America’s First Corps, I Corps, is the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s assigned Army operational command. It has a unique requirement to define how an Army corps must train for, compete with and, if necessary, fight and win a conflict with America’s pacing challenge—China.
Army doctrine defines the corps’ role as setting conditions for divisions to maneuver by employing joint capabilities, maintaining the tempo of operations through sustainment and other rear operations, and defeating enemy midrange fires. Warfighter Exercise 23-1, conducted from Sept. 24 to Oct. 3, was the Army’s first warfighter exercise in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility outside of Korea.
The warfighter exercise served as a critical function in answering the question, “How does the corps fight?” in the region (and at scale) to enable the joint force to dislocate, isolate, destroy and disintegrate the enemy’s systems, exploit opportunities and defeat them in detail. The key lessons from this exercise—the corps’ Mission Command philosophy of “Fighting Free” and the operational process of Distributed Command and Control Nodes (DC2N)—serve as an example of a way to enable command and control in any future conflict in the region.
During 2022—I Corps’ “Year of Discovery”—the corps experimented with DC2N in a progression that culminated in Warfighter Exercise 23-1 and introduced new technologies, public and private teaming and new concepts such as a data warfare team that helped the corps achieve Army Secretary Christine Wormuth’s direction of becoming a data-enabled force.
During the warfighter exercise, the corps operated dispersed across four nodes: at Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord North and Yakima Training Center, at Camp Rilea on the Oregon coast and at the home-station operations center in the corps’ headquarters on Joint Base Lewis-McChord Main—replicating distances found in theater by a corps headquarters in a way never before tested in a warfighter exercise.
This operational process was next exported into the theater during Exercise Yama Sakura in December, when the corps served as a joint task force partnered with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s ground component command. The corps also employed a second node collocated with U.S. Army Japan and relied on reach-back capabilities to our home-station operations center node at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, while connecting to subordinate headquarters from the 7th Infantry Division and Japan’s Western Army in Kyushu, as well as the 11th Airborne Division and Japan’s Northern Army in Hokkaido. This required the corps to command and control as a combined joint task force with four division headquarters-equivalent subordinate elements stretched throughout the Japanese archipelago and extending across over 4,500 miles from the first island chain to the Pacific Northwest.
’Year of Feasibility’
I Corps sees 2023 as its “Year of Feasibility” as we look to iterate DC2N at scale in the region, with nodes dispersed across the theater in support of exercises and war games in Thailand, the Republic of Korea, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Australia. This forward posture assists U.S. Army Pacific with achieving interior lines—operating from a central position that enables an army to move faster than opposing forces can counter—and provides the joint force with joint task force-capable command and control resident in the theater in competition, ready and available to pivot to crisis or conflict in support of regional operational plans.
The Indo-Pacific is different. It is a massive geographic area, encompassing 52% of the Earth’s surface and spanning 16 time zones. The region is characterized by inhospitable physical terrain, ranging from the Nepalese Himalayas to the 17,000 islands of Indonesia. It is also a region that, despite its massive expanse of ocean, is indispensable to the human dimension and home to 70% of the world’s population.
Additionally, it is a region that is militarily dominated by armies, with four of five Indo-Pacific defense chiefs being army generals. One of those armies, China’s People’s Liberation Army, possesses advantages in mass and munitions depth when compared with the U.S. joint force, and operates from interior lines to its homeland.
In 2022, the challenge posed by China made this theater our nation’s most consequential, and the next three to five years will be the most critical time frame.
The basis of the corps’ Mission Command philosophy of Fighting Free is to unencumber subordinate commanders by enabling them to accomplish their assigned missions. Put another way, the corps must do the things that only a corps can do, so the divisions can be the focal point of maneuver planning across all domains to shape the close fight. Success in Warfighter Exercise 23-1 established that the corps must develop and communicate products and processes that enable subordinate actions and set the environment allowing for the tenets of Multi-Domain Operations—agility, convergence, endurance and depth.
Central to Fighting Free is commander’s intent—to include knowing what decisions must be made and when. Commander’s intent must be understood so subordinate units can continue to fight in periods of denied, disrupted or degraded communications. The establishment of the battlefield framework, to include boundaries and fire support coordination measures, is required to allow for agility and convergence by delineating responsibilities, integrating multidomain capabilities and synchronizing effects.
At the core of enabling convergence, the corps must define fights at echelon—establishing a so-called contract between higher and subordinate commanders for who owns what portion of the fight. This includes agreed-to shaping criteria of both the enemy and the environment. Rules of engagement must be set and managed through requests to higher headquarters, and all headquarters must unequivocally understand the nuance of requesting the right effect in time, space and purpose that is agnostic of firing solution versus the authority to employ that effect. These products are at the center of driving the processes as outlined to enable Fighting Free.
