In Search of a 21st-Century Joint Warfighting Concept


After two decades of counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is re-learning how to fight large, conventional conflicts against nuclear-armed powers — namely, China and Russia. The stakes are high. Battlefield victories aren’t an American birthright, and a military loss to Beijing or Moscow would be devastating. What’s more, the challenge is new for the current generation of Pentagon planners. Today’s field-grade officers responsible for drafting major war plans were lieutenants on 9/11 and have spent the bulk of their careers facing technologically inferior adversaries like the Taliban.

Given these challenges, the need for top-down guidance in the form of a joint warfighting concept has never been greater. Without it, the United States stands to lose the next war it fights, and lose badly. Traditional joint concepts are increasingly outdated. The AirLand Battle doctrine that guided military operations in Desert Storm does not account for the heightened role of cyber, space, and information operations. More recent efforts to formulate an Air-Sea Battle construct fell short because they underestimated the potential contribution of land forces. While the services have been working hard on multidomain concepts since 2015 (with some concepts’ origins going back even further) a more joint approach is necessary to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

Warfighting Concepts vs. Doctrine

A warfighting concept is not a doctrine. As Army Gen. Donn Starry noted 40 years ago in his Commanders Notes, No.3, “Operational Concepts and Doctrine,” military concepts are descriptions of capabilities that do not yet exist but have the potential to solve a military problem. In Starry’s day, the overriding problem was how NATO forces could defend against a Soviet land attack across Europe. He defined doctrine as “what is written, approved by an appropriate authority and published … doctrine generally describes how the Army fights tactically; how tactics and weapons systems are integrated; how command and control and combat service support are provided; how forces are mobilized, trained, deployed and employed.”



Differentiating between concepts and doctrine is critical to addressing today’s dilemma of trying to conduct joint or combined multidomain operations (i.e., “all-domain” or “cross-domain operations”) in the air, land, sea, cyber, and space domains, and the electromagnetic spectrum, to credibly deter China and Russia. Historically, most joint concepts have been developed top-down in a process overseen by the Joint Staff. This process continues today with the publication of the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations and other warfighting documents such as Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, and Joint Operating Environment 2035. However, more work is needed — the Joint Staff and component commanders should synthesize the concepts being developed by the services.

Current Efforts to Draft a Joint Concept

The Defense Department’s response to the challenge from Beijing and Moscow has been mixed. The good news is that the services are continuing to develop their warfighting concepts in imaginative ways, though each service calls its emerging warfighting concept something different. The Air Force is pursuing multi-domain command and control, the Marines are developing expeditionary advanced based Operations, the Navy is refining its distributed maritime operations, while the Army has shifted from multi-domain battle to multi-domain operations.

The bad news is that each of the service concepts focuses on a different aspect of multidomain operations and each has adopted different assumptions about war against a major power, which makes integration difficult. While the concepts may comply with Defense Department guidance, they are hardly joint and provide insufficient decision space to geographic combatant commanders. Unless and until these stovepiped efforts are placed in a truly joint warfighting context that is relevant to the combatant commanders, the necessary integration will not occur.

In short, if a truly joint concept can be developed and articulated, and its utility demonstrated through field experimentation, it might then be used by the Joint Staff, combatant commanders, and the services to shape the capabilities required to deal with the priority threats of China and Russia. Both nations have significantly modernized their forces and warfighting approaches while the United States has been conducting counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without a new concept to leverage the aggregate power of the full joint force, a war with China and Russia becomes more likely and more dangerous.

Today’s Bottom-Up Approach

Today’s joint concept development process is ongoing, but it remains hollow. It relies too heavily on a bottom-up approach that begins independently within each service — a process that pays insufficient attention to integrating the services’ efforts into a holistic warfighting concept at the joint level. While some past concept efforts originated within the services (e.g., AirLand Battle was developed by the Army), they were soon accepted by the others (with the exception of the Marines who pursued maneuver warfare doctrine) and ultimately integrated in a joint manner. Accordingly, the bottom-up effort should be complemented by a more robust top-down approach. Doing so would proactively integrate the bottom-up concepts with the Joint Staff’s broader perspective, and with the combatant commanders’ regional- and threat-specific insights — melding the best ideas into an adaptive, unified, joint warfighting concept that resonates with U.S. allies and partners.

