Multi-domain battle: how the US can get its battlefield supremacy back

Multi-domain battle: how the US can get its battlefield supremacy back

Air Force Gen. James Holmes speaks Thursday on how the services must work together to regain U.S. battlefield superiority. (Tom Squitieri/TMN)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military’s shift from traditional inter-state warfare to more than a decade of counter-terrrorism has given rivals like Russia and China the opportunity to catch up and reduce America’s one-time dominant warfare supremacy, the commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command said Thursday.

“Our adversaries kept thinking and working,” Gen. James Holmes said. He said China and Russia have “developed specific things” to offset U.S. weapons and tactics, as well as innovating unique platforms for their forces that the U.S. must now counter.
“It is time to reset the advantage,” Holmes said in remarks to The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington.

Holmes’ comments reflected those made last week by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who warned about America’s eroding military supremacy as he outlined the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy.

Holmes focused on the concert of multi-domain battle spaces, an evolving theory of ensuring that all branches of the military function as one regardless of where and how the fight is taking place. That theory is anchored on converging concepts toward a joint solution.

Coordination between services like the Army and Air Force has become more critical with time as well confronting problems presented by the growing varied abilities of different adversaries. Some of these solutions are likely to include decentralization of battlespace decision-making, in ways that will allow individuals to make calls on their own in environments that may remain more contested than in the past, Holmes said.

He said the U.S. first successfully implemented that concept in the 1991 Gulf War, took lessons from that conflict, and refined and enhanced that doctrine for the 2003 Iraq war.

“We demonstrated conventional supremacy,” Holmes said. “That might have been the high point. We were without a peer at that moment.”

That no longer is the case.

Multi-domain warfare is “where the rules change” and “there are no boundaries on the battlefield, no hiding places, no sanctuaries,” Holmes said. What once was a finite game is now an infinite game, he said

“Both sides see everything and know everything,” Holmes said. The winner will be the side that drives the initiative, he said.

In order to keep pace with rivals and then exceed them once again will require Congress, the Pentagon and those who work with them to move faster and make quick evolutionary changes to existing systems, Holmes said.

“Things change very fast and it is unlikely we will have (a new strategy) that will last for 30 years, “ he said. “There will be new vulnerabilities that we will have to address.”

He said there are three must-haves in multi-domain fighting: a live picture of the battlefield to get the information that commanders need; battle management tools to analyze data in real time, and resilient communications.

That includes protection assets in space, which are vital to military operations on Earth.

U.S. military doctrine presumes foes will use cyber and electronic weapons to attack American satellites and communications systems, specifically Russia and China, which are ready to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities in cyber and outer space.

Developing and deploying more resilient communications and space systems are among the Air Force’s top priorities, he said.

“A day without space is a really bad day for the people in Air Combat Command when they go to the battlefield,” Holmes said. said. “But a day without conventional terrestrial forces will also be a very bad day for space because many of the primary threats to space systems are launched from the ground.”

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