Training “No Huddle” Joint Offense


Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work wants warfighters to kill airplanes from submarines and ships from the land. We can’t get there from here with the current knowledge level of those expected to take these advance firing or sensing actions.

Since October, the Department of Defense has attempted to nail down what the Army’s new multi-domain battle concept will entail and what technologies are needed to support it. Though Mr. Work has lauded the Army’s answer to his requirement, the ground components are not fully aligned with the Air Force, as evidenced by comments from from Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Gen. David Perkins and Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein.  Language from the Air Force Chief, reinforced by other executive thoughts on air superiority, seem to suggest the air component has the monolithic solution. Aside from Pacific Command’s Adm. Harris, the Navy seems quiet on multi-domain battle, but that won’t likely last. What can field commanders do to reach outside of their lanes for joint integration while the institutional side of our organizations figure out whose doctrine writers are smarter?

It is time to go back to school by standing up multi-domain training programs across the force. Future combat leaders will need a common understanding that enables flexibility among unique joint teams and allows them to perform mission command on the fly. The diversity of possible enablers also demands that we alter our learning models to empower multifunctional leaders who can fight with whatever is on hand. This effort should be concentrated close to the front at operational headquarters in Europe and the Pacific.

The U.S. Army’s concept development office says that tomorrow’s combat will be faster and that the Army will have to fight surrounded and more dispersed. Swift actions and scattered units means cumbersome planning processes — with laptops, cables, white boards, and coffee makers — become as much a liability as it was once a strength. A future commander fighting a battle in multiple domains won’t have the luxury of thoroughly planned access to maritime, air, cyber, and space assets. Leaders will have to integrate and synchronize on the fly. They’ll have to call audibles.

In American football, an audible is a play called at the line of scrimmage to change from the play that was called in the huddle or called in lieu of a huddle. It’s a pre-planned battle drill the team can execute with minimal communication. This model relies on everyone knowing both their part and that of everyone else in every possible configuration. A football team or combat unit that practices these actions enough knows how fast each team member is moving, at what target, and why. This knowledge is so reflexive that a leader’s single phrase can initiate a complex ballet of violence.

The expectation of such teamwork should be no surprise given the requirements of the Goldwater-Nichols Act and a historic desire for low-level integration dating to before the Korean conflict. At least for the Army, deep understanding of sister services is currently only really required of senior officers. Awareness of cueing sensors, targeting radars, tactical data networks, and aerial munitions is assumed or brushed aside as the responsibility of a higher headquarters. To extend our football metaphor, Army guards and tackles at the tactical level have little idea what the Navy running back will do. This is problematic in light of the “fracturing” expected of enemies who want to deny joint overmatch that relies on operational-level control.

Tactical-level leaders and staffs will need to understand, visualize, describe, and direct the actions of assets in other domains without the help of any big operations centers. Joint pentathlete leaders need a deep familiarity with the lexicon of sister-service capabilities and organizations available to sense the environment, strike targets, sequence efforts, and support forces between domains. That familiarity — their “playbook” — is something we can work on now and update as new doctrine is published and next-generation technology is fielded.

Joint warfighters will write and teach this “playbook” at programs operated by service component commands and corps-level headquarters engaged in theater. Multi-domain training should be conducted at the corps level because that’s where the commander has most of the right subject matter experts already assigned. As joint force component commanders, these senior leaders possess the influence to bring joint stakeholders to the table and mitigate some of the compartmentalization that limits accessibility to cutting-edge toolsets. These commands also have the intelligence staff to stay generally attuned to the specific threat tactics of the theaters in which they’ll operate. Available experts, command authority, and up-to-date intelligence are all reasons this responsibility cannot be entrusted solely to training commands.

Organic experts are the key to multi-domain training. Three star-level operational commands will have joint interoperability control officers to teach data-radio networks and air liaison officers to introduce air battle management. They’ll have counter-air experts to show how integrated air and missile defense works from space sensors and AEGIS to fighter aircraft, Patriot, and Avenger. This higher headquarters will also possess senior targeting experts whose weaponeering skillsets will have to be distilled into reflexive action at the lowest level. This extensive knowledge will be necessary to function independently in a fully contested battlespace. The hidden benefit is that asking leaders with special skillsets to teach their magic to laymen will grant them added proficiency as well. As Richard Feynman once remarked, “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t really understand it.” Questions such as “Can the SM-6 hit that? Could your aircraft see this?” will not only develop the students, but give the professionals ideas to generate discussion in their own communities.

