In Defense of a Big Idea for Joint Warfighting

December 22, 2016

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We, the United States Army, we are truly blessed to have the absolute greatest Navy and Air Force the world has ever known. When the bullets start flying, the Navy and the Air Force are the Army’s best friend, and in my personal experience…neither the Navy nor the Air Force have ever failed the Army.

– Gen. Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Eisenhower Annual Luncheon, 4 October 2016

Since at least the end of World War II, an overarching trend within the U.S. military has been a long march toward a more integrated joint force. The creation of the Department of Defense and the Goldwater-Nichols Act are the highlights that garner most attention, but the present state of jointness also owes much to change achieved by more gradual degrees. Beginning with the desire to reap a post-Cold War “peace dividend,” the pull of budgets declining faster than operational demands led to an understandable desire to cut seemingly redundant capabilities. This gave rise to what defense leaders such as Gen. Martin Dempsey and Adm. Jonathan Greenert have touted as joint force interdependence — “a deliberate and selective reliance and trust of each Service on the capabilities of the others to maximize its own effectiveness.” The principle remains sound, but that is not to say that all earlier decisions made in its name are still valid. Deliberate and selective choices made in one operational environment might be unwise in a different context.

War on the Rocks recently featured an article by Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha on the emerging “multi-domain battle” concept. Both Pietrucha’s article and multi-domain battle address the important issue of the present state of joint force interdependence against what it should be in the future. This might be one of the most pressing defense debates of our time. Before examining the concept, however, it is important to emphasize that multi-domain battle — an Army and Marine Corps effort — is still just a draft white paper that has not been released. With no primary, authoritative source yet publicly available, Pietrucha bases his description of multi-domain battle on two brief second-hand accounts of statements by Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley. The author uses that slim evidence to paint a misleading picture of the Army and Marine Corps’ intent for multi-domain battle. His erroneous conclusions follow from there.

As such, it is important to provide a description of the most important elements of that operational concept as expressed in the draft version of the white paper. As the Army and Marine Corps continue to flesh out the white paper, it remains subject to change. Nonetheless, informed debate about multi-domain battle requires a shared, factual understanding of its contents..

Pietrucha provides a three-part critique of Gen. Milley’s vision for a multi-domain capable Army: It ignores enemy capabilities, it cannot work given “existing force posture,” and it is infeasible given the Army’s “addiction” to airpower.

The first claim — that the Army is ignoring or understating enemy capabilities — is a serious charge. Fortunately, it is also baseless. Pietrucha offers no evidence whatsoever to support the claim either from the Army or any other source. The white paper proceeds from a view of the future operational environment that is broadly accepted by all of the services and, indeed, most military analysts: that all domains will be contested by increasingly capable adversaries who have closely studied the U.S. joint force and deliberately sought to counter its strengths. That opinion has been publicly stated by Gen. Milley in congressional testimony and annual statements to the force, as well as by Gen. David Perkins, commander of the Training and Doctrine Command, in his article describing multi-domain battle. Moreover, it is consistent with the views expressed by the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the other services, and respected think tanks.

In his other two claims, however, Pietrucha is correct. The problem statement (as quoted in Kevin Benson’s excellent commentary) on which multi-domain battle is based accepts Pietrucha’s essential argument that U.S. ground forces are not well-postured to meet emerging threats and the reliance on airpower has gone too far:

U.S. ground forces, operating as part of a joint, interorganizational, and multinational team, are not sufficiently trained, organized, equipped, nor postured to defeat highly-capable peer enemies to win in a future war.

Yet Pietrucha errs in assuming that because something is currently the case it must always be so. The purpose of a concept is to lead to change by proposing different approaches that can then be rigorously tested, refined, and — if validated — implemented. Concepts are the start of a long process that will take years and perhaps decades before they come to fruition in the form of doctrine, organizations, and equipment, often in forms somewhat different than envisioned at the outset . The conceptual work underpinning the successful AirLand Battle doctrine, which culminated in the 1986 edition of Field Manual 100-5 and was used so effectively in Operation Desert Storm, began over a decade earlier when the Army studied the lessons of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In the process of developing AirLand Battle, the Army refined its understanding of the military situation and made some mistakes, including the maligned “Active Defense” doctrine. But that might have been a necessary way station on the path to a better solution to a complex, difficult problem. Thus, a critique of a concept because it envisions some future beyond current capabilities entirely misses the point. Concepts advance thinking, push boundaries, and explore new approaches to drive innovation.

