Navy and Marine Corps are working together to advance a new operating concept aimed at maintaining maritime superiority. The concept, formally known as expeditionary advanced base operations is “all about distributing lethality across the battle space in support of a larger maritime campaign.
Through the concept, the services are looking to establish expeditionary bases at sea. Once established, the bases could be utilised for a variety of missions. “That expeditionary advanced base can be used as a forward arming and refueling point for aircraft from the joint force.
They could also be used as sensing platforms to collect intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information, or as strike platforms to achieve sea control, no easy task. The real challenge is that we will be performing and operating in a widely distributed area ... and supporting a larger maritime campaign.
“What they did during the exercise we look to operationalise and execute some of these concepts that we were talking about. Marines went out and they worked at how would we establish advanced expeditionary bases and how would we establish forward operating areas.
Armchair Generals many times dissect the latest war gaming events, including failures of strategic thinking. Yet those same military professionals often begin at the tactical level when contemplating future warfare, as is the case for the solution of the day
Multi-domain operations began as the more tactically-focused multi-domain battle. There is a need for a more strategic approach to multi-domain operations to represent more dymanic concepts of joint operations, but it is also not no without context in that it is not meant to be a response to a specific strategic challenge.
Joint warfare, the backbone of how Marines fight, might no longer be enough in the face of dramatic technological change. How will Marines fight in a future where its traditional dominance on land, sea, and in the air might no longer suffice. The answer is slow in coming, but many suggest that war will need to be fought simultaneously across traditional warfighting environments as well as space and the electromagnetic spectrum.
The concept is still in early stages of planning and the services have only recently begun exploring combining their individual efforts on multi-domain operations. Yet momentum is building as the concept spreads throughout the military. It now appears that multi-domain operations will change how Marines fights at the operational level of war if it can overcome several significant challenges to enable the services to cooperate more seamlessly.
Emerging technologies have added new dimensions to the traditional combined and joint layers of warfare: artillery, infantry, armor and air power.” These developments center largely on the electromagnetic, space, network and information domains. Some challenge that infantry and “tactical art” at the tip of the spear and everything else in a support role.
Proponents represent a true challenge to multi-domain operations, and that is not always the right answer. What the Army proclaims is the “central idea” of multi-domain operations is the “rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare” in the context of the challenges of “layered stand-off” posed by adversaries.
An infantry-centric approach removes the principal of combined arms warfare that long has been essential to how the military wages war. Furthermore, this setup would neglect the complex and extremely challenging task of networking effects in other domains at the tactical and operational levels to enable the infantry’s manoeuvre.
Focus on tactical manoeuvre, also moves traditional supporting enablers such as fires and intelligence further back on the battlefield. Indeed, these tactical units – i.e. infantry – will be required to “increasingly fend for themselves.” Their principle purpose, though, is not primarily to “win the close fight.” Rather, their main job is to “work as human sensors, decisional ‘gatekeepers,’ and facilitators responsible for translating killing power residing at a distance into lethal effects on adversaries.”
Because technology such as F-35s and tanks are on the verge of obsolescence, according to this argument, the infantry is left with a “fires app” from which they can rapidly acquire “precision mortars, precision grenade launchers, and immediate access to cheap, proliferated precision delivered from artillery and aircraft.”
Some want units being “surrounded by a constellation of unmanned vehicles” as they communicate with higher headquarters via networked applications. What is missing is an understanding of the extreme vulnerability of these units via the electromagnetic spectrum. Soldiers and their unmanned vehicles will be emitting signatures that cannot be hidden; the more these troops and their unmanned aerial vehicles communicate the easier they are to target.
Adversaries have demonstrated the capability to track electromagnetic signatures and exploit them with devastating effect. The military’s reliance on the electromagnetic spectrum is significant and growing, as demonstrated in some of the technologies being developed in the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, yet the military’s understanding of the accompanying risks is lagging.
The only way for such a well-connected unit to arise is if the services first gains electromagnetic superiority. The reality is the military will likely be forced to fight in a communications degraded environment. Mission command, coupled with secure communication limited to only the most essential information, will play an integral role in multi-domain operations conducted in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited battlespace.
Multi-domain operations, at the core, recognise the six domains the military operates in – the electromagnetic spectrum, space, air, land, maritime, and the human domain – and the vulnerabilities and opportunities that exist in each.
They call for a more inclusive understanding of these domains and networking of effects in two or more domains towards mission objectives. Because of advances in technology in every domain, war has become even more complex. As a result, the established paradigms of combined arms and joint warfare alone are not enough to deal with this complexity.