Of course, many skills will have to be pulled from the other services. A three-star commander can do this much quicker than a schoolhouse commander. For the Army and Air Force, it should be pretty easy to connect to subject matter expert networks through battlefield coordination detachments or air support operations squadrons to find niche skills. This will be hard for the Navy, as there are no coordination detachments with the numbered fleets, and naval gunfire support is an arcane and ancient knowledge for the Army. The multi-domain training demand signal will help the joint force fill this gap. The Marine Corps’ echeloned task forces do this sort of coordination every day, though among direct peers. Perhaps they can teach the rest of us. The real rub is cyber-electromagnetic and space.

Each service has cyber, electromagnetic, and space experts. Unfortunately, the tools and tactics of these areas are shrouded in compartmentalization, technical jargon, and authority requirements. The moniker “request the effect, not the capability” doesn’t work for a battalion S-3 fighting for the survival of his unit against an enemy who can swing faster in those other domains. A commander in contact with the enemy must know what assets are geographically and temporally available and be able to task them immediately. He can’t do that if he doesn’t know the capability exists. We can’t brief everyone on our nation’s most expensive secret tools, but bringing in experts who are empowered to explain them at a common classification level will help tactical leaders understand at least what is in the realm of possible.

The learning model to create reflexive understanding of what’s possible will need to be different. Traditional planners’ classes like the joint firepower and advanced cyber planner courses devote days to staff exercises. Adapting leaders to calling audibles will instead require lots of rapid decision exercises with open-ended discussion with relevant experts. Scenarios should equip students to employ each sensor and weapon — sometimes multiple systems on the same platform — to maximum efficiency. They’ll have to do so while avoiding distraction at the hands of increasingly novel battlefield conditions. Instead of a course of action brief to capstone the class, the senior commander should receive a brief on how his subordinates will include cross-domain maneuver and joint peer collaboration in the next year’s activities.

Some Army field units already run a “Fires-U“ or some other branch-specific leveling program. Training advanced skills at home is more cost effective than sending individual personnel to distant schools. Multi-domain training is no different in this regard. However, building the knowledge necessary for joint mission command on-the-fly is flatly more important. Collective unit knowledge can offset poor institutional knowledge in an individual, but joint expertise in advanced warfighting capabilities isn’t there to begin with. Senior commanders are our only true subject matter experts on “seamlessly directing joint and coalition forces.” They will have to personally touch the curriculum and learning model for these students. The proponent for developing joint warfighters is the Joint Staff J7 office, which can guide curriculum development and an eventual gaming solution to build the above mentioned rapid decision-making. Still, it’s the senior commander who has the authority to assume risks in resourcing this effort. High-level embrace of tactical-level joint knowledge creates a centrifugal force from which forthcoming doctrine, high-end technologies, and a generation of leaders can profit.

Tomorrow’s networked weapons allow and the fractured nature of future war demands that tactical leaders have a common joint understanding that allows them to call audibles and direct cyber toolsets, electromagnetic capabilities, and air and maritime strike. Senior commanders must empower their subordinate formations to act without them in a disrupted command and control environment. To do this, we must train tactical level-leaders differently, and the organic experts at the operational level are the key. While the Pentagon figures out how to guarantee dominance with its third offset strategy, headquarters in Europe and the Pacific can start training for multi-domain battle today.


Captain Chris Telley is currently serving as the Information Operations Officer for United States Army Japan at Camp Zama, Japan. He commanded in Afghanistan and served in Iraq as a United States Marine. He tweets at @chris_telley

Colonel Sam Membrere is a graduate of the US Army War College and a former engineer battalion commander.

The above statements are the opinions of the authors and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army or any part of the U.S. government.


Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. William A. Tanner