Fight, Survive, Win — Imagining Multi-Domain Battle

Part II  Counterattack

This is a continuation of a fictional scenario begun in Part I - Attack.

040543AUG21L, Combatant Command Headquarters

Next, Jones spoke. He described the plan to regain the initiative.

Everything was in place. While the US and allied forces were still struggling to fully defeat enemy denial of service attacks, they had been able to communicate in short bursts with subordinate units. The plan was set. Land-based long-range missiles would initiate the attack by destroying enemy sea based jammers. At the same time, a manned-unmanned teaming attack, combining stealthy Air Force UAVs for targeting and Army long range missiles, would pinpoint and destroy the enemy’s air defense nodes to begin to regain contested airspace. Simultaneously, other manned-unmanned teaming attacks would also target mobile anti-ship ballistic missiles. Land forces would counterattack to break out of their fixed positions. The intent for that attack was clear—bypass everything else, find and destroy enemy air defense artillery, surface-to-air missile, and counter-maritime systems. The combined effects of air, land, and sea power would create a window during which time the enemy could not target US maritime forces as they transited key choke points. The key was to knock out the enemy’s missile capabilities and suppress enough of the air defense system. That would allow US airpower to establish a degree of superiority as cover to naval forces and the cargo ships bringing the supplies needed to continue the fight. A window of sea control gained by the combined efforts of all US and allied forces would continue efforts to regain the initiative.

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets take off from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier | Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez, US Navy

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets take off from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier | Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez, US Navy

Williamson spoke forcefully. “We are fragmented. We cannot regain control of everything at once. We are focusing everything we have at the moment to regain air superiority and control of the sea-lanes to allow the Nimitz strike group to maneuver freely. That will allow us to reinforce where needed. With temporary control of the sea and the reinforcements that we can land from the sea, we are in position to shift our focus to regaining the full initiative on the land.” He sensed the increasing stress, even shock filtering across his staff — all battle tested professionals who knew intellectually that the enemy had new, dangerous capabilities that made this a different fight than what they had experienced before. Still knowing and confronting in action were starkly different.

He spoke as much as anything to reassure, to bolster the confidence he knew everyone needed to make their plan work:

My intent for everyone should be clear. Communications will remain contested. That will be an enduring characteristic of this fight. Get the order out. Confirm receipt. Once that is done expect subordinates to execute. We will not be able control events from this headquarters. Trust those truly fighting to do what must be done. At the same time, everyone must understand the purpose of this phase of the fight is to converge the effects of all our domains to gain and maintain air superiority and open a window of maneuver at sea to allow reinforcements—both troops and logistics—to land. Once that happens we will be in a position to transition to the next phase of operations. We are going to win. We will do the things we must to make that happen.

Around the room heads nodded, staff officers scribbled notes and whispered to each other. As General Williamson stopped speaking, people began scurrying to put the plan into motion.

042005AUG21L, IBP Headquarters, London

Despite the best efforts of the IBP makeup crew, Alistair Gordon-Cooke was starting to look haggard. Even his finely tailored suit was wilting, physical evidence of the hours he had spent on air. Visibly tired, Gordon-Cooke arranged himself in his seat, look at the camera, and gave yet another update:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. IBP continues to have only limited contact with our correspondents in the region. As we previously reported, communications in and out of the conflict zone are occasional at best. Despite these limitations, we can update you with several important developments. As best we can determine, neither side has been able to establish control of the air. We have heard rumors of significant losses to American and allied air forces. Official spokesmen have not confirmed these. Both official websites and social media associated with America’s adversary have claimed that the United States’ air advantage has been blunted, if not effectively destroyed. It is impossible to verify these claims independently. Still if true, this turn of events marks a dramatic departure from previous conflicts, when many have grown used to the United States operating from the air with near impunity.

Gordon-Cooke turned to Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Lindsfield, a retired Royal Navy officer and an IBP defense expert in studio to provide context and help fill air time, and asked, “Admiral, are you surprised at what we know of events to date?”

