Fight, Survive, Win — Imagining Multi-Domain Battle

Part I  Attack


The United States faces a changing and more uncertain military future. The military dominance that the United States easily assumed following the end of the Cold War – and demonstrated in the Gulf War – is no longer so assured. Potential American adversaries are developing capabilities to challenge American strengths. The American military must develop new concepts and capabilities to continue to guarantee the military supremacy Americans expect. Multi-Domain Battle is an effort to develop these necessary concepts and capabilities. It will provide the means to counter adversaries who seek to break the current American military system. Multi-Domain Battle will deepen and expand current joint doctrine. It will allow the services to move beyond synchronization and converge their capabilities in their respective domains to open windows of relative advantage in a domain or several domains to gain the initiative. The concept also specifically challenges land forces to adapt and prepare for situations in which the complete American control of the air, sea, cyberspace and space, formerly a forgone conclusion, is no longer. This fictional depiction describes how the United States military might apply Multi-Domain Battle as a concept to defeat a near peer threat. The story does not describe any real potential adversary. The majority of geographic locations are fictional. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to any real individual is accidental.

030713LAUG21, Red Field, the principal theater airport

Despite himself Captain Jose Alvarez reached for his emergency can of Copenhagen and threw in a dip. This was not the moment to quit tobacco, he thought. He stared at a burning Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)[1] missile launcher and pondered the last few hours. “Son of a…the intelligence officer was right, he cursed under his breath. Damn effective surprise attack….”

His First Sergeant (1SG) and the Battery Executive Officer (XO) walked up and jolted him back into the moment.

“Sir, we are 50% on launchers that were active and in position during the attack,” the XO mumbled, sounding almost stunned at what he said. “Top, what about casualties?” Alvarez asked. The First Sergeant, grim faced, looked down at her notebook and gave Alvarez a quick rundown of the human toll.

No one was dead. Most of the battery’s personnel had been dispersed in well-constructed fighting positions; still, there were several severely wounded soldiers who had been in the fire control shelter that had taken a near hit. All the wounded had been evacuated to the battalion aid station or beyond. Alvarez took it all in. He steeled himself for what lay ahead. Thankfully, several launchers had not been employed and were hidden in anticipation of this very type of attack. Also, the radar’s active protection system had worked. There had been multiple missile strikes on spoofed radar locations. The radar had suffered damage to several important circuit cards due to the high power jamming attack, but those cards could be easily replaced. Still, someone on the ground had done pinpoint reconnaissance of launcher positions. Alvarez now knew the “little green men” were out and about somewhere. They were going to make his unit’s life hard—this was very different than what he and his NCOs experienced before. He was glad he had been “that guy” and emphasized proper fighting positions and small arms proficiency.

In addition to that problem, Alvarez still had to accomplish his true mission—protect the theater’s most important airfields and provide theater ballistic missile defense, particularly against the enemy’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, so that the Navy could transit critical maritime choke points at the right moment.

Alvarez sucked on his dip, spat, and gave quick instructions to the XO and the 1SG. The war was on. His battery was deep in the fight. When the moment came he was confident he could provide critical air and missile defense. Still it was a shock—the enemy had shown some scary capabilities—jamming, long range precision fires, stealthy local reconnaissance to pinpoint critical targets. There had even been a cyber-attack that had prevented the battery from getting much warning before things started blowing up.

030815LAUG21, International Broadcast Partners (IBP) Television Studio, London

Alistair Gordon-Cooke shuffled the papers on his anchor desk, straightened, and looked into the camera. In clipped tones, he relayed to the world—at least those in a spot comfortable enough to watch TV—that the war many had feared was now a reality. “IBP correspondents across the region are reporting multiple explosions at airports, ports, communications facilities, and other critical infrastructure. We have sporadic communication with our correspondents and will keep our audience as up to date as possible based on those reports.” In his impeccably tailored suit, Gordon-Cooke projected a detached calm despite the emerging turbulence.

Inclining slightly to listen to the producer in his earpiece, Gordon-Cooke announced, “We have just reestablished contact via cellphone with our correspondent Juliette Chang—Juliette, what can you tell us?” Chang’s voice scratched across the airwaves—“Alistair, I am in the basement of the Intercontinental Hotel. Several hours ago sirens began blaring. My cameraman and I witnessed multiple explosions centered on the airport, what seemed like a direct hit near the city center forced us into…” The phone connection ceased abruptly, dead air echoing across the line as Gordon-Cooke, slightly off-balance at the sudden silence, responded slowly. Faced with no one to talk to, Gordon-Cooke improvised—rehashing the outlines of the crisis that had led to this moment—to fill the airtime the loss of communications had thrust on him.