All the services are thinking through the implications of more contested domains, a sign of a cross-service consensus that future challenges demand new approaches. The Air Force’s Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan from last year warns that a combination of trends “threaten the Air Force’s ability to provide air superiority at the times and places required in the highly contested operational environments of 2030 and beyond.” In September, the commandant of the Marine Corps approved a new operating concept that lays out some significant changes to existing practice because the current Marine Corps is “not organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment.” That document identifies the “contested maritime domain” as one of the key drivers of change requiring adaptation. In October, the chief of naval operations fired a shot across the bow of his service on the matter of anti-access/area denial strategies. He wants a more aggressive service culture ready to steam into harm’s way and battle for contested spaces. Multi-domain battle is a complementary effort by the Army and Marine Corps rather than a service-parochial struggle over a share of the defense budget. It is completely consistent with these other efforts to adapt to a changing operational environment.

As currently conceived, multi-domain battle offers three components of the solution that will be tested and refined with future development. The first is to “create and exploit temporary windows of advantage.” This acknowledges that some adversaries will be so formidable that it will be necessary for the joint force to “stack” complementary effects across all domains in order to achieve local advantage. In other words, tougher enemies require the American military to bring every possible weapon and tool to bear against a critical or weak point to crack a stout defensive position. Even then, the enemy will be able to react and close that window of advantage — hence “temporary.” The implication of this for the Army is that it needs to explore what cross-domain capabilities might best contribute to the joint effort.

Multi-domain battle contends that joint combined arms operations will often be the most effective and efficient means of opening these windows of advantage by employing asymmetric means. The power of these means will be magnified when they are employed in concert to create tactical dilemmas for the enemy. To give one possible example, rather than having an F-35 fly into the teeth of a sophisticated enemy air defense system, long-range ground-based cannon, rocket, and missiles can destroy enemy surface-to-air missile or radar sites far behind enemy lines. Army assistance with air defense suppression can free an F-35 to then employ its sensors against an array of deeper targets, while cyberattacks help to degrade enemy air forces by attacking their command and control and support networks.

This is a case of back to the future. The fundamental idea of cross-domain effects from the ground is not new. During the Cold War, the Army had a valued role in the joint suppression of enemy air defenses (J-SEAD). In the absence of a threat comparable to that of the Soviet forces poised to attack western Europe, those skills have atrophied. As adversaries have developed longer range and more capable air defense systems, the United States must improve the range of its surface-to-surface systems to play a role in J-SEAD. Such a modernization is already necessary, as potential adversaries enjoy a significant advantage over the United States in the range of their surface-to-surface systems.

White papers do not answer detailed questions about how much services should invest in cross-domain capabilities or the precise method of their employment. As multi-domain battle becomes a formal concept, wargaming and experimentation will cast light on these questions, informing future decisions about the relative costs and benefits of the various alternatives. But the proposition that the entire U.S. military benefits when services gain greater capability to assist the larger effort in other domains is a sound starting principle.

The second component of multi-domain battle is the restoration of “capability balance” and the construction of “resilient battle formations.” As Pietrucha notes, over the last several decades, the Army took advantage of virtually guaranteed American air superiority to reduce its artillery and air defense capabilities in favor of meeting other, more pressing demands. But conditions have changed and American ground forces soon may have to operate under unfriendly skies under some specific conditions. The size and scope of this new problem depends on many variables such as the degree to which one side or the other achieves surprise; the point at which the scenario takes place within the course of the campaign; and the composition, posture, and quantity of both friendly and enemy air forces.

