Heli Echoes
18 November 2022

Get Out of Afghanistan: A Challenge to Military Design Thinking Educators

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By Aaron P Jackson

Heli Echoes

After a lengthy diversion into emergency management during the first two-and-a-half years of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have recently stepped back into researching and teaching military design thinking. My time away from routine engagement with the military design thinking community has given me a fresh perspective. Now that I have returned, I have observed (in my own teachings and in general) that a change is required. The challenge I pose here is for military design thinking educators to affect that change.

As the saying goes, history does not repeat but it certainly rhymes. For instance, take a look at the photos above. At left, a helicopter evacuates personnel from Saigon in 1975. At right, from Kabul in 2021. This ‘rhyme’, due to its photogenic qualities, received much mainstream media coverage. What has not been covered in the mainstream media (possibly because it is not as photogenic) is what happened in the US military in the years that followed the evacuation of Saigon. My observation today concerns a desire to avoid in the near future another potential ‘rhyme’ with the situation in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The relevant aspect of this history is the US Army’s development of its Active Defense doctrine published in 1976, and AirLand Battle doctrine published in 1982. This period has been described as the US Army’s ‘doctrinal renaissance’, with development driven by concerns that the Vietnam War had resulted in a decade-long disruption to the US Army’s preparation to defend Western Europe. Concerns about Soviet qualitative gains during this decade were exacerbated by the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which dramatically demonstrated the battlefield potential of contemporary Soviet weapons systems. Confronted by this challenge, the US Army set out to reorient itself towards winning a conventional land war in Europe.

This reorientation was facilitated by the establishment of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in 1973. TRADOC’s publication of the Active Defense doctrine in 1976 was the reorientation’s initial result. This doctrine triggered an unusually extensive debate about the suitability of its operating concept, exposing several flaws in its approach. Its 1982 replacement, the AirLand Battle doctrine, addressed these flaws by promulgating a more conceptually rigorous operating concept.

Employment of this concept, and its subsequent evolution in a 1986 doctrine manual, were credited for the US victory in the 1991 Gulf War. AirLand Battle, combined with new technologies such as precision munitions and space-based navigation systems, was employed to stunning success against Saddam Hussein’s forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq. This success initiated the ‘revolution in military affairs’ debate that dominated Western military and operational theory during the 1990s.

The other part of this history, which received much less attention until after the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, is that the US Army’s refocus on preparing for a conventional war in Europe enabled it to avoid confronting institutionally difficult questions posed by its experience in Vietnam. Counterinsurgency, for instance, was relegated to US Special Operations Forces. When taught during professional military education (PME) courses, it was usually relegated to minor elective topics that sat on the fringes of course programs.

The result of this focus on conventional warfare was the rapid removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001 and of Saddam from power in Iraq in 2003 during the initial ‘conventional’ stages of these wars, followed by failure to turn these battlefield successes into strategic victory during the occupations that followed – the same problem that had occurred in Vietnam. As the US military sought with a degree of desperation to reverse the situation in Iraq in particular, military design thinking was first incorporated into its PME programs alongside a renewed focus on counterinsurgency. Since then, military design thinking has broadened in scope, being applied to address a range of technical and institutional as well as operational problems.

Now, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fade into history, Western militaries and the US in particular find themselves in a similar position to the mid-1970s. Identifying the causes of what was ultimately a failure in Afghanistan has been difficult, and the discussion is not especially palatable. Strategically, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and increasing Chinese belligerence in the Pacific have reoriented the US military towards peer-to-peer competition. In the same way the focus shifted away from Vietnam and towards conventional warfare in the late 1970s, so to it is shifting today away from Iraq and Afghanistan. History does not repeat but it certainly rhymes.

This brings me to the significant contemporary challenge facing military design thinking educators. We need to prove that military design thinking remains relevant in the context of the renewed strategic focus on peer-to-peer competition, or else risk being consigned to the fringes of military attention.

So far, I have not seen evidence that military design thinking educators have shifted focus. Examples of design-led innovation in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to be viewed as outdated by contemporary PME students. This is a significant attitudinal change that was not evident a few years ago, and military design thinking educators do not seem to have adapted to it. In contrast, those who teach ‘traditional’ operational art approaches can readily describe current Ukrainian actions as operational art.

Furthermore, examples of the operational success of military design thinking in conventional or large-scale settings are of paramount importance. Examples of design thinking used to address technical or institutional problems are not sufficient, as these examples do not explain how military design thinking helps militaries to innovate in the context of military operations, success in which is their raison d’être.

If military design thinking educators cannot quickly find a way to adapt to contemporary PME students’ expectations, the result may be the perception that military design thinking was merely a means of waging yesterday’s wars. My challenge to military design thinking educators is not to let this happen. To overcome this challenge, we need to update our educational material to include contemporary examples of the operational use of design thinking in large-scale, conventional, peer-on-peer contexts. So, what have we got?


Dr Aaron P. Jackson is Senior Researcher Joint and Integrated Military Operations, in Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group. The views expressed in this article are exclusively his own, and do not reflect those of any organisation with which he is or has previously been affiliated.

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