Sustaining the multi-domain battle

‘Multi-domain battle’ is the topic of the moment amongst land force (Army and Marine) concept writers in a number of Western armies.  ‘Multi-domain battle’ is an evolution of joint warfare which exploits the capacity of domain ‘owners’ (land, sea, air and now space and cyber) to synchronise their operations. However, multi-domain battle has also emerged as the consequence of new technologies which increasingly enable domain ‘owners’ to influence outcomes in other domains. For example, with new computing and sensor capabilities, long-range precision strike weapons and other capabilities, land forces find themselves able to create opportunities for the joint force, rather than being a recipient of assistance in a joint fight. Secondly, multi-domain battle also comes with the development of capabilities that can integrate effectively across the domains to better the queueing of combat power onto an adversary. For example, if every vehicle, aircraft and ship is considered a sensor in this version of ‘hyper war’, operating in unison through modernised command and control systems, the greatly improved ability of militaries to detect and utilise joint fires promises to fundamentally change the way the force fights.

However, technological reasons are not the only reason that multi-domain battle exists as a concept, nor are they necessarily why Armies are so interested in promoting it. With near-peer conflict an increasing possibility, and with the proliferation of precision rocketry, a flourishing debate on operations within an ‘anti-access, aerial-denial’ (A2AD) environment forced Western militaries to reconsider their concepts. Initial responses such as ‘Air-Sea Battle’ gained broad interest, but as concept writers realised that such stand-off strategies gave the enemy the operational initiative, an expectation that land forces would be required to operate in ‘the keep-out zone’ became evident. Furthermore, it was also realised that A2AD zones could be penetrated and defeated by land forces, and integrated with the effects provided from other domain ‘owners’, A2AD could be systemically defeated. To do this land forces would operate in a dispersed fashion, exploiting brief periods of ‘domain superiority’ to ultimately defeat the adversary.

1991_mlrs
Photo by Stars and Stripes – Multiple-Launch Rocket System attack in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War

Despite the contention that exists with the concept as a whole, multi-domain battle poses a variety of intellectual challenges for those interested in the methods to sustain it. Multi-domain battle may have emerged from the conceptual ether only recently, but many of the logistical challenges the concept poses are familiar ones. However, as sustainment and capability plans slowly coalesce from the efforts of concept developers, tested through a variety of experiments and exercises conducted over the last year, the magnitude of these challenges is becoming evident. Assumptions are increasingly being challenged in land forces with commensurate changes underway with respect to logistics forces, but there is a convincing case for a greater transformation to be undertaken.

In most Western militaries, and for reasons of efficiency, operational logistics has been at the forefront of modern jointery. The improved integration of effects envisaged under multi-domain battle only supports the further progression to joint methods of movement and sustainment. The current epoch of thinking on logistics demands adaptive yet efficient supply chains, and emphases joint management of process so to prevent the ‘snowballing’ of logistic forces required in theatre. To maintain a high volume of supply to whichever domain owner might have the lead at any one time will depend upon effective information systems as capable as those which support the synchronisation of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and joint fires.

Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons worth exploring in detail another time, militaries have had a mixed track record of success in establishing such efficient supply chains in operations, or in introducing the logistics information systems required to coordinate them. Ideas such as ‘distribution-based logistics’ in support of major combat operations haven’t always led to effective operational outcomes, and logistics information systems programs are often a soft target for cost-cutting and it is rare they are introduced as originally intended. This has to change if multi-domain battle is to be sustained effectively.

In terms of improved ‘jointery’, the multi-domain battle concept is likely to require military Services to rethink who might do what to whom at the tactical level. Dispersal could very well result forces in one Service sustaining another; a practice which, historically speaking, occurs frequently. Domain owners should not necessarily abandon their own integral logistic capabilities to create permanent joint arrangements, but it should require them to train and prepare with this outcome in mind. This problem may be of less a concern for forces such as the United States Marine Corps whose force structure and recent concepts such as ‘Expeditionary Advanced Bases’ inherently achieve a joint effect at the tactical level. But for others, the thought of a combat unit receiving logistic support from another Service might exposes institutional shibboleths that shouldn’t be tolerated.

operation-tor-ghar-iv-9
Photo by Australian Department of Defence – Operation Tor Ghar 4 (2010), Afghanistan

The most significant land-force logistic challenges to multi-domain battle are, without a doubt, those that emerge as the consequence of land forces operating within the A2AD zone. Without repeating these well-known challenges in detail, to sustain dispersed combat forces for transitory periods in highly-lethal environments requires a lot from logistics elements. Logistics forces are seen to have to be able to hide alongside the combat forces, with an ability to move with speed and to disperse and coalesce when and where support is required. These are not small challenges to overcome; operating in a highly complex and ever-changing distribution network poses major risks when to move is to invite detection, and detection to lead to destruction. Efficiencies gained through economies of scale offered by bases, fixed supply points and routine logistic traffic will be lost as logistics elements are spread thin. A fine balance of logistics capabilities close to dispersed combat forces must be achieved to ensure they do not become a liability on manoeuvre, or at its worst, indicate to an enemy – or become themselves – a target.

