Sweat-drenched, sleep-deprived, and weakened by a paltry diet, a US soldier dives for cover as an enemy fighter sweeps overhead, cannons blazing, its 500-pound cargo ready to blast men and material skyhigh. US fighters chase the aircraft but cannot stop the enemy from wreaking havoc below. Meanwhile, not too far away, a Marine traverses his machine gun to the final protective line against an overwhelming foe, hanging on to the hope that enemy warships pummeling the ground around him with flaming steel don’t find their intended mark, and that the US Navy will finally do something about the nonstop shelling.
This description of multiple, contested domains is the vision of the future that underwrites the Multi-Domain Operations concept. But it is also a representation of the situation faced by the US military on Guadalcanal in 1942. This month marks seventy-six years from the first major landings of US forces on Guadalcanal. The campaign that followed those landings remains one of the few occasions in modern American warfare where US forces were contested simultaneously on land, at sea, and in the air. That makes the lessons learned during the battle uniquely useful for today’s Army leaders as they seek to better understand the challenges and requirements of the battlefield of tomorrow. The Army’s six doctrinally defined warfighting functions offer an effective lens through which to study these lessons from the past and incorporate them into planning for the future.
Mission Command as a warfighting function consists of “the related tasks and systems that develop and integrate those activities enabling a commander to balance the art of command and the science of control in order to integrate the other warfighting functions.” In a joint, highly contested operating environment, command relationships must meet the needs of the campaign. During the Guadalcanal campaign, Rear Adm. Richmond Turner stood in command of all ground forces and naval transports for offloading men and equipment onto the island. Turner was described as “a leader so pedantic that he would not hesitate to tell a coxswain how to beach his boat” and as “a sailor who often mistook his sextant for a soldier’s baton.” Marine Maj. Gen. Archer Vandergrift, commanding the 19,000 Marines who landed on Guadalcanal, struggled with Turner’s persistent attempts to maneuver Marines and change their task organization unilaterally and independent from the realities of the ground campaign, which Turner could not comprehend while at sea. While certain realities of seaborne joint forcible entry will certainly necessitate command by a naval officer, command and responsibilities on a fast-paced, highly contested multi-domain battlefield need to shift to the ground force commander at the appropriate time to enable a successful campaign.
With the multiplication of sensors across the battlefield, commanders must establish a robust system of intelligence collection and sharing across each component service to enable freedom of movement and maneuver. Commanders and staffs must understand all ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets available and develop the necessary system of mixed assets, redundancy, and cueing in order to answer commanders’ critical information requirements and enable rapid decision making. With the growing array of drones that can be launched by air, land, and sea, commanders may be tempted to focus their attention on long-range, unmanned systems and signals. But relying solely on signals or other advanced technology for detection of enemy troops, naval vessels, or aircraft without fully understanding their limitations will lead to opportunities for exploitation by the enemy. In 1942, US forces on Guadalcanal, relying on new radar technology, discovered this lesson when Japanese naval vessels slipped into gaps between friendly radar screens to inflict casualties on US troops ashore. Human eyes, as part of a well-trained and coordinated network of combatants (scouts) and trusted noncombatants, are a critical component to the effective mixing of active and passive ISR. The network of Australian coast watchers throughout the Solomon Islands consistently and accurately reported sightings of enemy warships and aircraft. This timely reporting gave the pilots at Henderson Field the time needed to arm their aircraft with the appropriate munition, launch, intercept, and destroy the looming Japanese naval and aerial threats well before they were able to mass overwhelming firepower against friendly troops and equipment on Guadalcanal. For the future of multi-domain operations, commanders and staff must do their due diligence to understand the capabilities of all available ISR assets, and develop the appropriate system of cueing, mixing, and redundancy to see the enemy, seize the initiative with rapid joint fires, and maneuver to exploit opportunities.