In one respect, the services’ bottom-up approach is positive because it has stimulated thoughtful discussion at various command echelons and has focused overdue attention on how the services can best combine, project, and leverage combat power across all domains. Such a holistic approach is necessary to create multiple dilemmas for an adversary in different domains that span the tactical to strategic levels.

The service-led renaissance in American military thinking also reflects growing awareness that U.S. dominance in some domains — especially in the air and in the delivery of long-range precision fires at stand-off distances — has eroded significantly. As a result, the United States has less freedom of action to defend its security interests and support its allies and partners.

Preparing for Big War

The services face major obstacles in trying to independently develop approaches for great power competition and conflict. First, the current set of service concepts have not matured much beyond the working hypothesis level. In some cases, interservice dialogues have begun to make progress in areas of traditional service collaboration (i.e., coordinating fires between the Army and Air Force). However, much work remains. Second, the concepts require additional rigorous examination and experimentation to assess their feasibility in light of sister-service concepts and, more importantly, within a joint and theater context.

Commenting during the West 2017 conference that he needed Army forces to be able to “sink ships” in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, former commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, inspired the U.S. Army to create a nascent brigade-sized experimental Multi-Domain Task Force at Joint Base Lewis–McChord, Washington. Although not yet fully manned, the task force has become the Army’s lead tactical organization for testing ways to generate or exploit kinetic and non-kinetic effects across the air, land, sea, space, cyber and electronic warfare domains. Insights gleaned from real-world experimentation may reveal innovative methods for deploying the task force or other Army elements in support of the joint campaign.

The Multi-Domain Task Force should not be a one-off. As noted by military historian Dr. Williamson Murray, the virtue of standalone experimentation units is that they can suspend disbelief and push boundaries in policy, authorities, relationships, operational context, and other realms without degrading readiness. Experimental units not only point the way to the future, they can also serve as a vehicle for exploring further doctrinal and conceptual possibilities. Given the complex interplay between domains and the still-immature theater implications of cyber and space capabilities, it is perhaps time to consider forming joint experimentation units or augmenting service-conducted experiments with joint capabilities.

Once the services agree internally how to conduct all-domain operations, another hurdle awaits —ensuring that the cohesive, lethal, and time-sensitive application of joint combat power addresses real-world warfighting needs. As lessons learned from Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada revealed, one cannot assume integration will naturally result from the concept development process any more than one can expect the services and alliance partners to develop compatible communications equipment despite a shared commitment to doing so, to say nothing of the numerous directives and technical standards for achieving interoperability.

Integrating the Joint Force

Fully integrating the joint force is necessary to achieve what the U.S. Army concept calls “convergence” — creating simultaneous effects from all domains faster than the enemy. Convergence requires thinking at the operational level. Consequently, to develop and experiment effectively with convergence, the U.S. military should harness the full joint and multidomain expertise that transcends the purview of any service.

Convergence is no easy task — it requires joint force commanders  to orchestrate actions across all domains to create “windows of opportunity” that advance tailored campaign objectives. This is more than arbitrating between semi-independent, separate warfighting activities occurring in service-specific  battlespace that has not yet been integrated with other joint forces or effects.

One approach the joint force commanders can take to facilitate integration is to decide in peacetime how they will organize their forces for war. They have various options available such as designating a subordinate land component commander to control both Army and Marine forces, designating a subordinate maritime component commander to command both Navy and Marine units, or standing up a  separate joint task force headquarters. Determining the command-and-control arrangements before war occurs will provide a baseline that the joint force can become proficient in during peacetime training. As command-and-control scholars have noted, “Command and Control determines the bounds within which [operations] are to take place, not the specific behaviors themselves.” However, because “the degrees of freedom associated with these bounds can vary greatly,” the concepts animating operations should be integrated in such a way that they can be seen as a whole. In short, de-conflicting friendly forces to avoid fratricide has always been taken seriously by the U.S. military. But, this must not be confused with trying to simultaneously integrate battlefield activities from separate services against high-value enemy targets. The latter requires a degree of interdependence, coordination, and cooperation seldom seen in modern military history.

