Why you should care
Because you have to fight the next war, not the last one.
A hostile power conquers a strategically important island chain, vowing to block all sea and air traffic of U.S. allies. Treaty obligations force America to intervene, but first the White House deploys cyber and space technologies to blind and disrupt opposing forces, allowing special operations troops and amphibious Marines to land, with Army engineers in tow. Coordinated Air Force and Navy sensors and firepower — manned, along with drones — take on the enemy from there.
That scenario, laid out in a recent paper by Gen. Robert B. Brown, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, distills the military’s new vision of the future of multi-domain warfare. It’s just a theory — for now — being shaped this year in and outside the Pentagon. But it could soon become the military’s war-fighting modus operandi, as it turns to threats from China and Russia on unpredictable battlefields rather than insurgents in the deserts and cities of Iraq and Afghanistan. Included within all the strategy papers is a humbling but necessary admission: The U.S. military can no longer assume superiority at all times.
Multi-Domain Battle — encompassing land, sea, air, space and cyber — has evolved from the concept of AirLand Battle, the late Cold War doctrine to coordinate air and ground forces. The idea itself can be traced back to ancient Greeks fighting at sea and on land in tandem. Critically, it integrates different branches of the military — all of which come with their own customs, styles and rivalries. Cyberwarfare, more important with each passing day, is the newest element. Though the pieces have been in place for years, this is the first time the military is trying to organize them as one strategy.
multi-domain battle has filtered down to in-house researchers and defense contractors who see applications — and business opportunities — for their new technologies.
And then there’s the targeting of “peer threats,” namely China and Russia. Both nations are often politically at odds with the U.S. and have sophisticated militaries that have advanced rapidly while America was occupied elsewhere. The Army and Marines white paper spelling out the multi-domain battle concept is frank: “A decade and a half of counterinsurgency campaigns eroded the ability of the U.S. military to confront emerging peer threats who developed effective countermeasures to Joint Force advantages.”
The Army and Marines, which are leading the project with other branches expected to sign on, dramatically redefine the battlefield. Instead of the “clear, hold and build” of counterinsurgency doctrine, they talk about how to “create temporary windows of superiority.” Translation: American forces won’t always be able to dominate. “This is a huge departure from where we’ve been,” says Lauren Fish, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “The need to be moving requires you to only think about space temporarily.”
The price tag? Unknown. President Donald Trump proposed a $54 billion increase in defense spending for next year, though hawks in Congress want even more. The White House asked for a 5 percent bump for science and technology funding across all the armed services, to $13.2 billion. The Department of Defense Pacific Command this year asked Congress for an extra $49 million for multi-domain battle war games — in addition to the proposed budget.
Though it has not yet been implemented, multi-domain battle has filtered down to in-house researchers and defense contractors who see applications — and business opportunities — for their new technologies. Shawn Walsh, who leads Robotic Augmented Soldier Protection research at the Army Research Laboratory, says the speed required in multi-domain battle plays well into his ideas for robots that can deploy shields to defend soldiers on the go. Early virtual war games, Walsh says, have shown that protection robots — acting as “teammates” rather than replacing humans — produce a 36 percent increase in “soldier survivability.”
The lab is also working on a “third arm” exoskeleton for soldiers, to help them carry and aim weapons. Researcher Zachary Wingard describes it as rethinking how humans have fired small arms since the debut of the crossbow. Future versions of the arm could allow soldiers to accurately fire above their heads or around corners while taking cover. It lightens the load by redistributing the weight a soldier carries, and it could one day make it easier to aim and fire on the move, innovation critical to the speed-dependent world of multi-domain war.
Similarly, artificial intelligence will be critical to mastering the less predictable battlefields of the future. AI can learn an enemy’s tendencies and predict what’s coming next across all the domains, then present human controllers with quicker options. “There’s a lot of that being deployed today,” says Rob Smith, defense megacontractor Lockheed Martin’s vice president for command, control and battle management. He hastens to add: “I don’t want to get into the specifics of where and how.”
The more automated America’s warfare becomes, the greater havoc a cyberintrusion can wreak — so the people building the new tools are working to counteract those fears. “While we can’t discuss details, the vulnerability of any electronic system on the battlefield is a focus area for Army [research and development],” Walsh says. “And this includes novel approaches to ensure proper operation and reliability of robotics and unmanned systems under extreme and challenged conditions.”
The multi-domain battle discussion is meant to address future threats starting around 2025. But American intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia executed a cyberattack to disrupt the 2016 election and ongoing tensions with China in the South China Sea underscore the urgency. As Pacific Command takes the lead in putting the concepts into practice, spokesman Christopher Garver says the group plans to conduct “long-range precision fires” from land to sea targets as part of their exercises next year. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula make the mission even more pressing. As General Brown said at a forum in January, according to Breaking Defense, an online defense magazine: “If Kim Jong-un goes south tomorrow, I will need some of this tomorrow.”