The Future of War is Fast Approaching in the Pacific: Are the U.S. Military Services Ready?

June 2, 2017

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Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s remarks delivered on May 23, 2017 at the Association of the U.S. Army Institute of Land Warfare Professional Development Forum on Landpower in the Pacific.

Is the era of unparalleled U.S. conventional military superiority coming to an end? Many senior U.S. military leaders are worried. The ongoing general proliferation of precision strike capabilities, cross-domain threats from cyber, space, and beyond, rising operational competence in potential adversaries, and the anticipation of rapidly diffusing new commercial technology with military relevance is placing American conventional overmatch at risk. Moreover, this is not just a story about air and naval superiority. As U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in October 2016, “[W]e are on the cusp of a fundamental change in the character of warfare, and specifically ground warfare.” The future conventional battlefield will be more contested than the battlefields U.S. ground forces have become accustomed to over the last generation. A complex environment featuring adversaries with the capacity to launch attacks in multiple domains will further require an American military able to do the same. Thus, senior U.S. military leaders such as Milley and Adm. Harris, as well as a number of commentators, increasingly recognize the need for a “multi-domain” approach to the security environment.

What does responding to a multi-domain world mean? Criticisms of the breadth of a multi-domain frame risk missing the way multi-domain battle is socializing key insights that will aid the U.S. military. Harnessing the capabilities of the future will place more cognitive demands on the warfighter, as they have to fight and make decisions at machine speed. This means preparing and training, not just developing new technological widgets, especially when America’s adversaries will increasingly have their own advanced capabilities. It also means that one role of technology will be helping relieve that cognitive complexity, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work argues.

The prerequisites for adopting multi-domain battle are thus more human and bureaucratic than anything else. They are about the willingness of institutions – in this case mostly the Army and Marine Corps – to adapt to an uncertain security environment and keep their edge over adversaries.

The force development challenge is therefore crucial in determining whether the U.S. military, and especially its ground forces, get from here to there. End strength, modernization, and readiness come into budgetary tension, but all are necessary to build the capacity to fight and win wars in the Pacific and beyond. The FY18 budget submission to Congress, unfortunately, is not enough to overcome the modernization deficit facing the land forces.

Senior U.S. military leaders and others, including people writing in War on the Rocks, have already done an excellent job laying out the threat to the joint force, and the ground forces in particular. For example, as Grant and Benfield argue, cross domain adversary capabilities generate particular vulnerabilities for U.S. ground forces and mandate a joint and cross domain response. This is not a minimization of air and naval power, but a recognition that ground forces must significantly adapt.

Scenarios for landpower deployments in the Pacific and beyond are extremely diverse. Just in the Pacific, ground forces have to prepare for contingencies ranging from the Korean Peninsula to potential distributed operations in Southeast Asia to protecting Guam. This means the United States military needs diverse ground forces as well – capable of walking and chewing gum as they deter conflicts from occurring, and winning conflicts if they start.

Adversaries that might use cyber-attacks to slow naval support of land forces or the electromagnetic spectrum to attack ground units, represent a clear cross domain threat. This is a different asymmetric test than that posed by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, various Shia militias, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or any of the other actors that U.S. land services have spent much of the last 15 years confronting. Those conflicts are not going away either, meaning that U.S. military preparations for the future cannot come at the expense of fighting today’s wars.

But, the Future is Coming on Fast.

We are approaching a period where commercial markets will cause bleeding edge technologies to spread faster than the key technologies of the past generation, such as stealth or precision guidance. Here, I am talking about technologies that are part of the third offset strategy – artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, cyber, directed energy, and others. As Sgt. Jonathan Gillis recently described in War on the Rocks, militant groups are employing modified commercial drones to threaten ground forces, which represents an early manifestation of commercial diffusion informing cross-domain threats.

In general, the larger the commercial applications of a technology, the faster it spreads due to market forces. We need to internalize that these emerging technologies are more like the combustion engine than a new type of rifle. They will be part of everything, and thus many will have access to them, from allies and partners to adversaries.

The rapid diffusion of militarily-relevant dual-use technologies means we can expect more countries to acquire anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) networks and other capabilities that challenge U.S. access to space and cyberspace, as well as the ability of the United States to project power over distance – a vital necessity in the Pacific.

As others also argue, successfully addressing the threat will require more than jointness as the U.S. military has conceived of it over the last few decades. Instead, the Pentagon should place a larger emphasis on joint integration that also allows for small unit creativity and innovation. This does not minimize the role that each service and domain plays – and it will also involve more collaboration with allies and partners. U.S. military leaders thinking about multi-domain battle should now engage the following three issues: the broad organizational challenge of adoption, how to leverage technology without relying on it, and what multi-domain battle may mean for force planning.

The Broad Organizational Challenge

The United States military is the best in the world, in large part because of its highly trained, talented personnel. Yet, adaptation is hard for a leading military power like the United States. After all, rising powers like China have less to lose by taking chances, sometimes giving them an edge when it comes to experimentation regarding tactics and doctrine. It’s hard to generate the bureaucratic impetus to adapt when you wake up every day and are already the best. But the national security establishment cannot take U.S. conventional military superiority for granted.

Thus, the U.S. military needs develop what I call the “adoption capacity” to respond to a changing world. This is a world where rapid cross-domain fires —the ability of forces in one domain (e.g. land) to attack targets in another domain (e.g. sea) — are essential, meaning the Army needs to be ready to sink ships.

The good news is that multi-domain battle represents, in a way, going back to organizational basics – combined arms for the 21st century fueled by emerging technologies that empower the warfighter. The critical task focus necessary to master and implement multi-domain battle concepts should be consistent with the Army and Marine Corp’s DNA, something that will hopefully speed adoption.

