war on the rocks

Multi-Domain Battle: A New Concept for Land Forces

September 15, 2016

Just after dawn on September 4, 1943, Australian soldiers of the 9th Division came ashore near Lae, Papua in the Australian Army’s first major amphibious operation since Gallipoli. Supporting them were U.S. naval forces from VII Amphibious Force. The next day, the 503rd U.S. Parachute Regiment seized the airfield at Nadzab to the West of Lae, which allowed the follow-on landing of the 7th Australian Division.  The Japanese defenders offered some resistance on the land, token resistance in the air, and no resistance at sea. Terrain was the main obstacle to Lae’s capture.

From the beginning, the allied plan for Lae was a joint one. The allies were able to get their forces across the approaches to the enemy’s position, establish secure points of entry, build up strength, and defeat the enemy because they dominated the three domains of war relevant at the time — land, sea, and air.

Unfortunately, today’s commanders cannot have the same degree of confidence in the joint fight that their predecessors had at Lae. Changes in the character of war threaten to undermine the ability of commanders to wage a joint fight effectively, if at all. The development of anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) weapons and systems means that the joint force may struggle to close with and defeat some adversaries.

If Lae were to be re-fought today, as the landing ships sailed, their movement would be tracked from space. Enemy cyber-attacks launched to disrupt U.S. electronic systems would commence prior to their departure and continue throughout the voyage. The battle for sea control would rage hundreds of miles from the landing area. Salvoes of missiles would thin out the task force. An airdrop would be too risky to even consider.  Footage of the carnage filmed from drones would soon appear on the world’s media platforms as the battle for world opinion began.

If commanders are to achieve a similar degree of domain overmatch as the Australians enjoyed in 1943, a response to the challenge of these technologies is needed. Land forces must fundamentally re-conceptualize how they contribute to the joint fight if they are to be an effective partner. They must shift from being a demanding consumer to a true partner capable of enabling, acting for, and supporting the joint force.

The way forward for land forces in the joint fight is a new concept: the multi-domain battle. This concept promises to restore a commander’s ability to maximize the tools at their disposal in and across all domains.  With this concept in place, land force will be able to create windows of superiority not just in the land domain but in the other domains. By employing a range of land-based cross-domain fires, multi-domain battle will allow the joint force commander to dominate the targeted domains. In doing so, multi-domain battle promises to neutralise adversary A2/AD capabilities.

Jointness remains the key to overcoming these systems, but it is a jointness that must be considered differently. Today’s joint operations will be prosecuted across far more domains than planners faced previously. It is also a jointness in which no one military service can dominate, nor one in which any domain has a fixed boundary.

Multi-Domain Battle: An Opportunity for Land Forces

After the Cold War the United States, along with its allies and partners, were the initial beneficiaries of significant technological progress, notably advances in precision, sensors, and digitization.  Now potential adversaries have caught up and in some areas potentially surpassed the United States. Today, U.S. joint force freedom of movement is being openly challenged across all domains.  The “democratization” of technology and its rapid proliferation is increasing the lethality and reach of small states and non-state groups, many of which do not fight in a way that is consistent with the same legal and ethical principles observed by Western nations.

Land forces can help reverse this trend. They must be designed, equipped, and trained to gain and maintain advantage across all domains and to understand and respond to the requirements of the future operating environment. The land force must also change how it perceives its place in the joint force. Over the last 25 years, land forces have been high-demand consumers of joint force capabilities, operating beneath an umbrella of air and maritime supremacy. If the joint force is to succeed, the land force must now give as well as receive and be a capable supporter of operations in other domains.

While Western forces have embraced jointness, traditional boundaries between land, sea, and air have still defined which service and which capability is tasked with a given mission. Multi-domain battle breaks down the traditional environmental boundaries between domains that have previously limited who does what where. The theater of operations, in this view, is a unitary whole. The most useful capability needs to get the mission no matter what domain it technically comes from. Newly emerging technologies will enable the land force to operate in ways that, in the past, have been limited by the boundaries of its domain. These technologies will give the land force the ability to dominate not just the land but also project power into and across the other domains.

Since the spread of the idea of the joint fight, there has always been a gray space between the domains. For example, warships have been able to project power onto the land and coastal artillery has been able to project power onto the sea. The technology of the present and near future will expand these gray spaces to the point where they will cover vast areas and even entire theaters.  Consequently, the range of future land forces will be so great that distance no longer matters as a boundary between domains.

Land forces, therefore, must see themselves not just as a receiver of assistance from the other services but as a true partner capable of enabling, acting for, supporting, and even controlling operations in the other domains. This understanding is the basis for what is the multi-domain battle idea. By exploiting new technologies, including precision missiles, long-range strike, and advanced sensors, land forces can rethink how they fight and thereby make a more effective contribution to the joint fight.