Movement and Maneuver
With respect to the Movement and Maneuver warfighting function, leaders must recognize the momentary, often fleeting opportunities to exploit the initiative, or save the force from imminent destruction, on the multi-domain battlefield. A determined enemy with multiple sensors and the ability to mass fires by land, sea, or air may be able to quickly reverse the tide of battle, giving the US commander a limited opportunity to maneuver back to a position of parity. Lt. Col. Chesty Puller, after landing near the Matanikau River, maneuvered his battalion several hundred yards inland, and was quickly surrounded by a cunning enemy, waiting for the opportune moment to envelop Puller’s force and cut off his escape to the sea or any surrounding terrain. To the dismay of Puller, air support, normally quite responsive with devastating effect, was unavailable, as Japanese fighter-bomber aircraft from Rabaul were conducting a simultaneous sweep of Henderson Field, ravaging the communications network and tying up all available US fighters. His options were as simple as they were limited; fight forward in an attempt to continue the mission, or fight backward, and concede defeat to guarantee his battalion’s ability to fight another day. In either case, time to make a decision was also limited, as his mortarmen were firing at nearly ninety degrees and Japanese forces were charging from all sides, bayonet and saber in hand. Puller’s decision to fight backward, signaling the Navy for immediate rescue and to use naval guns to suppress the enemy from all sides likely saved his battalion from sheer annihilation.
Sustainment planning, key to any successful operation, becomes ever more vital on a multi-domain battlefield. Upon disembarkation on Guadalcanal, the 5th Marines needlessly suffered from poor sustainment planning. From the outset, the regiment tasked too few men to handle the hundreds of supply vessels making multiple supply runs from ship to shore. Worse yet, untrained coxswains exacerbated the problem by bringing rations to beaches labeled for fuel and mixing medical supplies with ammunition. In a sensor-rich, highly contested multi-domain battlefield, the enemy will quickly mass fires on such a vast and easy target. Following the disastrous naval battle at Savo Island, the Marines on Guadalcanal were left to contend with a confused, chaotic, and limited supply situation as the Navy fled in disarray. In a sign of the desperate situation, Marines were forced to eat maggot-filled rice in order to survive. This debacle emphasizes the need for commanders and staffs to focus on detailed sustainment planning during a contested multi-domain operation.
On a battlefield where commanders must exploit the initiative and fight through multiple domains, repair of equipment in one domain will prove critical to success in the others and the ultimate outcome of the joint campaign. Leaders must establish effective, efficient systems for repairing airfields, facilities, vehicles, and equipment. In a historical example of American ingenuity, the Seabees on Guadalcanal studied the effect of the typical Japanese bomb crater on a runway, and pre-packaged trucks and equipment with the appropriate reconstruction material to immediately repair airfields after a Japanese attack. Speed was paramount, because American fighter aircraft departing Henderson Field to intercept enemy planes would need to land shortly after takeoff, and without aircraft, the Marines and soldiers ashore would be in an untenable position. 3D printers and other emerging technology can be used to rapidly repair and distribute critical parts needed on the battlefield, enabling commanders to retain and exploit the initiative through all domains. Ultimately, sustainment in future multi-domain operations will require careful thought and detailed planning by competent staffs capable of solving complex logistical issues in a contested battlespace.
Protection of the force becomes paramount with the modern enemy’s increased ability to detect, target, and attack friendly forces through multiple domains. As technology in electronic warfare, guided cluster munitions, and other weapons increases, Army leaders must focus on the basic security principles of both offensive and defensive operations. Digging in at every long halt; light, noise, and radio discipline; camouflage of personnel and equipment; and staying on the move to avoid detection will be the hallmarks of the units that survive and thrive on the contested multi-domain battlefield. At Guadalcanal, what the Marines lacked in personnel they made up for in supreme engagement area development to protect the airfield. With bulldozers, barbed wire, axes, shovels, sandbags and machetes, US forces built a bristling defensive ring, which would one day prompt a Japanese officer to jeer that these Marines were not genuine jungle fighters because “they always cut the jungle down.” And he was right. In addition to their protective and tactical obstacles, Marines hacked down trees and burned the kunai grass to clear fields of fire up to a hundred yards. The discipline to plan, integrate, and enforce these protective measures ensured that the Japanese would never penetrate deeply enough to deny the Marines use of Henderson Field. Additionally, superb American anti-aircraft fire proved invaluable to the protection of the airfield throughout the campaign. Leaders at the company level and above must train to incorporate both active air defense systems and passive protection measures in order to preserve the force from sudden destruction.
