The next war will be dynamic and disruptive. To prepare for it, some US military leaders have embraced a mindset of “creative destruction” in order to challenge orthodoxy, adopt revolutionary changes, and even question how success should be defined on the battlefield of the future.
Along that line of thinking, for the past three years the US Army’s vaunted 75th Ranger Regiment has run an experimental military design cell called “Project Galahad.” This select team has subsequently gone against the grain of so-called conventional doctrine and investigated novel solutions to tomorrow’s warfighting problems.
“We need to be nimble and can’t hesitate to wipe the board when we need to,” Army Lt. Col. Adam Armstrong, a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment who served as a Project Galahad team member, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
According to a forthcoming article in the Special Operations Journal, Project Galahad was an “act of creative destruction” intended to “create cognitive space for experimentation.”
Armstrong described Project Galahad as a “mixed team of carefully selected officers and [non-commissioned officers] from diverse educational and experiential backgrounds chartered to think big with nearly complete autonomy, beholden only to the [regimental commander].”
“Done a lot of jobs — that’s easily in my top three,” Armstrong added.
With support from the Joint Special Operations University, since 2018 Project Galahad has become a permanent fixture within the 75th Ranger Regiment’s command system. The project’s goals include “fostering innovation” and “disrupting legacy systems to provide novel opportunities.”
Project Galahad implemented a decision-making process called “military design thinking.” A specialized field with roots in chaos and complexity theories, design thinking fosters divergent and experimental ways of problem solving.
Design thinking spurs its practitioners to “challenge their fundamental beliefs” in order to “reframe” a situation. According to the methodology, if you see problems in a different light, you’re more likely to produce innovative solutions.
An early version of design thinking called “Systemic Operational Design theory” — a product of the Israeli Defense Force’s Operational Theory Research Institute — was put into action by select US military teams on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq during the mid-2000s. Since then, the methodology has become more mainstream within the US military as it prepares for a new era of great power competition.
“History seems to show folks rarely know when they are in need of a revolutionary change until circumstances force it upon them,” Armstrong said.
America’s military personnel have the natural attributes of autonomy, creativity, and the appetite for taking risks that are necessary to combat modern adversaries. US society is unique in the value it places on novel and unconventional thinkers. We praise the rule breakers. Whereas in many other countries — particularly those of America’s primary adversaries, Russia and China — that sort of proclivity for independent thought is not inculcated in citizens throughout their lives. So, some say that a design cell like Project Galahad is an effective way for US military units to take advantage of their premier battlefield advantage — the independent character of American troops.
Answering directly to the regimental commander, Project Galahad does not implement policy. Rather, this unique team is charged with bucking orthodoxy and coming up with new ways of doing business. Unlike some other innovation-geared groups and think tanks within the US military, Project Galahad is meant to keep its pulse on the day-to-day realities of regimental life, as well as the requisites of real-world combat.
Prior to the beginning of Project Galahad in 2018, the military design process had already been used for solving real-world combat problems within the 75th Ranger Regiment. Once enacted, Armstrong said Project Galahad was subsequently geared toward “ill-defined, often nascent, and ambiguous problem sets.”
To foster creativity, the Project Galahad team members created a workspace more analogous to a Silicon Valley startup than an elite special operations unit. They covered the walls with whiteboards and Post-it notes and established dedicated collaborative spaces. They even repainted the interior in “less depressing paint than the bland tan colors found in so many government buildings,” Armstrong said. The overarching goal was to spur abstract thought. And, in that vein, the team frequently turned their cellphones and computers off and engaged in what they called “deep thought sessions.”
“By using abstract thought we found we could conceptualize things that maybe we hadn’t thought of, see things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen,” Armstrong said.
The team’s composition, too, was key to its success in generating innovative ideas. There was a major who studied music in university and who was, in Armstrong’s words, a “completely disruptive thinker.” There was a master sergeant who’d spent his career within the regiment and had an MBA “from a very high-end program.” There was a midcareer officer with a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear background, a retired Army master sergeant, and a young officer with only one year in the regiment.
“Each Ranger brought a unique perspective — officer, enlisted, lots of time and life experience, or less,” Armstrong said, adding: “We also kept each other honest. Everyone had a voice, people could question things, we could argue. I was well out of my comfort zone, but that became comfortable after a few months.”
Still, it was difficult for Project Galahad team members to “reframe.” For his part, Armstrong said that after spending 10 years in the 75th Ranger Regiment, he had a lot of “institutionalization” to kick.
“My undergraduate degree is in physics, with almost 10 years in the regiment and an infantry officer — that’s about as ‘regimented’ as they come,” Armstrong said, adding: “We found that the key for Galahad’s team members was their assimilation through structured professional development. Team members went through courses on critical thought, basic and advanced design, and even cognitive optimization.”