Multi-domain battle will create options and opportunities for the joint force, while imposing multiple dilemmas on the adversary. Through land-to-sea, land-to-air, land-to-land, land-to-space, and land-to-cyberspace fires and effects, land forces can deter, deny, and defeat the adversary. This will allow the joint commander to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Multi-domain battle will also contribute to enhanced joint force security through its ability to sense, identify, and strike targets across the area of operations.

Adm. Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command captured both the requirement for and the urgency of a response to the challenge to joint force ability to succeed. He wrote:

I believe the future security environment will require the Services to exert influence in non-traditional domains as these domains converge and become more complex, especially if our combatant commands are to achieve dominance across those domains… [that] means the Army’s got to be able to sink ships, neutralize satellites, shoot down missiles and deny the enemy the ability to command and control its forces.

Multi-domain battle will be how the Army will meet this demand.

Making Multi-Domain Battle Succeed

Commanders must have the ability to understand and shape the battle space in and across all the domains.  Land force elements help the joint commander to achieve the necessary level of awareness because of their ability to examine and understand the human context of the theater of operations.

Contemporary adversaries have shown a talent to hide in places where they are difficult to identify, often within a city and amongst a population. This is not a new feature of war, but it is one that has become more prominent in recent decades. However, new methodologies and technologies in battlefield sensing are available to the land force that can help to locate adversaries while influencing the attitudes and allegiances of the local population. The land force has a variety of means of communication that offer considerable redundancy. This means that information will continue to flow even when the enemy or the weather has reduced their effectiveness.  Such capable networks support fast and accurate decision-making that allows the joint force to exploit opportunities that lead to success.

Maximizing domination of the domains will be a precondition for further actions. Increasingly, the joint force will be able to look to land-based, long range fires and effects whose locations are hidden from an enemy’s view and reach.

Finally, the joint force commander should craft an effective campaign response to rapidly changing challenges that rely on the ability to access, often over long distances and domains whose control is challenged by the enemy. A joint force commander only needs to achieve temporary domain dominance in order to achieve access. This is done by synchronizing cross-domain fires and maneuvering to achieve physical, temporal, positional, and psychological advantages. Achieving temporary periods of domain dominance allows land forces to defeat the enemy across all domains. To do this, the land force can provide cross-domain fires and effects with extended range and enhanced precision to project power into the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains. Land forces provide flexible, layered sensors and responsive strike platforms that can rapidly transition between domains. This allows land forces to support freedom of action and maneuver across the domains while denying the enemy the same.

The coordination of land based cyber and space capabilities can play an important supporting role in the joint force’s efforts to operate inside an enemy’s A2/AD defensive zone. For example, only the land force can position troops near an adversary’s communication centers and impose command and control difficulties by either direct attack or by the nearby manipulation of the electro-magnetic spectrum. In addition, land-based anti-space operations allow the joint force to continually track an adversary’s space-borne assets and make it practical to conduct attacks on them. Commanders can also utilize land-based capabilities to restrict enemy freedom of maneuver through disruption of their GPS, navigation, and space-based surveillance and communications systems.

In the land domain, ground forces project combat power by employing combined arms maneuver to close with and defeat enemies in close proximity to civilian populations while minimizing collateral damage. Combat teams of the necessary size and composition with the ability to conduct cross-domain fires will create multiple dilemmas for the enemy.  Land forces can operate distributed over wide areas for safety, unconstrained by weather or time on station, but retain the ability to concentrate as needed.

The Necessity for Multi-Domain Battle

Through the implementation of the emerging concept of multi-domain battle, the land force will provide the joint force commander with enhanced capabilities to overcome any adversary advantage. Land forces have the ability to project force from the land domain into the other five domains. As a result, land forces must invest in and deliver future force capabilities which contribute to the fight for domain dominance across all domains if the challenge of the current and future character of war is to be overcome.

Intellectual and cultural adaptation is key for the successful conduct of multi-domain battle. Future joint force commanders must be able to visualize war across all domains, not just a single one. This will also require investment in and continuous assessment of the equipment, education, training, organization, leadership, and facilities that will be needed. Our potential adversaries have boldly stolen a march in the evolution of the character of war. The time is overdue for a response.

 

Dr. Albert Palazzo is the Director of the Australian Army’s War Research Centre, a part of Land Warfare Branch in the Modernisation and Strategic Plans Division. Lt. Col. David P. McLain III is the Chief, Integration and Operations Branch in the Joint and Army Concepts Division, a part of Concept Development and Learning Directorate in the Army Capabilities Integration Center of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command. The views expressed here are those of the authors alone. They do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Australian Army the Australian Department of Defence, or the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of Lt. Col. Chris Alder, Lt. Col. Dan Conners, Lt. Col. Meegan Olding, Lt. Col. Corey Shillabeer, Mr Chris Stolz and Mr. Mike Redman in the preparation of this article.

Image: Mr. John Andrew Hamilton (ATEC)