Experimentation: The Road to Discovery

 Tom Greenwood and Jim Greer

In most cases of peacetime military innovation, technological developments played an enabling or facilitating role in precipitating fundamentally new and more effective ways of fighting. In a narrow and specific sense, such innovative developments were revolutionary. Yet the underlying technologies themselves (the internal combustion engine, radio communications, radar etc.) as well as the new military systems to which they gave birth (airplanes, tanks, amphibious landing craft, aircraft carriers, radar and so forth), formed only a part of these innovations, if not the smallest part…(Countries) still had to integrate advanced weapons systems with appropriate tactics, operational concepts and doctrines in order to realize the full potential of new ways of fighting. There was nothing inevitable about the outcomes.

—Barry Watts and Williamson Murray in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period

After 16 years of waging counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against terrorists and insurgents, the U.S. national strategy is increasingly undermined and even threatened by what has been termed the 4+1. The 4+1 threats are Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, plus the threat of violent extremist organizations and their innovative, information-led strategies that include “little green men,” “grey zone confrontations,” and even threats of nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland. The nature of these threats is such that the joint force is re-focusing its thinking on how best to fight high-end competitors employing complex or hybrid mixes of capabilities and strategies. To counter such threats, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have collaborated in drafting, but have not yet agreed upon, a multi-domain battle concept, which comprises air, land, sea, space, and cyber. As often happens when services collaborate on concepts, a consensus is slow to emerge. To date, the Army has published its 1.0 version of the Multi-Domain Battle concept and incorporated some aspects in the newly published, FM 3-0, Operations, while the Marine Corps continues to examine cross-domain operations under its Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations construct. Experimentation with emerging cross-domain concepts such as Multi-Domain Battle should be informed by and inform key service, joint, and multinational stakeholders.

Even as Multi-Domain Battle is being integrated into doctrine such as the Army’s new FM 3-0, Operations, Generals Mark A. Milley and Robert Neller—the respective Army and Marine Corps service chiefs––are fully aware that new concepts must be rigorously scrutinized through extensive wargaming and experimentation to validate their feasibility.[1] Thus, the U.S. Army is spearheading a multi-year experimentation campaign to assess if Multi-Domain Battle is a viable concept for addressing 21st-century security threats.[2]

Developing, validating, and ultimately implementing warfighting concepts is extremely challenging for any military service. Historically, not every concept has been successfully implemented, as previous failures with the Pentomic Division, Active Defense, Rapid Decisive Operations, Effects Based Operations, and Air Sea Battle demonstrated. These examples suggest we should steel ourselves for setbacks, disappointments, and failures. One way to hedge against potential setbacks and to increase the probability of success is to involve at the outset a broad array of stakeholders in the experimentation process.

The Army, seeking to move beyond the counterinsurgency and Unified Land Operations doctrines, has embraced Multi-Domain Battle as a coherent warfighting concept that employs lethal and survivable combat formations in full-spectrum operations to prevail against potential adversaries. While the U.S. military remains the pre-eminent global force, U.S. dominance on land, sea, and in the air has eroded. Potential adversaries have made enormous strides in modernizing their forces and their ability to find, fix, and engage U.S. power projection forces away from the U.S. homeland. This threatens to reduce America’s future freedom of action and to increase risk to unacceptable levels. The relative changes in capabilities between the joint services and the 4+1 threats lead the Army to believe that Multi-Domain Battle, or some other new concept, is necessary for the future force.

While Multi-Domain Battle represents a potential “leap ahead” warfighting approach, the United States must be careful not to create a new capability gap with its partners or degrade interoperability that it has spent decades developing.

The upcoming experiments, such as the Multi-Domain Task Force created by U.S. Army Pacific and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Unified Quest 18, will allow the Army to test Multi-Domain Battle overall utility through multi-domain task forces––newly created land-based formations of unspecified size that are capable of cross-domain operations.[3] Such experimentation can explore how to defeat anti-access/area denial strategies over contested operating areas to deter future adversaries and to create opportunities. These multi-domain task forces could increase the persistent overseas peacetime presence of U.S. forces during the competition phase short of conflict and after hostilities commence. But for the multi-domain task forces to be effective, they must demonstrate that they are survivable against enemy multi-domain attacks: they must be composed of stealthy and highly mobile forces that can hide, stay light, and remain agile or they must occupy hardened positions, which will likely require significant investment in fixed infrastructure that some partner nations may not welcome.

Upcoming experiments could help illuminate the trade-offs required by U.S. Army multi-domain task forces in terms of lethality and survivability (force protection) and whether the desired degree of persistence (forward presence) appreciably advances a joint force commander’s campaign plan at a sustainable cost in manpower, resources, and alliance relations. Additionally, the insights gleaned from the experiments should help the Army determine what changes may be required to service doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leaders, people, and facilities as the Army tailors multi-domain task forces for employment in disparate theaters with unique and demanding requirements.

Although the Army is leading the Multi-Domain Battle wargaming and experimentation campaign, the outcome will depend on successfully incorporating four additional stakeholders. First is the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, and the Joint Staff, who are responsible for “formulating policies for concept development and experimentation for the joint employment of the armed forces…identifying new joint military capabilities based on advances in technology and concepts of operation needed to maintain the technological and operational superiority of the armed forces; and recommending investments and experiments in such capabilities to the Secretary.”[4] The Chairman and his staff are trying to leverage “bottom-up” service-led experimentation that focuses primarily on niche warfighting capabilities before grappling with thorny joint and multi-service actions required for successful cross-domain operations. This approach could make the integration of joint priorities into future experiments problematic.

