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Stand-In Forces: Disrupting Anti-Access Systems

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

By Joseph Mozzi

The threat of anti-access capabilities is here to stay, and the Marine Corps’ stand-in force concept lends much-needed variety to the toolbox of approaches that will allow the joint force to “break the wall” if needed.1 Anti-access strategies are not new concepts, nor are they the oft-depicted ‘deus ex machina’ that will turn vast swaths of the globe into prohibited regions for American power projection.2 They do, however, present a threat that is only increasing in capability, bolstered by the increasing evolution of the mature precision-strike regime.3 By winning the maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight, the stand-in force is uniquely capable of contributing to the systemic disruption of anti-access capabilities, generating advantages and opportunities for the naval services and joint force to exploit. It lends much-needed asymmetry to breaking the walls that many of America’s current adversaries will erect in their efforts to hold American power-projection capabilities at bay.4

There is broad congruence between the stand-in force’s role and the Marine Corps’ capstone doctrine of maneuver warfare. Penetrating an adversary’s system to eliminate its ability to function as a coordinated whole is central to the service’s warfighting philosophy,5 and systemic disruption is its defeat mechanism of choice.6 In viewing anti-access capabilities for what they are: complex systems reliant on technology, information, and human decision making; the stand-in force generates effects that both deter and provide advantages during conflict. It reinvents the traditional understanding of penetrating a denied space from the outside-in by persisting within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone beginning in periods of competition. It cooperates with allies and partners, assuming a deterrent posture as a form of temporal penetration. If competition escalates to conflict, the stand-in force already occupies a position of advantage. The stand-in force concept challenges the Marine Corps to create an adaptable system that can persist and sustain itself in a contested space, adapting its theory of warfighting to present challenges.

Anti-Access Systems

It is not the sources of power within anti-access systems that threaten external actors but the force of power that the system exerts. Anti-access approaches exhibit the emergent characteristics of complex systems: a whole greater than its parts. The sources of anti-access power: anti-ship missiles, surface combatants, and both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial reconnaissance systems, among others, are reliant on critical linkages to project force that can deny an area to an adversary.7 They are, in effect, an entirely interdependent network that must work together successfully.8

Anti-access warfare is fundamentally a struggle to gain and maintain awareness that can be synthesized within a system to result in targetable information.9 Actions cannot occur absent awareness of the environment. For example, China’s DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles rely on information to detect prospective targets throughout their range. They are dependent on other target acquisition systems within the larger system to achieve their intended effects. Information about the environment and the means to process it emerge as critical linkages within anti-access systems. A force that can affect those linkages – denying information and understanding to the adversary – has a high potential to contribute to the systemic disruption of the anti-access capability. In this lies the potential of the stand-in force, eschewing the direct approach of penetrating an anti-access system from the outside in favor of asymmetrically disrupting it from within.

Systemic Disruption and the Stand-In Force

Systemic disruption is the result of affecting a system’s coherence. It recognizes that an adversary is a system of interacting parts and attacks the relationships between critical components.10 By targeting the connections which bring coherence to an adversary’s system, systemic disruption achieves second-order effects on individual sources of strength by negating their collective functionality. Applying lethal or non-lethal means to disrupt an adversary’s ability to acquire targets within a contested space can have effects commensurate with destroying the systems themselves that would deliver effects. In this sense, it generates results disproportionately greater than the effort expended.11 The asymmetry inherent in stand-in force maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance lends weight to its systemic disruption capabilities.

Narrowly dependent systems are less able to account for the full range of environmental pressures that may be brought to bear upon them.12 In the case of anti-access systems, this narrow dependency is the system’s reliance on information to the end of preventing the joint force from entering a contested area. By existing inside of a “denied” space during periods of competition, the stand-in force becomes part of multiple dilemmas facing an adversary. The anti-access system must detect forces both within its denied space and attempting to penetrate from the outside. The interdependence between the inside and outside forces strengthens the asymmetry. Unmanned target acquisition systems employed in-depth by the stand-in force are the forward edge of an integrated system encompassing not only stand-in force lethal capabilities but those residing in the fleet and joint force. The stand-in force can give and take, augmenting its actions by integrating external capabilities while generating opportunities for the fleet and joint force to exploit in its wake.

Successful reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance in periods of competition keep the stand-in force and fleet in a position of information advantage over the anti-access system through the transition to conflict. Stand-in forces create an area within which the anti-access system cannot aggregate the targetable information required to function. While the stand-in force denies the anti-access system information vital to its efforts to target the fleet, it remains a lethal and elusive obstacle that must be addressed. The anti-access system must expend increasing resources to “detect” and continuously “track” a force benefitting from high intra-theater mobility, low signature levels, decoys and deception, and lethal precision capabilities. Robust reconnaissance efforts support the counter-reconnaissance fight by identifying adversary collection patterns over time, ensuring both the fleet and stand-in force remain ahead of adversary decision cycles.

Stand-in force actions force the anti-access system to adapt to an unexpected threat. Air Force Colonel John Boyd characterized a theory of systemic collapse where actions present as “simultaneously menacing…ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading.” These actions induce confusion and disorder into the system.13 To remain viable, the system must adapt by seeking new and perhaps riskier means to gain the information it requires to function. Without a complete understanding of its threat environment, it decompensates as challenges cascade faster than the system can adapt to them.14 Refocusing and repositioning target acquisition systems to locate the stand-in force will rob the anti-access system of vital capacity that could be dedicated to detecting the fleet while increasing its exposure to the lethal capabilities of the stand-in force.

The Stand-In Force and Maneuver Warfare

The realization of the stand-in force must be accompanied by a continued embrace of maneuver outside of the spatial domain. While spatial maneuver is fundamental to the success of the stand-in force in both competition and conflict, the Marine Corps’ capstone doctrine is careful to underscore that the service must “consider maneuver in other dimensions as well.”15 As a philosophy that aims to shatter an adversary’s cohesion through actions that generate a rapidly deteriorating situation, any action that generates and exploits advantage – executing maneuver in “all dimensions”16 – is well nested in the service’s capstone doctrine.

As information is a critical linkage within anti-access systems, the broader maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight becomes a centerpiece to the stand-in force’s actions to achieve an advantage. These actions are fundamentally maneuverist in their effects, generating interconnected temporal, cognitive, and spatial advantages over an adversary. Temporal advantage begins in competition. The stand-in force in partnership with allies generates a persistent and baseline awareness of adversary systems and decision processes, a product of intelligence-led operations.17 This contributes to cognitive and temporal advantages in conflict, allowing the stand-in force in cooperation with the fleet to anticipate and remain ahead of adversary actions,18 dictating the terms of escalation or return to competition. Successful counter-reconnaissance also supports spatial advantage, as rapidly mobile and low signature forces use their understanding to achieve positions to hold adversary forces at credible risk. Spatial maneuver converges with temporal, cognitive, and informational maneuver to generate these advantages for the force.

For the Marine Corps, this forward-looking embrace of an expanded understanding of maneuver warfare must occur at all levels of leadership. The Marine Corps prides itself on teaching its leaders how to think, not what to think. Limiting one’s conception of maneuver warfare to the bounds of the land domain and spatial maneuver ignores the true potential of a timeless theory of achieving advantage and winning in both competition and conflict. The Marine Corps is currently training the non-commissioned and company-grade officers that will form the core of tactical-level leadership in the stand-in force of the future. They must retain a conception of maneuver warfare’s continued and timeless relevance.

Implications for the Stand-In Force

Depriving an anti-access system of information that forms the critical linkages between its sources of power is not the job of any single entity within the stand-in force. It is a task levied on the force as a whole. While the Marine Corps understands this fact,19 it presents potentially the greatest challenge to translating the concept of a stand-in force into a persistent and forward-deployed system that can provide these functions to the fleet and joint force. A holistic stand-in force that can win the maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight will contribute to the systemic disruption of an anti-access system. If the stand-in force cannot, it will in turn be isolated and vulnerable.

There are elements of both art and science that will contribute to realizing the stand-in force. Sustainment and logistics methods that can support a stand-in force at scale and in conflict,20 advancing unmanned capabilities as a service in partnership with the Navy,21 and the rapid maturation of the information maneuver occupational field are a few examples of capabilities that will enable success.22 The stand-in force must be able to persist over time and throughout the depth of the environment.

To say that the concept of stand-in forces is high-risk and high-reward is perhaps an understatement. While current events in Ukraine can shed some light on the realities of future conflict as they apply to the Marine Corps,23 experimentation within the concept of stand-in forces is still largely anticipatory. Force Design 2030 is subject to an ongoing series of wargames to assess future force design and its associated concepts.24 Even the best-designed wargames are not completely predictive, at least not in the sense that they reduce the realities of conflict to a formulaic problem of right or wrong answers that can guarantee success.25 They can, however, provide a valuable means through which to reduce the complexity of problems to illuminate constraints, test theories, and challenge hypotheses.26 The end product of these efforts is a best assessment of what a future maritime fight may demand. 

The uncertainty that will always surround the future battlefield is perhaps the Marine Corps’ greatest advantage in preparing for the future. Recovering from battlefield surprise is the best test of a military’s adaptability. Even the best efforts to anticipate the character of future conflict will in some ways come up short, and how a service develops itself to respond contributes greatly to its success or failure. In his book On Flexibility, Meir Finkel might as well have been speaking of the Marine Corps when he outlined requirements for successful battlefield adaptation. Warfighting doctrine must be “open” and flexible enough to adapt to emerging battlefield realities, being of immediate utility while at the same time supporting change at the tactical level. Diverse force structures must provide complementary capabilities and solutions to meet emergent problems. Doctrine and force structure must be supported by a decentralized command and control model supported by cognitive flexibility. These attributes must be fostered through formal education and training, which arms leadership with the ability to meet new challenges effectively. Perhaps most importantly, improvement must be a central pillar within the organization.27

Stand-in forces will provide a valuable capability to the joint force to deter adversaries and, if necessary, disrupt anti-access systems in times of conflict. The success of stand-in forces is incumbent on the Marine Corps’ ability to realize an adaptable system that can persist and sustain itself in contested spaces. Its success will not be the result of any singular capability but of the competencies of the force as a whole. Warfighting remains a timely and relevant capstone doctrine to understand and realize this emerging concept, providing Marine leaders with the cognitive foundations to adapt to emerging demands. As the current and vibrant debate over the merits of Force Design 2030 indicates, the Marine Corps’ longstanding commitment to improvement lends confidence to the idea that the service will get it right.