This is also where a strategic perspective is essential, but remember good tactics cannot overcome bad strategy. And one of the most compelling elements of this concept may be the least appreciated and understood. Multi-domain operations forces planners and commanders to think higher in the levels of war because it requires the networking of effects far outside their component, service, and domain.
This requires a strategic perspective that is challenging to acquire. Strategic design’s focus goes far beyond a region or joint operations area. The primary reason for this geographical spread is that the problem and/or solution may exist far outside the confines of a distinct region or area of operations. Strategists must be able to recognise global system linkages, understand the effective use of instruments of power, and evaluate actions that impact the long-term attainment and preservation of force objectives.
For example, a multi-domain operation where the objective is to disrupt an adversary’s command-and-control network could combine networked actions in the electromagnetic, air, land, sea, space, and human domains, which would require a host of entities to work together at a very high level.
Naval underwater unmanned vehicles could be used to cut or degrade sea cables connecting the mainland with nearby islands containing early warning radars. Air Force F-35s could be used to slip through the gaps in the enemy’s radar coverage to strike elements of their integrated air defense system on the mainland, enabling fourth-generation fighters to perform strikes on command-and-control centers. Special Forces elements on the ground could cause confusion throughout the local defense by targeting the enemy’s tactical communications.
Each of these actions are significant efforts on their own. The coordination required to ensure that each action occurs at the right time and delivers the desired effect would be a huge undertaking in the current decision-making structure – not to mention the authorities an operation like this would require. Such an operation would require the strategic vision to leverage capabilities across domains and throughout the services.
This is why each service cannot have its own version of multi-domain; the employment of service-centric concepts to a whole-of-military problem will fail. That is how multi-domain operations answer the query “What’s after joint?” and that is where a tactically focused approach to how we will fight and win a future near-peer conflict falls short.
While the technological and logistical challenges of small unit manoeuvre on the future battlefield are significant, the military has a tendency to focus on the tactical as quickly as possible. This is understandable, for many senior leaders had their formative experiences at the tactical level. They are most comfortable in the cockpit, in the battalion tactical operations center, or on the bridge of the frigate. When faced with the extremely challenging problem of fighting a near-peer conflict in an anti-access/area denial environment, solving the tactical level of war is easier than providing solutions at the operational and the strategic levels.
Tomorrow’s battlefield may look quite different to rifle units, but the vision of an extremely well-connected soldier with a host of capabilities at their fingertips and a constellation of drones ready to do their bidding cannot become reality without a complete understanding of how the warfighting domains interact and well-executed multi-domain operations.
None of it will matter if actions at the tactical and operational levels do not meet national aims at the strategic level. Let’s get strategy right first to understand fully how to fight in a multi-domain battlespace.
Perhaps the solution to restoring the offensive lies somewhere in the deep definitional recesses of multi-domain warfare. Time will tell. But what about the tactical consequences of a future battlefield dominated by the defensive? What can we learn today from those who fight close?
Let’s begin the premise that battlefield dominated by firepower and the defensive compels units to disperse, disaggregate and go to ground. Disaggregation is good in that it lessens the killing effects of firepower but bad because dispersed forces are less able to mass, and mass is essential if manoeuvre is to be restored.
Dispersal changes the shape and contours of the battlefield. Linearity disappears. Large groups of combat and support units moving together are replaced by smaller clusters of tactical units separated by empty spaces.
A disaggregated battlefield favors autonomy and demands that close-combat units operate for long periods without reinforcement. An aerial view would leave the impression of emptiness. Urban terrain will provide sanctuaries for units seeking to avoid destruction by firepower. The smaller and more discrete the tactical disposition the more likely a force will be able to survive what many believe is the next conflict.
In turn, a dispersed tactical disposition alters both the shape and composition of the tactical units themselves. As the space between close-combat units opens up, units become more isolated, forcing greater self-reliance and independent decision-making.
Traditional supporting enablers such as fires, intelligence, logistical support and external sensors are positioned far to the rear to avoid destruction by fire strikes. Isolated small units must increasingly fend for themselves, learn to survive, sustain and fight as self-contained entities capable of remaining effective for extended campaigns.
The purpose and utility of small units changes on a distributed battlefield. The mission of small units will no longer be simply to win the close fight. In fact a small unit or team engaged so decisively that it has no alternative but a face-to-face firefight might be considered to have failed.