There is no question as to the U.S. Air Force’s unmatched capabilities. Nonetheless, a sophisticated enemy operating close to home, exploiting favorable geography, and executing a no-notice, snap campaign could achieve local air superiority for a time. Multi-domain battle considers that possibility and the consequent need for the Army to revisit these earlier decisions to divest most of its artillery, air defense, and electronic warfare capabilities. At no point in the white paper does the Army take the position that it can achieve air superiority from the ground, as Pietrucha states. Assertions to the contrary are untrue and divert dialogue from more fruitful questions. For example, under what conditions might adversaries achieve local air superiority? How likely and how dangerous are those scenarios? What capabilities do ground forces require to provide acceptable levels of protection in those conditions? Similar questions need to be answered in relation to the other domains.

The final component of multi-domain battle is to “alter force posture to enhance deterrence.” In an operational environment in which all domains are contested, forward-deployed ground forces and pre-positioned equipment and supplies offer many benefits. Pietrucha emphasizes the importance of air and naval forces in getting people, equipment, and supplies from point A to point B. To my knowledge, this is not in dispute anywhere within the Department of Defense. Arguably, the Army has become more dependent on other services as potential adversaries have the ability to contest strategic lines of communication. It is thus prudent for the Army to consider ways to solve or at least mitigate that problem. Altering force posture is one option. Obviously, units already in place do not require transport across contested strategic lines of communication, therefore eliminating an adversary’s ability to completely exclude U.S. ground forces from a region. In the early days of a crisis, when relatively small amounts of military force can have a disproportionate influence on events, this could be the difference between deterrence and war. But forward-positioned forces with cross-domain capability can assist the larger joint effort by shielding air- and seaports and threatening or pushing back the adversary’s anti-access/area denial systems. Just possessing the capability to attack and counter threats complicates enemy planning and risk calculation and can have an deterrent effect. For example, the Air Force’s new emphasis on distributed basing is a smart reaction to a changing environment and proof that existing posture is not an unalterable condition. Ultimately, the operational and strategic benefits of altering force posture must be weighed against the political and financial costs. In the process of developing the formal multi-domain battle concept, the potential benefits of forward basing and the capabilities required to realize those benefits will become clearer. That, in turn, will enable informed decisions about both future posture and capabilities.

In summary, multi-domain battle is the conceptual basis for the Army and Marine Corps to adapt to a changing world. Its animating principle — enhancing cross-domain capabilities to mitigate emerging operational challenges and offer more solutions to joint force commanders — is sound. Many of the details of how best to man, train, and equip the Army to achieve that aim require further work, including close collaboration with other services. If I have provided a basis for constructive discussion along those lines and whetted appetites for the Army-Marine Corps white paper, then I have accomplished my goal. It is important that readers have the basis to assess its soundness for themselves. It remains to be seen whether multi-domain battle becomes a multi-service concept, though the multi-service enthusiasm displayed at a panel at the recent Association of the U.S. Army annual conference bodes well for future joint collaboration. Regardless of the fate of the multi-domain battle “bumper sticker,” I predict that every service will do all it can to assist the joint force in other domains while remaining the master of its own.


Lt. Col. J.P. Clark is a U.S. Army strategist whose assignments include service in the Republic of Korea, the West Point Department of History, Iraq, the Pentagon, and the United Kingdom. He holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke University. He is the author of Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917, published by Harvard University Press. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army or the U.S. government.

Image: DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel DeCook

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9 thoughts on “In Defense of a Big Idea for Joint Warfighting

  1. “U.S. ground forces, operating as part of a joint, interorganizational, and multinational team, are not sufficiently trained, organized, equipped, nor postured to defeat highly-capable peer enemies to win in a future war.”

    The US does not even have a near peer in the military domain, much less a peer. I have no understanding of where these “SMEs” pick up such bs. The US military is just overwhelming and the only possibility other nations possess to slow it down is asynchronous warfare. If they stand and fight they will die.

  2. “At no point in the white paper does the Army take the position that it can achieve air superiority from the ground….”

    Perhaps not, seeing as this white paper remains invisible to the community. But GEN Milley was indeed quoted saying, “Land-based forces now are going to have to penetrate denied areas to facilitate air and naval forces. This is exact opposite of what we have done for the last 70 years, where air and naval forces have enabled ground forces….The Army — yes, the Army — we’re going to sink ships,” Milley said, “(and) dominate the airspace above our units from enemy air and missile attack.” Whereas before it was all about the supporting the Army, it’s now all about not being able to fight without Army support.” Either way, it’s all about the Army. To be fair, what else would the Chief of Staff of the Army say at the annual AUSA conference?

    Let’s face reality: this is an extended reaction to the AirSea Battle concept in 2010, which neglected to insert language mandating that the U.S. can’t possibly go to war without the U.S. Army in the vanguard, and the fear that a shift in emphasis to the land-poor Pacific theater will cause a corresponding shift priorities in the annual POM Games. Calmer heads might point out that actual combat has been in places more covered by dirt than water.

  3. This is a very informative strategic argument, but it is one that falls flat in face of reality in the management of the military services. To master joint operations, a subset of which is joint warfighting, one must learn and train about joint operations and joint warfighting. This means more than simply following doctrine, and more than just practicing what we’ve done before. It means strongly applying creative and critical thinking and action to continually improve our capabilities to do joint operations and warfighting. I would agree with the correspondents that currently we are unsurpassed at tactical joint operations. But I would also argue that we generally suck wind at the operational and strategic levels. By that, I mean we have become quite predictable, thus creating critical vulnerabilities that can be exploited even by a weaker opponent.

    More importantly, we appear to not be particularly interested in learning more about joint operations. As a professor at one of the nation’s war colleges, I as well as my colleagues have noted a trend among ALL the services to focus more and more on their own particular capabilities at the expense of understanding joint,interagency and coalition operations. This shows up in curricula changes in our learning institutions. It shows up in the classroom attitudes of our students. And the Joint Staff organizations (like the MECC) don’t seem to be much interested in overcoming their own service cultural biases to address these trends.

    Thus, we may end up with a wonderful and terrifically informed strategic argument for joint warfighting and operations, but fail to be able to execute the same because our leaders no longer remember how to.

  4. Most of the need for joint service action seems to be at the operational level, moving and supplying forces, while the tactical level of combat simply requires combined arms (a.k.a. multi-domain battle) with no regard for what service the arms are from. The Marine Corps has combined air-ground task forces within one service; the Navy combines air, surface, and submarine forces; and the Army…..doesn’t. The interdependence of the Army and Air Force is only a strength if joint operations are successful; if jointness struggles, the organization of the services creates an unnecessary opportunity for failure. If the Army brought its own airpower to their fights, and the Air Force was refocused on the independent strike operations that form the conceptual justification of the service, our only need for jointness would be in operational administration.

    1. In fact, the Army does bring its own air to the fight. Every division (10 AC, 8 RC) has a Combat Aviation Brigade, and there are two independent AC CABs, and five RC aviation brigades in addition.

      The perennial solution floated is to just give the CAS mission and associated assets to the Army, and be done with it. There are 13 A-10 squadrons…for sake of this exercise, let’s convert five more squadrons to dedicated CAS, so we can add a CAS squadron to each division CAB. And just to remove the infrastructure argument, we’ll equip them with an aircraft capable of operating from any firm surface, unimproved or not. Problem solved!


      A-10s only provide a portion of the CAS to ground forces…not even the majority. If you look at a MAGTF, there are 19 Marine attack squadrons spread across 4 air wings…and not equally. Plus training and maintenance. So to get equivalent capacity in the Army, you’d need to expand from 13 squadrons to around 60. Even if you just equip the active component, you’d need over half that. And no, that capacity doesn’t exist in the Air Force unless you cut other capabilities…so you’d be looking at a fairly large investment in equipment, people, and infrastructure.

      And again, the struggle we’re seeing here is not operational…it’s budgetary, which isn’t joint. That’s another discussion.

      1. Marine Aviation is a difficult comparison because the VMFA squadrons are split between Harriers and Hornets, and only the Harriers are really mean to support amphibious assaults as organic assets. Boat-deployed Marine Hornets are part of Navy airwings, which will probably support landing operations but aren’t directly tied to the landing force. In reality, each MEU (battalion-strength landing force) is supported by 6 Harriers, 4-6 Cobras, and a number of Hueys, Super Stallions, and Ospreys. The remainder of aviation is held at higher echelons.

        For the Army, I would maintain the helicopter CABs as they are, but stand up additional independent CABs to house fixed-wing CAS assets. Fixed-wing assets would be used to support operational thrusts rather than being a tactical level scout/support force. If individual units need more fire support, the Army needs to invest in more/better artillery. This model would not prevent the use of Air Force jets to strike fixed line-of-communication targets in the enemy’s rear, aiding the ground fight while still playing to Air Force strengths.

        We don’t need 60 A-10 squadrons, but we do need to put them under the management of officers who fight ground wars for a living.

        1. You’ve either recreated the mess that was air support during Operation TORCH, which led to creation of a single theater air commander, or created a smaller, artificially constrained version of what exists now.

          Your last statement implies that the Air Force elements in theater — or, for that matter, Navy and Marine air not directly tied to the defense of the battle group — operate independently of the theater Joint Force Commander. It just ain’t so…the theater commander sets priorities for air just like for everything else. Last time I looked, the majority of officers serving in those roles, not to mention their J3s, who manage the details, are “officers who fight ground wars for a living.”

          1. From what I’ve seen, having a JFACC allows multiple services’ aircraft to be parceled out via one ATO, but that single ATO wasn’t necessarily focused. The only major improvement from the Operation Torch debacle is that now the CAOC knows where each packet of aircraft is being spread out to, so there is some coordination. To be fair to the Air Force, it is an Army problem that the Army doesn’t practice aggressive operational maneuver warfare and prefers to fight tactically-oriented “line abreast” battles. Through at least Desert Storm, the Army had timidity reminiscent of George B. McClellan, and was leery of breakthrough and encirclement actions like our recent enemies practiced. It cost us dearly in time and strategic effect in 1991: for all our smashing tactical success, Desert Storm was an inefficient use of both land and air power, giving a much weaker foe time to retreat into Iraq and keep Saddam in power.

            However, without ground force input years ahead of time, dedicated ground-attack platforms and units won’t exist on the battlefield. The USAF has historically been resistant to spending money on attack planes and dedicated ground-support units. We don’t really need a new A-10, but we do need FAC-A aircraft, preferably cheaper to fly than two-seat fast-movers like the F-15E.

            Also, if the Army never has independent air-support CABs to practice with, they will never get out their comfortable hole and practice full combined-arms warfare with rapid operational exploitation of breakthroughs caused and prolonged by massed fires. Many of the air-delivered fires would still come from USAF aircraft, but they would be aided by coordination from Army aviation.

            For true operational maneuver warfare, there will be an area ahead of the fast-moving ground spearhead, a fuzzy zone where JTACs and FISTs can’t cover from the ground, but the battle is moving too fast for administrative coordination alone to be safe. While a fighter like an F-16 or F-35 can easily put a JDAM on coordinates or an LGB on a laser mark, what happens if there is no one to give them the coordinates or marker? That’s where I want to see the OA-X flying missions, with support and bomb delivery by standard fighters.

  5. I find it very interesting. With all of the air and military superiority in Afghanistan, the US spent hundreds of billions on all the build up, putting a coalition of tribes and organizations like the Northern Alliance where the US lost thousands of service people. The US in its peak had over a hundred thousand troops to now 20,000. We then declared victory. We then said, let the Afghanistan military forces take over.

    From the reports that have been coming out since the draw down and the declaration of victory, the US forward operating bases were abandoned by both American and Afghanistan forces because the Taliban came in force.

    No matter the joint services actions are, what matters are on the ground. In Afghanistan, the Soviets lost thousands of conscripted troops in the 80s. They came with overwhelming air and ground forces mixed in with the Spetznas, and overan 8 year period, they got their heads handed to them. Mixed in with thousands of Russian graves. Naggibullah, the last remaining Soviet Installed leader of whose body was tied to a truck by our “Freedom Fighters”, and was dragged in Kabul.

    Yes, the US was a a big part of it, yet the problems remain.

    What matters is on the ground no matter the overwhelming forces involved. No matter the joint services, just look our Vietnam war and their Vietnam war, Afghanistan.

    We had overwhelming forces in Vietnam. Yet we lost.