Joseph Mozzi is a Marine Corps artillery officer. He is currently a student at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff Officers Course.


1. “Break the wall” from Sam Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013).

2. Luis Simon, “Demystifying the A2/AD Buzz,” War on the Rocks, (January 4, 2017).

3. Andrew Krepinevich, Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2014).

4. A more in-depth discussion on how America’s various adversaries could employ anti-access strategies can be found in Anti-Access Warfare.

5. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 2018).

6. For further discussion on systemic disruption, maneuver warfare, and the Marine Corps, see: Marinus, “Defeat Mechanisms,” Marine Corps Gazette, (July, 2021): 101-106.

7. The idea of sources, forces, and linkages of power is drawn from Pat Pentland, Center of Gravity Analysis and Chaos Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air War College, 1993).

8. Anti-Access Warfare.

9. Ibid.

10. Marinus, “On Defeat Mechanisms”.

11. Ibid.

12. Murray Gell-Mann, “Complex Adaptive Systems,” in Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality, ed. Cowan Pines et al (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

13. John Boyd, ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ in A Discourse on Winning and Losing, ed. Grant T. Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018).

14. The idea of decompensation in complex systems can be explored further in David D. Woods and Matthieu Branlat, Basic Patterns in How Adaptive Systems Failin Resilience Engineering in Practice: A Guidebook, ed. Erik Hollnagel, and John Wreathall (Taylor & Francis Group, 2010).


16. Ibid.

17. Headquarters Marine Corps, The Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, (Washington, DC: 2021).

18.A Concept for Stand-In Forces.

19. Headquarters Marine Corps, “Recon – Counter Recon,” Official Website of the United States Marine Corps, (August 2, 2021).

20. Daniel Katzman, “Sustaining Stand-in Forces,” Marine Corps Gazette, (March, 2022): 14-19.

21. Navy Press Office, “Navy and Marines Release Unmanned Campaign Plan,” Official Website of the United States Navy, (March 16, 2021).

22. Gregory Carroll, “Marine Corps Establishes 17XX Information Maneuver Occupational Field,” Official Website of the United States Marine Corps, (March 9, 2022).

23. Noel Williams, “Insights for Marine (and Beyond) Force Design from the Russo-Ukrainian War,” War on the Rocks, (March 31, 2022).

24. Tim Barrick, “On Future Wars and the Marine Corps: Asking the Right Questions,” War on the Rocks, (April 12, 2022).

25. For a further discussion on wargaming see Robert Rubel, “The Epistemology of War Gaming,” Naval War College Review, 59 (2): 1-21.  

26. Bob Work and Gen. Paul Selva, “Revitalizing Wargaming is Necessary to Be Prepared for Future Wars,” War on the Rocks, (December 8, 2015).

27. Meir Finkel, On Flexibility: Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2011).

Featured Image: U.S. Marines with 3d Battalion, 12 Marines, 3d Marine Division, deploy High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems during Balikatan 22 in northern Luzon, Philippines, April 4, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Melanye Martinez)

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 3: Tactics and Doctrine

Read Pt. 1 on Combat Training. Read Pt. 2 on Firepower.

By Dmitry Filipoff


“…changes in tactics have to overcome the inertia of a conservative class; but it is a great evil. It can be remedied only by a candid recognition of each change, by careful study of the powers and limitations of the new ship or weapon, and by a consequent adaptation of the method of using it to the qualities it possesses, which will constitute its tactics. History shows that it is vain to hope that military men generally will be at the pains to do this, but that the one who does will go into battle with a great advantage—a lesson in itself of no mean value.” –Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783

Tactics are fighting techniques, and how to effectively employ the tools of war to win battles. Arguably the Navy’s largest obstacles to tactical innovation come from its lack of essential tools such as anti-ship missiles as well as the nature of its recent operations and training.

It should be fair to say that training and tactics are not developed for tools that are not equipped, and a history of scripted exercising means refined training and tactics have yet to come for much of what the Navy already has. The character of a power projection focus has divided the warfare communities of the Navy and fostered operating norms that directly inhibit the development of a network-centric warfighting doctrine.

The only U.S. military warfare community that has any history of devoting serious thought to sinking warships at more than 100 miles away using missiles is the carrier aviation community. They were the only ones with the required tools and doctrinal mandate. For everyone else the Navy violated one of the most fundamental maxims of naval warfare – to fire effectively first – by not providing serious offensive firepower to so much force structure that could have readily fielded it.1

The surface fleet is a prime example of the tactical deprivation that can come through lack of anti-ship weapons and the offensive roles they enable. Even with Harpoon and the first introduction of the anti-ship Tomahawk in the 1980s the surface Navy’s defensive focus in fleet combat remained consistent since WWII. For decades throughout the Cold War the surface fleet’s high-end warfighting proficiencies focused on anti-submarine warfare and protecting capital ships from aerial threats such as missiles. The job of sinking surface ships then mostly fell to submarines and carrier aviation. The tactical execution of the surface fleet’s primary anti-air mission became increasingly automated, a trend best exemplified by Aegis. However, a defensive, reactive, and highly automated mission focus makes for a poor foundation for learning how to fire effectively first.

The Navy’s firepower is about to experience a serious transformation in only a few short years. Comparing firepower through a strike mile metric (warhead weight [pounds/1,000] × range in nautical miles × number of payloads equipped) reveals that putting LRASM into 15 percent of the surface fleet’s launch cells will increase its anti-ship firepower almost twentyfold over what it has today with Harpoon.2 New anti-ship missiles will cause the submarine community and heavy bomber force to also experience historic transformations in offensive firepower.

The widespread introduction of these new weapons will present the U.S. Navy with one of the most important force development missions in its history. This dramatic increase in offensive firepower across such a broad swath of untapped force structure will put the Navy on the cusp of a sweeping revolution in tactics unlike anything seen since the birth of the aircraft carrier a century ago. How the Navy configures itself to unlock this opportunity could decide its success in a future war at sea. The Navy needs tacticians now more than ever.

Doctrine in Networked Warfighting

“I am here to encourage and support a new type of officer, one who is naturally inclined to operational experimentation and innovation. I foresee officers who view doctrine as a dynamic adaptive process rather than a refuge for the uninformed.”–Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski

Doctrine is a common vision of warfighting, and an understanding of how to skillfully employ tactics and procedure. Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare, offers insight into the nature of doctrine, where “It is not a set of concrete rules, but a basis of common understanding throughout the chain of command…Doctrine is the underlying philosophy that guides our use of tactics and weapons systems to achieve a common objective….Our training and education are based on doctrine.”3 Doctrine does not culminate in a publication but in the refined intuition of the warfighter.

Doctrine aims to produce both a strong sense of independent decision-making at the unit level as well as the ability to connect as a member of a team. Net-centric warfighting is especially dependent on doctrine because of how networked capability has affected individual and group relationships. Net-centric operations are based on networked connections between many actors, yet units face the risk of losing those links. Units can be forcibly cut off from one another through electronic attack, and often need to impose silence on themselves for the sake of tactics and survivability. Connected units can call on all other sorts of actors to provide capability and information. Networked warfighting can leave one completely in the dark on the one hand and connected to a multitude on the other. Net-centric doctrine can then focus on developing common understanding for those two major types of relationships and situations.

Being effective while cut off requires an independent sense of what to do without outside help. Refined doctrine will allow a unit under emissions control to handle itself in the dark and remain faithful to commander’s intent while also knowing when it makes sense to break silence. 

With doctrine a connected unit will have a common understanding with the many actors it can leverage through networked relationships. Being connected to a multitude of other actors requires having some sense of what their thought process is like, and what sorts of conditions affect their ability to contribute to the fight.

The many relationships of a networked force can easily result in congested information pathways and communications overload. This means more emissions, greater lag times, and more people requesting information or calling for help. An issue is the scale of naval warfare given how sensing and weapons can go for hundreds of miles. The area of interest for an individual warship can cover tens of thousands of square miles which promises a significant amount of overlap with many others.

Refined doctrine is absolutely necessary to streamline networked relationships and deconflict actors. Many units will be connected to the broader network, but they must resist the urge to leverage the network for every problem within their immediate area of responsibility. Command by negation and the initiative of the subordinate for a networked force could easily devolve into chaos if taken to its fullest extent. Doctrine will provide that key degree of discretion that helps a frontline unit know when its immediate situation is important enough to tap the network and call for attention from the greater force. Doctrine aims to distill what is of importance, and will help keep communications brief because networked units will have a good sense of one another’s thinking without having to ask for it.

Commander’s intent is supposed to be succinct, but the less doctrine there is the more the higher-echelon commanders can find themselves micromanaging their subordinates. The degree of refinement for doctrine can then be directly measured by how little a commander needs to convey to subordinates to successfully fulfill their intent. In his seminal “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare,” published in 1915, Lieutenant Commander Dudley Knox used the example of how doctrinal development was able to shrink an operations order from 1200 words to 44 words for a 20-ship, six-hour night maneuver.4 How many words would it take that many warships to do the same thing today?

The present culture of a command and control system heavy on reporting requirements has given the Navy an unwieldy doctrine of information overload.5 This excessive reporting culture is built in part on a level of openness and ease of communication that comes with operating in the uncontested environments of the power projection era. Being micromanaged from higher headquarters feels like the norm in today’s U.S. Navy, and where a risk-averse culture is prone to micromanaging at the expense of trust-building. But doctrine can only work to condense complex operations into simple instructions if there is a high degree of trust.

Consider the challenge of command and control for a distributed force in both an offensive and defensive context, and how doctrine could shape the nature of trust. The speed of aircraft and incoming missiles compared to the range of defensive weapons means a distributed fleet will rarely be able to mass defensive firepower from across the force in a timely way. Commanders of dispersed units will likely need to have the authority to independently prosecute their local air defense missions with great initiative in order to avoid defeat in detail.

When it comes to anti-ship firepower the relatively slow speed of warships can provide much more opportunity to network effects. If a fleet commander discovers a concentration of hostile ships he or she can use networking to generate the firepower overmatch needed to overwhelm their defenses. A fleet commander could launch and collect anti-ship firepower from a variety of platforms across the distributed fleet using engage-on-remote networking. In-flight retargeting could then be used to better concentrate salvos, ensure their accuracy, and create multi-axial angles of attack. Doctrine that seeks to make this concentration of firepower possible for a distributed force would have to take some authority away from individual units when it comes to using their anti-ship missiles. The doctrine of a distributed fleet is therefore likely to keep the release authority for anti-ship weapons at a higher level of command than defensive anti-air weapons because of key differences in the feasibility of timing and concentration. 

