Following more than a decade of counterinsurgency focus, the U.S. Army has found itself increasingly challenged by adversaries in Eastern Europe and East Asia who are modernizing their area denial capabilities. As argued by Gen. Mark A. Milley, the 39th chief of staff of the Army, “Land-based forces now are going to have to penetrate denied areas for the rest of the joint force” while having the capacity to “operate in all domains simultaneously.”
Unfortunately for the land power institution, its embrace of brigade combat team (BCT) modularity has left ground forces organized for gradients of general-purpose operations rather than the expeditionary, forcible entry required to deter and, if necessary, defeat peer competitors. The solution for these challenges lies, in part, in reconceptualizing the U.S. military’s traditional advantages through the emerging Multi-Domain Battle concept.
Designed to maximize diverse elements of joint, interorganizational and multinational power to create temporary windows of advantage against complex enemy systems, the Army’s incorporation of the idea should be accompanied by optimization of its order of battle to excel against integrated fire and maneuver networks. To that end, it should functionalize its tactical forces to fight as penetration, exploitation and stabilization divisions with corresponding expertise in enabling the vast panoply of American and allied coercive abilities.
This forcewide realignment would enable “flexible and resilient ground formations [to] project combat power from land into other domains to enable joint force freedom of action,” as required by Gen. David G. Perkins, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. While tailored brigades and battalions would feature combined arms with the ability to maneuver in a dispersed manner, optimized divisions would allow functional expertise in rear, close, deep and non-linear contests while maintaining operational tempo throughout rapid deep attacks, decisive assaults, and consolidation of gains. The new order would also bridge tactical and operational divides to allow greater cross-domain integration across the full range of military operations.
Dynamic Forced Entry
Empowering joint dynamism begins with creating highly mobile and survivable divisions designed to penetrate complex defenses that increasingly challenge aerial access. These “recon-strike” elements would combine armored and Stryker BCTs; special operations forces; engineers; and multifaceted air defense, indirect, joint, cyber, electromagnetic and informational fires to dislocate and disintegrate adversary defenses across theater depth. As argued by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, then-director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, they could “fight their way through long-range weapons fire and gain physical contact with hard-to-find opponents” while striking “from unexpected directions with multiple forms of firepower.”
Exploitation divisions would employ more balanced capabilities to destroy enemy concentrations, clear contested zones and seize key terrain. Comprising a variety of light, airborne, motorized and mechanized infantry BCTs with modest armor and engineer support—all empowered by destructive kinetic, electronic and virtual fires—these commands would attack through windows of opportunity created by deep strikes to overmatch paralyzed defenders. While penetrating formations would rapidly bridge air and land component efforts, their more versatile and flexible exploitation counterparts would allow joint commands to decisively shatter adversary warfighting capabilities through intensive fire and maneuver.
The third type of division would be made up of elements trained to consolidate gains in order to set the conditions for a sustainable, stable environment, as required by Army doctrine. The command’s multifaceted brigades could include tailored civil affairs, informational, combat advisory, military police, light infantry, aviation and special operations elements in partnership with joint, interdepartmental, non-governmental and coalition personnel. These stabilization divisions would be equipped to independently follow penetration and exploitation forces to secure expanding frontages, manage population and resource disruptions, negotiate political turbulence, and support the re-establishment of legitimate security forces and governance.
Optimizing the Army for offensive strikes, as opposed to a larger spectrum of more ubiquitous missions, would be especially important in strategic multinational contexts. Since America remains the only power capable of expeditionary campaigns of mass and scale, it should prize and cultivate this singularly coercive capability as its premier contribution to existing and future coalitions. Modernizing divisions, BCTs and battalions for specific missions—as opposed to variations of general-purpose maneuver and security—would allow deeper, if narrower, tactical expertise while maintaining capability of fulfilling globally dispersed obligations for peacetime partnership and deterrence.
Prioritize Army Contribution
This realignment would consequently allow the Army to prioritize its singular contribution to the joint force: large-scale, forced entry into contested domains. By restructuring tactical forces according to functionality and purpose, the Army would balance mobility, protection, firepower and operational reach across battlefield time and space to exemplify the operational tenets of simultaneity, depth, synchronization and flexibility. As outlined in Army Doctrine Reference Publication 3-0: Unified Land Operations, this focus on defeating peer nations with cascading penetration, exploitation and stabilization would ultimately enable joint forces commands to “seize, retain and exploit the initiative while synchronizing their actions to achieve the best effects possible.”
