By Pierre Dugué
In 2007, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates declared ‘We can expect that asymmetrical warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time’. The United States (U.S.) considerably outweighs any military opponent. Hence, asymmetry appears to be a weapon of choice for competitors: terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa, or even Russia in Eastern Europe. But as the U.S. Army seek to anticipate tomorrow’s conflicts, the Multi-Domain Battle Doctrine seems to be dangerously gambling on future conflicts by assuming their inherently symmetrical nature.
The U.S. Army’s Strategic Culture
Based on a distorted reading of Clausewitzian theory, U.S. Army doctrine has historically considered the object of war to consist in the utter destruction of enemy forces. As a result, Field Manuals—the Army’s regulation of combat operations and engagement doctrine— have emphasised overwhelming firepower and decisive manoeuver as essential factors to achieve victory. Great success was consequently achieved against regular forces in the Second World War and the Korean War.
However, the doctrine clashed with the political realities of counterinsurgency warfare (COIN) in Vietnam, as U.S. conventional superiority was negated by the tactics of an irregular enemy. This episode showed the limits of the Army’s operational definition of the object of military action, and the primacy of politics in war.
At the time, the Vietnam experience was deemed a military anomaly. Head of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) General DuPuy foresaw that the time of ‘combat with light and elusive forces was over’. In light of the highly conventional Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Army sought to refocus its development on mechanised and aerial warfare to anticipate a force-on-force war against the Soviet Union.
As a result, the AirLand Battle Doctrine of 1982-86 was believed to provide a relevant doctrinal framework for future operations. The Doctrine relied on the principle of denial, as the Air Force could substantially attrit the enemy rear so as to interdict the deployment of reserves and facilitate the advance of allied ground troops. Swift, cheap and decisive victory was sought and the AirLand Battle proved particularly effective during the Gulf War.
The Army’s kinetic culture, however, clashed again with operational realities in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The used of mass firepower in urban areas resulted in civilian casualties that, in turn, fed the political grievances of insurgent fighters. The operational recommendations elaborated by Field Manual 3-24 ‘Counterinsurgency Warfare’ (2006) brought hope that the U.S. Army could, at last, factor political ramifications in to their definition of –and thus approach to- the object of war.
Yet the recent re-emergence of high-intensity operations indicate a shift back to the AirLand Battle Doctrine, and away from irregular conflicts.
The Multi-Domain Battle Doctrine
Russia’s meddling in NATO’s Eastern Flank has provided the U.S. Army with a unique opportunity to shift its doctrinal paradigm back to the familiar area of linear warfare. General Perkins, TRADOC commander, wrote in 2017: ‘Transitioning the Army from the Vietnam War to AirLand Battle took over ten years. In the years to come, multi-domain battle is our concept to drive change’.
The Multi-Domain Battle Doctrine seeks to adapt the Army’s capabilities and doctrine to match a peer – or near-peer – threat on a force-on-force contest rather than an enemy whose strategy would rely on battle avoidance. The Doctrine emphasises key operational concepts such as deep fires, deep area, close support, and operational support area to bring hostilities to an early termination.
In December 2017, the Multi-Domain Battle concept was implemented in Army doctrine through the revision of Field Manual 3-0 ‘Operations’. Lieutenant-General Lundy, Combined Arms Centre (CAC) commander, wrote that the focus on ‘counterinsurgency operations from static bases against enemies with limited military capabilities created a view of ground combat incongruent with the realities of fighting large-scale combat against a peer threat’. The Army arguably have China and Russia in mind, whose current hybrid practices may well escalate tensions and lead to a major conflict.
These military concepts have recently been given consideration at the highest political level within the Pentagon. Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy announced in late 2017 the creation of a new United States Army Command -‘Futures Command’ – whose chief purpose will be the study of ‘combat development, combat capability and combat systems’ with in mind Multi-Battle operational concepts such as ‘Long-Range Precision Fires, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Future Vertical Lift and Soldier Lethality’.
In sum, the Army is refocusing its operational doctrine back to high-intensity operations. Field Manual 3-24 will likely remain a valid guide for irregular conflicts, but is undeniably overshadowed by Field Manual 3-0. The latter encompasses multiple branches of the armed forces, regulates military dynamics at the division level- the highest- and plays a normative role in influencing threat perception in the United States.
Foresight and Warfare
There is a clear willingness on the part of the Army to re-establish itself as the undisputed military hegemon in the world. This endeavour is arguably motivated by a reading of the current strategic environment–the re-emergence of Great Power confrontation–along with the assumption that its dynamics are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
The U.S. Army is seeking to build itself a new identity that coincides with its historical mission to fight aggressive states like Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, one is forced to conclude that asymmetric enemies remain the most likely threat to U.S. national security and core economic/political interests.
Although China and Russia remain credible peer competitors, their strengths rely on information manipulation, deniable operations, special operatives and proxy actors. Both are aware that they cannot sustain military operations against the U.S. Army, whose military industry confer them an unmatched, long-term attritional potential. An early termination of hostilities through nuclear coercion would be the only conventional option both countries may opt for. Hence why asymmetry remains their most relevant option, and the U.S’s greater threat.
Likewise counterinsurgency warfare may re-emerge as a military necessity to the U.S. Army. As John Nagl rightly pointed out: ‘While the central problem of international relations in the 20th century was States that were too strong, the primary problems […] in the 21st century are States that are too weak’. Potential failed States such as Venezuela, Egypt or nuclear-armed Pakistan may facilitate the emergence of asymmetric enemies, undermine U.S. interests, its national security and therefore incite military actions.
The U.S. Army is dangerously gambling on the future of warfare. The re-edition of Field Manual 3-0 adopts contingency dynamics theorised by the Army in the 1980s and a linear understanding of the character of war, ignoring its volatile nature. The current strategic context renders high-intensity warfare between peer competitors the least likely threat –though potentially the most destructive. The Multi-Domain Battle, if Gates’ assumption is proven right, may leave the U.S. Army greatly unprepared to face this century’s strategic issues.
Pierre DUGUE is a third-year candidate in War Studies at King’s College London. His main interests revolve around U.S. military doctrine, transatlantic defence relations and NATO. He interned at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, worked as an undergraduate research fellow at King’s College London and is an American Enterprise Institute (Washington D.C.) scholarship recipient