Projecting all the stiff upper lip aplomb he could muster, Gordon-Cooke spoke:

As many will recall, the last several months have seen a dramatic increase in regional tension. Despite efforts over several years to reduce tensions among the United States, American allies, and their adversaries, the fundamental interests of all parties continued to clash. Border tensions, widespread social media agitation, and rising political rhetoric on all sides increased temperatures. After increasingly assertive troop maneuvers along their borders and reports of cross border air incursions, American allies requested the United States deploy troops into the region in an effort to lessen tensions. The United States, hoping to prevent the war of words from moving further, agreed and deployed roughly 15,000 troops to critical locations across the region. As IBP has reported repeatedly, instead of calming the situation, US troops’ presence seems to have emboldened their adversaries.
Anxious to demonstrate their growing military capabilities, America’s adversaries positioned surface to air missiles to challenge its air dominance. Additionally, many defense experts see medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles as a real threat to American naval power. Moreover, IBP’s defense commentators have repeatedly highlighted the fact that the American Navy would have to transit several constricted sea straits to reinforce their troops ashore.

Gordon-Cooke paused, perhaps to let both himself and the audience grasp the magnitude of what he was saying and then began speaking again:

As IBP correspondents have reported in the past, new, 21st century capabilities have been clearly on display over the recent months. While it has been impossible to independently verify these claims, there have been widespread reports of cyber-attacks and hacking across the region. IBP experts have likened these reports to similar activity in Georgia and Ukraine during those conflicts of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Additionally, we have received multiple reports of missile and air attacks. IBP has only intermittent communications with its correspondents across the region. The best available evidence shows that many critical communications nodes are no longer functioning. The reports received here at IBP headquarters suggest many have been destroyed or cannot communicate due to sustained jamming and denial of service cyber attacks.

Gordon-Cooke paused, squinted, and listened intently to his producer’s voice. While an experienced anchor, he was most comfortable simply setting the stage for a reporter in the field. The voice buzzing in his ear told him for the moment he was on his own. All IBP attempts to contact its correspondents were failing. Like a Greek chorus observing an unfolding tragedy, Gordon-Cooke thought, he seemed destined to spend the next several hours narrating the suddenly violent confrontation.

030733LAUG21, Combatant Command Headquarters

His aide handed General Jeff Williamson, the Combatant Commander, a cup of coffee. Williamson sipped, looked up, and asked his director of operations, the J-3, Rear Admiral Darnell Jones, “what the hell had happened in the last six hours.” The rear admiral stood by the situation map and rapidly summarized current operations. First contact had been an enemy cyber-attack that paralyzed communications, he said. He confessed that much of what he was briefing was conjecture because the headquarters had only intermittent contact with most of its subordinate units. Jones’ words crashed over General Williamson in waves. Buzzwords of feared enemy capabilities turned deadly real—commercial drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and targeting, enemy special operations forces calling for fire, disrupting communications and attacking headquarters. Global Positioning System (GPS) jamming, communications satellites lost, US airpower partially negated by ground-based air defense, possibly multiple ships lost to ballistic missile strikes, Army, Marine, and forward positioned Air Force units isolated with little or no air support and only their local logistical stocks on hand––many of which were being targeted by cruise and ballistic missile attack. Intermittent reports came in of massed artillery devastating static units and fixed sites.

An old fighter pilot, Williamson allowed himself a moment of nostalgia—longing for that recent past when he and fellow pilots roamed above the battlefield almost immune to any enemy threat, able rain destruction with a well-placed Joint Direct Attack Munition,[2] at will. He caught himself—that battlefield was gone, replaced by an almost infinitely more complex and lethal one.

The system had been broken into fragments, Williamson told himself. He knew everyone was fighting hard, but as far as he could tell the unified system that he had been a part of as a younger officer in Iraq and Afghanistan was now separate pieces fighting for survival. Williamson looked at the situation map. There was a lot of red—red diamonds with dashed lines.[3] The intel folks had a lot of enemy units templated, but with so many pieces of the communications network broken apart, Williamson knew that many of the red unit locations pointing menacingly at critical American and allied positions were more the result of guesses than actual reports. He was in a new kind of fight. He had to find a way to get his forces synced again—focused to create even the smallest window or opportunity in time and space. Find that window he told himself. Gain the initiative somewhere and he was confident that he could exploit an opportunity in the air, at sea or on land to begin turning the course of the fight.