Leveraging Technology, Without Depending On It

Emerging technologies provide an opportunity to bolster the effectiveness of U.S. land forces through multi-domain operational concepts. In the area of autonomous systems, terms like killer robots and autonomous weapon systems conjure images of the Terminator, but that’s not the reality for the way autonomous systems will help U.S. land forces fight at machine speed. Precision targeting systems and autonomy-enabled defense already enable the current generation of human-machine teaming to make land forces faster, more efficient, and more accurate. There’s not a magical line between that and the next generation of autonomy – though incremental changes can add up.

The important thing is that humans must still control the strategy, the rules of engagement, and the decisions, especially when it comes to complex risk analysis and the use of force. Machines can be invaluable tools to save lives and money, eliminate wasted time, and make human forces more effective when used in the service of strategy, but they can’t make complex decisions. The bet behind the third offset strategy, and one that is often not well understood, is that human-machine teaming, by harnessing the human capital of the U.S. military, will provide greater effectiveness and reliability than pure reliance on algorithms.

Ultimately, technology in any form is a tool to be used by the military and the civilian leadership, and people are ultimately accountable for its use. The best thing we can do is understand the possibilities better than our adversaries. The worst thing we can do is pretend it’s not coming or abdicate our responsibility to control the strategy and higher-level choices.

In the Pacific and Beyond

A key part of adoption involves building flexible, resilient formations within the U.S. military. Ground forces need cross-domain fires. In that vein, modifying the Army Tactical Missile System to enable it to fire on ships is a step in the right direction for the Pacific in particular, as is the potential for linking together Army and Navy radars and precision fires.

The interaction of maneuver and fire will be more vital than ever on a contested battlefield. It is therefore critical that the Army push ahead with the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, the Paladin Integrated Management program, and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. An issue, though, is whether those capabilities will be fielded fast enough.

Smaller units will need more and faster access to cross-domain capabilities: Active protection systems for the defense, harnessing robotics and autonomous systems for the offense – as well as precision fires. Speed and resupply are going to be critical for these units – think human-machine teaming that leverages autonomy, and utilizing capabilities such as 3D printing to facilitate resupply on the battlefield.

Stepping back, the increase in research and development funding in the Trump administration’s FY18 defense budget request is a start from a long-term perspective, but more clearly bolstering modernization in particular is necessary. Moreover, adjusting force structure is not enough on its own, especially if funding active duty end strength for the Army comes at the expense of modernization and readiness.

A new approach is also necessary because the ground forces are going to need to control more forces in a multi-domain world. A consequence of emerging capabilities being based on commercial technology is that adversaries will be able to catch up faster when the U.S. military innovates. As innovation cycle timelines shrink, the United States will need to produce faster, and in mass, to stay ahead. Not a mass army, but soldiers controlling, or working with the other services who control masses of sensors, shooters, and other equipment.

The FY18 defense-wide budget includes about $300 million in additional funding for the Strategic Capabilities Office to pursue cutting edge technologies, such as “enabling systems to cross or blur domains, creating teams of manned and autonomous systems, and leveraging enabling commercial designs and technologies”, and could represent progress. It continues a trend started during the Obama administration. The U.S. military  must change the cost exchange ratio when the United States uses force. It cannot use Patriot missiles that cost about $3 million per shot to take down Amazon quadcopters, as a U.S. partner reportedly did in early 2017.

In other ways, as referenced above, this shift is going to make the small unit commander and the battalion commander more important than ever for two reasons. First, as the technology becomes more complicated, commanders will have to make rapid decisions that incorporate a greater understanding of how different capabilities interact across domains. This means the selection and promotion of commanders must emphasize those with the knowledge to fight in a multi-domain environment.

Second, in a world of proliferated precision strike where adversaries can rapidly generate fires across domains is a world that will mandate, as Gen. Milley says, a more spartan approach to warfare, with ground units constantly on the move. That means decentralizing operations. This will be particularly difficult in the Pacific, where maneuver itself can require joint integration just to move forces.

Conclusion

There is a temptation in every generation to say that the threats of today are more complicated and difficult than those faced by our predecessors. While contemporary threats are undoubtedly complex, including for land forces, there are also many opportunities – and addressing them starts with joint integration. Multi-domain battle also has implications for procurement, training, and doctrine. And for the concept to succeed, it will require adoption in a way that not only shapes the force’s end strength, but military modernization and readiness as well.

More generally, implementation of multi-domain battle means rhetoric about supporting creativity and experimentation within the land forces has to become even more of a reality. We know this from U.S. military history. Carrier warfare in World War II did not emerge from smoke. Rather, it emerged from two decades of table-top gaming and real-world operational experiments. Similarly, AirLand Battle wasn’t conjured into reality – it was forced there by a generation of commanders that did the hard bureaucratic work necessary to train and equip the force for the late Cold War battlefield.

This also suggests that whether the next influential warfighting concept for the ground forces is multi-domain battle as currently conceptualized or not, what matters most is the characterization of the security environment that drives the demand signal for new doctrine. At the end of the day, multi-domain battle represents a critical recognition by the land forces that cross-domain threats, emerging technologies, and the diffusion of precision strike capabilities are shaping the likely future conventional war environment in a way that mandates a joint and multi-domain response. The most important features of the multi-domain battle concept, in the long run, may therefore be socializing key ideas about the character of the future battlefield, as well as creating and sustaining bureaucratic support for a necessary suite of capabilities. Essentially, even if the draft multi-domain battle concept ends up by the wayside, the muscle movements generated by the discussion could have productive effects that enhance the ability of the U.S. military to fight and win the nation’s wars over the next generation.

 

Michael C. Horowitz is associate professor of political science and associate director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a senior editor of War on the Rocks. You can find him on twitter @mchorowitz.

Image: U.S. Army photo by pl. Jessica Collins

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