Realignment of Army forces would provide additional value by mitigating some capability and readiness gaps that currently limit operational effectiveness. Beginning with the exercise of theater Army or corps-level Mission Command across increasingly complex environments, functionally designed divisions with control of all ground elements in delineated rear, close, deep or non-linear areas of responsibility would allow improved unity of effort and command throughout and across theater depth. This predictability would allow both Army and joint leadership to task-organize forces, structure Mission Command systems, and resource training programs according to essential penetration, exploitation or stabilization tasks.
The new force structure would likewise begin to address the emergent issue of tactical headquarters survivability due to adversary recon-strike lethality. By optimizing for specific offensive missions, as opposed to “plug and play” architecture, division and brigade commands could apply efficiencies to creating smaller and more mobile command posts. Likewise, commanders could experiment with economizing their perilously large physical, logistical and electromagnetic signatures by placing increased reliance on land component or corps headquarters systems, as they did during World War II under similarly dangerous conditions.
Functionalized divisions and brigades would also mitigate, if not rectify, the Army’s dearth of information-collection capacity at higher echelons. As argued by retired Lt. Gen. David Barno in a 2016 Atlantic Council report “The Future of the Army,” because the institution lacks dedicated formations at division and corps level to meet demanding battlefield reconnaissance and security missions, entire divisions equipped and trained for recon-strike would fill the capabilities gap. This commitment to decisively win the “deep fight”—a critical requirement to offset the Army’s historic lack of maneuver mass—would create cascading windows of advantage and desynchronize enemy networks at early stages of forced entry.
A fourth improvement stemming from functional alignment would be prevention of skill atrophy among combat formations during asymmetrically assigned foreign military partnerships. Instead, highly trained recon-strike and assault units would regionally align with similar formations and thus maintain tactical acumen through combined gunneries and maneuver exercises even when deployed.
Conversely, stabilization formations would maintain their expertise by adopting stability efforts and peacekeeping missions. These functionally defined partnerships would ensure higher degrees of readiness across the Army while avoiding the cyclic degradation of tactical skills that repeatedly occurred over the previous decade.
Optimizing tactical commands by function would offer a final benefit: the elimination of artificial separations among special operations, conventional and enabling forces. By aligning divisions according to space, time and purpose with command over all elements in rear, close, deep or non-linear areas, the Army would meet its requirement, as described in its Operating Concept, to “synchronize the efforts of multiple partners across multiple domains to ensure unity of effort.” This integration, which adversary militaries are already employing, would allow placement of combined arms capabilities at the lowest possible echelons to better create task forces capable of cross-domain and dispersed fire and maneuver.
As the Army increasingly shifts focus from stability operations to high-intensity peer confrontation, Milley has cautioned that “the level of uncertainty, the velocity of instability, and potential for significant interstate conflict is higher than it has been since the end of the Cold War in 1989–91.” This means that approaches to multidomain battle must go beyond innovative integration of joint, interdepartmental and multinational efforts to include enhancement of force structure. These changes should organize tactical units within an order of battle designed to simultaneously penetrate and dislocate complex defenses, exploit desynchronization to seize and destroy, and rapidly stabilize and transition war-torn regions.
This forcewide optimization would prove controversial with its orientation on forced entry against a minority of peer adversaries in Eastern Europe and East Asia. Opponents may argue that the Army, as the nation’s premier land power force, should remain structured for a wider array of missions, with broader capability for efforts such as security forces partnership and amphibious warfare. Others might criticize overreliance on resource-intensive armored units and underappreciation of airborne, airmobile and aviation viability against adversary air defense, ballistic and artillery defenses. Integration of Army special operations forces and other low-density elements within unified division commands would likewise find resistance.
However, these arguments avoid the reality that the United States faces the potential to be decisively stymied by an improving adversary recon-strike capacity. Only by amending forces to rapidly fight through complex area denial defenses with sustained maneuver tempo can the Army, as argued by Perkins, be capable of executing multidomain battle to deter enemy actions and challenge adversary subversion and “fait accompli territory grabs.”
Just as France in the 1810s and Germany in the 1930s each reconceptualized land warfare, America should empower emerging theory with new doctrine and structural changes to provide realistic expeditionary capability and, more importantly, credible assurance and deterrence.
The Army’s approach to the Multi-Domain Battle concept should ultimately address current challenges while establishing doctrine, organizational culture and force structure to accommodate emergent tactical trends that demand dispersion, cross-domain expertise and mobile survivability. Aligning along penetration, exploitation and stabilization functions creates theoretical foundations for incorporating new technologies such as proxy and autonomous robotics, swarming attacks, fleeter armored platforms, miniaturized heavy firepower, and cyber and informational means. Looking further into the 21st century, America’s land power institution must embrace dynamism and innovation or risk being neutralized, or even defeated, in the unforgiving crucible of combat.