion of its mission in Afghanistan and the need to begin preparing for the full range of military operations.14 In turn, beginning the same year, the CTCs began executing full-spectrum operation (FSO) / decisive-action training environment (DATE) rotations.15 These changes and discussions of their impact on training have begun to take place, but based on personal observations, they have yet to be universally recognized or incorporated across the force.

Following publication of the National Security Strategy of 2010, the White House published a second document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership. This document expanded on the guidance given in the National Security Strategy by outlining regions of interest and prescribing the armed forces’ primary missions. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and TRADOC took the guidance provided in Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership and crafted two more commonly known documents: Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020 and TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-0, The U.S. Army Capstone Concept. These documents outline the Army’s required tasks and capabilities; however, they did not synchronize or prioritize the desired capabilities to ensure the Army is capable of fulfilling all the required missions.

Synchronizing and prioritizing capabilities will help ensure the Army is prepared to accomplish all future missions. For clarification, we define synchronizing capabilities as assigning mission capabilities to subordinate organizations to ensure the larger organization is capable of accomplishing all the required missions. Secondly, prioritizing capabilities is defined as rank-ordering the assigned missions to assist subordinate commanders in developing their own METLs. Both synchronizing and prioritizing can and should take place at all levels from the Army G-3 to company commanders as part of the METL development and approval process. Through synchronization and prioritization, senior Army commanders, in coordination with combatant commanders, could then ensure all types of missions are being prepared for in some mixture, while not broadening each unit’s mission focus unnecessarily.

By not synchronizing or prioritizing the desired capabilities, the Army’s current strategic guidance makes the Army susceptible to two negative scenarios. Without synchronizing desired capabilities across its units, the Army may find itself unable to accomplish a required mission if no commanders chose to prepare for a mission capability prescribed by senior civil or military leaders. In the absence of more specific guidance, tactical commanders at division and brigade will develop METLs and prioritize training independent of each other, allowing for the possibility that all units prioritize the same capabilities – therefore neglecting the other desired capabilities.

The second scenario is one in which units fail to prioritize capabilities. If the Army and its units do not prioritize its competencies through METL development, it consciously chooses not to focus its training. Mission focus is a key component to Soldiers’ motivation and, subsequently, esprit de corps. In this regard, the current strategic guidance requires tactical commanders to make decisions regarding priorities and METLs that may have strategic consequences.

Current CTC environment

The Army made the strategic decision in 2010 to begin executing DATE rotations at the CTCs to prepare units for combined-arms maneuver and the full range of mission sets in a complex environment. Over the last 10 years, most CTC rotations were mission-readiness exercises focused on ongoing overseas contingency operations (e.g., COIN operations, battlespace integrators and/or security-force advise-and-assist teams). However, since then, all three CTCs have conducted DATE rotations, and they are increasing in frequency as we continue to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan.16 The challenge in preparing for these rotations is to ensure home-station unit training and the CTC training share a realistic and relevant mission focus.

A review of published feedback following DATE rotations reveals a number of challenges pertinent to our shift in mission focus. Although the lessons-learned have not yet been shared universally across the force, leaders have begun sharing these lessons through publications including those highlighted following. The 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, executed the first DATE rotation at JRTC in 2010, and LTC Brian K. Flood et al captured some of their challenges in ARMOR.17 Flood’s reconnaissance squadron was the first to execute decisive action at a CTC since the modular BCT transformation following the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he made a number of suggestions for the employment of ground reconnaissance assets; synchronization of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets; and future modified ToE considerations.

A subsequent rotation by 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, resulted in more feedback particularly relevant to our discussion of mission focus. In his after-action report, MG Joseph Anderson wrote: “The [opposing force] employed at CTCs replicate predominately conventional threats provided with matching capabilities across all warfighting functions, including [unmanned aerial vehicles], rotary wing, fixed wing … jamming, cyberattack and a myriad of accepted asymmetrical threat capabilities (improvised explosive devices, insurgents, high-end [anti-tank] systems, etc.). However, modular BCTs were never designed to combat this myriad of threats simultaneously.”18

This critique highlights the hybrid threat the Army is likely to face in the future. More importantly, it challenges us to reassess our current task organizations, training and equipment to ensure we are capable of meeting this complex environment in the future. Transitioning from an Army experienced in COIN to an Army proficient in decisive action will not be easy, and we must be mindful in how we prepare ourselves for this transition. Many of the core combined-arms maneuver proficiencies required in decisive action have degraded over the last 10 years, and on top of that, the threats we are expected to face have become more complex.

Guidance and training have a tremendous impact on military expertise and the esprit de corps of our Army. As outlined in Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 1, The Army, a key component of esprit de corps is mission focus, which subsequently inspires discipline and motivation in our Soldiers. The transitions that will occur in the coming decade are going to be significant and challenging. To do so successfully, we must develop METLs and communicate a vision that ensures our Soldiers understand their purpose and know that they are being provided the conditions conducive to our evolution. There are many different components to developing the Army’s capacity to win our nation’s wars in a complex environment, and a vital part of this must be developing a mission focus.

