Military Experimentation Part I: Institutional Experimentation and a Future Force Development Process

Exercise Trident at Freshwater Bay, photo by Mark Cheong

This article is the first in a two part series that seeks to generate discussion and debate on military experimentation. Part 1, this article, provides a brief overview of the Institutional Experimentation Spectrum and posits a Future Force Development Process for consideration.

The re-emergence of great power competition coupled with the ever changing character of war has placed an increased emphasis on military forces to refocus, reorient and recapitalise. This demands re-evaluation of strategic and operational assessments, and development (or redevelopment) of new warfighting concepts (ways) and capabilities (means) to achieve redefined strategic and operational objectives (ends).

Employed correctly, military experimentation provides a set of valuable tools that stress, test and assess proposed force development solutions to inform and support contestability of force design and capability decisions. Military forces must embrace institutional experimentation to evolve or risk obsolescence and irrelevance.

Military experimentation has many nuanced definitions, for the purpose of this article the following definition has been developed:

military experimentation, n. Activities conducted to develop and assess innovative concepts of operation and capabilities in order to gain knowledge to inform, and support contestability[1] of, the future force development process.

It is important to note that military experimentation incorporates a number of different “tools”, which include but are not limit to: studies, seminars, table-top exercises, war gaming, modelling, simulation, technology assessment, and live-force experiments.

Institutional Experimentation Spectrum

The Experimentation spectrum spans military institutions, extending into joint, interagency and coalition realms.  It is critical to the development of the three types of force militaries must manage and evolve on a daily basis:

  • The Force-in-Being or fight tonight force. Experimentation in this context is focused on current operations and operational plans, it should be informed by the near term future operating environment, and should primarily be conducted by the commands who own these forces. In short, experimentation in this context is about doing what you can with what you have. Outputs from experimentation in this context inform capability managers of spiral development requirements for in service capabilities, and support force design and capability gap analysis, which must inform the future force development process.
  • The Objective Force. This force consists of the Force-in-Being + the programmed force (future capabilities already decided upon). Experimentation in this context is focused on integration of programmed capabilities to the Force-in-Being. While the operating context is derived from operational plans, it must also be informed by the near to mid-term future operating environment to ensure future relevance. Outputs from experimentation in this context supports in-stride iterative refinement of force design and capabilities.
  • The Future Force. This force consists of the “Objective Force” + Future Force requirements yet to be decided upon. Experimentation in this context is focused on operational concepts developed based on analysis of the mid to far term future operating environment. It should be informed by current operational plans. Outputs from experimentation in this context provide a lead turn function for Future Force design and capability investment decisions, and informs development of future operational concepts.

Fig 1: Experimentation Spectrum

Institutional experimentation priorities must be set at the highest level of institutional command, and serve as the commander’s intent. Experimentation should subsequently be conducted through a mission command approach. Most importantly, institutional processes must be established to collect, reduce and analyse knowledge gained from experimentation from across the institution to enable the staffing of recommendations for the relevant concept and capability decision-makers.

If everything is a priority then nothing is. Three to four focus areas, each with two to three tangible experimentation objectives is recommended as a limit for institutional experimentation priorities, anything more is simply a list. This limitation of experimentation focus areas and objectives compels the institution to identify true priorities from that that is merely important. A strict adherence to this degree of prioritisation also sets conditions to enable the adequate resourcing of experimentation priorities.

A Future Force Development Process

The Future Operating Environment (FOE) is opaque, dynamic and chaotic. Nevertheless, militaries must build future forces to operate, fight and win within it. Based on an analysis of the FOE, and strategic and operational imperatives to operate in it, militaries must develop operational concepts to provide a foundation for future force development and capability investment decisions, and conduct experimentation which supports contestability of those decisions.

Figure 1 presents a Future Force Development Process (FFDP) model for how to conceptualise a process for the generation of knowledge, which employs and leverages experimentation to support Future Force design decisions and future capability investment.

Figure 2: A Future Force Development Process (FFDP)

Step 1 – Define Plausible Future Operating Environment. A time horizon for the FOE we wish to examine must be identified, which must be sufficiently beyond capability investment decisions so as to be able to inform and support them. Other key input elements that must be analysed include are: Drivers of Change and Enduring National Strategic Interests.

Step 2 – Define Military Implications of the FOE. The key elements for analysis and determination during step two of the FFDP include but are not limited to identification of military strategic and operational objectives, primary threats, drivers of change which affect military operations, and likely constraints and limitations. From this analysis militaries must determine plausible most likely and most dangerous FOE as they relate to likely future military operations.

Step 3 – Develop Operational and Functional Concepts. Based on the outputs of Step 1 & 2, the development of operational concepts is a critical step in the FFDP that drives the subsequent steps of the FFDP. Future oriented operational concepts must be developed with a mindset of addressing specific future operational objectives and the associated pacing threats, and that their end-state is to form the foundation for our operational plans (OPLANs) and capability requirements of the future. This implies a requirement for them to be classified at the secret level and/or higher. They are NOT, and should not seek to be academic essays or discussion papers. Some key themes for consideration are An Army That:

  • Thinks, trains, and fights as a joint, interagency, and coalition force.
  • Is expeditionary in character and designed to persist forward with resilience in complex and contested environments/domains – makes a virtue of austerity.
  • Is able to reassure regional partners and take advantage of their proximities and capabilities.
  • Generates the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration – distributed, mobile, networked, and federated – can mass lethal and non-lethal long range fires yet is resilient and hard to target.
  • Is balanced and includes an operationally significant number of risk worthy, less expensive, adequately capable but lethal platforms and payloads – simple, cheap, expendable and/or exposable.
  • Is low signature and has the ability to manipulate its signature to achieve deception and surprise.
  • Embraces calculated risk through mission command, and is comfortable with complexity, chaos and uncertainty – “The first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control” Paul Van Riper.[ii]
  • Sets conditions for, and leverages technology advances – artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic autonomous systems, augmented human performance

Steps 3-5 – Establish Priority Learning Demands, Identify Appropriate Experimentation Tools, & Produce and Execute Campaign Plans. The identification and prioritisation of learning demands informs us what must be experimented upon, what tools should be used to experiment with and for what purpose. To identify and prioritise learning demands a thorough analysis of the operational concept and its capability requirements must be conducted. Ideally, this should be occurring concurrently to the development of the concept itself, to enable dynamic experimentation that informs iterative concept refinement.

Steps 6-7 – Capture, Analysis and Transition of Knowledge. The capture, reduction and analysis of information gained through experimentation is a large task. The resulting output reports must present clear and concise recommendations to support further concept development, future force design and capability investment decisions, and identify where more experimentation is required to support an assessment. Knowledge outputs should be staffed as recommendations with supporting evidence to the capability decision-makers in a timely manner.

In summary, experimentation must be embraced at the institutional level for military forces to remain relevant and credible for the 21st Century. Ad hoc experimentation approaches must be evolved to ensure there is a clear and common understanding of priorities and service level experiment events, which must be appropriately resourced and supported. Most importantly, knowledge gained from experimentation (large or small) must be recorded and transitioned to inform key force design decisions in a timely manner.

The FFDP and brief overview thereof presented offers a conceptual framework for how to contextualise the generation of knowledge to support future force design decisions. The conduct of experimentation that supports the FFDP must be informed, timely, dynamic, and most importantly cross functional rather than being isolated to any one organisation.

About the author

Mark Tutton is an Australian Army Officer.


[1] Contestability: The evidence base required to support a contestable combat development decision.