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Air Force: Multi-Domain Battles Requires New Mindset to Coordinate Future Air, Land, Sea Forces

 

Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, talks to Airmen over the communications system, Oct. 17, 2017, onboard an HC-130J Combat King II headed to Moody Air Force Base, Ga.

Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, talks to Airmen over the communications system, Oct. 17, 2017, onboard an HC-130J Combat King II headed to Moody Air Force Base, Ga. (Air Force photo)

Planning for a multi-domain battle is how the U.S. military will keep its superiority but doing so requires a new mindset in the Pentagon and out in the field, said the Air Force’s air combat commander.

Speaking Thursday at the Brookings Institute in Washington, Gen. James M. Holmes, commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, said while the U.S. military is still without peer, adversaries are becoming more adept at challenging U.S. operations and making combat scenarios uncomfortable,

What’s needed today is for all service branches to embrace the idea of the next battles fought will be multi-domain. In other words, land, air, sea, and cyber will all be part of the battle. Clear lines separating friend and foe will likely disappear as the enemy improves its ability to disrupt communications and use long-range weapons to hit U.S. staging grounds.

“Instead of having a finite victory at the end of a battle, it’s how do you stay in the game, how do you keep playing in the game, how do you keep from losing, and how do you go forward against peer adversaries,” Holmes said.

For many in the audience, Holmes’ comments harkened back to the Pentagon’s quest for a Third Offset strategy. When Michael O’Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings, asked if multi-domain battle strategy superseded or was just the same philosophy rebranded to accommodate a new administration?

Holmes balked at the idea one replaced the other, but conceded, “I haven’t heard that term used a lot, but I think I still hear the ideas talked about in the halls of the Pentagon.”

The shift away from a Third Offset strategy, according to Holmes’ mind, is not political, but instead is based on to need to respond to how fast adversaries – including near peers of China and Russia, and non-state actors such as terrorist organizations – can adapt to U.S. technology or tactics.

When rolled out two years ago, the Third Offset was by design taking a long-term view of how the U.S. military could remain without peers, evaluating potential threats expected decades in the future.

“The idea of the Third Offset I think it’s is important to think about,” Holmes said. “It’s unlikely we’re going to have a Third Offset that’s going to last 25 years like the other ones did.”

The First Offset occurred during the early Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960, as the U.S. used technological advances in nuclear power and weaponry to create parity with the larger Soviet Union military, according to a Department of Defense explainer released in March 2016. The Second Offset occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and was when the stealth and precision weapons used today were first developed.

Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration on Nov. 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

“We can’t take 20 years to develop a class of weapons systems. We’re going to have to make evolutionary improvements to the things that we have,” Holmes said. “We won’t be able to take 20 years to fully develop and fully test an F-35 we’re going to have to do things faster”

The world in which the U.S. now prepares to deter near-peer adversaries, or fight and defeat if needed, is one that’s very different from a generation ago, Holmes said. To illustrate the difference between then and now, Holmes mentioned how 27 years ago Thursday, the first Gulf War was in its ninth day. Up to that point, U.S. forces had flown 2,000 sorties – a month’s worth according to Holmes.

The message to great powers and adversaries alike was clear, Holmes said. The Navy and Air Force can maintain absolute air superiority, allowing Army and Marine Corps forces to dominate the land.

“I would say now there are no boundaries on the battlefield or that they mean a lot less. There are no hiding places, there are no places you can hide from that unblinking eye of multi-domain awareness. And there are no sanctuaries where we can work through a port, unload our forces, get them ready for battle, and then move them into a battle area,” Holmes said.
“Our forces now know that from their garrisons before they start to move, they’re vulnerable to at least non-kinetic fires and maybe kinetic fires.”

The strategies and equipment used by adversaries today are much faster than what had been the case during the 1990s and early 2000s. The U.S. military has to change the way it plans for the future, Holmes said. “For the services, it’ll be as we contemplate going from research and development in programs, will we go ahead with programs we have planned for many years or will we reevaluate those programs we haven’t started, and try to decide how they fit into the world we envision fighting in.”

  • Old Salt

    “20 years to develope…” Isn’t this general an extreeme case of the kettle calling the pot black?