Proposed mission foci

As the Army transitions from Afghanistan, its leaders must establish a mission focus to drive military expertise and inspire esprit de corps. There are many good courses of action to develop mission focus within our units, including regional alignment, focusing on our core competencies such as combined-arms maneuver, or focusing on enabling competencies including entry operations.19 Senior Army Leaders have mentioned all these ideas within the last few years, but the challenge is crafting the desired outcomes – as defined in Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership – into a comprehensive vision that provides guidance and mission focus for all units.

Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Raymond T. Odierno laid out one solution to the question of mission focus in 2012 when he outlined the concept of regionally aligned forces – including brigades, divisions and corps. The plan is for regionally aligned BCTs to conduct an Army Forces Generation (ARFORGEN) training cycle culminating in a DATE rotation at a CTC. During the ARFORGEN cycle, the BCT could be alerted to deploy in support of their assigned regional command (e.g., U.S. Central Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Pacific Command, etc.) as an advise-and-assist force to provide humanitarian support, or as a stabilization force, etc., as requested by the combatant commander and ordered by the commander in chief.20 This solution by its very nature would include a strong mission focus based on regional challenges, contingency plans or threats in its assigned geographic region. The training cycle would include at least rudimentary education on regional events to increase our understanding and appreciation of the operational environment, thereby further enhancing mission focus and the applicable military expertise.

Another potential mission focus is entry operations. This is another very real requirement mentioned in Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership. LTG Frank Helmick, then the commanding general of XVIII Airborne Corps, highlighted at the 2010 Maneuver Conference that after 10 years of conflict, proficiency in entry operations (airborne and air assault) has degraded significantly. Although entry operations comparable to Normandy are unlikely in the future, similar concepts have been used multiple times over the last decades: in 1983 for Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, in 1989 for Operation Just Cause in Panama, in 2003 when 173rd parachuted into Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom; and in 2010 as part of Operation Unified Response following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. The units that specialize in these tactics would be well served to re-master these highly complex operations, and they could do so in concert with the Army’s global-response-force tasking. Re-establishing proficiency in entry operations would not only provide mission focus but would regenerate esprit de corps through a renewed appreciation of these units’ storied histories and unique skillsets.

Finally, as it did following Vietnam, the Army is likely to focus on re-establishing our dominance in combined-arms maneuver. However, there are two challenges we must address. First, as an Army we must not neglect the requirement to maintain our other core competency, wide-area security. Although current strategic guidance places minimal emphasis on protracted stability operations – wide-area security – there is no guarantee we can avoid becoming involved in them in the future. Second, within the anticipated complex operational environment, we must ensure we enhance mission focus through realistic and challenging training environments. The Army recognizes the modern global operational environment is very complex, so we must be capable of addressing the myriad of threats.

We must define our mission focus soon, otherwise we risk our military expertise atrophying in a global environment that could require the Army’s employment sooner than we would like, as Task Force Smith encountered. We must also recognize that the entire Army does not need to share a singular mission focus as we chose to do following the Vietnam War. After that conflict, most Soldiers and leaders consciously ignored the lessons we learned fighting a COIN as a stabilization force and focused solely on combined-arms maneuver. We should not risk the inability to execute unforeseen or undesired mission sets, as we did in Korea, and the initial phases of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Given the vast requirements laid out in Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership and the potential solutions reviewed here, the Army should synchronize and prioritize capabilities across the force. By doing this, we can preserve mission focus at the tactical level but remain adaptable to the strategic challenges of the future.


1 Christeson, William, Taggart, Amy Dawson, and Messner-Zidell, Soren, Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve, Washington, DC: Mission: Readiness, 2009.

2 Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 7-0, Training Units and Developing Leaders, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 2012.

3 U.S. National Security Council, NSC-8: A Report to the President by the National Security Council on the Position of the United States with Respect to Korea, Washington, DC, April 1948.

4 Forrestal, James, “The State of the National Military Establishment,” Military Review, Fort Leavenworth, KS, April 1949.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Varhola, Michael J., Fire and Ice: the Korean War, 1950-1953, Mason City, IA: Da Capo Press, June 2000.

10 King, Benjamin, Victory Starts Here: a 35-Year History of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2008.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 The White House, National Security Strategy, May 2010.

15 FSO was the doctrinal term in FM 3-0, Operations, in 2008, but decisive action replaced FSO in ADP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, 2011.

16 Tan, Michelle, “DATE gives training a reboot,” Army Times,, April 11, 2012; retrieved Feb. 20, 2013.

17 Flood, Brian K. LTC, Hayes, James A. MAJ, and Cook, Forrest V. MAJ, “IBCT’s Reconnaissance Squadron in Full-Spectrum Operations,” ARMOR, March-April 2011.

18 Anderson, Joseph MG, “4th Infantry Division Decisive-Action Rotation NTC 13-02 Senior-Leader Observations,” Fort Carson, CO, November 2012.

19 Ibid.

20 ADP 1 defines the Army’s core competencies to be combined-arms maneuver and wide-area security, while the enabling competencies are 1) support security cooperation, 2) tailor forces for the combatant commander, 3) conduct entry operations, 4) provide flexible mission command, 5) support joint and Army forces, 6) support domestic civil authorities, and 7) mobilize and integrate the Reserve Components.

21 Odierno, Ray GEN, “Regionally Aligned Forces: A New Model for Building Partnerships,” Army Live,, March 2012.