However, even with networking, tactics should be humble in their design. The expansive nature of networked capability can produce a strong urge to develop elaborate tactics that operate on more assumptions and dependencies, such as on close coordination and timing. But tactics and operations that are too complex could easily fall apart when put to the test. The nature of low-risk scripted exercising can cause tactics and concepts of operation to suffer from this runaway complexity. Capable opposition forces are absolutely indispensable for forcing humility on the developmental process and for identifying what is reasonably simple to execute. Resilience through simplicity is an ultimate goal of doctrine.

The Navy is itself a joint force involving aviation, surface fleet, and submarine communities. But power projection missions and training have divided the Navy’s communities from one another, and where these missions allowed units to act more independently. While effective independent execution is a primary goal of doctrine the nature of low-end missions meant that independent execution was not often directed toward a common operational goal. Carrier aviation could be focused on air-to-ground strikes, surface warships could be patrolling or conducting security cooperation, and submarines could be executing ISR missions. Low-end operations and training events often require little in the way of harmonized tactics or doctrine across communities, unlike net-centric concepts.

Slide from presentation by Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (PEO C4I) and Program Executive Office Space Systems, NDIA San Diego Fall Industry Forum, October 24, 2017.

The Navy’s current system of training and operating can hardly allow the individual communities to say they are familiar with the full breadth of capability of even their own platforms, let alone those of other communities. Every community’s training has been heavily shaped by the power projection era at the expense of high-end skills and inter-community relations.U.S. naval officers Fred Pyle, Mark Cochran, and Rob McFall wrote of the poor connection between the surface fleet and aviation communities with respect to anti-surface warfare in “Lessons Learned from Maritime Combat”:

“Although Navy tactical literature frequently speaks to the use of air power in SUW, there doesn’t appear to be any formal training provided to the surface warfare community…Much like the SWO community, aviators are deploying without a basic understanding of surface-combatant capabilities or missions. Generally, aviators don’t know the differences in capability between cruisers and destroyers, or the variants of the standard missile used to augment the fleet air defense mission that they train for so often…The naval aviation community states that AOMSW (air operations in maritime surface warfare) is a primary mission set—yet only minimal training is conducted in flight school and in the fleet. The majority of squadron sorties are focused on air-to-air intercepts and air-to-ground weapons…The Navy as a whole has very limited access to sea-based opposition forces (emphasis added), and the tactical aviation community is afforded only limited integration opportunities with the surface Navy…With the number of other demands in the schedule and limited underway steaming days, DDGs cannot easily go to sea for daily integrated training missions with the air wing…AOMSW is by default a distant third priority behind air-to-air employment and strike warfare.”7

This points to a significant issue within the Navy’s workup cycle. The amount of time a strike group actually trains as a strike group before deploying is a very small minority compared to how much time individual ships and squadrons train at the unit level.8 If the Navy is to heal the divide between its communities and better prepare for the high-end fight then integrated training needs to take on a far greater share of time within the workup cycle’s training phase compared to individual training.

It is hard to imagine the Navy’s warfare communities would work well to network their capabilities together if they have a poor understanding of one another’s tactics and doctrine. Unprecedented cross-community understanding is necessary if a networked doctrine is to come alive. But the great divide between the Navy’s communities will stand as a tall obstacle to any net-centric vision.

Sea Control Tactics in the Age of Missile Warfare

As a matter of tactics I think that going out after the Japanese and knocking their carriers out would have been much better and more satisfactory than waiting for them to attack us…” –Admiral Raymond Spruance9 

Many of the possibilities of combat can be dictated by relationships between time, distance, and concentration. Fundamental characteristics such as weapons range, flight profiles, and magazine capacity outline tactical options for the application of force. War at sea is especially attrition based where tactical outcomes can quickly turn based on how firepower overmatch plays out between offense and defense. Knowing how certain platform attributes and tactics influence the nature of attrition is central to designing favorable tradeoffs. By focusing on how to best optimize critical factors such as endurance, survivability, and firepower overmatch one can begin to see a framework of tactics and operations.

While there is some merit to the current construct of focusing ships on air defense and using aircraft to sink ships at range the nature of modern war at sea may preference different roles. The Navy’s scripted style of training may also suggest that tactical risk is not well-understood despite the fact that naval combat in the missile age is a staggeringly vicious form of warfare.

Any warship must account for the immutable obstacle posed by the curvature of the Earth’s surface. Radar, being a line-of-sight system, can see things further away the higher they are. But the horizon as the limit of direct sight creates a large space beneath it that cannot be sensed by a ship’s radar (unless enhanced by certain environmental conditions). This effect is known as the radar horizon. The distance from the average warship’s radar and the horizon is barely under 20 miles.10 

For decades anti-ship missiles have had the ability to execute low-altitude flight profiles, often described as sea-skimming flight, to take advantage of the radar horizon for the sake of greater effectiveness. By paying a price in fuel, range, and endurance, low-flying aircraft and missiles can exploit this space to lower detectability, increase survivability, and earn the element of surprise. 

It is remarkable that the words “firing from a position of minimum uncertainty and maximum probability of success” could ever be used to describe training for modern naval warfare when just 20 miles away from a ship lies a long, near-invisible space missiles can exploit to achieve surprise.11 No matter how powerful a warship is it can be forced to wait until those final moments before it can bring most of its defensive firepower to bear. The curvature of the Earth itself is one of the deadliest things to a warship.

Visualization of the radar horizon limitation. (Source: Aircraft 101 Radar Fundamentals Part 1)

Once a sea-skimming missile salvo breaks over the horizon it will only be tens of seconds away from impact. Defensive firepower will be reactively fired soon after an attacking salvo crosses the horizon. But by the time that first wave of defensive firepower clashes with supersonic anti-ship missiles they can already be a third of the way to their target ship.12 And anti-ship missiles can still be lethal even when they are shot down within those final miles.

As defensive firepower is brought to bear powerful missiles will be detonating against each other at thousands of miles per hour not far from the ship. Exploding missile shrapnel will spray out, often in the direction of the ship, easily shredding radar arrays and degrading the ship’s ability to defend itself. Many sensors cannot be effectively armored without diminishing their performance. The close-in weapon systems and electronic warfare suites that are critical to a ship’s last line of defense could also be easily shredded by missile shrapnel. Weapons mounted on the deck such as Harpoon missiles and torpedoes may also pose risks. This shrapnel factor is already recognized in test and evaluation where supersonic test missiles are intercepted at a minimum offset of several miles away from test platforms to help avoid flying missile debris.13 This may be one reason why it is unrealistic to think a warship can sustain high kill ratios against missiles in the close-in engagement zone. Because of this exploding shrapnel factor ships should be concerned about how many nearby missile shootdowns they can withstand.

SM-6 anti-air missile intercepts a relatively small, 600lb AQM-37C test missile. Note the shrapnel. (Source: U.S. Missile Defense Agency Multi-Mission Warfare Flight Test Events)

The range advantage anti-ship missiles often enjoy over defensive firepower gives the offense a better ability to fire effectively first in the age of missile warfare. This also makes it more difficult to deal with launch platforms before they fire their payloads, otherwise known as the more preferable tactic of dealing with archers before arrows. This offensive range advantage can also convert into greater lethality and survivability for the missile salvo by allowing for more sea-skimming flight. The more a launch platform can get inside the range of its anti-ship missile, the more a payload can maximize its time flying at sea-skimming altitude to stay below the radar horizon of defending warships. Some anti-ship missiles like Harpoon sustain a sea-skimming flight path throughout their flights, but many missiles in the hands of competitors have more flexible flight profile options.14 The range advantage anti-ship firepower often has over defensive firepower therefore increases the probability of ships being forced to face sea-skimming missiles in the lethal close-in engagement zone.

The deadliness of confronting sea-skimming salvos just after they break over the horizon adds urgency to early detection and to targeting platforms before they fire their missiles. It also makes it necessary to have the capability and tactics to defeat sea-skimming missile salvos long before they break over the radar horizon of defending warships.

This makes aviation indispensable to missile defense when many anti-ship weapons intentionally fly below the radar horizon of warships in spaces only aircraft can see from above. A certain amount of airpower would have to be kept on hand just to deal with sea-skimming missiles that have the potential to travel beneath the radar horizons of defending warships. For the sake of fleet defense air wings must be very proficient at shooting down sea-skimming missile salvos, including weapons capable of flying supersonic speeds. This will also require a refined doctrinal relationship between the aviation and surface fleet communities to coordinate the air defense mission, a relationship the abovementioned authors suggest barely exists.

Only now are warships able to shoot below the radar horizon limitation using revolutionary capabilities like NIFC-CA, but this requires networked dependencies on other platforms like aircraft. NIFC-CA could prove to be a very burdensome kill chain to manage with Captain Jim Kilby describing it as “operational rocket science” and that it requires “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before.”15 Using aircraft to shoot missiles below the radar horizon of ships may be a much simpler kill chain to manage compared to NIFC-CA. The Navy also has probably yet to develop refined tactics and training for NIFC-CA given how new and sophisticated it is. However, using aircraft to cue shipborne firepower in any case could help keep warships relevant to the fight even with shredded radar arrays.

Defensively using the air wing to focus on defeating missile salvos may prove extremely favorable, especially from an attrition standpoint. Aircraft should be able to conduct this mission with some altitude and thus retain greater endurance. They could also likely be more proximate to the carrier rather than be asked to strike ships far forward which also converts into extra endurance. They would be able to maximize their anti-air loadout which is thousands of pounds lighter than a full anti-ship loadout, earning still more endurance.16 

A squadron of F-18s fully equipped with anti-air weapons can carry over 100 anti-air missiles which is comparable to the anti-air firepower of a large surface warship. Through speed and altitude aircraft will also have far more time and opportunity to shoot down sea-skimming missiles compared to warships. Perhaps best of all, anti-ship missiles, at least for now, can pose no threat to aircraft. The cost exchange should be distinctly one sided.

An underside view of an Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 4 (VX-4) F/A-18C Hornet aircraft in-flight. The Hornet is armed with eight AMRAAM air-to-air missiles on four wing pylons and two missiles on the fuselage. The Hornet also carries two AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, one on each wing tip. (Wikimedia Commons)

The tactical characteristics of the air wing’s anti-ship mission are quite the opposite in many respects, yet this is what the carrier-centric U.S. Navy has long committed itself to.