Rangers Lead the Way
The Army’s premier special operations direct action raid force, the 75th Ranger Regiment is headquartered at Fort Benning, Georgia. The Rangers specialize in joint special operations raids and joint forcible entry operations.
“The Rangers are the most elite large-scale fighting force the Army has to offer,” the Army says on its website. “Their mission, depending on the operation, can range from airfield seizure to special reconnaissance to direct action raids on select targets and individuals, and they have a rich operational history.”
Ranger units have always been outliers within Army doctrine. The concept of “standing orders” was adopted by US Rangers during the French and Indian War — from 1754 to 1763 — to facilitate the execution of small-unit raids.
Following the Vietnam War, a new, permanent peacetime Ranger battalion was established to be a “change agent” within the Army. It has gone through a series of expansions since then, from a single battalion to a regiment, and more recently adding a special troops battalion and military intelligence battalion. Thus, the experimental Project Galahad program is well suited to the 75th Ranger Regiment’s institutional culture, which remains receptive to novel and unconventional solutions to combat problems.
Since October 2001, the 75th Ranger Regiment has been continuously deployed in support of counterinsurgency fights that stemmed from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. War is always chaotic and dangerous and unpredictable. Yet, over the past two decades of unending combat, war has — in the American experience — existed, more or less, within a fairly consistent battlefield architecture. The nature of combat, the terrain within which it is fought, and even the general nature of the enemy haven’t significantly changed since 2001.
So, while the US military is battle-hardened after 20 years of counterinsurgency combat, all that experience doesn’t necessarily translate into a battlefield advantage against modern adversaries such as China and Russia. When Project Galahad was created, the Rangers faced “plenty of problem sets related to national security, which we knew had the potential to be very different from our experiences of the last 20 years,” Armstrong said.
The unrelenting pace of two decades of constant counterinsurgency combat has been an obstacle to the regiment’s ability to foster innovative, novel solutions to burgeoning threats. In short, the real-world demands of combat took precedence over the kind of “creative destruction” needed to adapt to new threats from burgeoning great-power competitors.
“The operational demand for continuity leaves little room for those who stray outside time-proven institutional practices. The uncertainty of war makes experimentation, even in conceptual forms, a difficult and controversial undertaking,” according to an excerpt from a forthcoming article in the Spring 2021 issue of the Special Operations Journal.
After its conception, Project Galahad helped the 75th Ranger Regiment to address future problems without diverting time and energy away from the management of ongoing combat operations.
“Project Galahad was able to take the problem set on, run it through some design iterations, and then bridge to plans while staying linked in with the regimental commander and our [higher headquarters],” Armstrong said. “Overall, I think that provided a much better product, while allowing quality to remain high on everything else that the regiment was working.”
Project Galahad’s purview also extends to the most basic institutional standards of the US military, including chain of command systems that date back to the 19th-century Prussian army.
In 2017, Col. Brandon Tegtmeier, then commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, “recognized the risk posed by a legacy paradigm that applied yesterday’s practices to tomorrow’s challenges,” write the authors of the excerpted Special Operations Journal article, which was posted to Facebook.
The Prussian army’s general staff system became the gold standard for Western military chains of command after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871. For his part, Tegtmeier “decided to take unconventional action toward his own organizational form and took steps to upend the legacy, Prussian-designed Regimental staff system,” the Special Operations Journal reports.
The article’s authors add: “[Tegtmeier] saw the emerging complex security environment of the 21st century as something that required a new way of operating at the Regimental level, starting with his staff’s structure and processes.”
‘Studio for War’
The 2018 US National Defense Strategy made it clear that the preeminent challenge to the US was no longer terrorism but near-peer competitors such as Russia and China. That document underscored the ongoing evolution of thinking within the Pentagon that has spurred changes spanning the gamut from the creation of the US Space Force to the development of new battlefield technologies like artificial intelligence and ultra-long-range artillery systems.
In June 2017, Tegtmeier charged a small team with investigating how the legacy Prussian command system was hobbling his unit’s ability to face new threats. His team came back and confirmed that, yes, the 150-year-old chain of command was indeed a hindrance to innovation. The team also identified an “insular culture” that this old system created, which was also stifling innovation.
Tegtmeier’s investigative team proposed two options to shake things up. He could either implement a top-to-bottom upheaval of the current command system or put in place a “standing cross-functional team” to address specific challenges outside the normal chain of command.
According to the excerpted Special Operations Journal article: “The re-organize option that flipped the Prussian-style staff structure on its head would be recognized as the superior option, despite the vast undertaking required.” However, that option also “risked functional chaos,” the article states.
