The modern slaughters of World Wars I and II are modern demonstrations that when great powers fight symmetrically, the result is costly, even globally catastrophic. While America avoided catastrophe during the Cold War, the potential for great-power conflict and its consequences have returned.
Today, America deters its great-power rivals, Russia and China, from a strategically prudent forward-defensive posture, centered in other nations’ sovereign territory. However, that deterrence and America’s strategic position depend on its ability to respond to attack by near instantaneously accelerating into a relentless offensive war of maneuver and firepower. In that regard, the US Army’s multi-domain operations concept correctly emphasizes offensive action. Still, much work remains if the Army is to assume the offensive at the speed and scale demanded by the intersection of great-power conflict and the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Industrial Revolution that powered those slaughters in last century’s world wars. Absent that, America could face a Hobbesian choice, either yielding to aggression or reversing it through carnage.
Despite the military potential of what the 2018 National Defense Strategy calls “rapid technological advancements” and related trends that have led some to suggest optimizing for the defense, doing so ill advised. History argues against such an approach, as those twentieth-century slaughters illustrate. Further, America’s strategic disposition, that of its allies and great-power rivals, and the “more lethal and disruptive battlefield … [of] increasing speed and reach” that the NDS predicts make that an unlikely path to success. Rather, the United States and particularly its Army must accelerate strategically in its transition from a defense to the offense, and continue that acceleration onward. The race goes to the swift where the winner possesses the initiative. Overcoming adversary advantages and new technologies’ military potential demands American forces accelerate to build the momentum to secure and press the initiative, retaining a relative tempo advantage over our adversaries. The past’s progressive buildup of forces and isolated, near-sequential campaigns for domain superiority will not defeat peer adversaries who themselves are advancing their operations across all potential aspects of warfare.
A Strategic Challenge for the Army, and America
Today’s great-power adversaries—a militarily modernized, resurgent Russia and a rising and increasingly politically, economically, and militarily powerful China—comprehensively challenge the United States. Of fundamental interest to America’s armed forces is the challenge posed by warfare against those states’ large, technologically sophisticated military forces. Unchallenged, those forces enable Russian and Chinese regional and global ambitions, including the pursuit of a military fait accompli, and employment of denial strategies that underpin those ambitions.
The Chinese and Russian militaries pose threats the US military has not faced since World War II nor seen since the Cold War. These challenges are complex and intensified by current and emerging technologies that equalize the fight over the air, maritime, space, cyber, electromagnetic, and information means of war. Chemical, biological, and nuclear threats have returned. The land domain remains contested and once-dominant American armor and counter-armor capabilities are now challenged. While not unfamiliar, the potential of these comprehensive military investments are both enhanced and complemented by adversaries’ embrace of current and emerging technologies. These technology-fueled threats create a conflict environment characterized by expanding dimensions, converging domains, sensor proliferation, increasing weapon ranges, speed, autonomy, lethality, and compressed time horizons. Equally, America’s Russian and Chinese adversaries possess tactical, operational, and strategic depth it has not contemplated since the Warsaw Pact collapsed.
These challenges are further exacerbated by likely adversaries’ geographic proximity to potential crisis points. That proximity is enhanced by their ability to create anti-access and area-denial. Referred to by the US Army as “standoff,” it is a twenty-first-century dilemma that can systemically impede US military deployment and follow-on operations, frustrating its ability to wrest the initiative from an adversary. Not since World War II has the US military faced a serious challenge to its forces assembling. Neither has it fought through parity, much less been disadvantaged, in space, cyber, or the electromagnetic spectrum. It will now. The last several decades of domain dominance—if not supremacy—are at an end.
To counter these adversaries’ ambitions, the Army must contribute to deterrence and, if deterrence fails, win. While solving the problems of standoff and domain parity will contribute to deterrence and victory, new facets emerge. Russia’s incursion into Ukraine created great interest in what has variously been called “hybrid warfare” or “gray zone operations,” and what the National Defense Strategy terms “competition.” In competition, the military must deter military conflict and enable the success of other instruments of power. Here the US Army’s multi-domain operations concept gets it right, noting that “the Joint Force expands the competitive space through active engagement.”