Besides endurance, one of the greatest limiting factors of airpower is its resilience. Losing only a few aircraft per sortie could leave a carrier with a fraction of its strength after a hard day of high-end combat. Losing only four percent of aircraft per mission will result in losing 70 aircraft out of 100 over the course of 30 missions.17

Just like missiles, anti-ship aircraft will likely have to fly at sea-skimming altitudes to earn surprise and preserve survivability, but pay a severe price in range, endurance, and fuel. However, unlike aircraft, missiles are only interested in making a one-way trip. Anti-ship aircraft may also have to strike far forward of the fleet which also incurs a greater price in fuel and endurance. Low-altitude flight and closing with enemy ships can also lead to more restricted emissions.

Aircraft have to be concentrated in order to deliver large enough salvos to overwhelm the powerful anti-air defenses of modern warships. A large surface warship can carry dozens of anti-air missiles and feature many layers of defensive capability in the form of electronic warfare, close-in weapon systems, and decoys. Attacking a surface action group of a few modern destroyers could take a squadron of aircraft to field enough firepower to overwhelm shipboard defenses. This anti-ship squadron may also have to be further augmented with more aircraft dedicated to jamming, refueling, and scouting roles. A single attack on a surface action group of several large surface warships could plausibly tie up a quarter of a carrier’s strike fighters, leaving gaps in coverage elsewhere.

Using carrier aircraft to prosecute the anti-surface mission with a short-ranged anti-ship weapon such as Harpoon makes it easier for modern warships to shoot down archers instead of arrows. The shorter the range of the air-launched anti-ship missile the less attacking aircraft can disperse from one another to mass firepower effectively. This in turn dictates the extent of possible concentration and bears an effect on survivability if more aircraft find themselves within the envelope of defensive fire. 

For now, the Navy’s current carrier-based anti-ship tactic could easily turn into sending concentrated groups of aircraft into the teeth of modern shipborne air defense while bleeding fuel at low altitudes and across great distances. Survivability could be substantially improved with the air-launched version of LRASM that has better range than many anti-air weapons, but it will not do as much to ease concerns over endurance and fuel. The tactic of using carrier aircraft to sink modern warships with the short-ranged Harpoon is far less favorable with respect to survivability, endurance, and attrition compared to having the air wing focus on defeating anti-ship missiles in a defensive role.

Putting long-range anti-ship missiles on warships allows the logic of attacking archers in the form of ships to extend to most of the fleet beyond the carrier. Shifting more missile defense responsibility to the air wing frees up more shipboard launch cells for anti-ship fires and other payloads of interest. Ships can provide a solid and steady wall of firepower compared to the more transient presence of aviation. The transient presence of aviation for the anti-ship mission may at first suggest a more favorably discrete operating posture for the carrier. However, the need to maintain a screen of airpower to intercept scouts and bombers for the outer air battle would still bind the disposition of aircraft to a degree.

With respect to attrition anti-ship firepower can see a far greater proportion of its missiles wasted away against defenses compared to anti-air firepower focused on shooting down missiles. This can necessitate follow-on attacks on ships. Even though ships may discharge a large portion of their anti-ship firepower in a salvo they could readily leverage their deep magazines to launch another attack rather than be forced to wait for another anti-ship squadron to make a fresh attempt. This key distinction is where the staying power of warships can prove superior to the transience of airpower with respect to sustaining attacks on well-defended ships.

A closer team between warships and aviation along the lines of these roles can be more favorable with respect to information management. Aircraft can better manage the risks of emitting through speed and maneuver, and air defense is an especially emissions-intensive fight. A ship can preserve emissions if it has aircraft to support local awareness. By conducting air defense for forward units aircraft would also be well-poised to cue offensive fires from ships, conduct in-flight retargeting as needed, and perform battle damage assessment.

Anti-ship missile fire from submarines can be an especially powerful tactic, though it may be more dependent on outside cueing. Unlike most other platforms undersea forces can easily bypass defensive screens of ships and aircraft to get in close. Putting anti-ship missiles on submarines would also significantly enhance platform survivability. Submarines would be able to fire from a distance that far outstrips torpedo range which would make their attacks much more difficult to attribute. If a ship comes under sea-skimming missile fire it may not know which sort of platform launched the attack, but if a ship finds itself under torpedo fire then it could easily reckon a submarine is close by. From a defensive perspective the threat of missile submarines unleashing sea-skimming salvos from unexpected directions and at close range could tie down more airpower for missile defense across a broad space.

A considerable amount of the fleet’s ability to manage the fight would be centered around the E-2 aircraft whose powerful radars and communications make it the Navy’s “carrier-based tactical battle management, airborne early warning, command and control aircraft.”18 A carrier fields very few of these critical command and control aircraft, usually close to half a dozen.19 Despite the fact endurance is one of the most important attributes that governs the operations of airpower the crucial E-2 command and control aircraft will finally be getting an aerial refueling capability in 2020.20 This upgrade comes over 50 years after the aircraft was introduced and despite the fact in-flight refueling was already commonplace in the aviation-centric U.S. Navy since the Vietnam War. Israel purchased the E-2 aircraft from the U.S. during the Cold War and installed an in-flight refueling capability at some point in their service lives. Now after decommissioning these aircraft an E-2 Hawkeye capable of in-flight refueling rests at the Israeli Air Force Museum. 

Israeli E-2C Hawkeye with refueling probe. (Wikimedia Commons)

Distributed Lethality

“Sound strategy depends on a knowledge of all forces and their tactics sufficient to estimate the probabilities of winning. Thus…it will not do to study strategy and offer strategic plans without first studying in detail the forces and tactics on which those plans depend. Strategy and tactics are related like the huntsman and his dog. The hunter is master, but he won’t catch foxes if he has bought and trained a birddog.” Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr., (ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat 

The Navy is looking to move to a more distributed warfighting construct, otherwise known as distributed lethality or distributed maritime operations.21 A major tactical and operational advantage distributed warfighting hopes to achieve is diluting the firepower and sensing of the adversary across a larger space. With respect to great power adversaries that enjoy steep land-based advantages for sea control these constructs are based in part on the hope that distribution will hurt opposing anti-access/area-denial forces more than they will hurt expeditionary forces. Like so much else in the U.S. Navy these distributed warfighting constructs hope to achieve greater effectiveness in part through affecting efficiency. The tactics suggested above are certainly guilty of this to an extent. While affecting the timely concentration of effects is a fundamental principle of warfighting, especially in attrition-centered naval combat, these distributed warfighting constructs are fundamentally incomplete without more specific techniques at the tactical level.

The tactics suggested above envision a closer relationship between carrier aviation and warships where they leverage one another’s platform advantages. It argues that the deep capacity of surface warships is better put to use for the offensive anti-ship mission, and that aviation’s speed and maneuverability is better focused on defending against missiles. This is the opposite logic of what the Navy has long subscribed to. 

But the tactical analysis above is still very rudimentary. It does not attempt to account for things like electronic warfare, cyber effects, and space-based capabilities where each can be very critical in its own right. So much decisive space in a future war at sea could lie within circuits, algorithms, and computer code. These tactical ideas may be nothing more than mere speculation, and perhaps some variable that was left unaccounted for could make it all fall apart. But one couldn’t know until they tried.

The question remains as to what are the tactical deficiencies of a carrier-centric Navy that chose to starve the vast majority of its force structure of the ability to sink ships at range, and instead chose to focus perishable aviation on one of its most difficult missions. Aircraft would already be split between conducting major scouting functions, maintaining an outer screen to intercept enemy scouts and bombers, and guarding against sea-skimming threats. Concentrating airpower to sink ships at range would add enormous strain to the air wing.

The force structure of competitors is far more wholesomely armed with anti-ship weapons, but the carrier-centric U.S. Navy chose to confront these threats with offensive missile firepower coming from a sole, central source. This echoes a now familiar theme. By forcing the air wing to take on so many kinds of missions – scouting, counterscouting, outer air battle, defeating sea-skimming threats, and attacking ships – the U.S. Navy inflicted distributed lethality against itself.

Part Four will focus on Technical Standards.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org


1. The maxim comes from Fleet Tactics, Theory and Practice, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1986, first edition, by Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (ret.)

2. Total Harpoon strike mile lethality for surface fleet comes is about 13,708. Total strike mile lethality for LRASM using 15 percent of the surface fleet’s launch cells is about 267,000.

For more on strike mile metric: Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://cimsec.org/?p=37357&preview_id=37357&preview_nonce=33a19394d2&post_format=standard&_thumbnail_id=37675&preview=true&httpsredir=1&article=1143&context=nwc-review

3. Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare. U.S. Department of the Navy, March 1994. http://www.iwar.org.uk/military/resources/aspc/pubs/ndp1.pdf

4. Lieutenant Commander Dudley Knox, USN, “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March-April 1915. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1915-03/role-doctrine-naval-warfare

5. For more on the Navy’s current command and control culture with respect to micromanagement and risk aversion see:

Lieutenant Commander Colin Roberts, USN, “In the Long Calm Lee of Midway,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-01/long-calm-lee-midway

Admiral Scott Swift, USN, “Master the Art of Command and Control,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-02/master-art-command-and-control

Lieutenant Commanders Kit de Angelis and Jason Garfield, USN, “Give Commanders the Authority,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2016. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-10/give-commanders-authority

6. For power projection training focus for submarine force see: Megan Eckstein, “Navy Wants More Complex Sub-on-Sub Warfare Training,” U.S. Naval Institute News, October 27, 2016. https://news.usni.org/2016/10/27/navy-wants-complex-sub-sub-warfare-training

For aviation see: Captain Fred Pyle, Lieutenant Commander Mark Cochran, and Lieutenant Commander Rob McFall, USN, “Lessons Learned for Maritime Combat,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2016. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-01/lessons-learned-maritime-combat

For helicopter community see: Commander Ben Reynolds, USN, “Time to Think Tactically,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 2013. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2013-09/time-think-tactically

For surface fleet see: Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, USN, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2015. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality

For a more general description of changed training see: Captain Pete Pagano, USN (ret.), “Have We Forgotten How to Fight?,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-02/have-we-forgotten-how-fight

7. Captain Fred Pyle, Lieutenant Commander Mark Cochran, and Lieutenant Commander Rob McFall, USN, “Lessons Learned for Maritime Combat,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2016. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016-01/lessons-learned-maritime-combat

8. COMNAVAIRFORINST 3500.20D CH4, Chapter 3: Training Cycle. http://elearning.sabrewebhosting.com/CVnTraining/tramanfiles/chapter3.pdf

For balance of time between integrated and other forms of training see pg. 11 of: Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, “Deploying Beyond Their Means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, November 2015. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA6174_(Deploying_Beyond_Their_Means)Final2-web.pdf

9. This quote from Spruance is followed by the qualifier: “but we were at the start of a very important and large amphibious operation and we could not afford to gamble and place it in jeopardy” and was made in reference to the Battle of the Philippine Sea and defending the Saipan invasion force. However, even in its unqualified form, the quote still suffices to make a key point “as a matter of tactics.”

