WASHINGTON: The Army is creating an experimental combat unit to develop new tactics for lethally fast-paced future battlefields. The Multi-Domain Task Force will be “a relatively small organization…1,500 or so troops,” the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told the Future of Warfare conference here this morning. While small, it will have capabilities not found in the building block of today’s Army, the 4,000-strong brigade. “That organization will be capable of space, cyber, maritime, air, and ground warfare,” he said, extending its reach into all domains of military operations to support the Air Force, Navy, and Marines.
“It’s got a bunch of capabilities, and that’s what we’re going to play with to figure out what’s the right mix,” Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the deputy chief of staff for operations (G-3/5/7), told reporters at last week’s Association of the US Army conference. “It’s got some aviation. It’s got some maneuver. It’s got signal. It’s got cyber.” In English, that means it has helicopters, infantry and/or tanks, communications troops, and technical troops to protect (and perhaps attack) computer networks. By contrast, a typical Army brigade today, a much larger formation, has maneuver and signal, but no helicopters or hackers.
The eventual goal of this experimentation may be permanent units that are so self-sufficient. The old Cold War-era Armored Cavalry Regiments had their own in-house helicopters, as well as tanks, signallers and supply to conduct reconnaissance at high speeds over large areas in the face of armed opposition. Army reformers from Doug MacGregor to H.R. McMaster, both veterans of ACRs, have seen these self-sufficient units as a potential model for future forces. The Army recently explored reviving them, but “we don’t have the stuff to build it,” in particular the helicopters, Anderson said.
“There’s still not consensus about what this thing” — the revived ACR or Reconnaissance-Strike Group — “should look like, how big it should be,” said Anderson. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep striving to build that kind of capability….I think in the meantime this Multi-Domain Task Force may provide pieces, parts, of what that RSG was going to be.”
Why the drive for smaller units with a wider range of capabilities? The Army increasingly worries that big units will just be big targets. Russia and China, in particular, have developed their own smart missiles, plus the sensors to find targets and the networks to coordinate strikes. These Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems have the range and accuracy to potentially make wide areas of Europe and Asia — including the territory of allies like the Baltics, Poland, and South Korea — a deadly no-go zone for conventional US forces.
“There are several nations around the world who have developed very complex, very sophisticated Anti-Access/Area Denial sort of capabilities,” Milley said. “Obviously Russia and China, to a lesser extent Iran and North Korea…. That A2/AD structure is highly lethal and operating inside that structure, in large formations, will also get you killed.”
“So smaller dispersed, very agile, very nimble organizations — that are networked into other lethal systems that delivered by either air or maritime forces — will be essential to rip apart the A2/AD networks,” Milley said. “These organizations would be highly lethal, very fast, very difficult to pin down on a battlefield.”
The Army can’t maneuver this way today, emphasized Maj. Gen. Duane Gamble, the logistician heading the Europe-based 21st Theater Sustainment Command. “We don’t have the mission command capabilities that can do that. We don’t have the sustainment capabilities,” he told me at AUSA. “But where we’re getting the reps in is widely dispersed operations at the company level, sometimes at the platoon level, training with our allies, and we’re learning the vulnerabilities of our heavy formations (i.e. tank units). Their internal logistics are designed to operate in battalion sectors… So all that is informing what we need to do in the future.”
Not everyone is excited. At the AUSA conference in Huntsville, an analyst, historian and top aide to Milley’s predecessor, retired Col. David Johnson, warns we may have already overloaded Brigade Combat Team commanders with too many capabilities that once were managed by divisions or even corps. “The BCT has become the division… the focal point of just about everything. We ought to challenge that assertion,” Johnson said. “Should we keep pushing capabilities down to the BCT or relook the role of divisions and corps, and focus the brigade on the close fight?”
The head of Training & Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Gen. David Perkins answers: “You’re (still) going to have to have echelons of command that synchronize and deconflict. That won’t change — but how those responsibilities and authorities are divided may have to. A whole generation of Army leaders grew up with Airland Battle doctrine’s clear demarcations between the close fight, conducted by short-range weapons; the deep fight, conducted by Air Force strikes, attack helicopters, and ATACMS missiles; and the supposedly safe rear area.
“A lot of it was determined by range of weapons. It was determined by physics, it was determined by geography, (e.g.) here’s a bridge crossing, who’s in charge of it?” Perkins told me at AUSA. “What we’re finding with multi-domain battle (is) that construct doesn’t work…. What’s the range of cyber?…You can’t define the battlefield framework by the range and/or limit of your weapons.”
“What we tried to do with a two-dimensional construct, AirLand Battle, was impose some order on the chaos that is battle(:) I own this part of chaos, you own this part of chaos,” Perkins said. “Now… instead of trying to control chaos, we have to thrive in it.”