Those who have watched the Army’s concept for Multi-Domain Operations evolve since the fall of 2017 have experienced an odd sense of déjà vu. Thirty-seven years ago, the Army promulgated what it described as a multidimensional warfighting doctrine called AirLand Battle that would reset battle strategy. It was a shift from a focus on low-intensity, small-unit, decentralized counterinsurgency operations to larger-scale operations, heavily dependent on sophisticated technology for decisive operations fighting outnumbered in the U.S. European Command Theater.
Although Multi-Domain Operations shares common traits with AirLand Battle, there are important differences that deserve attention before dismissing Multi-Domain Operations as a blast from the past.
Introduced in 1982, then refined in 1986 and again in 1993, the AirLand Battle concept replaced the Active Defense doctrine of the immediate post-Vietnam War years. The tenets of Army operations that comprised AirLand Battle were built on Carl von Clausewitz’s Principles of War —specifically, initiative, depth, agility and synchronization—and informed by observations from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. AirLand Battle doctrine focused on the 3D and technology impacts on modern warfare that called for rapid, integrated air and ground maneuvers and viewed a battlefield extended in geographic dimensions and in time. The need for speedy resupply to sustain fast-paced operations was another critical issue noted from then-Maj. Gen. Donn Starry and Brig. Gen Robert Baer’s study of the battles in the Sinai Peninsula.
AirLand Battle doctrine was shaped into a NATO deep battle warfighting concept to combat a potential Soviet attack. This proved effective in 1991 when joint operations, deep battle effects, and well-trained air and ground integrated combined-arms maneuver forces enabled U.S. and coalition forces to quickly defeat the Iraqi Army in and around Kuwait while suffering minimal losses.
New Concept Needed
Multi-Domain Battle arose as a concept from Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s efforts at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and its need was first publicly discussed in an April 2015 speech by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work at the U.S. Army War College. Work said, “We are going to have to think about fighting against enemies which have lots of guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles, and are using informationalized warfare to completely disrupt our heavily netted force. So, what does AirLand Battle 2.0 look like? I don’t know. The Army needs to figure this out.”
Multi-Domain Battle was unveiled as an operational concept during the 2016 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition and differs significantly from its predecessors, AirLand Battle and Full-Spectrum Operations. The new concept, introduced by then-TRADOC commander Gen. David G. Perkins in fall 2017, focuses on the competition continuum, noting near-peer competitors, and incorporates fundamental changes in the character of war based on new technologies. It also takes advantage of TRADOC studying a foreign conflict. Just as the Army studied the Yom Kippur War many years ago, then-Brig. Gen. Peter L. Jones led a team that studied the Ukrainian experience in Crimea, finding significant improvement in the Russian army compared with their excursion to Georgia seven years earlier. Traditional reliance on artillery remained, but the team found new-age thinking in information warfare, electronic warfare and the use of unmanned systems, as well as social media attacks before actual conflict.
In the preface to the December 2018 TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1: The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, the command’s current leader, Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, said the Army needs a new concept for facing problems: “In a new era of great power competition, our nation’s adversaries seek to achieve their strategic aims, short of conflict, by the use of layered stand-off in the political, military and economic realms to separate the U.S. from our partners. Should conflict come, they will employ multiple layers of stand-off in all domains—land, sea, air, space and cyberspace—to separate U.S. forces and our allies in time, space, and function in order to defeat us.”
Now known as Multi-Domain Operations, the concept has specific objectives and tenets. The objectives are to compete and deter in the competition phase and, if necessary, penetrate, disintegrate and exploit in the conflict phase to defeat the enemy and then return to competition, which is a period of dispute short of war. The tenets of the concept are calibrated force posture, multidomain formations and convergence.
Townsend, speaking at the October 2018 AUSA meeting, said the revised Multi-Domain Operations concept is aimed at threats. “Our near-peer adversaries have studied us carefully. They will compete aggressively below the threshold of armed conflict and present multiple layers of standoff to hold us at arms-length, both in competition and in armed conflict.”
The most striking difference between AirLand Battle and Multi-Domain Operations is a basic understanding that competition between nations is the norm; at times, the condition rises to armed conflict, then reverts to competition. The new concept starts with the precept, not specifically called out in AirLand Battle, that deterrence is first priority. Lt. Gen. Eric J. Wesley, serving as the U.S. Army Futures Command’s deputy commanding general and director of futures and concepts, said in October that deterrence should be the first available option but “is challenged” because the threat of massive retaliation loses its values if adversaries “are achieving their operational and strategic objectives left of conflict.”
Other significant differences include logistics consideration, cyber challenges and information warfare. Cyber intrusions were virtually unheard of in 1982. Today, cyberattacks are part of everyday life and can significantly impact deployment, sustainment and repair operations. Information environment operations, as evidenced in the war in Crimea, will be dominated by social and news media disinformation campaigns that attempt to dissuade potential combatants from engaging with opposing forces, sowing fear among opposing forces.
Critical logistical distinctions are highlighted by the previous focus on a single adversary (the Soviet Union), in a single theater (Europe) on a defined battle area. Logistically, force projection is a vital requirement as AirLand Battle foresaw large amounts of pre-positioned materiel with pre-positioned forces with a robust theater infrastructure (Cold War and Operation Desert Storm). Multi-Domain Operations is written to support multiple theaters with a core tenet called calibrated force posture to offset the lack of a large pre-positioned force, which envisions a flexible response with expeditionary forces.
Inherent in deployment discussion is the change from pre-positioned Cold War forces in Europe to a dual-theater strategy that focuses more attention on the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of operations. This new posture will bring challenges in surface lift requirements, especially as DoD’s current sealift capability ages out of service and requires a relook at pre-positioning, especially with assets afloat. In addition, future battlefields will feature relatively immature infrastructure that requires more organic lift capability than exists in today’s units.
Function of New Technology
There has been considerable discussion among logisticians of extending Army units’ ability to deploy without resupply beyond the current one- to three-day capability. Increasing brigade combat teams’ capabilities to operate for up to seven days without resupply would enable U.S. forces to confront a future enemy with multiple dilemmas. The Army has studied this issue, notably during the Army After Next war-game series. There, “battle units” made up of futuristic vehicles were projected to self-transport via organic airlift several hundred miles or more and operate for up to two weeks at high tempo without resupply. From those studies, increasing movement capabilities and reducing support demands would clearly be a function of new technology. Technology inserts could afford the opportunity to dramatically improve reliability, availability and maintainability, install sensor systems that allow for anticipatory repair, reduce fuel consumption, improve kinetic killing power in a smaller package, reduce supply footprint and reduce frequency of resupply.
The Multi-Domain Operations concept differs from AirLand Battle and requires significant changes to how the Army equips, organizes, synchronizes and projects the force. Synchronization across multiple domains, juxtaposed with the likelihood of access denial and the requirement for sustainment over long distances, will task the Army to consider how to maneuver across expanded battlespaces in the competitive and armed conflict stages. For an agile and adaptive force to be successful under this doctrine, reliability and sustainment requirements should be baked into the requirements of our new generation of weapon systems.