To that end, other agencies lead during competition. The military is in active support, with deterrence its vital contribution. Given great-power conflict’s consequences, the United States is best served when confrontations are confined to competition, not escalating to war. Military deterrence is how America ensures those international struggles remain there.
Discussions on competition often obscure the importance of hard military power to deterrence. For the United States, communicating the existence of power is not the problem. The problem is convincing adversaries that America can project power (forces, capabilities, and impact) where it needs to be, at the speed and scale required before an adversary achieves irreversible progress. Thus, the most important role the US Army can play in competition is to assure deterrence by demonstrating it can project offensive power.
When starting from a defensive posture, how quickly an army can begin offensive operations, seize the initiative, and shift the momentum becomes the measure of victory. As a global power with its military predominantly based in and rotating from the continental United States, military victory depends not on an ability to optimize the defense. Rather, victory will require the military to delay, disrupt, and dislocate an enemy’s initial moves forward, while simultaneously accelerating into a war of movement. As part of multi-domain operations, the US Army gets it right with its emphasis on the offense, while recognizing the importance of the initial defensive actions of forward forces.
However, the Army must complement its offensive focus with speed. The geographic advantages of its adversaries and the technology-fueled speed, lethality, and violence of twenty-first-century warfare demand that the US Army shift rapidly from its defensive posture, meeting an enemy’s first moves to deny the enemy the initiative. As conflict is joined, the Army’s ability to rapidly move to the offensive, seize the initiative, and accelerate operations is key to realizing multi-domain operations’ intent to penetrate, disintegrate, and thereby render the defeat of the enemy.
Lessons of History
The imperative of offensive acceleration is rooted in history’s hard-won lessons. World War I’s defensive dominance, born of the Industrial Age, created Jean de Bloch’s “great moral evil.” Its defensive lethality pushed warring armies into the trenches, stalemate, and disaster. That disaster broke only with the hasty introduction of the tank, restoring a measure of maneuver to a battlefield World War I veteran Winston Churchill wrote differed from other wars “in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction” and “in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought.”
Influenced by that “destruction,” the Germans entered World War II informed by their own war of movement against Russia—where World War I did not devolve to static trench warfare—and a tradition of short, lively wars. They concluded that the solution to technologies favoring the defense was to stress rapid offensive maneuver, demonstrating acceleration’s value. The aptly named “blitzkrieg” emphasized the offense and the imperative of the initiative. The Nazi blitzkrieg accelerated through its opening campaign. Conversely, the French, misinterpreting World War I, emphasized the defense, exemplified by the Maginot Line, and suffered over four years of Nazi occupation. Yet, blitzkrieg’s success in Western Europe’s relatively confined spaces collapsed in Russia’s vastness, which aggravated a flawed German logistics system—an insight relevant to today’s US military.
The ability to conduct offensive operations at speed and scale is only part of the Army’s problem. A historical example that is perhaps more relevant is that of Soviet perceptions of the Cold War American Army. Those perceptions were vital to deterrence in Europe, which in turn allowed the world to avoid nuclear Armageddon and bring about the Soviet Union’s defeat. They were shaped by the ability of forward US Army forces (the “contact” forces of the day, in the lexicon of the 2018 National Defense Strategy) to delay, disrupt, and disintegrate the initial Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack while rapidly expanding their offensive capability with “blunt” and “surge” forces. That ability was underpinned by the US Army’s modernization: its “Big 5” systems such as the M1 Abrams tank, its reorganization and leadership transformation, the inculcation of Airland Battle doctrine, and intensive training. These developments complemented a larger joint and allied response, including regularly exercising prepositioned and deploying forces in REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercises and establishing and maintaining a robust sustainment and power projection capability.
Deterrence and victory in great-power wars demand more than the ability to punish. A lesson of war, relearned at high cost, is that only the timely integration of firepower and maneuver presents adversaries with the dilemmas that compel capitulation. Modern examples—World War II Germany’s devastating conquest of France, Israel’s reversal of near disaster in 1973, British success in the Falklands, Panama’s collapse in hours during Just Cause, Desert Storm’s 100-hour ground war, Croatian maneuver’s contribution to Operation Allied Force, and the opening twenty-one days of Iraqi Freedom—demonstrate that utility. Given Russian and Chinese preparation, America needs to internalize this lesson now, not after conflict begins, as is often American practice.