The central tenet to Fighting Free is the process of continual visualization between commanders and the recognition that the corps has unique fights that exceed the capabilities of the division. Principally, the corps must provide command and control, fires and intelligence, sustainment and layered protection. The Army’s communications systems and processes, at echelon, must enable commanders to visualize current events and emerging decisions.
This highlights the importance of the work the XVIII Airborne Corps recently completed in support of the U.S. European Command, Project Convergence’s ongoing efforts to shape Army 2030 and the potential solutions offered by “single pane” technologies—which present many sources of data in one place—to improve situational awareness and understanding.
The framework I Corps has developed for solving problems is called “Courage DARES.” DARES stands for define fights, apportion efforts, resource priorities, evaluate outcomes and seek feedback.
First, we define fights. Seeing two levels up and down aids in alignment and allows divisions to focus on maneuvering. Next, we apportion efforts. We will not all be doing the same thing at the same time, and doing less can often be more by clearly articulating priorities. When we resource priorities, commanders designate, weigh and sustain the main effort, and the corps will resource what is important and adjust our weight of effort within a priority to remain flexible within the environment.
Next, we must evaluate outcomes—our assessments and the tools we use to continually assess an operation’s effects and posture will determine improvement for the organization so we can apply lessons learned in stride. Finally, we seek feedback from subordinates that provides the necessary communication loop to make the best decisions.
6 Pillars, 4 Characteristics
The current design of the Army’s corps headquarters will not survive—nor will it effectively command and control—on the modern digital battlefield against contemporary threats. In I Corps’ buildup to Warfighter Exercise 23-1, the corps determined that while distribution is necessary at the corps level for operations, the corps headquarters is not dispersed, but deliberately placed in space and time, task-organized and purpose-built by mission and available resources.
This mindset, and the associated organization of “nodes,” ensured that I Corps created a corps headquarters that met what we defined as the six pillars (structure, form factor, data, transport, location and process) and four characteristics (agile, resilient, scalable and survivable) of DC2N to ensure a deliberate, datacentric, purpose-built command and control structure at the corps level that is inherently joint and absolutely required in the 21st century.
By being deliberately distributed forward in the theater on a persistent basis, I Corps can best support the Army secretary’s direction for Army formations to provide capabilities to the joint force.
Ultimately, the confluence of Fighting Free and DC2N is in its applicability into the three outputs of commander’s intent—knowing the plan, knowing the decisions that must be made and being biased for action. These intellectual and technical measures ultimately help enable the three things that any commander must be able to do—provide guidance, provide intent and solve problems.
Accomplishing the Mission
The application of mission orders and vigilant communication of commander’s intent ensure subordinate commanders can accomplish their mission in a denied or degraded environment. By having decision support tools known and common to all, the corps can further mitigate risk by approving delegation of key decisions ahead of time. Lastly, I Corps aims to be biased for action. Subordinate commanders can achieve shared understanding and accomplish their missions based on intent if I Corps adheres to the products and processes outlined in the Fighting Free philosophy while dispersing nodes.
Although this is easier said than done, Warfighter Exercise 23-1 proved that I Corps had to try new things to build warfighting advantages as the Army’s operational headquarters for the theater.
Through the corps’ training path for Warfighter Exercise 23-1, I Corps discovered what we think the corps must look like, where it must be and how it must operate. The corps may not have gotten it perfect, but we are better off than we were when we started, as we’ve iterated on a threat-informed command and control model that meets the mission and environment for multidomain operations in the region.
By codifying our Fighting Free Mission Command philosophy and coupling it with the Distributed Command and Control Node operational process, I Corps has worked through the technical and philosophical means necessary to fight and win in the region. This year, I Corps will likely prove that it must change its approach in some areas, but time is of the essence, and it is imperative that we continue to operate in this manner now.
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Lt. Gen. Xavier Brunson is commanding general of I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Previously, he commanded the 7th Infantry Division, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He entered active duty in 1990 and has commanded at multiple levels in both conventional and special operations forces in combat. He holds two master’s degrees, one in human resources development and the other in national security and policy.
Lt. Col. Liam Walsh is director of the Commander’s Action Group, I Corps, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. An infantry officer, he has served in light, Stryker and security force assistance brigade formations, with four combat deployments to the Middle East and multiple operational deployments to Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific. He will take command of a Stryker infantry battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado, this summer.