031442AUG21L, Black River, AB1234 4321

Sergeant First Class Austin Farmer quickly updated his platoon’s status card. It did not tell a happy story. While they still had all four tanks, the platoon’s fuel status was inching towards black. Each tank was at about 75% on ammo. One tank had all its antennae blown off. Another had thrown track, although they had succeeded in recovering it and getting it going again. None of the platoon’s Blue Force Trackers[4] or GPS was working without intermittent interference. His tank platoon had just moved to its fourth defensive position since the fighting started. His tankers were exhausted. No one had slept more than 45 minutes at a stretch since the night had exploded with artillery. He thought that had been about twelve hours ago, but it was hard to say exactly. He stared momentarily at his watch and tried to do the math. He quickly gave up, judging that there were better uses for his limited remaining mental energy. Farmer had told his platoon leader grab a nap. They both now knew what to expect next. They might hear a drone; someone might catch a glimpse as a tiny unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fluttered just above the wood line. That was the only signal they might get, and there was a good chance that no one would notice the drone. Next the whistle of incoming artillery would fill the sky. Farmer was convinced that enemy ground forces were lurking nearby, but they had had no real direct fire contact so far.

Farmer nudged Specialist Jeff Wilson, his tank’s gunner, awake with his foot. Farmer joked to Wilson “and you said you didn’t want to reenlist because there was no chance for anything exciting to happen—us old timers got all the action. Aren’t you glad I talked out of that stupid plan? You would have missed all the fun we’re having.” Wilson chuckled, staring through his sight, scanning, and replied “I don’t know what I would do without your wisdom, Sergeant.” Farmer, an experienced platoon sergeant, wanted to keep the platoon on an even keel. He could always find the black cloud when things seemed to be going great and a silver lining when everything seemed like it was going to hell—it was past time for some silver lining.

After the first artillery strike, Apache helicopters had tried to flush out any artillery forward observers along the platoon’s front. Two had ventured too far forward of the platoon’s position. They vanished in an instant in a volley of enemy surface to air missiles. Since then the brigade commander had decided to save his remaining helicopters. There had been limited fixed wing air support. Several hours before, the word had come across the net that friendly close air support (CAS) was inbound shortly. It seemed like only moments later a flurry of distant missile contrails from the enemy’s slide of the lines had filled the air. Clearly, the enemy’s air defenses were thick. They wanted to break apart the Americans’ air-land team. Surface to air missiles were the best way to do that. A few CAS strikes had given moments of respite. He was thankful for that limited air support, but it wasn’t like the past he remembers when a tight situation almost always brought a friendly aircraft to make it go away. He had seen enemy aircraft skimming the treetops in the distance. The brigade’s air defenders had generally kept the manned enemy air at bay. They had less success with the UAVs. Air defense had made the skies a virtual no man’s land.

Farmer shocked himself thinking how grateful he was that the brigade’s air defenders knew their business. “Duck hunters, who knew they could be so important,” Farmer laughed to himself. Farmer was an old enough soldier to have a sense of what was going on. They were isolated, almost fixed in place, unable to maneuver. The enemy was still unwilling to test the strength of American direct fire. But that would not last. Eventually, after enough artillery, and once the Americans had burned more fuel, when the drones had identified most of the American positions, the enemy’s land forces would emerge and try to overwhelm them.

031440LAUG21, Combatant Command Cyber Headquarters

Staff Sergeant Karen George looked up from her boredom and started to pay attention when the briefer said most of the friendly network was down. As an Air Force offensive cyber expert, she generally found these status updates a waste of time––“blah, blah, blah . . . all systems green . . .blah, blah, blah.” This time, instead of a dull drone, she heard barely controlled panic. Now alert, George, listened more intently. “Large scale distributed denial of service attack” ... “multiple vectors crippling the network…” Someone who knew what they were doing was on the other side. Instinctively, she admired their skill. If things were this serious, she told herself, her team might finally get to use some of their tools. Until now their rules had been so restrictive they couldn’t do anything. But, if the enemy was doing everything the briefer described, everyone above her who was always worried about the right authorities, whether they would leave detectable traces or cause collateral damage, might grow some courage and let them loose.