Multi-Domain Operations: The Imperative to Accelerate the Offensive
Given history’s lessons, Russia’s and China’s technologically sophisticated military forces, and the potential for current and emerging technologies to favor the defense as they have done in the past, analysts are correct to recognize the modern advantages of defense over offense and to characterize the defensive as a principal military problem. The defense is not, however, the solution. The US Army’s multi-domain operations concept proceeds from a clear understanding of the fundamental nature of war—a violent contest of human wills over inherently political outcomes. From that basis, and accounting for America’s disposition, that of its adversaries, and the implications of modern warfare, the Army correctly identifies the offense as imperative to American success on the modern battlefield.
Consequently, offensive military operations must deliver tangible victories that provide political authorities the basis from which to pursue political victory. To prevent war and avert dangerous escalation with either of two nuclear-armed adversaries, the United States should demonstrate its Army can defeat enemy forces despite their modernization and proximity advantage on an increasingly fast, lethal, and expanding battlefield. In the event of war, the American Army must accelerate into the offensive, rapidly gain the initiative, and build and sustain the momentum that preserves it.
Acceleration creates strategic flexibility, diminishes adversary military advantages, and takes advantage of America’s technological edge. Strategically, the capacity to accelerate increases the decision space of senior political and military leaders, freed from contemporary constraints that force premature actions and increase risk due to the time required to mobilize, deploy, and set conditions. Operationally, the capacity to accelerate forestalls adversary advantages of proximity, building the relentless momentum of US forces as they seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. This increasing velocity of US operations marginalizes adversary forces’ consolidation of their initial operations. Acceleration allows the United States to exploit the expanding battlefield, bringing all elements of power to bear at multiple points simultaneously. Relentless, increasing momentum allows US forces to dictate the timing and tempo of operations. Acceleration allows American forces to exploit the initiative, disintegrating and defeating an enemy unable to recover and match the increasing pace, lethality, and complexity of American operations. An American Army capable of acceleration, with speed and endurance, overwhelms the enemy, physically and morally, reversing any initial gains and ceasing once the enemy is defeated.
Challenges to acceleration involve myriad impediments to deployment, including insufficient air and sea lift and the simple physics of time, distance, and momentum. These impediments often demand strategically premature decisions if forces are to be available for the operational commander or complicate operational commanders’ execution. An adversary’s positional advantage and modern capabilities further exacerbate those challenges. The US Army, and the other military services, can and must overcome them. This includes outfitting forward forces, the National Defense Strategy’s “contact” and “blunt” layers, to effectively delay, disrupt, dislocate, and initiate disintegration of the enemy’s opening moves. This must occur despite an adversary achieving surprise through ambiguity and capacity to rapidly mobilize and counter every US military action, diminishing, if not eliminating, the freedom of action US forces have enjoyed for thirty years.
To exploit opportunities created by the effective actions of properly sized, postured, and prepared forward forces in the “contact” and “blunt” layers and deny the adversary’s recovery, the wider joint force, the National Defense Strategy’s “surge” force, should be retooled and repostured. Adaptations should allow those forces to accelerate out of their global, defensive posture on to the offense in hours, days, and weeks, not weeks and months, despite systemic attacks and little control over timing and location. Otherwise, the fait accompli becomes reality, with reversal coming at high cost. In the face of progressive improvements by our adversaries, contemporary capability, capacity in key areas, and posture are increasingly not up to this task. Preventing faits accomplis requires the “contact,” “blunt,” and “surge” forces be reviewed with the aim of enabling the acceleration into the offense.
What Remains to be Done
Making acceleration real on the modern battlefield will require concerted effort, demanding that the US Army change, perhaps as profoundly as the early-twentieth-century, Industrial-Age transition from foot and horse to truck and tank. To deny the adversary any advantage from its “standoff” investments, the Army must be able to deploy and operate successfully without reliance on the time-consuming establishment of supremacy in other military domains, optimizing for rapid deployment and conducting distributed, semi-independent operations despite anti-access and area-denial threats. To exploit the speed of operations, the Army must move from deliberate, sequential “observe, orient, decide, act” decision cycles to initiative-based “predict and act” cycles that empower initiative and acceleration. Fundamental to both is reprioritizing and remaking the network, recently described as the “foundational weapon system,” to ensure it functions despite the denial of space, cyber, and electromagnetic access current networks rely on. Multi-domain operations’ construct of convergence usefully encompasses many of these requirements and is essential to achieving the speed, volume, and tempo of engagements required to achieve military victory.
