Days before the biggest defense conference of the year, one of the Army’s top thinkers is unveiling the service’s new push to expand its role beyond its traditional domain — land — to air, sea, space, and cyberspace. Even as the US defense budget shrinks, the Army is prioritizing new investments in downing drones, hacking networks, jamming transmissions, and even sinking ships at sea. Far from triggering inter-service rivalry, however, the Army’s ambitious concept seems to have buy-in from its sister services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Just look at the lineup for Tuesday’s panel on “Multi-Domain Battle” at the massive Association of the US Army conference. Besides Army brass like Training & Doctrine chief Gen. David Perkins, you have the
- Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, chief architect of the sweeping modernization scheme known as the Third Offset Strategy
- head of US Pacific Command, Navy Adm. Harry Harris (via VTC);
- Navy Undersecretary Janine Davidson;
- Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller;
- Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein and;
- Australia‘s Army’s head of modernization, Maj. Gen. Gus McLachlan;
The Army first embraced what it called “cross-domain operations” with the Army Operating Concept that Gen. Perkins promulgated in 2014. As it’s evolved since, multi-domain battle concept “really has resonated with the deputy secretary and his priorities,” said Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the iconoclastic warrior-intellectual who works for Gen. Perkins as the Army’s chief futurist.
The threat that drives Work’s Offset Strategy and which animates every member of that panel is the rise of China and Russia. These “peer competitors” are becoming both more aggressive and more powerful, McMaster emphasized, seizing territory from Crimea to the South China Sea even as they modernize their militaries. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, has called Russia “our greatest potential threat” and called for a new strategic approach not hamstrung by artificial jurisdictional lines between geographic theaters, or even between war and peace — lines our adversaries do not respect.
Russia, China, and even lesser powers like Iran are investing in so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). These sophisticated networks of long-range missiles and sensors — backed by submarines, strike aircraft, mines, and other forces — are intended to detect and destroy US ships and aircraft that come within hundreds of miles. A2/AD danger zones already extend well into the territory of US allies like the Baltics, Poland, and Taiwan.
“We have recognized that we’re behind in some critical areas,” McMaster told reporters this afternoon. (Back in April, he went so far as to say future Army forces might be “outranged and outgunned.”) “All domains are contested in a way we have not seen since 1991.”
“That means the Army can no longer rely on other services’ capabilities to do things we had assumed they’d be able to do,” McMaster said. Soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq relied on airpower to strike tough targets, eavesdrop on enemy transmissions, jam trigger signals for roadside bombs, and evacuate casualties — not to mention keep the skies clean of enemy aircraft. If A2/AD keep US aircraft out, even if only at the start of the conflict, ground troops in the war zone will be on their own.
On the flipside, the new threat also means the other services could use the Army’s help in their domains, just as the Air Force and Navy helped the Army on land in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The idea is that Army forces can play a foundational role in solving this Anti-Access/Area Denial problem set,” McMaster said, “increasingly projecting power outwards from the land.”
A2/AD is all about keeping US forces out, but if Army troops deploy on friendly soil before the shooting starts, they keep the door ajar. “If you’re already there, it’s not denied space, it’s contested from the beginning,” McMaster said.
It’s not just the ground the Army can contest. Defensively, Patriot and THAAD batteries are already crucial to keeping enemy airpower — bombers and ballistic missiles — from ravaging airbases and ports. Offensively, Army surface-to-surface ATACMS missiles, and the future Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) missile, can strike enemy missile launchers, radars, and command posts on the ground.
Now imagine adding some kind of anti-ship capability to hit targets at sea. This would be either anti-ship cruise missiles or exotic artillery rounds like the anti-ship Excalibur or the Hyper-Velocity Projectile (HVP), although McMaster didn’t specify which. Further imagine adding cyber and electronic warfare capacities to hack and jam the command networks that hold an A2/AD system’s disparate parts together.
“The artillery batteries of the future will have, integrated into the batteries, surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, and shore-to-ship capabilities,” McMaster said. (“Artillery” includes both howitzers and missiles in Army parlance, so it’s not clear which the future anti-ship weapon would use). The Army also has strengthened the artillery headquarters in its combat divisions, the better to coordinate complex barrages in multiple domains.
Modernizing The Army
In the near term, the Army is focusing on self-defense with a new anti-aircraft system — specifically, an anti-unmanned aircraft system. Russian forces in Ukraine have used cheap drones to spot targets for heavy artillery, with devastating effect. But the US Army long since disbanded all the electronic warfare units that could jam the drones’ control links, and it disbanded most of its Short-Range Air Defense (SHORAD) units, investing instead in high-end missile defenses like Patriot and THAAD. Now, said McMaster, the Army is reprogramming existing radars to pick out these “low and slow” targets and investing in both new jammers and high-energy lasers to zap them out of the sky.
“We’re able to accelerate capabilities into the force in a way we haven’t been able to in the past,” McMaster said, citing new cooperation among Army requirements writers, acquisitions officials, lab researchers, and operational commanders. “What we have seen is high payoff.”
Other changes don’t even require new technology, just using what’s already in service differently. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army blanketed the countryside in signals. “We would broadcast on high power, omni-directionally and continuously,” McMaster said. Against an adversary able to detect, triangulate, and fire at US transmissions, he said, “we know that’s a bad idea.”
Alongside all these excursions into air, sea, and cyberspace, the Army continues to invest in land systems, from new lightweight armored vehicles to precision-guided grenades to palm-top mini-drones. The current drive towards multi-domain battle is very different from the “transformation” era of the 1990s and early 2000s, McMaster said, “when we were very much captured by the Revolution in Military Affairs” and its dream of long-range, high-tech, bloodless warfare. Today, he said, “we are starting with close combat.”
Indeed, old-fashioned ground combat may only become more important as adversaries learn to counter our airpower. As enemies take cover in cities, forests, and other “complex terrain,” with jammers to blind our long-range sensors and missiles to keep our aircraft at a distance, “that means we’re going to fight close combat,” McMaster said. “We’re going to have to close with and destroy the enemy.”