“The process of analyzing which direction to go was pretty involved — and [Tegtmeier] was leaning toward a complete restructure for most of it,” Armstrong said. “He wanted to eliminate the typical ‘silo’ effect you get in conventional staff structure.”
The Rangers are still at war, and sweeping changes to a 150-year-old command system might be too risky to carry out when lives are still at risk and American national security is still at stake. The regiment’s leadership also worried that the “re-organize option” could adversely affect the unit’s interoperability with the rest of the Army.
Moreover, by existing wholly outside the normal chain of command, the cross-functional team option would likely face less institutional resistance. According to the Special Operations Journal: “It would be a dynamic and highly experimental ‘studio for war’ within the Regiment, unlike any other staff function.”
Ultimately, the cross-functional team option was chosen for its practicality. Thus was begot “Project Galahad.” The project’s name is a nod to a legendary World War II unit, known as “Merrill’s Marauders,” which saw combat in Southeast Asia.
“‘Project Galahad’ was the answer to what I saw as a dire need in our formation — the ability to mass quickly on complex, ambiguous problems without a loss in capacity for the rest of our Regimental staff, already consumed with force generation, force modernization, day to day warfighting, and sustaining readiness for contingencies,” said Tegtmeier, the former 75th Ranger Regiment commander, according to the excerpted Special Operations Journal article.
The Project Galahad team quickly identified “tensions” in the unit. One example: the occasional disparities between the qualifications that make a good Ranger versus what’s most beneficial for career advancement within the Army’s promotion system. That includes the need for Rangers to pursue higher education for the sake of their Army careers — all while maintaining the regiment’s unrelenting operational tempo.
One Project Galahad success story is in the so-called “war for talent” — or, in other words, the ongoing effort to improve recruiting and retention, and to “take care of our people,” Armstrong said. Due to Project Galahad’s recommendations, the 75th Ranger Regiment implemented the “Phalanx” program, which, according to Armstrong, has been instrumental in fostering a healthy unit culture that spurs the regiment’s Rangers to achieve peak performance.
‘Meat on the Bones’
Disruptive change is not always an easy ask within the hierarchical command structure of the US armed forces. Contrarian thinkers may be reluctant to buck the system for myriad reasons — such as the potentially negative consequences on one’s prospects for career advancement.
In short: the hierarchical command system that maintains order and discipline amid the fog of war may not be ideal for fostering creative brainstorming sessions within peaceful circumstances. Still, the so-called old ways remain useful when it comes time to turn innovative ideas into action on the battlefield.
“Design allows you to frame a problem and identify some potential solutions but it still requires a bridge and handoff to plans teams for some detail work, placing meat on the bones,” Armstrong said.
“Conventional chains of command can be pretty ideal [...] particularly in a time-constrained environment,” he added. “All that said — [for a] complex problem, when I have the time, I’m probably going to apply design whenever possible.”
While the 75th Ranger Regiment’s Project Galahad has proven successful, other Department of Defense programs geared toward the generation of innovative solutions to tomorrow’s problems have not fared as well under current budgeting priorities.
In October, Coffee or Die Magazine reported on the Army’s decision to defund its University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies — colloquially known in military circles as the “Red Teaming University.” The news followed the Army’s recent decision to shut down its Asymmetric Warfare Group, as well as the Marine Corps’ recent decision to close an experimental training program that focused on complex urban terrain called Project Metropolis II.
Some military experts have criticized these moves as shortsighted and part of a broader prioritization of Pentagon resources toward acquiring new technologies, rather than researching how doctrine should evolve to combat modern threats.
Throughout history, US military-industrial dominance has permitted the luxury of warmup periods in its wars to arrive at a coherent strategic vision and develop workable tactics to achieve victory. Famously, US military forces honed their combat acumen on the North African front in World War II before embarking on the liberation of Europe.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Allied North African campaign, An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson wrote: “Like the first battles in virtually every American war, this campaign revealed a nation and an army unready to fight and unsure of their martial skills, yet willful and inventive enough to prevail.”
However, against a near-peer adversary such as Russia or China, US military forces will have less time to hone their tactics and find their confidence in battle. The next war may be over before America’s armed forces learn how to fight it. Thus, one key goal of experimental programs like Project Galahad is to spur innovations to combat future threats before meeting them for the first time while in a war.
“That’s the classic innovation conundrum,” Armstrong said. “I think getting it right, 100%, the first time is pretty tough — but I think the employment of concepts like design are going to help us get closer to the mark, and hopefully save us from having to learn some hard lessons at high cost.”
He added, “I am a firm believer that design would work anywhere in the Army, something as simple as applying design thinking to routine problems could be hugely impactful.”