Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley announced the creation of an innovative Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) in 2017. According to the Army Chief, this new unit’s 1,500-plus troops and capabilities to create effects in space, cyber, maritime, air, and ground warfare—the assemblage of which is not found in any other brigade-sized element—are the key to contesting adversaries’ anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems. Currently, the MDTF’s primary role centers on “long-range artillery and air and missile defense capabilities,” which, in light of evolving A2/AD threats, will be crucial for the joint force’s ability to maneuver and fight.
That said, while the MDTF gives the joint force increased asymmetric capabilities to create windows of advantage, the present emphasis on lethal fires misses an indispensable capability: nonlethal effects, and more specifically, information warfare. A growing number of actors are employing military and nonmilitary tools to achieve security objectives in a context that “blurs the line between war and peace” and thus undermines the norms surrounding conventional deterrence. The binary peace/war model no longer describes our competition with opponents who seek to “win without fighting.” Rather than moving physical forces on a battlefield, said opponents are maneuvering in a “heterogeneous global environment where humans and automated systems rapidly observe, orient, decide, and act on available data, information, and knowledge,” called the information environment, or IE. The MDTF has the organic capacity to influence and disrupt the competitor’s decision-making processes below the threshold of armed conflict before its cutting-edge lethal tools are ever necessary. The MDTF should be empowered and expected to integrate all available information warfare capabilities to counter the competitor’s IE strategy while also contesting his physical A2/AD conditions setting in the “gray zone.”
In today’s IE, the old force ratios of deterrence modeling are insufficient tools to understand how to check a competitor’s positional advance, but a forward-deployed formation as capable as the MDTF can contest that actor’s cognitive freedom of action in order to fracture his ability to escalate without risking intervention. The information capabilities in an MTDF give the joint force (1) a powerful tool of presence, posture, and profile with which to contest the locations a competitor requires to set dominant conditions for escalation, (2) persistent provision of electronic warfare and military deception to deny an opponent’s “battlespace awareness,” and (3) a proximate agent to counter his disinformation campaign and resolve ambiguity. The MDTF pilot program is based in Seattle, Washington, where I Corps’ 17th Field Artillery Brigade is providing resources to establish the new unit and is operating under the direction of US Army Pacific, in Hawaii. The pacing competitor in the Pacific is China, which offers an illustrative case to explore options available through the new unit.
First, and counterintuitively, the MDTF’s conventional capabilities can be quite useful in competition below armed conflict, though in a capacity subtly different than traditional flexible deterrent options. In fact, the term “deter” is a lot larger than the scope of any MDTF operation or action centering on its employment. Indeed, much like the term “defeat,” deterrence asks a question of national will; in this case, the object is to dissuade the adversary—at the national command authority level—from its current course of action. Also, “deterrent options” include “economic, diplomatic, political, and military judgment” actions that neither the MDTF nor its parent, Army Service Component Command, are capable or authorized to make. The value of the new formation is in fracturing a competitor’s operational mechanisms of war rather than in deterrence per se, because it can occupy resilient positions from which to contest the space a competitor needs to control prior to escalation.
China’s “active defense” strategy, as interpreted by scholar Andrew Krepinevich, requires Chinese forces forces to achieve “air and sea control, as well as information dominance, to preclude the United States from coming to the aid of its allies” before executing offensive campaigns to seize territory. This is “shi,” or the “potential born of disposition,” for which there is no Western linguistic equivalent but for which there is a doctrinal parallel. Army Doctrine Publication 3-0 would likely call shi “creating an overwhelming force with irresistible unleashing power,” or “developing a favorable situation with great potential to achieve the political objectives,” roughly analogous to setting favorable conditions for US joint operations. The People’s Liberation Army’s need to set operational conditions, including air and sea control, prior to strategic escalation is a dependency that a forward-deployed MDTF can, and should, exploit.
With a little Google Earth measurement and RAND’s 2015 U.S-China Military Scorecard report, we can see that even current Army fires platforms can disrupt planned competitor maritime operations simply by proximity: Army rockets could reach templated Surface Action Group positions, from the Philippines, for a Spratly Island escalation and amphibious transport lanes, from the Ryukyu islands, for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Given China’s anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile capabilities, friendly naval surface forces would be under extreme risk to provide these fires. Alternatively, Army artillery batteries’ firing platforms and command-and-control nodes can be spread out over miles, air defense forces can be similarly dispersed, and the sensors that guides their weapons are not necessarily co-located; if enemy surface fires threaten, some functionality will be preserved. Conversely, a warship has command and control, surface fires, air defense, and sensor capabilities integrated on one platform; a critical hit to one system, while not catastrophic, will likely affect all of them. On the other hand, MDTF units are more survivable and can therefore represent guaranteed cost to the opponent.