She could only hope. The recon was done. They had meticulously mapped the enemy network’s vulnerabilities. Her mind started racing. If things got really intense, it could be the greatest worm hack ever. When she thought about hacking, she still thought of herself as warm, her old hacker handle—too bad she would never be able to brag about any hacks they did—stupid security regulations and everything. The adrenaline started to kick in. This could get good.

031554AUG21L, 1234 North Latitude, 4567 West Longitude, aboard USS Nimitz, Carrier Strike Group 8, moving west

USS Nimitz

USS Nimitz

Rear Admiral Bill Forester scowled. He felt like his Carrier Strike Group (CSG) was nearly deaf and functionally mute. He had very little communications with either the Maritime Operations Center or the Combatant Command headquarters. The CSG’s communications had been reduced to rudimentary High Frequency (HF) and Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio links and barely readable phone patches. The satellite links his carrier strike group depended on for communications, weather forecasting, and space-based reconnaissance were suddenly so limited as to be almost unusable. He and his fleet were nearly isolated; steaming alone in the ocean like it was World War II. The sudden loss of much of their communications capabilities had the strike group on edge, alert for potential threats. Normally, the detachment from higher command would bring him comfort, but given the circumstances, the unknown gnawed at him. He knew the fleet with its attached Marine expeditionary unit was rapidly approaching the effective range of the enemy’s anti-ship ballistic missiles. Was the nation at war? He suspected so, but did not know for certain. He commanded an impressive array of naval power, but lacked enough information to know where or whether to apply it.

Intelligence had warned that a coordinated enemy attack using cyber, communications jamming, and targeting critical American space assets might result in widespread and persistent communication difficulties. Instinctively, Forester had been skeptical. Now he thought he was living that nightmare. Forester knew he had the only carrier strike group in the theater. It was too precious to risk in the complete unknown, and the information coming over HF wasn’t enough yet. Forester prided himself on his aggressiveness—like any good naval aviator and a fighter pilot at that. Now he thought it might be time for caution—play the waiting game; let the situation develop until more information was available. Aircraft carriers were hard to replace—he could only risk it at the right moment.

Instinctively, he wanted to embrace Navy tradition, damn the torpedoes and charge ahead. Yet, he knew that was not his role, not in this fight. There was a chance that he was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. He had to preserve his fleet, synch his actions with the rest of the joint force. Together they would win with their combined efforts. He shocked himself thinking the Navy might no longer have complete command of the sea––the unknown threatened over the horizon.

“XO, order the group to come about. We cannot enter missile range until we have a better idea what’s out there. And dammit, we have to be able to communicate more effectively!”

The carrier strike group slowly turned to the east, away from danger. As the group’s ships cut through the water, they moved further away from a raging land battle.

032345AUG21L, Aloft, F-35 flying east

Major Jennifer “Speed” Sakamoto keyed the mic and made sure her wingman was still there. The call sign sounded cool but it really came from a reckless driving ticket as a lieutenant and a superior who told her to keep the speed in the cockpit. Damn, Speed thought––that had gone to shit faster than expected.

The intent had been to drive a wedge in the enemy’s anti-access/area denial umbrella. They needed to expand the bubble of American air superiority well beyond the straits to allow the carrier strike group’s freedom of maneuver. To accomplish that, the coalition forces air component commander (CFACC) had planned a series of strikes on suspected enemy air defense radar sites and land based anti ship ballistic missile radars that allowed effective surveillance of the strait. The strike also planned to target as many of the mobile surface to air missile (SAM) launchers as had been identified or were forced to reveal themselves under the pressure of the attack.

At first things had seemed to be going well. They hit several of their targets. However, the enemy’s mastery of deception and spoofing quickly revealed itself. Many of the targets turned out to be fake, mock-ups left behind when the real equipment moved. Spoofed radar locations got missiles that found no useful target. Just as they were starting to realize that, the enemy sprang an ambush. A well-targeted missile forced the AWACS to break station and give up positive, and radar directed control. The friction caused the fight to slip out of control. Flight leads continued as best they could with their own radar direction. Jamming, a cluttered and constantly changing radar picture, and clouds of SAMS turned the flight chaotic, almost uncontrolled. Unable to press home the attack decisively, they broke off––and ran into another SAMS ambush positioned to interdict a possible exfiltration route. It was hard to tell what the losses had been.