In a closely contested duel between forces fighting for both survival and supremacy, the side with the range, mass, and capabilities to target the enemy on the land, at sea and in the air will have the advantage. Throughout the month of September 1942, US Marine leaders at Guadalcanal demonstrated exceptional use of concentrated indirect fires in both defensive and offensive operations, crippling Japanese formations. Later, in October, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the Japanese extinguished American supremacy in fires by introducing their Type 96 150mm howitzers—with a range of 11,900 meters, longer than any US land-based artillery pieces—safely landed ashore unmolested by any American air or naval forces. In the blink of an eye, “Pistol Pete,” as Marines had dubbed the Japanese artillery, became the king of multi-domain battle, now obliterating Henderson Field at will without any American counterfire to limit the devastation. With a destroyed runway, damaged planes, and limited fuel, long-ranging Japanese artillery crippled the “Cactus Airforce” of Henderson Field overnight. Without US aircraft, the Japanese naval and air forces seized the initiative, operating with extreme freedom of maneuver, pummeling US Marines and Army troops ashore. Through incredible efforts of the Seabees working around the clock repairing the airfield, mechanics fixing fragmented aircraft, logisticians siphoning fuel out of downed aircraft, and the dogged determination of US Marines and soldiers to defend the perimeter, Henderson Field held out long enough for the arrival of the American 155mm “Long Tom” howitzer, with its range of 14,600 meters. Re-establishing superiority in land-based fires enabled US forces to suppress “Pistol Pete,” protect Henderson Field from indirect fires, and allow the ground forces to resume offensive operations against the Japanese.
With adversaries rapidly improving the range, capability, and massing of their indirect fires, it is imperative that the United States strive to overmatch the adversary in land-based fires. Simply put, US cannons and rockets must outrange and deliver more munitions on target than the adversary. Ground forces cannot rely on the hope of unlimited, uncontested joint fires to make up for the current US lack of range and mass compared to peer adversaries. Hypersonic weapons, and other land-based missile systems capable of targeting enemy naval vessels, are an absolute must for ground forces to create standoff from enemy naval vessels seeking to place fires on a vulnerable flank. There are currently ongoing and important discussions on improving lethality within the infantry. However, the infantry may never get chance to close with the enemy if we cannot overmatch adversaries in long-range, massed fires capable of delivering destruction and standoff at land and sea. The US Army must continue to prioritize long-range fires as a top acquisition priority, and continue to vigorously train artillerymen to shape the battle, destroy the enemy’s critical assets in all domains, and allow freedom of maneuver across the multi-domain battlefield.
The Marines and soldiers who fought on Guadalcanal bought with their sweat, blood, tears many lessons that should inform the way we think about the future of multi-domain operations. This battle is iconic in US military history, as it remains one of the few instances in which American forces fought contested in all domains—land, air, and sea. US ground forces of today must integrate these lessons across the warfighting functions, incorporating doctrine and technology and training to defeat the enemy in all domains, which now also include space and cyberspace. Leaders must recognize the fact that the ability to fight and defeat an enemy from one domain to another will have multiplying effects on the battlefield. Senior leaders must prioritize spending that allows ground forces to target enemies at range and with mass, in all domains, creating the environment that allows junior leaders to maximize the ability of the soldier to defeat the enemy. We should honor the legacy of the soldiers and Marines in the jungles on Guadalcanal, the sailors on the straights of Iron Bottom Sound, and the airmen in the blue skies above the island. We have an opportunity to do so by incorporating their hard-won lessons into our planning for tomorrow’s multi-domain battlefield.
Image credit: U.S. Marine Corps