  • Ed L

    out of the box thinking, protecting lines of communications, My favorite having a couple of P-8 doing ASW prosecutions while at higher attiude a C-17 or other Cargo plane is carry a number ASW torpedos and depth charges. Upon command the cargo plane launches a torpedo or depth charge that is laser guided to a point in the ocean. And a big tanker on station refueling them all.

    • ShermansWar

      Protecting lines of communication is out of the box thinking? God, we are screwed.

      Try and see if the navy could coordinate the air mission you propose in a combat environment. Good luck. it’s also laughable to think the Navy could ever generate that many potential ASW targets to make use of such tactics.

  • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

    With the Air Force in charge, of course.

  • ShermansWar

    This article is frightening on so many levels….

    “What’s needed today is for all service branches to embrace the idea of the next battles fought will be multi-domain. In other words, land, air, sea, and cyber will all be part of the battle.” So, they are saying they don’t already do that, they haven’t for decades, and this is a new concept? That’s chilling, and speaks to levels of incompetence that are simply depressing to even ponder. Combined arms and their integration is an idea that’s been around for a long time, and integrating cyber ( which we’ve supposedly already been at THAT awhile) requires new procedures, not thinking, and if it does, then it’s no wonder we are so confused. I guess this is what happens when you have administrators instead of military men holding commissions, men who have little understanding of military arts, and think warfare is composed solely of military science and metrics. The mental framework, the mindset, should already be there. Integrating new weapons and systems doesn’t require new thinking as much as adaptions to existing procedures.

    “Instead of having a finite victory at the end of a battle, it’s how do you stay in the game, how do you keep playing in the game, how do you keep from losing, and how do you go forward against peer adversaries,”

    That thinking is rancid in so many ways it undermines confidence in the institution itself.

    Commanders these days do no ask themselves the basic question, the only one that matters, and that is; “How do my actions, my orders, target and destroy our enemy’s will to fight?” Instead they fret over maintaining systems indefinitely with no eye towards a swift and speedy resolution. Everything depends on hardware these days, and little else, in the minds of our strategists, if you can call them that.

    We had All the tech in the world and lost the last 2 wars they fought to cavemen because they can’t see the forest for the trees, and have lost sight of the fact that the ONLY thing that matters in warfare is destroying your enemies will to fight. The great tragedy of the US armed forces in this day and age is they have lost sight of that fundamental truth, that basic necessity for victory through destroying the will to fight, and have instead conflated the idea of having what are ever changing and morphing support systems and weapons as the goal itself.

    In what manner did we target and destroy the will of the Taliban and the insurgents in Iraq? We didn’t. The Shiites control the govt in Iraq, and Iran, not the US, holds sway over Iraqi internal politics. Meanwhile, In Afghanistan, the Taliban exercises control over 85% of the country outside the municipality of Kabul.

    As we move towards a confrontation with the Chinese, We focus, FOCUS, on Materiel first, and our deficiencies therein, before we form even the vaguest idea of what victory against China might look like, let alone how we would actually go about destroying their will to fight. All we know these days is endless warfare, because simply buying the most high tech gear and equipment amounts to naught if you haven’t considered how you are to employ them to destroy the enemy’s will to fight.

    Don’t get me wrong, new toys are great, we need cyber, and we need to integrate it, but that doesn’t change the fact that even as the services demand ever increasing flows of intel and information, the sum total of all this information and data, and the amount of time commanders spend on assimilating and processing it ( and the more info they have the longer it seems to take them to reach a conclusion as to what to do with said intel and data) seems more to be a hinderance to shortening their decision cycles, and extending the OODA loop as opposed to getting inside the enemies. The ideas of dictating tempo, seizing initiative and keeping an enemy responding, and EXPLOITING an advantage in the decision cycle once obtained seem foreign concepts, as is the idea of destroying the enemies will to fight. Superior and faster systems alone with do nothing to achieve victory without the right mindset, and the mindset they’re talking about here isn’t it.