The MDTF is more survivable, not because it can disperse, but because it can build protective structures that can significantly reduce the effects of any enemy incoming fire, even advanced cruise missiles. The MDTF has engineers; employing those soldiers to build concrete fortifications, for us or for a host nation, will set off a frenzy of targeting and decisional efforts on the part of our competitor. Concrete has been called “the most effective weapon on the modern battlefield.” That author who made that claim was discussing stopping bullets in a counterinsurgency fight, but fortifications also have a distinct communicative value. The Japanese have shown that laying “cement and barbed wire” in their southern Ryukyu Islands gets Chinese attention. An MDTF objective can, and should, be to forestall our competitors’ escalation planning and, consequently, his escalation decision processes, because the longer an adversary accepts a deterrent condition, by not invading, the more stable a situation is likely to become. The Chinese decision systems that will make the escalation judgment represent a generational advancement but also introduce new attack surfaces that a deployed MDTF can exploit.
Second, a forward deployed MDTF could provide persistent electronic capabilities and military deception to contest the Chinese military’s battlespace awareness. After observing US operations in the Balkans and Kuwait, China began a twenty-year campaign to merge organic, Soviet, and US tactics outside of their traditional reliance on massed combat power, revolving around precision operations and command-and-control denial. They have built a “joint operations command system” and developed a systems approach aimed at disrupting “the enemy’s information detection sources, information channels, and information processing and decision making systems.” However, they have also created two seams: the PLA’s well-developed air and maritime detection capabilities also depend on sophisticated information networks to connect those sensors to weapons like the DF-21 “carrier killer.”
Equipping the MDTF’s electronic warfare teams with ground-based jamming capabilities offers the best option to threaten the PLA network. US jamming aircraft are limited by loiter time, carry emitters that are only as powerful as the platform’s generating capacity, and are subject to being shot down by surface-to-air missiles or other airplanes. Ground jamming assets, on islands adjacent to competitor installations, offer asymmetric advantages: they can operate at much greater power, are not dependent on mechanically induced lift, and are really hard to find once they stop transmitting. Our opponents already do this—North Korea has demonstrated GPS signal jamming affecting hundreds of planes and ships, as far out as sixty miles.
The PLA’s ability to fix targets is important for the previously covered resilience advantage of ground versus maritime platforms. Chinese long-range sensor capabilities are generally optimized for maritime targets in that their satellite detection can be enabled by over-the-horizon radars to produce a four-hour revisit rate over naval combatants. But because the over-the-horizon radars cannot distinguish targets any less than a few kilometers from each other, ground targets are not as vulnerable; in fact, revisit time climbs to almost seven days. This disparity allows US and host nation forces to create ambiguity of our own. We can advertise presence through normal media channels and without giving away a targetable position, which would be crucial for any military deception efforts; though more advanced than the memorable rubber tanks of D-Day, these would be integrated and synchronized by the forward MDTF information operations team.
Third, deploying the MDTF, with its information operations team, during competition provides a proximate agent to dispel an opponent’s disinformation campaign and counter the ambiguity strategy. Adversaries seek to obfuscate the conditions of a conflict through “proxies, cyber and social-media narratives” in order to confuse facts, slow response, deny access, and degrade national will. The PLA sees “informationized warfare” as a central component of its strategic understanding of conflict as a lethal “competition between rival networks” but also a contest of political power. Mao Zedong chastised those who thought that the task of an army was merely to fight, considering propaganda and establishing political power as equal to destroying the enemy. If the MDTF is to be truly “multi-domain,” then it has to conduct operations in the cognitive domain as well; facilitating “entry” into the IE is the formation’s most important “competition below conflict” task.