The technology-fueled physics and geometry of the emerging battlefield will require what are predominantly linear operations to become nonlinear and distributed—deliberately conceived and apportioned across the battlefield. Distributed operations are necessary to both survive and thrive on a sensor- and fires-swept multi-domain battlefield, increasing ambiguity and uncertainty for the adversary, reducing the probability of detection and targeting, achieving positional advantage, and overwhelming adversary systems by forcing them to fight simultaneously in multiple directions and across multiple domains. To realize this approach to the fight, as Gen. Donn Starry did with Airland Battle’s development a generation ago, the US Army should be able to clearly delineate roles and missions at echelon, in time and space.
The employment of units and their enablers in combat must also change. To add needed depth, resiliency, and agility to the distributed fight, the Army should restore its echelons—armies, corps, divisions—as fighting formations capable of orchestrating joint intelligence, fires, protection, cyber, space, electromagnetic, information, and sustainment operations. To create advantage from the challenges of a contested, distributed battlefield and ensure capabilities empower initiative, capabilities across all of these types of operations must move forward to the edge. To further increase resilience, while pursuing superior technology, design, and performance, the Army should tailor combat systems for the battlefield’s increasingly relentless physical and cognitive velocity, lethality, and violence. These systems should amplify the skill, cunning, and guile of soldiers and leaders, reduce their physical and cognitive burdens, and be upgradable with an agility and scale commensurate with the speed and breadth of technological change.
Accelerating into the offensive also means surmounting barriers to maintaining the initiative. To ensure sustainment enables the initiative instead of encumbering it, the Army must jettison the linear, predictable, and vulnerable aspects of sustainment by realizing fundamental reductions in the logistics intensity of systems and units, in effect solving blitzkrieg’s fatal flaw. Similarly, to preserve combat power and sustain momentum, combat trauma care should transform in intent and performance from rearward evacuation to forward restoration. Likewise, disrupting current support delivery practices with commercially proven, resource-saving approaches will permit the US Army to reallocate some of the two-thirds of all personnel it dedicates to support and associated funds. This would allow it to build needed unit capacity in fires, air and missile defense, cyber, electronic warfare, and armored maneuver, and to modernize at scale consistent with its fundamental responsibility to conduct “combat incident to operations on land.”
A failure to accelerate into the offensive and preclude a fait accompli, as history shows, risks catastrophic slaughter or stalemate as combatants fall into the trap of a grueling, firepower-based, defensive war of attrition. To hedge today against disaster tomorrow, the US Army should accept that peer warfare means catastrophe is again possible and then modernize for the lethality, velocity, tempo, and endurance that twenty-first-century warfare demands.
The US Army must do so absent advantages enjoyed during its post-Vietnam transformation. Then, its key leaders were experienced in great-power war, with key senior officers like Gen. Creighton Abrams and Gen. William Depuy having both fought in World War II. It also benefitted from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War’s exposure of the realities of modern war. Absent these guideposts, the US Army should piece together the evidence inherent in Russian and Chinese military modernization, science and technology developments, training, and operations. Read correctly, the Army can restore its atrophied capacity for offensive maneuver, at speed and scale, which is key to assuring the nation’s continued strategic supremacy. Read incorrectly, the Army risks fashioning the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Maginot Line in the form of the world’s best-equipped defensive force—impressive, but irrelevant against similarly modernized, offensively minded adversaries.
Bill Hix is a retired major general and former US Army director of strategy, plans and policy, with twenty-five years of experience with defense innovation. He serves as managing partner at Next Horizon Partners.
Robert H. Simpson is a retired colonel with twenty years of experience in US Army and defense innovation initiatives. He is a New Generation Warfare Subject Matter Expert at the US Army’s Futures and Concepts Center.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Thomas Mort, US Army