10. For 18nm radar horizon see: Lee O. Upton and Lewis A. Thurman, “Radars for the Detection and Tracking of Cruise Missiles,” Lincoln Laboratory Journal, Volume 12, Number 2, 2000. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e603/f87c32337e5feb7a0b9995356d5bbe8748c1.pdf

Caveat: Over the Horizon-Backscatter radars are not limited by the horizon by reflecting radar energy off of the ionosphere. These radars are land-based, and while they can detect contacts of interest at a great distance the fidelity is much more poor compared to line-of-sight radar systems. To see operating principles of various radars and sensors see: Jonathan F. Solomon, “Defending the Fleet from China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile: Naval Deception’s Roles in Sea-Based Missile Defense,” Thesis Defense submitted to Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University, April 15, 2011. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

11. Admiral Scott Swift, USN, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-05/fleet-must-be-able-fight 

12. This figure is based rough calculations using supersonic missile speed, defensive missiles featuring a speed of around Mach 3 such as Standard Missile, and to discern the point they would first meet once the former crosses over the horizon. A key advantage attacking missiles will likely have is coming over the horizon at maximum speed and where defensive missiles would have to accelerate to full speed once they are reactively launched.

13. Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, “DDG 51 Flight III Destroyer/Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR)/Aegis Combat System,” FY17 Navy Programs. http://www.dote.osd.mil/pub/reports/FY2017/pdf/navy/2017ddg51.pdf

Excerpt: “Use of manned ships for operational testing with threat representative ASCM surrogates in the close-in, self‑defense battlespace is not possible due to Navy safety restrictions because targets and debris from intercepts pose an unacceptable risk to personnel at ranges where some engagements will take place.”

Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, “DDG 51 Flight III Destroyer/Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR)/Aegis Combat System,” FY15 Navy Programs. http://www.dote.osd.mil/pub/reports/FY2015/pdf/navy/2015ddg51.pdf

Excerpt: “In addition to stand-off ranges (on the order of 1.5 to 5 nautical miles for subsonic and supersonic surrogates, respectively), safety restrictions require that ASCM targets not be flown directly at a manned ship, but at some cross-range offset, which unacceptably degrades the operational realism of the test.”

14. For variable flight profiles of anti-ship missiles see:

Dr. Carlo Kopp, “Killing the Vampire,” Defence Today, 2008. http://www.ausairpower.net/SP/DT-Vampires-2008.pdf

Dr. Carlo Kopp, “Evolving Naval Anti-Ship Weapons Threat,” Defence Today, 2010. http://www.ausairpower.net/SP/DT-ASBM-Dec-2009.pdf

15. For quotes see:

Sam LaGrone, “The Next Act for Aegis”, U.S. Naval Institute News, May 7, 2014. https://news.usni.org/2014/05/07/next-act-aegis

Captain Jim Kilby, USN, “Surface Warfare: Lynchpin of Naval Integrated Air/Missile Defense,” Center for International Maritime Security, April 4, 2014. https://cimsec.org/surface-warfare-lynchpin-naval-integrated-airmissile-defense/10748  

16. AMRAAM missile weighs 356 lbs, Sidewinder missile weighs 188 lbs (See U.S. Navy AMRAAM fact file, Sidewinder fact file), max load of ten AMRAAM plus two sidewinder: 3936 lbs.

Harpoon weighs 1,523 pounds (See U.S. Navy Harpoon fact file), full load of four Harpoons: 6092 lbs.

For max F-18 Harpoon load see: “F/A-18F Super Hornet take on a full load of Harpoons Anti-ship missiles for the first time,” http://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php/focus-analysis/naval-technology/1346-video-fa-18f-super-hornet-take-on-a-full-load-of-harpoons-anti-ship-missiles-for-the-first-time.html.

17. John Stillion and Bryan Clark, “What it Takes to Win: Succeeding in 21st Century Battle Network Competitions,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2015. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/What-it-Takes-to-Win.pdf

18. “E-2 Hawkeye Early Warning and Control Aircraft,” U.S. Navy Fact File. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=1100&tid=700&ct=1

19. Seth Cropsey, Bryan G. McGrath, and Timothy Walton, “Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict,” Hudson Institute, October 2015. https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.hudson.org/files/publications/201510SharpeningtheSpearTheCarriertheJointForceandHighEndConflict.pdf

20. Valerie Insinna, “Northrop to Begin Cutting in Aerial Refueling Capability in E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Production this year,” Defense News, April 11, 2018. https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/navy-league/2018/04/11/northrop-to-begin-cutting-in-aerial-refueling-capability-in-e-2d-advanced-hawkeye-production-this-year/

“E-2D Conducts Successful Aerial Refueling Tests,” Naval Aviation News, March 21, 2018. http://navalaviationnews.navylive.dodlive.mil/2018/03/21/fuel-factor/

21. Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, USN, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2015. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality

Navy Warfare Development Command, “CNO Visits Navy Warfare Development Command,” April 2013, 2017. https://www.nwdc.navy.mil/PressRelease/9.aspx


“Specifically, the CNO was updated on NWDC’s development of the Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) Concept, a central, overarching operational concept, that will weave together the principles of integration, distribution and maneuver to maximize the effectiveness of the fleet Maritime Operations Centers to synchronize all-domain effects.

“DMO will describe the fleet-centric warfighting capabilities necessary to gain and maintain sea-control through the employment of combat power that may be distributed over vast distances, multiple domains, and a wide array of platforms,” explained Mark Coffman, DMO concept writing team lead, “The concept’s action plan will drive the development of these new capabilities so that fleet commanders will be able to distribute but still maneuver the fleet across an entire theater of operations as an integrated weapon system.”

Featured Image: ARABIAN GULF (Dec. 6, 2017) – The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Arabian Gulf. Theodore Roosevelt and its carrier strike group are deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of maritime security operations to reassure allies and partners and preserve the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anthony J. Rivera/Released)

Multidomain Battle: Time for a Campaign of Joint Experimentation

The following originally appeared on Joint Force Quarterly and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Kevin M. Woods and Thomas C. Greenwood

The term multidomain has reached beyond mainstream military parlance to dominate defense-related discussions, concept papers, and op-eds. While the idea of operating across warfighting domains is hardly original, the rapid growth of capabilities tied to the newly minted space and cyber domains is forcing a re-examination of all previous military concepts and doctrine. This article explores the debate around multidomain battle (MDB). Developing a new warfighting concept (as opposed to a slogan or bumper sticker) is difficult because new concepts need to demonstrate that they are sufficiently better than the status quo at addressing the challenges and opportunities in order to justify the disruptive effects of the change. This, as it should be, is a high bar.

SOFWERX hosts Cyber Capability Expo at its newest facility in Tampa, Florida, to identify cyber technologies to meet current and future Special Operations Forces requirements, October 19, 2017 (U.S. Air Force/Barry Loo)

The desks of the Pentagon are littered with “transformative” joint warfighting concepts that have appeared with great fanfare only to fall into obscurity. Despite serving as a vehicle to explore ideas, in the end, concepts like Rapid Decisive Operations and Air-Sea Battle failed to move beyond the nascent stage. Some of this can be attributed to a natural resistance to top-down joint concepts, the difficulty of exploring future concepts while maintaining readiness, the lack of coherent institutional processes for examining concepts across organizational boundaries, and, ultimately, the lack of patience for what can be an intellectual slog. As a result, many such efforts were never sufficiently examined so as to generate compelling evidence to drive more than cosmetic changes across the force.

This article advocates two approaches to exploring MDB. The first is to link the MDB concept to the existing body of available evidence. The second is to generate new evidence through experimentation. These approaches are offered not because Service concept developers have not already begun this process—as evidenced by the MDB draft concepts and plans for U.S. Army MDB experimentation in 2018 and 2019. Rather, this article argues that in addition to the bottom-up development of what could arguably be deemed a joint concept, there should also be a parallel effort to explore the top-down or explicit joint, theater-level implications of MDB.

The term multidomain itself is most often used as a modifier for a particular application of military force, such as (multidomain) battles, (multidomain) operations, or (cross or multidomain) fires; however, more substantially, MDB promises more fluid, adaptive, and effective operations simultaneously across five domains (land, sea, air, space, and cyber). Although operations are conducted in and occasionally across these five domains, the promise of a concept that makes domain integration the norm and not the exception is a tall order. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The logic of MDB’s underlying tenets is widely accepted, but that is not the same as demonstrating the concept’s viability. Will the application of a multidomain approach enable the Department of Defense (DOD) to overcome current warfighting challenges? Will it allow the Services to seize new opportunities? Or, instead, will MDB distract the Services from restoring atrophied conventional warfighting capabilities? Perhaps more importantly, can MDB serve as a unifying concept that DOD business processes can be organized around for the development of future concepts and capabilities?

MDB is a future concept (perhaps near-future, but future nonetheless). As such, it “must be stated explicitly in order to be understood, debated and tested to influence the development process.”1 The maturation of a concept is a critical first step in the birth of any capability. Concepts are narrative descriptions of suppositions formulated from historical and contemporary experiences; however, as debatable propositions, they must be validated before they transition from concept to capability. This requires settling the debatable elements. This article thus argues that concepts on the scale of MDB require a campaign of experimentation that provides compelling evidence for the concept by fleshing out its operational and institutional contexts.2

The State of the Debate

Proponents of the emerging MDB concept make the case that the joint force must adapt to the times, or, as one author put it, “multi-domain battle . . . doctrine is being developed to address the interconnected, Omni domain battlespace of the 21st Century.”3 One of MDB’s strongest proponents, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, argues that “MDB conceptualizes bringing jointness further down to the tactical level [by] allowing smaller echelons to communicate and coordinate directly while fighting in a decentralized manner.”4 Regardless of the operating theater and specific mission, tactical-level MDB operations, noted U.S. Army Pacific Commander General Robert Brown, will drive the Services to “change their distinct Service cultures to a culture of inclusion and openness, focusing on a purple (or joint) first mentality.”5 Rhetorically, at least, the emerging MDB concept is progressing from the often stated but little realized goal of Service deconfliction to increasing interdependency and, in the optimistic version of MDB, seamlessly integrated operations across domains.6

MDB critics dismiss its significance by arguing that it is old wine in a new bottle.7 Even proponents agree that the “idea and desire for cross-domain effects is not new” but contend the traditional Service-domain alignments are inadequate for coping with the new security environment.8 A more fundamental challenge is made by those arguing that the categorization of future war by domain—especially but not limited to the cyber domain—is neither logical nor practical. As one observer notes, “the word [domain] contains some built-in assumptions regarding how we view warfare that can limit our thinking . . . [and] could actually pose an intractable conceptual threat to an integrated joint force.”9

Joining the critics are the cynics, some of whom see MDB’s real purpose as programmatic: a ploy to restore or preserve force structure by returning land power to the tip of the spear in joint operations.10 Others see the concept as requiring deep institutional reforms that are simply unattainable.11 As one pessimist argued, “without consistently organizing, training, and equipping as a joint team, the Services will be ill-prepared to provide multi-domain capable forces to combatant commanders, continuing history’s trend of falling short of the vision of jointness.”12 The institutional questions loom large here. At one end of the spectrum there are calls to form separate Services for the space and cyber domains.13 At the other end, one MDB proponent provides fodder for the cynics by arguing that the only way to implement MDB is to create a single force and eliminate the independent Services.14

Running parallel to the ongoing MDB debate are distinct theater versions of the concept. Because practice trumps theory in the application of military force, how the MDB concept evolves will be strongly influenced by how the operating theaters find a way to employ its promise.