Direct action will distract them from their principal work as human sensors, decisional “gatekeepers” and facilitators responsible for translating lethal force residing at a distance into imposing effects on the enemy. In the future, small units will become virtual outposts, in effect the eyes and probing fingers of a larger supporting operational force placed out of reach of long-range fires from adversaries
“Over the horizon” enabling elements will provide close-combat forces in the battle area with a “cone of impunity.” The cone protects the unit by projecting and overlaying it with distant intelligence, command and control, and sensor capabilities that are routinely provided today for special operations teams. The cone will insulate small units from surprise and will allow them to employ many of the assets formerly reserved for combat forces three or four levels above such as armed drones, intelligence feeds from operational and strategic assets and resupply from unmanned aerial and ground robotic vehicles.
Imagine an irregular, checkerboard-like pattern of small units embedded into complex terrain or urban clutter and scattered across a wide expanse. To advance, an enemy ground force would have to destroy in detail every small unit waiting in its path. But these close-combat units would be impossible to approach without being observed and killed by supporting ground- or air-delivered precision fires.
The question is whether or not technologies are present to permit today’s tactical forces to operate on a dispersed battlefield. The answer? Fortunately, yes, and soon. The military established the first organisation intended solely to enhance the lethality of close-combat small units.
So far, the Close Combat Lethality Task Force has succeeded remarkably in reimagining the lethality of tactical ground forces. The sum of these new developments will change fundamentally how ground warfare is prosecuted. Many technologies embraced by the task force come from sources outside the military: Artificial intelligence, micro-miniaturization, reach-back, the soldier’s “air force,” carry-along precision, soldier networks, robotics, and sensors.
To enhance the fighting power of tactical forces, many of the complexities of modern operations should be pushed downward. For this to work, decisions formerly made by colonels must be made by sergeants. Artificial intelligence offers a solution. Think of small unit apps that connect a leader to a constellation of decision-enhancement tools.
The world is getting smaller and with smaller size comes greater mobility and convenience. A radio that took up the back of a vehicle twenty years ago fits into a soldier’s pocket today. Hundred-million-dollar fighter planes can be kept at bay by small shoulder-fired missiles. The tank isn’t dead but it’s far easier to kill today thanks to very precise and portable guided missiles. An onboard analog computer gives the M1 Abrams tank a single-shot kill probability out to two miles. Today, micro-miniaturization technology borrowed from civilian industry will allow Abrams-like precision to be squeezed into a rifle sight with the same one-shot-one-kill probability.
Tomorrow’s small-unit soldier and leader will never be able to carry all of the combat gear necessary to keep the unit functioning in the close fight. But they will be able to “reach back” to access combat resources residing well to the rear, at sea or perhaps outside the theater of war. Efficient supply chain technologies will allow battlefield delivery of supplies quickly enough to reduce the logistical load a small unit must take with it into the close fight.
Miniaturization has cheapened and proliferated unmanned vehicles to the extent that you can buy a drone at Walmart. Small units will profit from the drone revolution. Today units routinely fly command-guided, unmanned flying vehicles over the battlefield to sense and seek enemy locations and detect explosive devices. Think of a future close fight in which every small unit is surrounded by a constellation of unmanned vehicles ranging from hand-carried lethal drones to orbiting tactical weapons platforms robust and deadly enough to replace traditional air and surface fire support.
Recent developments in portable precision enhance the ability of a small unit to fight autonomously. Some precision weapons are in soldiers’ hands today: The Javelin anti-tank missile fundamentally changes the lethality equation between large armored formations and small units, in favor of the latter. Soon soldiers will possess precision mortars, precision grenade launchers, and immediate access to cheap, proliferated precision delivered from artillery and aircraft.
In order to dominate the close fight, small units must be enveloped in an impenetrable sensor bubble that provides early detection out to a distance beyond the range of enemy small arms and mortars. Sensors must be layered and redundant and should include feeds from tactical drones, body sensors and mobile, robotic sensors surrounding a unit on the march.
Tactical reform is dependent on more than just technology. The military must find the means to expose soldiers to the stress of close combat before the first shot is fired. The additional tasks and responsibilities placed on small units may bring into question the size and composition of squads and teams.
1. Defining Operations within a Continuum of Cross-Domains Windows of Superiority or Access/Manoeuvre
2. Emphasis on Lower-Echelon Orient Decide and Act Speed
3. More Possibilities in More Domains Means Increased Complexity/Vulnerability
4. Requirements for Multi-domain Observing and Orienting
5. Making Decisions with Complexity and Voluminous Data
6. Implications for the ISR Enterprise
7. Redefine Battlespace Actors and Activities
8. Change How We Interact with Observe/Orient the Battlespace
9. Change How We Architect and Develop ISR System
10. Change How We Organize to Orient