In order to slow competitor responses, China must use mechanisms other than military force. The PLA’s plans for any action in the Senkakus, Taiwan, or the South China Sea will center on its successful implementation of these techniques to create ambiguity before conventional assets move into position to seize physical objectives. The Chinese military has employed coast guard vessels and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia—government-controlled fishing fleets—to press China’s territorial claims without involving military force. The surveillance capabilities of UAVs and helicopters assigned to the forward MDTF, employed in these disputed regions, can show the world what is happening, in real time. They could combine official data with open-source and social media investigation to create powerful stories like those of the Bellingcat Investigation Team. That team’s open-source data analysis and social media savvy exposed, and even verified, the Russian military’s responsibility for the MH17 shootdown in 2014. In competition, the stories of abused citizens, taken on the ground by public affairs, Voice of America, or commercial journalistic outlets, provide clarity, for local and global audiences, that the Chinese are a malign influence. Information outlets also give the local residents, the victims of China’s overreach, a voice. Providing a voice to the disenfranchised provides powerful leverage for access in the physical and cognitive levels of the local IE.
The Chinese don’t necessarily need local popular support to deny US forces permissive access to the theater. It is easier to coerce elites or woo military leaders of potential regional partners away from the United States than to fight for their territory. One of the least dwelt on features of our security cooperation efforts is the ability to ensure access to a host nation, a place to stage friendly forces during a contingency. A geographically assigned task force commander can build relationships much better than any headquarters eight thousand miles away. The MDTF’s ordinary soldiers, forward deployed or routinely present in theater, can provide continuity to allies and partners that its US Army Pacific parent, with thirty-six nations’ armies to engage, is challenged to deliver. Specifically assigning one command to manage public affairs and security cooperation in a particularly decisive area can go a long way toward maintaining trust as well as advancing relationships.
In a contested environment, the forward MDTF can provide capabilities like leader engagement and contract management in a host nation, which are necessary to preserve access, and is much more ideal than the country liaison officer operating from a distant headquarters. However, the opponent’s information warfare won’t stop with the arrival of US advisors or liaisons, and persistent competition will require synchronization with the Theater Special Operations Command’s (TSOC) civil affairs and psychological operations. Integration with TSOC efforts must be seamless to ensure that partners are not successfully coerced. If information operations fail to retain permissive entry, unconventional warfare, also the purview of the TSOC, will become an option for entry, because access is fundamental to bringing other, more pointed capabilities to bear against the opponent.
The MDTF must also fight in the global IE, the environment that influences national will. The contest between national wills begins prior to actual combat but is especially decisive at the opening of a conflict. The official communication surrounding the collisions of US destroyers with merchant vessels in 2017 was good; messages went out in a matter of hours, and most of the media reporting led with “the US Navy reports that.” However, when a competitor was involved—say, the 2016 Farsi island incident with Iran—the first reporting was headlined with the “the IRGC reports” and accompanied by pictures of US sailors on their knees. This out-messaged and out-imaged incident happened in a region where the United States has a notably heavy presence, the Persian Gulf; US messaging capability in the South China Sea is much sparser. In the event of war in a non-developed region, by intention or accident, friendly forces must be in place, on the ground, to retain the initiative in the information operations fight. The concept of deploying early entry command posts as a crisis rises is an established practice; the MDTF could enable “early entry” media operations centers. Just like the headlines after Pearl Harbor, the headlines that follow can help or haunt the United States for the length of the conflict. Chinese media networks have a local and linguistic advantage in an emerging crisis if missiles do indeed fly; we cannot be first with the truth from the other side of the international date line. The presence of an MDTF’s information operations cell is the starting point for countering the opponent’s efforts in the IE, by reporting the truth clearly to global audiences.
During competition, within a global IE, the MDTF is the operative information tool to counter the competitor’s gray-zone maneuver while also contesting his physical A2/AD conditions-setting activities. Keeping the competitor from creating favorable conditions, denying his command and control, and countering his narrative, as well as his ambiguity strategy, are key to preventing escalation. In order to conduct that maneuver in the IE, the MDTF doesn’t need much in the way of additional resources; most of this expertise and these authorities already reside in the Pacific. At the end of the day, unless the MDTF lives and fights in the cognitive domain, it is little more than a fancy fires brigade. Gen. David Perkins, the former commander of Training and Doctrine Command responsible for publishing the Mult-Domain Battle concept, said of future multi-domain efforts: “Our biggest challenge is that we will excessively limit ourselves. . . . We are capable of more than we think we are.” If indeed “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” we must maneuver more deftly than ever before.
Maj. Chris Telley is an Army information operations officer assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School. His assignments have included theater engagement at US Army Japan and advanced technology integration with the US Air Force. He tweets at @chris_telley.
Scott A. Carpenter supports strategic planning and Multidomain Operations concept experimentation for US Army, Pacific. He is a retired Surface Warfare Officer.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.