The “Fight Before the Fight” and Readiness

New concepts are developed in part because a gap exists between what a force can do now and what it might need to do in the future. The problem is that no single concept is optimized for all operational challenges. For example, service multidomain concepts do not comprehensively address how to achieve strategic- and operational-level penetration of the enemy’s anti-access/area denial (A2AD) defenses. Yet, being able to deliver strategic, operational, and tactical fires against high-value targets requires penetration. It also requires that contact forces operating inside the enemy’s A2AD defenses occupy survivable (protected, hardened, mobile, and/or distributed) battle-worthy positions, which have yet to be identified and constructed in sufficient numbers.

The services should maintain high warfighting proficiency within their respective functional domains. However, they cannot, by themselves, guarantee the joint force can successfully conduct all-domain, large-scale, conventional operations around the globe. This can only be realized through an aggressive combatant command-level exercise program that requires joint force headquarters (in concert with service component headquarters and service-provided forces) to collectively engage in realistic and recurring multidomain-focused training exercises at scale.

The tension between service and joint readiness priorities is a perennial challenge. Moreover, combatant command headquarters seem unable to routinely provide response cells to support component-level exercises — a missed training opportunity that ends up requiring subordinate units to role-play as a higher headquarters for which few are manned, trained, or equipped. Even more pressing is the need for the joint force to subject an integrated version of service concepts or its own written concept to repeated evaluation during exercises. Repetition will not only help assigned units become more proficient at accomplishing their joint missions, it will give the geographic combatant commanders mission-essential feedback necessary to further refine their joint warfighting concepts.

Next Steps

The process of developing joint concepts has undergone several major changes in the past few decades; however, it is not yet optimized to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy. Therefore, three initiatives should be considered to fill the voids discussed in this article.

First, the services should expand their current concept development approaches and invite sister service formations and combatant command observers to participate in their exercises and experiments. The meaningful insights accumulated over time from these disparate service activities will enable geographic combatant commanders to better understand how their assigned forces can be effectively integrated into the joint force and employed in their theaters.

Second, geographic combatant commanders need to rapidly accelerate the pace and frequency of joint force experimentation for conducting multidomain operations against China and Russia. This should start with rigorous examination of how the command will execute critical joint warfighting functions beginning with command and control. As noted previously, how a combatant commander decides to organize his forces for war will define which commanders and forces are working for whom during various campaign phases. This clarity of thinking can act as an analytical point of departure for working through critical assumptions embedded in service-developed conceptual approaches and service preferences for performing intelligence, maneuver, fires, sustainment, protection, and mission command.

Third, the Joint Staff should dispatch observer teams to exercises and experiments hosted by combatant commands to gather insights and lessons learned so the Pentagon has as a better appreciation of how the warfighters intend to win in their respective theaters. This practice will not only add context to ongoing Joint Staff efforts to supervise “global integration” but provide field commanders increased confidence that “mission command” (i.e., delegation of authority to the lowest practical echelon) is a routine peacetime practice at the four-star level.

While none of these recommendations may appear especially elegant on the surface, they will collectively help reduce institutional friction between the services, joint force commanders, and the Joint Staff. More importantly, these steps will ensure the services are receiving top-down guidance before war with China or Russia occurs so the military departments can adapt their warfighting approaches to best meet the needs of the joint force commander. In short, the services must understand a joint force commander’s vision, campaign sequencing, organization for combat, and general scheme of maneuver before conflict occurs, if their assigned forces are to meet a combatant commander’s expectations and standards.

The Stakes

A warfighting concept that communicates all these vital ideas across the joint force before the shooting begins is indispensable to achieving unity of effort and success against a near-peer competitor. Drafting such a concept will be challenging — but it won’t be an academic exercise. The end product will go a long way toward deterring both China and Russia. In the worst-case scenario — that deterrence fails and war ensues — such a concept will give U.S. forces an important advantage. At a time of rapid change in technology and the global balance of power, the military needs every advantage it can get.



Tom Greenwood, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.), is a research staff member in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He was an infantryman with subsequent assignments in the Pentagon and the National Security Council staff.

Pat Savage is a research associate in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He holds a master’s degree in security studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

The views, opinions, and findings expressed in this paper should not be construed as representing the official position of either the Institute for Defense Analyses or the Department of Defense.

Image: Joint Chiefs of Staff (Photo by Sgt. James K. McCann)