In the Pacific, where much of the initial energy behind the cross-domain idea began, MDB has been described as:

ground-based batteries of anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-ship weapons, supported by long-range sensors and jammers, that can strike targets well out to sea. Islands defended by such Army batteries (or Marine Corps outposts) could serve as unsinkable anvils, with the Navy and the Air Force as the highly mobile hammers.15

In support of developing MDB, the Army has recently established a Multi-Domain Task Force in U.S. Army Pacific to accelerate the process of overcoming the tactical and technical challenges associated with reincarnating the Army’s capability to “sink ships.”16 This bottom-up approach to building a joint capability, as one commentator noted, has the potential to simultaneously work toward joint interoperability, interdependence, and integration. But this may fall short of answering how the Services can organize, train, and equip themselves to sustain the readiness required to operate as an MDB capable force.17

Meanwhile in Europe, the Army is offering MDB as a conceptual solution to a different, but in many ways familiar, problem set. The Russian army is no longer the colossus of the Cold War era, but it still presents the challenge of mass. Whereas the Russia’s army does not boast a raw-troop-strength advantage over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is threatening a multidomain equivalence in long-range missiles, rockets, drones, sophisticated cyber attacks, jamming, and an integrated information campaign.18 The solution, argues the commander of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, is to take the multidomain fight to the adversary:

AirLand Battle started developing the concept of “extended battlefield.” This concept noted that different commanders had different views of the battlefield in geographical terms. [MDB] continues the concept of extended battlefield but now with a focus on the extension across domains and time. . . . [MDB] endeavors to integrate capabilities in such a way that to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another, creating and exploiting temporary windows of advantage.19

This NATO-centric version of the MDB development process explicitly argues that, just as the earlier Soviet threat drove large-scale change in the U.S. military’s warfighting doctrines, the new Russian threat will drive long-overdue updates to Army force structure and critical warfighting capabilities, especially in the areas of long-range fires and cyber/electronic warfare.20

It is clear, then, that there are multiple lenses through which one can view the emerging MDB concept. Each perspective brings a unique set of operational and institutional contexts to the process of concept development. Having a unique perspective can be a healthy part of a robust debate, but progress requires an agreed-upon set of facts, or, in the case of an emerging concept, a common basis of evidence. The concept development challenge is to generate credible evidence that is relevant to decisionmakers from across the tactical-operational and conceptual-institutional divides.

The Emerging MDB Concept

According to a new Army–Marine Corps white paper, the MDB concept “describes how U.S. and partner forces organize and employ capabilities to project and apply power across domains, environments, and function over time and physical space to contest adversaries in relative ‘peace’ and, when required, defeat them in ‘war.’”21 The white paper posits three key tenets or “interrelated components of the solution,” as they are so labeled in the document.

First, MDB requires appropriate force posture for the “calibration of forward presence, expeditionary forces, and integration of partner capabilities to deter the adversary and, when necessary, defeat the enemy’s fait accompli campaign.” The latter is defined as an enemy campaign that seeks to rapidly achieve military and political objectives before an allied response can be generated. Next, MDB will be executed by resilient forces that “can operate semi-independently in the expanded operational area while projecting power into or accessing all domains.” Headquarters elements will use a mission command philosophy to integrate operations with advanced capabilities. Finally, converging joint force capabilities will “detect and create physical, virtual, and cognitive windows of advantage” during the three phases of an MDB campaign: competition, defeat the enemy in armed conflict, and return to competition. The white paper concludes by offering that the MDB concept allows U.S. forces to outmaneuver adversaries physically, virtually, and cognitively, applying combined arms in and across all domains. It provides a flexible means to present multiple dilemmas to an enemy by converging capabilities from multiple domains to create windows of advantage enabling friendly forces to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to defeat enemies and achieve campaign objectives. Employing the ideas in this concept, the Joint Force can credibly deter adversary aggression, defeat actions short of armed conflict, deny the enemy freedom of action, overcome enemy defenses, control terrain, compel outcomes, and consolidate gains for sustainable results.

While these three tenets establish a useful framework for institutional considerations of the concept, they do not capture some of the explicit and tacit implications of MDB’s potential utility in a theater or joint campaign. To that end, this article offers the following four attributes, derived from the current MDB concept, as potentially useful in developing a joint campaign of experimentation to better understand the concept and to develop evidence for or against its military utility in the joint force.

First, despite the battle suffix, MDB may have more to do with campaigns than tactical actions. The battle aspects required to create windows of advantage are a necessary precondition to creating decisive overmatch.22 However, various descriptions point to an operational-level concept designed to maneuver friendly forces—and direct their kinetic and nonkinetic fires or effects—simultaneously across five domains.

Second, overmatch in one domain may trigger cross-domain multiplier effects that theater commanders can leverage to bypass, unhinge, and defeat an enemy. This, of course, works in both directions, which is why failing to adequately defend the force across multiple domains may have an outsize impact on war termination.23

Third, cyber and space domains may become tomorrow’s most valued battlespace given U.S. force dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum and satellite-enabled intelligence and communications. The continued development of sophisticated cyber weapons and employment means—as well as the direct and indirect weaponization of space—could exacerbate this trend.

Fourth, MDB implies the need to reexamine our approach to joint command and control. The authorities needed by geographic combatant commanders charged with planning, coordinating, integrating, deploying, and employing forces (and their effects) simultaneously across five domains will increasingly challenge the very concept of boundaries and the traditional relationships used to conduct joint campaigns.

The MDB concept remains more aspirational than practical at this point. To overcome the cognitive challenges and bureaucratic inertia described earlier, the concept needs to demonstrate that it is both more than the sum of its parts and sufficiently better than the status quo.

Operational Antecedents: Two Case Studies

Historical case studies aid the concept development process by contextualizing the problem. As critics and proponents alike have noted, “cross-domain” or combined arms operations stretch back into antiquity. The following case studies offer two examples of multidomain operations. Like any case study, some imagination is required to place the perceptions of the past into a future context. These cases provide some insights for how cross-domain capabilities, applied primarily at the tactical level, can have outsize operational implications.

Guadalcanal. The conceptual assumption in MDB is that the joint force commander must leverage the interdependencies occurring between diverse operational activities simultaneously across multiple domains. It is not enough just to manage, coordinate, deconflict, and integrate. In his 1987 article “Thinking About Warfare,” Lieutenant General Phillip D. Shutler, USMC (Ret.), used the 1942 South Pacific campaign to highlight the three strategic pathways (primarily air, sea, and undersea) that U.S. forces had to successfully transit during World War II before they could project combat power overseas. Although he labeled the strategic pathways regimes instead of domains, the underlying concept remains the same.

Shutler observed that once enemy airfield construction on Guadalcanal was completed, Japanese land-based aircraft were capable of attacking U.S. planes stationed 500 miles to the southeast on Espiritu Santo—threatening the supply lines connecting the United States with Australia and New Zealand. Accordingly, the Marines were ordered to seize the airfield on Guadalcanal to deny its use to the Japanese. In other words, U.S. land forces, in effect, were directed to create an antiair warfare shield at Guadalcanal to protect Espiritu Santo. But as the operational campaign progressed, the Marines’ (and later the Army’s) mission shifted from antiair warfare to enabling U.S. land-based aircraft to support subsequent island-hopping battles to the north and the eventual reduction of the Japanese strongpoint on Rabaul.

Initial success, however, required the United States to prevent Japanese ground forces from reinforcing Guadalcanal. A successful landing would have turned the battle into yet another symmetrical and protracted, single-domain, attritional fight between opposing land forces—both of whom sought to control the airfield. As Shutler noted, accomplishing this required U.S. submarines, surface ships, and naval aviation to establish maritime and aviation “shields” (that is, anti-submarine, anti-surface, antiair defenses) that the Japanese had to penetrate before their ground reinforcements could reach Guadalcanal.24

During the critical phases of the campaign, Japanese forces were unable to effectively penetrate the “multidomain” defensive shields, and the Marines were able to preserve their tactical overmatch ashore on Guadalcanal (approximately 11,000 Marines against 2,000 entrenched Japanese, many of whom were civilian laborers). The tipping point occurred on November 14, 1942, when U.S. naval forces attacked and sank seven Japanese troop transports that were carrying approximately 7,000 embarked Japanese troops trying to reinforce Guadalcanal.25 Although the Japanese did partially penetrate the U.S. shields during the campaign, they were unable to do so with sufficient combat power to alter the battle’s outcome.

Once U.S. air operations began at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, a multiplier effect occurred because the Japanese fleet was largely restricted to conducting night operations. This was due in part to additive U.S. airpower projected from ashore and concomitant flexibility gained from an untethered U.S. fleet that could inflict serious losses on Japanese shipping during daylight hours. This reduced Japanese flexibility and freedom of maneuver with implications well beyond the tactical area of operations and marked the start of the U.S. island-hopping campaign.