Speed reassured herself that they had done some real damage, but the enemy clearly knew how to contest air control from the ground––if not win it outright. Now time to hit the tanker, return to base, and start figuring out what to do next.

040517AUG21L, Combatant Command Headquarters

Williamson absorbed everything that Admiral Jones told him. Despite the badly degraded communications, it was clear that the enemy had succeeded in fracturing the American military system. Air was contested throughout the theater. The enemy had nearly crippled US communications by a combination of jamming, cyber-attacks on computer networks, and the destruction of a critical US communications satellite. Williamson did not have an accurate naval picture. He feared possible ship losses to anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles. He did not know whether they still had control of the sea-lanes. Army and Marine units ashore and forward Air Force units were isolated and sustaining bombardment. The enemy’s robust air defenses prevented most friendly air support and interdiction efforts throughout the theater. Scattered reports suggested that enemy artillery was having devastating effects. Friendly air and ballistic missile defense was either at its capacity or completely overwhelmed. It would take some more time before counterattacks would roll back the enemy’s air defenses and enable both air support and interdiction efforts more broadly.

So far everyone was mostly fighting only in his or her own element...

So far everyone was mostly fighting only in his or her own element. Williamson knew he had to reverse that quickly. He needed to find ways to fully converge air, land, sea and cyber capabilities so that he had the initiative somewhere—at least temporarily. If he could get the separate pieces focused on one objective, to create a window somewhere, at sea, on land, or in the air, even for a brief time, he could start regaining the initiative.

Williamson gave some rapid instructions to Jones, the Combatant Command Chief of Operations, and the other staff members assembled. Despite the fact that the war was barely 24 hours old, they had to stop reacting to the enemy. They needed to restore freedom of action. The first step was to regain use of the cyber realm and greater ability to communicate. Once they were confident in effective communications with subordinate units, it was time to converge domains. The purpose was clear—gain a window of air superiority and sea control to allow reinforcements and supplies to reach land. Get the carrier strike group and the Marine expeditionary unit, followed by logistical resupply, through the region’s critical chokepoints and in position to reinforce. For now these were the most critical things to accomplish. Ultimately, he needed that window of control. But he knew it was going to take air and land forces and some hard work by the cyber folks to give him that window. Once that was done he could focus on a counterattack on land.

After several hours his staff gave General Williamson a hurried update. Brigadier General Kristen O’Malley, the Director of Intelligence, delivered a quick but thorough recap of what hours of detective work had gleaned on the enemy’s disposition and the thrust of their operations.

Speaking rapidly, O’Malley reported, “the enemy’s main effort seems to be attacks on US communications. They want to blind us, break us apart, and fight us in isolated bits. So far they are succeeding. They are employing communications and GPS jamming, as well as distributed denial of service network attacks very effectively. We do not have a clear picture of what is going on in space at this point. We do know we do not have the full use of satellite communications and reconnaissance, and where we do, we cannot quickly access that intelligence.” O’Malley paused to let these startling facts sink in.

“Enemy attacks on our communications are not our only problem. As we feared, the enemy has an even more robust air defense system than we templated.” Jones quickly added that US efforts to pierce the enemy’s anti-access/area denial bubble had been less successful than anticipated––with greater than expected losses.

O’Malley began speaking again, the staccato of her New England accent highlighting the deft ways the enemy had linked cyber, long-range surface-to-surface missiles and massed artillery, robust, multi-layered air defense, jamming, special operations attacks and even early indicators of social media misinformation claiming wanton civilian casualties, to seize the initiative. Her briefing on the multi-screen situation map clearly displayed the overlapping and mutually supporting air, sea, space, cyber, and land components of the enemy’s operations.

Continued in Part II - Counterattack

Mark A. Olsen is an Army officer currently serving as a strategist on the TRADOC Commander’s Planning Group. He is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies and is completing a PhD in history at Rice University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense. 

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Header image: Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) | Business Insider


[1] THAAD is a missile defense system designed to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

[2] A near-precision GPS capable guided bomb.

[3] For US military symbols, friendly unit locations are depicted on maps with blue rectangles and enemy units are shown with red diamonds. If the enemy unit’s location is suspected but not definitely known the outside line of its symbol is dashed.

[4] A military navigation and messaging system that show friendly unit locations, enemy unit locations if known and allows group chats, email messages etc