Will warfighting capabilities become organic to the multi-domain task force structure—making the task force more joint than U.S. Army-centric?

The current experimental design for upcoming Joint Warfighting Assessments 18.1 and 19.1 has the services shouldering most of the effort, with limited participation from flag officers and their staffs serving at joint commands who could provide rich insights into Multi-Domain Battle’s theater-wide implications at the operational and strategic levels. Their real-world experience could also help illuminate the optimum organization for joint headquarters that may conduct Multi-Domain Battle operations. Experimentation can inform what, if any, additional changes may be necessary to streamline traditional post-Cold War-era relationships between geographic and functional commands. Ultimately, Multi-Domain Battle, like any service (or in this case, two-service) concept, will require a joint sponsor, so the Chairman and the Joint Staff’s participation in the concept development process are essential to progress.[5]

The Air Force, Navy, and Marines are the second group of critical stakeholders who will be active participants (to varying degrees) in the upcoming experiments. As the warfighting experts in their respective mission domains––air, sea, and the littorals––the Army’s sister services rightfully believe they bring critical capabilities to Multi-Domain Battle. But, will their capabilities become organic to the multi-domain task force structure—making the task force more joint than U.S. Army-centric? To what degree will multi-domain task force commanders be able to leverage Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps assets presently forward deployed/forward based overseas to create the desired effects? Will a laborious and time-consuming request for forces process be necessary before these assets are placed at the disposal of multi-domain task force commanders or will they be permanently “on-call”?

Special operations forces and the Department of Defense interagency partners are the third group of stakeholders that should participate in the upcoming Multi-Domain Battle experiments. Both provide unique capabilities and have sizeable numbers of personnel operating overseas during peacetime in areas where future multi-domain task forces might be deployed and employed. Determining the optimum relationships among special operations forces, interagency actors, and multi-domain task forces will be important and help determine if the former can feasibly serve as enablers and advance party elements before the task forces begin arriving in theater. More importantly, given the Multi-Domain Battle emphasis on a competition phase short of conflict, these elements may play more substantive roles in helping execute cyber, information, and unconventional activities.[6] For example, theater-wide deception plans undertaken to mask real task force footprints with ghost signatures might necessitate that these elements discharge an enduring and clandestine role beyond their traditional security cooperation and “white world” U.S. embassy functions.

Finally, integrating U.S. partners, and allies into the Multi-Domain Battle concept deserves to be examined in detail during the upcoming experiments because this last group of stakeholders might, ultimately, be the most important. While Multi-Domain Battle represents a potential “leap ahead” warfighting approach, the United States must be careful not to create a new capability gap with its partners or degrade interoperability that it has spent decades developing. Moreover, without basing, overflight rights, and the support of partner nation populations—it is difficult to conceive how multi-domain task forces can be operationalized in the Pacific and elsewhere. Avoiding a “Yankee go home” backlash seems fairly obvious. However, less clear may be the inherent advantages to be accrued from “internationalizing” or organizing multi-domain task forces as coalition formations––a mosaic of civil-military networked enterprises––that are regionally based to resist anti-western hegemony.

Obviously, no single experiment, wargame or tabletop exercise can delve into all of Multi-Domain Battle’s nuanced dimensions. That is why each of the four key stakeholder groups discussed here must view the upcoming Joint Warfighting Assessments as “voyages of discovery” to be undertaken as part of a multi-year campaign. Moreover, it is imperative that stakeholders become involved at the beginning of the experimentation process so they can benefit from the collective learning that will occur as the Multi-Domain Battle concept is refined and strengthened or as a new path is blazed toward a more effective and enduring warfighting concept.

Tom Greenwood is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, Research Analyst at the Institute for Defense Analysis, and a former Director of Strategic Planning at the National Security Council. Jim Greer is a retired U.S. Army officer, Adjunct Researcher at the Institute for Defense Analysis, and a former Director of the School of Advanced Military Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of ALIS, Inc., the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Artwork from General David Perkins' TRADOC News Center commentary, dated September 5, 2017 (TRADOC)


[1] See Kevin Woods and Tom Greenwood’s article, “Multi-Domain Battle: Time for a Campaign of Joint Experimentation,” Joint Forces Quarterly (Jan 2018).

[2] Brown, B. (2017). The Indo-Asia Pacific and the Multi-Domain Battle Concept. Military Review. (Sep-Oct 2017)

[3] Perkins, D. (2017). Multi-Domain Battle: The Advent of 21st Century War. Military Review. (Nov-Dec 2017).

[4] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3010.02E, Guidance for Developing and Implementing Joint Concepts, August 17, 2016.

[5] The Joint Staff conducts wargames termed Global Integrated Exercises, but these events are less about trying to develop through experimentation optimum joint warfighting concepts for the 2035–50 timeframe than they are about addressing near-term threats that could impact multiple combatant commands.

[6] Lundy, M. and Creed, R. (2017). The Return of U.S. Army Field Manual 3-0, Operations in Military Review. Nov/Dec 17. Downloaded February 9, 2018 at http://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/November-December-2017/The-Return-of-US-Army-Field-Manual-3-0-Operations/