Like many similar operations in the Pacific theater, Guadalcanal had only marginal tactical utility as an island except for its value to the air domain. The airfield was the operational lynchpin that was denied to the enemy by adroit integration of multidomain activities on the land, sea, and in the air. This further enabled U.S. land-based airpower to support the drive from the Solomon Islands northward into the Central Pacific and eventually to the Japanese homeland.26

Falkland Islands. Almost 40 years after Guadalcanal, we can observe the same multiplier effect in a more modern campaign—the 1982 Battle of the Falklands—that revolved around a centuries-old territorial dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands.27 Like the U.S. fleet in the Solomon’s Campaign, the United Kingdom established maritime and antiair shields around the Falklands in order to isolate the objective area, protect Royal Navy/Marines amphibious operations, and deny Buenos Aires the ability to reinforce its forces.

Multidomain actions in the Falklands campaign were numerous, and the multiplier effects these actions had on the campaign’s outcome were significant. The sinking of the 13,500-ton Argentine cruiser General Belgrano (armed with 15 6-inch guns and 8 5-inch guns) by three conventional torpedoes fired from the British nuclear submarine Conqueror took the lives of 323 Argentine sailors (slightly more than half of their total casualties suffered during the war). But more importantly, this action had a cross-domain effect that forced the Argentine surface navy to remain inside its territorial waters for the duration of the campaign.28 Additionally, the sinking of the Belgrano dramatically relieved naval surface pressure on Great Britain’s fleet operating in the Falkland littorals, which in turn allowed Royal Navy vessels on picket duty more time to visually detect Argentine aircraft being launched from the mainland and alert the British Task Force.29

The multiplier effect continued when British special operations forces, supported by naval gunfire, conducted an amphibious raid on Pebble Island to further reduce the Argentine air threat. The raid destroyed 11 forward-based Argentine aircraft. While Argentine helicopters and light aircraft were subsequently dispersed around the islands, the raid forced Argentina to withdraw most of its high-performance aircraft 400 miles back to the mainland.30 Thus, Argentine aircraft were required to fight at their maximum operating radius, which greatly reduced their time on station (Argentina had only limited aerial refueling capability). This was a major advantage for Great Britain’s amphibious fleet and embarked ground forces, who were worried they would not have air superiority during the amphibious landing.

Dismissing the Falklands as nothing more than a creative use of limited assets under extreme conditions risks overlooking key multidomain insights that contributed to operational success. If the notion of achieving dominance in one or more warfighting domains is a thing of the past, then learning to leverage a broader but perhaps relatively less robust toolkit is necessary. To modify a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill, “Gentlemen we are out of overwhelming resources; Now we must think.”31

It might be easy to dismiss military case studies of the previous century as irrelevant to the challenges faced when looking forward into the current one. But it is worth considering how these multiple domains were integrated in the first place. The process (including technical, conceptual, and instructional efforts) of integrating new-fangled flying machines into the traditional warfighting domains of the land and sea began decades before a mature concept. It was not a straight line or a preordained outcome. The associated technologies and tactical concepts were leavened by decades of peacetime “experimentation” and wartime adaptation. The resulting capabilities for presenting an adversary with multiple, simultaneous dilemmas across domains changed the way the United States fights at both the tactical and operational levels of war.

Developing Evidence

The second source of evidence with which to examine the viability of the MDB concept is to look at it from operational perspectives and across a range of contexts. To do this, DOD should subject the MDB concept and its supporting tenets to a rigorous campaign of joint experimentation—even as the specific capabilities are still being developed. Joint experimentation in this context is an inclusive phrase meant to indicate the exploration of ideas, assumptions, and crucial elements of nascent MDB capabilities. To be clear, joint experimentation covers a wide range of activities (from structured seminars, virtual and constructive environments, to field events) and should be seen as complementary or undertaken in parallel with the development of specific capabilities or tactical employment concepts.

We employ the term campaign in association with joint experimentation to indicate that no single event can generate the quality or variety of necessary data. Moreover, only an experimentation campaign utilizing iterative activities with learning feedback loops (including workshops, wargames, constructive and virtual simulation, and live field events) can generate sufficient evidence to genuinely assess what it will take to realize, adapt, or abandon the MDB idea.

In terms of military experimentation, no single method has ever worked. The complex nature of military problems, and especially ones with interactions across five domains, argues for diverse forms of “discovery experimentation” to introduce novel systems, concepts, organizational structures, and technologies into settings where their use can be observed and Red Teamed.32 The results of such a comprehensive assessment will help identify MDB similarities and differences between the theaters, and will inform future doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy initiatives that must be addressed before MDB can become a deployable set of capabilities.

Airman aboard KC-135 Stratotanker participates in Red Flag 16-3, one of four Red Flag exercises that focuses on multidomain operations in air, space, and cyberspace, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 18, 2016 (U.S. Air Force/David Salanitri)

One of the most complex challenges in debates about future joint concepts is not the concept per se; it is the nature of jointness as practiced in a post–U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) environment. Without digressing too far into the history of USJFCOM’s role in joint concept development and experimentation, it is worth contrasting the contexts. Formed in 1999, USJFCOM developed a generally top-down approach to joint concept development and experimentation. While this approach had some advantages, it often resulted in excessively large experiments, with the Services playing a limited or marginally productive role. When USJFCOM was disestablished in 2011, joint concept development reverted to the Joint Staff J7, whose time and resources for experimentation was more limited.33 More recently, Service or multi-Service–led efforts to develop and experiment with new joint concepts are increasing. This can be seen as a bottom-up, collaborative effort. While this approach has many practical advantages over the top-down approach, it is not without challenges—a key one being that the longer joint stakeholders (that is, combatant commands and prospective joint force commanders) remain spectators to the Service-dominated joint experimentation process, the less likely MDB’s theater-wide and strategic-level implications will be subjected to a full examination by the customer.

Under Joint Staff policy for concept development, experimentation begins after concept development. This may be adequate for narrow concepts or mission/domain capabilities where one Service has the lead. But this approach seems ill-suited for complex and multifaceted warfighting concepts such as MDB. As the two case studies indicate, cross-domain overmatch and multiplier effects are often discovered and subsequently leveraged in the course of operations. Early discovery experimentation with some level of joint analysis and sponsorship is essential. Not only will such early experiments increase the capacity to do joint experimentation, but they can also help co-develop Service concepts within a joint context.

As noted at the outset of this article, the MDB debate at this stage is a useful set of thought experiments, but it is not producing tangible evidence. Such evidence would shift the debate from a primarily subjective one to a more balanced and objective conversation. However, the recent history of joint concept development and the very nature of institutional jointness as practiced in DOD are not encouraging. According to the Joint Staff, joint concepts are assessed “using various analytical methods; the joint concept community evaluates both developing and approved concepts to determine whether they are feasible and promote informed decisions on developing new joint capabilities.”34

One potentially more lucrative approach would be to embark on a series of parallel joint discovery experiments designed to identify the specific characteristics, demands, and challenges associated with assessing the feasibility of MDB transcending theater-specific applications to serve as a more universal warfighting concept. Such a joint discovery experiment has historically been at the heart of military experimentation.35

The objective of discovery experiments is to learn, so it is useful to begin with a set of well-defined conceptual and operational conditions. One does not seek a well-defined “concept,” rather a statement of the military problem and a clear understanding of the initial military context. The discovery experimentation approach, supported by an initial data collection plan, is designed to tinker with the variables, modify the conditions, and challenge the assumptions and constraints in a way that dynamically helps refine a nascent concept and identify the kinds of capabilities worth considering. This notion of progressive learning through experimentation generates feedback that enables concept framing, definition, and refinement to occur dynamically.

The ability to use experimentation to explore the utility of emerging technologies and concepts is a force multiplier. Technology cannot be optimized until its impact on warfighting concepts and doctrine is fully appreciated. According to the National Academy of Sciences in a study done for the Navy:

By simulating future systems, [military commanders] can also learn how those systems will work in simulated combat environments and how to use forces equipped with such proposed systems. By such means they can explore new ideas and concepts for the use of variously composed and equipped forces against diverse anticipated threats, and they can learn how to integrate such forces on a large scale in the joint and combined force environment.36

One major challenge in calling for more joint experimentation is the large gap between the operating environment envisioned in the MDB concept and the availability of validated models and simulations. Earlier efforts to support joint analyses (both constructive and human-in-the-loop) with custom designed joint models “amounted to a costly failure with little or no resulting joint analysis capability gain for the Department.”37 Nevertheless, progress in MDB will require some capability to integrate space, cyber, and electromagnetic effects into models designed to explore the interaction of new capabilities and human decisionmaking. Any effort to explore MDB in a joint context must include an effort to integrate existing Service modeling and simulation tools (in the same bottom-up approach discussed here). This will help the Services to operate across new domains in support of specific joint priorities instead of attempting to create a standalone, top-down modeling and simulation solution.

Discovery experimentation is not a free-for-all, but a deliberately crafted and planned approach for addressing an issue long before it becomes a pressing problem. It allows operators to interact with new or potential concepts and capabilities to explore their military utility—something that is not often supported through traditional studies or hypothesis-based experiments. It requires careful attention to the specification and collection of data that will provide solid evidence for the conclusions reached by conducting experiments. If all these constraints are observed, discovery experimentation could be a valuable tool and a useful “way of weeding out ideas that simply do not work, forcing the community to ask rigorous questions about the benefits being sought and the dynamics involved in implementing the idea, or specifying the limiting conditions.”38

It is time to subject the MDB concept to discovery experimentation. To modify slightly Sir Michael Howard’s admonition about future doctrine, it is the “task of military science in the age of peace to prevent new capabilities from being too badly wrong” when the next war starts.39 

Dr. Kevin M. Woods is Deputy Director of the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Colonel Thomas C. Greenwood, USMC (Ret.), is a Researcher at IDA.


1. John F. Schmitt, A Practical Guide for Developing and Writing Military Concepts, Defense Adaptive Red Team Working Paper #02-4 (McLean, VA: Hicks & Associates, December 2002), 4, available at <www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/writing/dart_paper_writing_mil_concepts.pdf>.

2. An experiment campaign consists of “a set of experiments, complementary analyses, and synthesis activities . . . conceived, orchestrated, and harvested” in order to better understand the complex issues associated with a warfighting concept. See David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes, Campaigns of Experimentation: Pathways to Transformation (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2005), 4.

3. Amos C. Fox, “Multi-Domain Battle: A Perspective on the Salient Features of an Emerging Operational Doctrine,” Small Wars Journal, May 21, 2017.

4. Senate Armed Services Committee, Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., USN, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, on U.S. Pacific Command Posture, April 27, 2017, 19.

5. Robert B. Brown, “The Indo-Asia Pacific and the Multi-Domain Battle Concept,” March 20, 2017, available at <www.army.mil/article/184551/the_indo_asia_ pacific_and_the_multi_domain_battle_concept>.