    The fundamental focus needs to be on the will to fight, and how to destroy the enemies as fast as possible, not accepting the concept of long drawn out interminable warfare. If it happens, sure, be ready for it, but it’s a loser of a mindset to start from, even Clauseweitz said Time in Warfare is undesirable , (precluding outside considerations), you bring hostilities to an end as rapidly as possible,because with time you only get more unpredictability and friction for you own forces efforts, and the longer you leave the opponent in the field the more dangerous they are. Even football announcers know that once you have an advantage you press it and finish an opponent. You dont let the other guy hang around, content in the conceit your new thinking and fancy systems will prevail, as opposed to focusing on the business of destroying your enemies will to fight. A spade to the face is just as effective as a cruise missile for such endeavors, moreso, even.

    “For many in the audience, Holmes’ comments harkened back to the Pentagon’s quest for a Third Offset strategy. ”

    Exactly. A loser of a strategy if there ever was one. It’s a strategy for a state dept. not a military. The idea that we are so scary you won’t fight us is not a warfighting plan. Once bullets start flying it all goes out the window and your left holding your stump asking where did it all go wrong and what do I do now that I’m under fire by Russian massed artillery, (Who used networked fires coordinated by drone intel without making a big fuss about it) or are being assaulted by Chinese Mechanized Naval Forces who you’ve just discovered to your dismay, as a deployed Marine Commander, that they have newer gear and bigger guns ( but hey, my fires are networke..what? where did my 120mm mortars go?. Wait, I forget, we got rid of them so we could integrate cyber instead, even though we have no actual gun tubes for them to coordinate fires for anymore). WE aren’t scaring anyone. They are planning how, exactly, in detail, they are going to destroy our will to fight, as they build new weapons, whereas we are embarking on a journey of discovery to understand, after what will be innumerable studies and power point presentations, what our thinking should be and what it all means.

    ““The idea of the Third Offset I think it’s is important to think about,” Holmes said. “It’s unlikely we’re going to have a Third Offset that’s going to last 25 years like the other ones did.” So they are soiling themselves at the concept they might have to use the fancy gear they spent all that money on to actually go into combat with, and find the very prospect unsettling. How many Marine and Navy Colonels want to go into combat in a F-35 tomorrow? It may not work as a warplane, but hey, it was great as part of the 3rd offset, wasn’t it?

    They need to plan for war, not how they are going to scare our enemies out of it. Doing so betrays the fact it is we who are scared.

  • RDF

    This was being spouted when I left, 35 years ago. That is very frightening.

    • ShermansWar

      That’s what I’m saying.

  • Ctrot

    An idiot said that while promoting a $100 billion white elephant.

  • FromTheMirror

    “Instead of having a finite victory at the end of a battle … how do you keep from losing …” – why don’t somebody take this defeatist POS Third Offset peddler behind the Pentagon and put a brick through his fuvking dikhead? That drunkard Mattis’ palace is just like it was under the Chimp-in-Chief – a bunch of rabid bullschitters getting entangled in the complicated conceptual webs they weave, while blowing all the basics.

    • ShermansWar

      Thank you

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Umm, I thought Aegis and CEC and the like were all about conducting a multi-domain battle? Multiple dimensions of air, surface, and sub-surface, along with electronic and cyber warfare elements being present, have been discussed and plans formulated for some time now. Certainly addressing such needs must continue, but this article makes it seem that NO such efforts have been conducted, at all, ever!

    • ShermansWar

      They’re lost. I forget who it was talking last year or the year before, some admiral rambling on about how the Navy needs to” find it’s mission”.

      • IssacBabel

        I can help, I have a spare copy of “The Influence of Seapower”, I’ll send it to him.
        I’ve been missing Nixon for the last year, after reading Adm. Clueless, I’m
        now missing Curtiss LeMay too.

        • ShermansWar

          LeMay was a double edged sword, to say the least.The insanity that led to the
          F-35 had it’s Genesis inside LeMay’s brain ( where it kept company with other suspected insanities). No one can ever say he didn’t have definite ideas of what his service branch should be doing, though. And definitely pass on Mahan’s book, they seem to have lost their copies. I think the Chinese borrowed them all……..

  • D. Jones

    We need to have more meetings with think tanks and never-BTDT defense experts.

    • ShermansWar

      We should K street for weapons testing and a bomb range..