Lindsfield answered slowly:

“The overall situation is much more confused than many might have assumed. Whether or not claims of destroyed American air power are correct, it is clear that the United States has not been able to establish the same mastery of the air that first appeared in 1991 and has been a central feature of every American conflict since then. As a navy man I will be quite interested in how the confrontation between anti-ship ballistic missiles and American aircraft carriers unfolds. The United States relies on control of the seas to project power and deliver critical logistical support to their and allied forces. If America’s enemies can prevent both the US Air Force and the US Navy from operating freely, the United States will face a strategic environment it has not confronted since the Cold War, or even World War II. Alistair, as you have seen, there are many bold claims of the effectiveness of these new anti-ship missiles. So far they have not played a major role, but they have the potential to be a decisive new weapon. At the same time, the Americans must neutralize them and find a way to gain and exploit control of the seas if they hope to prevail. They are at the end of a very long supply line. Air and sea control allows them to bring their advantages in materiel to bear. Without them, they cannot win.”

051103AUG21L, Combatant Command Cyber Headquarters

“I almost can’t believe they pay me for this,” Staff Sergeant George thought to herself. She was in full worm mode, getting ready to get lost for hours snaking her way into the enemy’s network. Her cyber cell was about to go on the attack. They had a multi-pronged cyber-attack ready to explode. The enemy thought they knew how to execute a denial of service attack—wait to see what was next. They had a virus that would route messages into an endless loop. They had also had a social media deception operation ready to go—it aimed to trick the enemy into thinking US forces were where they were not.

051327LAUG21, Red Field, the principal theater airport

The order had come through in fits and starts. Alvarez thought they had the general concept. He could not tell if they had received everything. Still, the intent was clear: the United States and its allies were counterattacking. A carrier strike group was soon attempting transit of the choke points he was over watching. His battery was central to that plan. It was going to help create a window of air superiority at a critical moment. They had to expect a missile attack. It was coming soon.

He stared at the fire control displayed. His battery had rallied well after the jolt the enemy’s surprise attack inflicted on everyone. Now their training was also grounded in bloody experience. More fully aware of the potential threats than they had ever been, his perimeter security had detected what they thought were the infamous “little green men” attempting surveillance. It could have been nothing, but several bursts of machine gun fire along with even greater alertness by the sentries had quieted things down.

Still shaken by the damage to the battery and the casualties they had suffered, everyone wanted to fire back. As he walked around and talked with his soldiers, he heard the edge in their voices. It was time to get a shot off, and not just with their small arms. Everyone wanted to prove they could defeat the ballistic missile threat.

Sgt. 1st Class Benson Gatchalian raises the launcher of a THAAD unit outside the THAAD Instructional Facility as Sgt. 1st Class Penieli Vaisagote monitors | Clifford Kyle Jones

Sgt. 1st Class Benson Gatchalian raises the launcher of a THAAD unit outside the THAAD Instructional Facility as Sgt. 1st Class Penieli Vaisagote monitors | Clifford Kyle Jones

He snapped his finger and packed another dip. The last couple of days had ended this attempt to quit tobacco. His THAAD battery was one of the enemy’s highest priority targets. At least for the time being tar and nicotine were not the most significant threats to his life, he kept telling himself.

“No targets yet,” Alvarez muttered mostly to himself as he massaged the tobacco in his cheek. The fire control specialist sitting in front of him heard, and whispered back “No, how long will that last?” “Not long, not long. Intelligence says they still have anti-ship ballistic missiles left. They’ll fire. They can’t let us maneuver an entire carrier strike group and a Marine expeditionary unit through the straits and not take their shot. Those missiles are coming.”

A red screen flashed in front of them “Warning, Warning—Missiles inbound” a tinny, soullessly automated voice announced without fanfare––devoid of the sweaty cocktail of nerves and purpose every air defender in the shelter collectively felt.

It was round two for the THAAD battery. This time they were ready to fire.

Alvarez watched, satisfied as his soldiers quickly and efficiently executed their battle drills. Commands rang out, were acknowledged and confirmed. In less than 90 seconds, missiles were leaving launchers.

He and his soldiers watched the respective missile tracks, as they seemed to inch closer together.

Lines on computer screens crossed.

The missile threat to the fleet ceased—at least temporarily.

One key to opening the window was in place.

051647LAUG21, AB1234 5676, 1st Land and Naval Fires Control Detachment

Captain Keith Jones and Commander Steve Allen looked at their joint unit’s situation map as it updated off UAV and Navy E-2D Hawkeye feeds. The naval officer was confident that they had identified the enemy’s ship-based jammers that were disrupting communications. The E-2D provided Navy Cooperative Engagement Capability targeting information to the Army fires battalion allowing effective long-range precision fires from land to target ships at sea.[1] Jones watched as the Army’s anti-ship missiles streaked across the screen. Ship and missile icons intersected and the missiles disappeared. The UAV quickly confirmed multiple burning vessels. The enemy jamming signals disappeared almost as suddenly.