6. For example, see Joint Staff–issued concept papers Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012), Joint Operational Access Concept (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2012), and Joint Concept for Rapid Aggregation(Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2015).

7. Richard Hart Sinnreich, “Multi-Domain Battle: Old Wine in a New Bottle,” The Lawton Constitution, October 30, 2016.

8. Brown.

9. Erik Heftye, “Multi-Domain Confusion: All Domains Are Not Created Equal,” Real Clear Defense, May 26, 2017, available at <www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/05/26/multi-domain_confusion_all_domains_are_not_created_equal_111463.html>. For an early related argument, see Martin C. Libicki, “Cyberspace Is Not a Warfighting Domain,” I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society 8, no. 2 (2012).

10. Mike Pietrucha, “No End in Sight to the Army’s Dependence on Airpower,” War on the Rocks, December 13, 2016, available at <https://warontherocks.com/2016/12/no-end-in-sight-to-the-armys-dependence-on-airpower/>.

11. A.J. Shattuck, “The Pipe Dream of (Effective) Multi-Domain Battle,” Modern War Institute at West Point, March 28, 2017, available at <https://mwi.usma.edu/pipe-dream-effective-multi-domain-battle/>.

12. Mike Benitez, “Multi-Domain Battle: Does It End the Never-Ending Quest for Joint Readiness?” Over the Horizon, May 2, 2017, available at <https://overthehorizonmdos.com/2017/05/02/mdb-joint-readiness/>.

13. See James Stavridis and David Weinstein, “Time for a U.S. Cyber Force,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 1 (January 2014). The House Armed Services Committee mark of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act calls for the creation of a separate Space Corps.

14. Michael C. Davies, “Multi-domain Battle and the Masks of War,” Small Wars Journal, May 11, 2017, available at <http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/multi-domain-battle-and-the-masks-of-war-why-it’s-time-to-eliminate-the-independent-services>.

15. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Army Must Be Ready for Multi-Domain Battle in Pacific ‘Tomorrow,’” Breaking Defense, January 31, 2017, available at <https://breakingdefense.com/2017/01/army-must-ready-for-multi-domain-battle-in-pacific-tomorrow/>.

16. Megan Eckstein, “Army Set to Sink Ship in 2018 as PACOM Operationalizes Multi-Domain Battle Concept,” USNI News, May 30, 2017. The Army had a standing mission to “sink ships” in the form of the Coast Artillery Corps from 1901 to 1950.

17. Benitez.

18. Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “Army’s Multi-Domain Battle Gains Traction Across Services: The Face of Future War,” Breaking Defense, March 13, 2017, available at <https://breakingdefense.com/2017/03/armys-multi-domain-battle-gains-traction-across-services/>.

19. David G. Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle: Joint Combined Arms Concept for the 21st Century,” Association of the United States Army, November 2016, available at <www.ausa.org/articles/multi-domain-battle-joint-combined-arms-concept-21st-century>. The notion of extended battle dates to General Don Starry and the development of the AirLand Battle Concept in the early 1980s. See Don Starry, “Extending the Battlefield,” Military Review 61, no. 3 (March 1981), 31–50.

20. J.P. Clark, “In Defense of a Big Idea for Joint Warfighting” War on the Rocks, December 22, 2016, available at <https://warontherocks.com/2016/12/in-defense-of-a-big-idea-for-joint-warfighting/>. Kevin Benson, “Extending the Second Offset and Multi-Domain Battle,” Real Clear Defense, November 29, 2016, available at <www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/11/30/extending_the_second_offset _and_multi-domain_battle_110411.html>.

21. U.S. Army–Marine Corps White Paper, “Multi-Doman Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century,” September 30, 2017, available at <www.tradoc.army.mil/multidomainbattle/docs/DRAFT_MDBconcept.pdf>. The Air Force is developing a related Multi-Domain Operations concept that combines Air Force theater contributions into a unified air-space-cyberspace capability set in support of the joint force. See “Multi-Domain Command and Control: The Air Force Perspective with Brigadier General B. Chance Saltzman” (Part 1 of 2), Over the Horizon, April 3, 2017, available at <https://overthehorizonmdos.com/2017/04/03/multi-domain-command-and-control-the-air-force-perspective-with-brigadier-general-b-chance-saltzman-part-1-of-2/>. Saltzman makes the distinction with traditional combined arms by arguing, “[combined arms] is using the assets you have, in some cases from different functions or different domains. Whether it’s artillery, armor, infantry, aviation, those are the traditional arms we’re talking because a lot of times we talk about combined arms in terms of the Army sense of things.”

22. Overmatch is defined as “the application of capabilities or unique tactics either directly or indirectly, with the intent to prevent or mitigate opposing forces from using their current or projected equipment or tactics.” See U.S. Army–Marine Corps White Paper, 13, 17, 55, 61, 73.

23. In the context of a specific campaign, all domains are not of equal value. Even opponents in the same battle may, for a host of reasons, not share the same view of a domain’s value.

24. Phillip D. Shutler, “Thinking About Warfare,” Marine Corps Gazette, November 1987, 20, 23–25.

25. J.J. Edson, “The Asymmetrical Ace,” Marine Corps Gazette, April 1988, 51.

26. Guadalcanal was a pivotal battle in the larger Solomon’s campaign but a closely contested fight to the bitter end. The United States suffered a terrible naval defeat in the Battle of Savo Island, August 8–9, 1942, which reduced Allied heavy cruiser strength in the Pacific by more than 33 percent and compelled Navy transport and supply ships to depart the objective area prematurely. Command relationships between senior Marine Corps and Navy commanders were also overly complex, which led to unnecessary friction. For a more detailed account, see Jeter A. Isley and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory and Its Practice in the Pacific (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 130, 153–162.

27. The proximate cause, however, was a textbook case of two serious and mutually reinforcing misjudgments. These misjudgments, as one scholar put it, stemmed from “the belief in London that Argentina would not invade the Falkland Islands and the expectation in Buenos Aires that Britain would accommodate itself to a military takeover of the islands.” See Richard Ned Nebow, “Miscalculation in the South Atlantic: The Origins of the Falkland War,” Journal of Strategic Studies 6, no. 1 (1983), 5.

28. Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1992), 246.

29. In an effort to isolate the islands and limit the scope of the campaign, Great Britain declared a 200-mile radius Total Exclusion Zone around the Falkland Islands. This declaration had the tacit effect of making the Argentinian home waters a bastion for the Argentine navy.

30. Sir Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands, Volume II: War and Diplomacy (New York: Routledge, 2005), 431. Freedman wrote, “This was a remarkably successful raid, depriving the garrison of a number of aircraft and undermining morale, by demonstrating the capacity of special forces to mount operations on the Islands against units that were detached from the main forces.” That said, Argentine aircraft remaining in the Falklands after the raid were assessed to be three Shyvan light transports, two navy Tracker early warning aircraft, nine Pucara counterinsurgency aircraft, four Chinooks, three Puma, and one Agusta 109. Although none of these aircraft threatened the overall outcome of the campaign, they remained a major concern throughout it.

31. The most common original Churchill version is “Gentlemen, we have run out of money: Now we must think.” Some evidence suggests Churchill borrowed the phrase from famed physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford.

32. The other two major types of experiments are hypothesis tests and demonstrations. Both could play a role in narrow aspects of the campaign but could not serve as a description of the overall experimentation effort.

33. Joint operating concepts (JOCs) “broadly describe how the joint force may execute military operations within a specific mission area in accordance with defense strategic guidance and the CCJO. Collectively, JOCs describe joint capabilities required to operate across the range of military operations and encourage further examination through wargaming, joint training, and a variety of studies, experimentation, and analyses.” See Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3010.02E, Guidance for Developing and Implementing Joint Concepts (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, August 17, 2016), A-10.

34. Ibid., A-1.

35. Examples include the Navy’s Fleet Problem series in the 1920s and 1930s that in.tegrated fledgling naval airpower into fleet operations, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s Project B experiments on the use of airpower against shipping, or the Marine Corps’ Fleet Landing Exercises in the 1930s leading to the validation of Major Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis’s amphibious concepts. See Williamson Murray, Experimentation in the Period Between the Two World Wars: Lessons for the Twenty-First Century (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, November 2000).

36. National Research Council, The Role of Experimentation in Building Future Naval Forces (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), available at <www.nap.edu/catalog/11125/the-role-of-experimentation-in-building-future-naval-forces>.

37. The failure of the Joint Warfare System, Joint Simulation System, and Joint Modeling and Simulation System programs stemmed from not only the efforts’ complex and high-risk technical natures but also some of the same integration and development issues that challenge the development of joint capabilities. For a summary of the issues and lessons, see Robert Lutz et al., Factors Influencing Modeling and Simulation to Inform OSD Acquisition Decisions (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses and Johns Hopkins University, April 2017).

38. The authors are indebted to our colleague Dr. Sue Numrich for input on discovery experimentation. See also David S. Alberts, ed., Code of Best Practice: Experimentation (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, July 2002), 21.

39. Michael Howard, “Military Science in an Age of Peace,” RUSI Journal 119, no. 1 (1974), 2.

Featured Image: Reconnaissance Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force, sourced from Force Reconnaissance Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, and embarked on the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), jump from a CH-53E Super Stallion during helocast training in the Gulf of Aden, May 28, 2015. The Super Stallion belongs to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 (Reinforced), 24th MEU. The 24th MEU is embarked on the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and deployed to maintain regional security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joey Mendez/Released)

Sea Control 124 – The Thai Military, Coups, and Strategic Culture

By Natalie Sambhi

Seriously, what’s with Thailand’s coups?

In this week’s episode of Sea Control: Asia Pacific, Natalie Sambhi interviews Greg Raymond, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is currently working on a research project looking at Thailand, the United States and China. He is also converting his PhD thesis on Thailand’s strategic culture into a book.

A soldier of the Royal Thai Army awaiting orders near the Red Shirt barricade at Chulalongkorn Hospital. (Courtesy of Flickr user null0)
A soldier of the Royal Thai Army awaiting orders near the Red Shirt barricade at Chulalongkorn Hospital. (Courtesy of Flickr user null0)

They delve into what drives the Thai military, why strategic culture matters and how Thailand’s coups have impacted on the development of its doctrine. As Greg explains, understanding the military and its history is key to understanding the future trajectory of this pivotal Southeast Asian state and its civil-military relations.

Download Sea Control Asia Pacific 124 – The Thailand Military, Coups and Strategic Culture

Follow Greg on Twitter @GregoryVRaymond

For more on Thailand and strategic culture, here are Greg’s top reading picks: