In Defense of a Big Idea for Joint Warfighting


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