051736LAUG21, FG3456 7687, 8th Battlefield Coordination Detachment

Staff Sergeant Oscar Silva confirmed that they had a good feed from the Air Force UAV. The UAV had been airborne for almost twenty-four hours. Several UAV pilots had cycled through. With the UAV’s long loiter time, Silva, an artillery forward observer, was confident that they had clearly identified the enemy’s long-range air defense. The next target set, anti-ship missile launchers, had also been confirmed. “Sir, we have them. It is time to fire.” Lieutenant Colonel Josh Frederick agreed. The battlefield coordination detachment quickly transmitted the fire mission. The fires battalion processed it in minutes. Seconds ticked and missiles were airborne.

Within an hour the battle damage assessments began coming in—almost all the targets were burning. The enemy’s air defense system was cracking open.

060037LAUG21, Aloft, F-35 strike force

F-35 | US Air Force Photo

F-35 | US Air Force Photo

Speed peered into the night sky, nothing but eerie static echoing in her helmet. Her F-35 was flying in formation. The silence was occasionally shattered by brief commands relayed between the fighters on the F-35’s multifunction advanced data link (MADL), which allowed extremely low power, directional communication between the aircraft in formation. It was virtually undetectable. The squadron was tracing a circuitous route to their objective, attempting to ride the seams in enemy radar coverage to minimize the possibility of being targeted. An AWACS was airborne ready to control the fight. It was much further away from the objective than was optimal, with its radar off. The plan was simple—simple in concept at least. The theater air commander had a tailored strike package that would drive an even deeper wedge in the enemy’s air defense system once surface fires gave them the crack they needed to infiltrate. They were all waiting for a breach in the enemy’s air defense system and the Army was supposed to make that happen. With a deep wedge, the airmen knew they could widen and expand it, winning the air superiority the CSG needed to maneuver freely. A window of air superiority and the position of advantage it gained would open the torrents.

While the strike force flew in near complete silence, a broad deception plan filled the air around them with as much noise as possible. The plan was for the strike force to slip silently through a blizzard of deception jamming and powerful radar signals, undetected until in striking range. Sakamoto longed for the break in radio silence. There were a series of long loiter, low signature communications UAVs flying to fill the gap created by the loss of communications satellites. Once conditions were set the UAVs would begin transmitting. “Doolittle” was the code word to continue with the attack. That single word would keep them bearing down on their targets. They were to remain as silent as possible until at the release point for their attack approach. She stared at her instruments, scanned outside the cockpit for the shadows of her fellow aircraft and waited anxiously. Say “Doolittle” dammit, Sakamoto thought to herself. Say it. The waiting, the unknown was the worst part.

A near whisper broke the silence on the net, reaching through the tethered communication links between the UAVs: “Doolittle.”

Let’s get it on; let’s get it on, Speed told herself.

Air power was getting its chance.

060214LAUG21, RT9876 3498

Burning breach bots marked the hasty lane through the enemy’s defensive obstacles. Sergeant First Class Farmer joked to his crew, “You guys think you’re harder than woodpecker lips, artillery, tanks, red air and everything else, you can’t really be hard with these robots to breach for you. You haven’t lived until you proofed the lane with a mine plow on the front of your tank. Back at the NTC, I can’t tell you how many times I died in the middle of a breach—whoopee lights flashing, lasers flying everywhere….”

Wilson, the gunner, whooped with laughter—“That sounds like hell, Sergeant, killed by MILES gear.”

“It was, it was,” Farmer deadpanned. “Stuck in the middle of the California desert, running out of ice in the cooler, nothing cold to drink—hell I tell you, hell.”

Despite their exhaustion, the crew’s laughter echoed through across the intercom. Attacking was good for morale and a ridiculous joke helped calm everyone down.

Farmer was relieved to be back on the attack. His tank platoon glided over rolling plains. Turrets traversed left and right scanning for targets, although there weren’t supposed to be any threats in the vicinity. After evading artillery and moving nearly constantly, now was a moment to take the fight to the enemy. The battalion was the exploitation force following the breach of the enemy’s hasty obstacles.

As he understood the plan, another battalion was fixing enemy forces near their initial defensive positions. His task was to kill enemy air defense. That was going to be fun—save the main gun rounds for the next phase, coax machine gun and fifty caliber would do the job tonight. They were bypassing all significant resistance to get near the port and the airfield to allow reinforcements to land. Once the air defense ring on the outside was destroyed there would be hard fighting as they cleared the enemy out of the every inch of that port.

A couple hours later, Farmer reported—“Anvil 6, four S-400 destroyed.” “Roger,” came back across the net. The enemy’s air defense had been reduced to heavy machine guns.

Farmer understood his commander’s intent. Don’t stop. Bypass—Pursue. It felt like the bastards were on the run—step on their throat. His tank accelerated into the night scanning as it went.

060329LAUG21, AB1234 5678, USS Nimitz, Carrier Strike Group 8 moving west

With better communications and a clearer picture of the situation, Admiral Forester started to breathe easier. His carrier strike group with attachments had already come about. They were racing forward, intent on taking advantage of the sliver of sea control they had been given to get in position to land reinforcements from the Marine expeditionary unit and usefully employ his air wing. There was still a risk of mines, particularly as they passed through narrow choke points. He was confident that the allied minesweepers ahead were fully capable of dealing with that threat. They were expert at the task and knew these waters well. He was still worried about possible anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles. He knew that those systems had been priority targets for surface-to-surface long-range precision fires. With better communications they now had better intelligence. The reports indicated that the anti-ship missile threat had been mostly neutralized. He hoped so. Even better, his Aegis cruisers, riding shotgun, had not yet fired. If some anti-ship missile system had escaped, they were ready to deal with it. He had both air and surface forces scouting ahead. Even with the risks that remained, there was no time to waste. If they did not run into any unforeseen hazards, they would launch their first offensive airstrike with the rising sun and begin helping land forces with their business.

060713LAUG21, Combatant Command Headquarters

General Williamson was relieved. Communications were now almost acceptable. He had a basic understanding of what was actually going on across his theater. More importantly, he was confident his forces controlled the critical air space and sea-lanes to begin setting conditions for the next phase of the operation. He expected a counterattack, particularly against his communications and other cyber assets. Additionally, he knew the enemy would reposition air defense constantly to continue contesting the theater’s airspace. There was also still tough, close, urban fighting to come. That was why it was imperative to make the most of this window. Get naval forces and, perhaps even more importantly, reinforcements and supplies through the choke points. His tenuous air and sea control gave him a chance to exploit that advantage on land. But the tanks needed fuel. Fuel and more power to the fight—that is what he needed. He was getting ahead of himself, he thought. Focus on now. It’s still not won. Get through the choke points. Use this window.

060832LAUG21, IBP Studio, London

Alistair Gordon-Cooke had managed a nap. He now felt slightly less exhausted. Another anchor had covered the last several hours. With a fresh suit, a coffee, and the help of the talented makeup crew at IBP, he was ready to get back on air. It seemed that the chaos had, perhaps, lessened slightly. Still, he doubted that his role as the narrator of chaotic, distant, destruction would really change.

Gordon-Cooke squinted momentarily as his eyes adjusted to the studio lights. He inserted his earpiece and expected to return to his previous role filling confused airtime. He looked up, almost shocked when the producer told him they had a live feed from Juliette Chang. Looking at the camera, he asked, “Juliette, what can you tell us?”

...they have been able to integrate the effects of cyber, space, sea, air and land power in new ways, which gave them a window of opportunity to regain the initiative.

Chang replied, “Alistair, the situation has changed significantly in the last several hours. While communications are still generally poor, the Americans have allowed us use of their communications infrastructure to file this report. I can tell you from talking with American and allied spokespeople, who previously had nothing to say, they are now confident that the tide is tilting in their direction. Without providing real details, they have said generally that they have been able to integrate the effects of cyber, space, sea, air and land power in new ways, which gave them a window of opportunity to regain the initiative. While they cautioned that much hard fighting remains ahead, they seem confident that these new methods they hinted at will allow them to retain significant advantages.”

Gordon-Cooke, suddenly more animated at having an on scene perspective, asked, “Juliette, what can you tell us about the ‘new methods’ that allowed American and allied forces to create this ‘window of opportunity?’”

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. He 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: US Navy ship.


[1] (CEC) is a sensor network intended to significantly improve air and missile defense capabilities by combining data from multiple air search sensors on CEC-equipped units into a single, real-time, picture. Current versions allow the effective combination of US Navy and Air Force aircraft. A future version might also include US Army long-range precision artillery and missile fires.