This article is part of an ongoing series to help subscribers of The CP Journal’s Practice Section pursue mastery in behavioral observation, situational awareness and decision-making.

Following the overwhelming shock and awe campaign that characterized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, America’s enemies and adversaries faced a very simple and straightforward dilemma: give up, adapt or die.

For the Iraqi insurgents the American military was searching for, it didn’t take long to realize that wearing any sort of identification that made it clear they were an enemy of the coalition would have swift and tragic consequences for them. As a result, Iraqi insurgents learned how to blend in with the local population, avoid detection and defeat many of the equipment and technological advantages American troops had over them. After observing where so much of the American military’s strength came from, insurgents learned what was needed to survive, and they adapted. The Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Course, which was created in 2007, was one method to counter the advantages the insurgents had as a result of blending in with civilians and disguising their affiliations, but the question that I often find myself asking is why it took four years for the American military to adapt to this new reality of the situation being faced on the ground. While that’s a question that historians may examine in years to come, the more important question for warriors is to ask is, what can our military do differently in future wars to shorten the time required to learn from our enemy and make the required adaptations to win?

Anticipating Future Wars: What We Know and What We Don’t

It is difficult (if not impossible) to successfully predict the way future wars are going to be fought. While the creative exercise of anticipating the wars to come can be helpful in many ways, the sheer number of variables involved in the specifics of future conflict make any attempts at prediction merely speculation. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning economist and author Daniel Kahneman dedicates numerous chapters to explaining the biases and limitations that prevent people, especially “experts,” from being able to make accurate long-term predications about the future.

Despite the limitations in making predictions, there are still opportunities for warriors to discern some high probability assumptions about the future of conflict. Consider a likely sequence of events that a future war might follow:

1: Both sides of a conflict enter a war with a strategy to defeat their adversary. This strategy is based on an assessment of their enemy’s perceived strengths and weaknesses as well as an assessment of their own ability to use their strengths to defeat their enemy’s.

2: Initial battles are fought, which provide commanders with the feedback they need to determine if their strategy is going to be successful or not. These battles result in one of two potential outcomes.

  • Outcome 1: Each side wins some battles and loses some.
  • Outcome 2: One side is significantly more dominant and successful than the other side.

3: Commanders make new strategic decisions based on this feedback:

  • In Outcome 1: Because each commander has had at least some success, there will likely only be minor tweaks to the initial strategies, as parts of it have proven to be successful. The result will likely be an attempt to capitalize on strengths and minimize the weaknesses that the enemy has exploited for their success.
  • In Outcome 2: The successful commander will realize that the assumptions that led to their strategic choices were completely accurate. The inclination will be to reinforce success and continue to do what has worked up to that point. The unsuccessful commander will realize that the assumptions that led to their rapid defeat were completely wrong and didn’t lead to any meaningful successes. The inclination will be to make drastic changes to their strategy to defeat the strengths that their opponent has now revealed to them.

4: Battles are fought with commanders implementing their new strategies.

5: The cycle repeats.

Whether observing two MMA fighters battling one-on-one or two nations at war, unless one side of the conflict is completely defeated and concedes following the opening salvos of a war, this process of learning and adapting to the enemy is what guides the ebb and flow of combat. When considering this sequence of events, preparing for future wars doesn’t require that our military accurately predicts exactly how the war will be fought beyond the initial battles. What is required, however, is that when preparing for war, we acknowledge that there are predictable shifts that will occur. If our enemy isn’t defeated despite any initial successes, they will adapt. If we are not successful, we have to adapt before we expend the resources (whether personnel or equipment) required for success.

Identification of a Foundational Capability: Learning

Adapting to what our adversaries are doing requires that our nation’s warriors are able to do four things quickly and accurately:

  1. Recognize whether our enemy has adapted, and if so, it has changed the conditions that led to our previous success.
  2. Determine what the enemy is doing (strategically or tactically).
  3. Determine why the enemy is making that decision (determine what their intentions are).
  4. Identify and implement ways to defeat new methods and strategies.

Failing at any of these four steps means that our enemies kill an unnecessary number of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen/women because we are still trying to fight a war in a way that is no longer working. Taking too long to go through those four steps means that our country wastes valuable resources throwing money and equipment at a strategy that is no longer proving to be successful. Being able to observe situations, understand and make sense of what is occurring, and put those lessons into action is a core skill that warriors need to develop in order to be ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

If the four steps in the process can be executed quickly, it can lead to a sense of despair in our enemies as they realize that nothing they do will be successful and contribute to the destruction of their will to fight.

If it takes too long to execute the learning process, we give the enemy hope that they might win. We provide them time to continue learning and see what improvements they need to make to their new strategy to become even more successful.

Time is not on the side of the American warrior. The longer we spend in a war, the more Americans are killed and the more resources we expend only lead to declining public support. As public support wanes, our politicians may shift priorities, question the decisions made by our military leaders or change the timeline by which results need to be achieved. While operating without these internal pressures may represent the best-case scenario for the members of our military, it certainly isn’t the most likely case. The speed at which we learn, adapt and win is a core capability that needs to be continually honed. But like any other core capability, it can’t be assumed that we will simply figure it out once the war begins. It is something that needs to be intentionally developed before we go to war.

The Strengths and Limitations of the Military Development System

The way that the American military prepares warfighters for service is pretty impressive and, while some people may disagree with me, I’d argue that they are doing a fairly good job already. Consider that every year, our military takes in a large number of people, an overwhelming majority of whom has no previous military knowledge or skill, and in a relatively short amount of time prepares them to become functioning members of a military unit in combat.

For most of the skills you learn in high school or college, you were likely first exposed to the concepts in elementary school. Building, developing and adding depth to your understanding of math, the sciences, the English language and history began in kindergarten. Yet the building blocks for military-specific skills aren’t there for new members of the armed services in the same capacity. There isn’t extended exposure to concepts required for battlefield success. I didn’t grow up taking classes on patrolling, raids or how to conduct combined arms attacks in school. For many of our military’s leaders, there is one year of time dedicated to vetting and providing basic entry-level training and specialized training for their field before we expect them to be competent and contributing members of their unit. To do that consistently, to do that well and to do that at scale is impressive.

However, just because a system is good doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. The type of learning required for understanding our adversaries and adapting to what they are doing requires a different skill than what our military development system focuses on. For the individual warfighter, there isn’t time to teach them how to learn during their initial development. With only one year of time allocated to making them proficient, the military guides each person through a set program of instruction that is taught by instructors who have been developed and vetted to get each member to perform at an established standard. The decisions about what to learn, when to learn it and how to evaluate competency have already been decided. The individual warfighter isn’t afforded the time to figure out what they personally need to learn, where to find the lessons or what success look like for their time spent in development.

Yet at the same time, having gone through that process enough times to be comfortable with it is exactly the type of learning that is required for warfighters to be successful when facing their enemy. To be successful in future wars and to minimize the consequences of the adaptations that our future enemies make, our nation’s warriors need to spend time deliberately improving their ability to go through those four steps listed above. Preparing for war requires that warriors, protectors and guardians learn how to learn.

The Way Forward

Learning how to learn is a skill that falls on the individual, and the pursuit to master the process for learning is something that should be started at the earliest possible moment. Being able to go through the process of learning without the guidance of an instructor isn’t something often learned in K-12, college or military schooling because there are almost always teachers who have made a lot of the initial decisions about your learning for you. The act of intentionally learning a skill, something that you may only have a minimal amount of previous knowledge of, through observation, experimentation and guiding your own search for information in books, websites and courses that you select is incredibly challenging at first. But the potential payoff from the effort should be readily apparent. From forcing our enemies to react to us, constantly undermining their ability to attack our weaknesses and learning a process that can shorten the time needed to acquire new skills that are required for professional growth, learning how to learn is a foundational capability for those preparing for war.