Despite the concepts such as sea-basing that aspire to avoid the tactical challenge of logistics in the A2AD zone, and with every attempt being made to disperse logistics forces forwards, logisticians will have to remain prepared to operate in fear of the ‘artillery barrage’. Battlefields will be as complicated and complex for logisiticians to negotiate as they have ever been. Interdiction will be commonplace and at times impossible to counter with active measures. Forward operating bases will require a combination of defensive measures, such as anti-air weaponry and surveillance capabilities, forming vital but semi-secure nodes from which combat forces will be sustained. Proximity to logistics bases will determine sustainability, rather than the typical methods of sustainment armies currently learn through doctrine. Just as the ideas of ‘supporting’ and ‘supported’ might apply to joint fires in multi-domain battle, so too might this control method be applied to logistics.

The importance of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance picture to logistics movement  into the combat zone will be vital so to exploit gaps in the battle, and to reduce the distance combat forces will be required to move in order to be sustained. The dispersal of these combat forces will mean logistics elements will be required to take greater responsibility for self-protection than has been experienced on recent operations. However, and as described above, this will have to be conducted in a way so to keep the logistic footprint small and a difficult to detect as is practicably possible. Noting this, any discussion on logistic footprint must come second to the requirement for the distribution network to be survivable and with inbuilt redundancy; a requirement that may, in a battlefield irony, necessitate larger forward logistics elements. Staging bases may become the castles of the future, defensive stations essential to projecting power into an adjacent contested area.

Multi-domain battle is thought to be the best opportunity for land forces to succeed in contemporary warfare. This is all the reason that is required for logisticians to start exploring the topic with diligence and detail. As the concept is developed further, I believe that the importance of logistics to its successful execution at the tactical level will only become more and more evident. So too in increasing importance will be new technologies (yet another topic for later) which promise to offer options for operating in this environment, and are well worth the detailed consideration they are being given. However, until these technologies are introduced successfully, the problems of sustaining multi-domain battle will rest firmly in the realm of experimentation and exercising, concept development, and in doctrine. After all of this study and concept writing, multi-domain battle might simply prove to be little more than an intellectual diversion. However, understanding the concept and the context in which it has been developed better prepares the logistician, if not land forces in general, for the possibilities of the wars of the future.

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6 thoughts on “Sustaining the multi-domain battle”

  1. This isn’t new, but we haven’t practised this kind of log conops much in the last two decades. .. Protected trucks from L121 and SA from L75/200 will be key to enabling this as we mash it back into our training and exercise program.

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    1. Keirin, thanks for taking the time to comment. It has been a broad consensus in the feedback received that yes, this concept isn’t new. The technology is, but the principles behind its use may not be. I also completely agree with your point with respect to the recent experiences of war. If the MDB concept does anything, it will realign land forces to something they haven’t necessarily practiced in quite some time. DB

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  2. It seems tome the entire ‘multi-domain battle’ is a ‘newspeak’ invented to obfuscate the lack of solutions to the anti-access and area denial problem. Moreover, there is an organisational denial within the US Army that it is in fact a ground strategic element of a maritime state, and therefore needs to be enabled for RAPID deployment by sea lift. Currently, this is not available, and the US Army is NOT a ‘joint’ force because only two of its divisions are slated for Joint Force integration, 82nd and 101st, by air lift. These divisions are however facing increasing challenges in “getting boots on the ground” and are essentially light and not very mobile force structures when are on the ground. This is apparently due to the inter-service ‘turf’ ‘agreement’ with the USMC, but the USMC is not a strategic force, having only tactical fleet elements generally available on short notice employment to AOs. Sea-basing and prepositioned stocks are not solutions either, even with the new MLP/ESD hulls. These still require vulnerable functional interfaces, or worse, functioning and permissive shore distribution facilities.

    From this perspective, the Australian Army cannot learn anything from the Americans because it doesn’t have the resources, and there is not a ‘marine corps’. The Australian Army needs to develop an own concept of expeditiously deploying a force structure with strategic combat power enough to produce strategic effects, and do so affordably. It will mean reinventing the force as a whole, or at least the 1st Division and associated Forces support brigades. It means finding a way for a ‘featherweight’ to be capable of delivering a ‘king hit’ on any future regional opponent. It is what military commentators in the past have called Revolution in Military Affairs.

    The challenge for logistics here is that tried and true methods and doctrines will not apply in this new deployment doctrine. Conventional logistics just don’t work fast enough. In fact, I would suggests that the ‘conventional’ expeditionary force structures would need to adopt techniques and methodologies practiced by the SOF, i.e. packing heavy and fighting light to return to the discarded packs when needed. In this concept, logisticians become far more integrated into the combat force structure, becoming organic down to maybe even platoon/battery/troop. But, this is nothing new since logisticians have fought as frontline troops when needed in wars going back to their professionalisation in the Napoleonic era.
    In a sense, the future expeditionary forces of maritime states like Australia will cut their tether to conventional logistic ‘tail’, but the ‘tail’ will become even more a part of the muscles and sinews of war then ever before.

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  3. Rather than posing a challenge to be viewed in the negative, MDB can provide an opportunity for log elements to jettison our constraining ideas and doctrines. Therr will be an opportunity to exploit new domains in unconventional ways to deliver an effect. An example is 3D printed nutrition bars tailored to an individual requirements. 3D printing can also be used for certain parts and other stores. Combine this with unmanned delivery vehicles and we can reduce the number of humans in the Contested area. Did we use unmanned vehicles we can reduce the requirements for protection in turn reducing the vehicles size and weight meaning that we can fit more vehicles or more payload alongside them on our ships and aircraft which in turn reduces the strategic lift requirement for our in theatre logelements. None of this is possible if we continue to try proceed with a business as usual mentality.

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