Fire, Maneuver - and FireChat
Matthew Hutchison and Erick Waage
‘‘’You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,’ I told my North Vietnamese counterpart during negotiations in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. He pondered that remark a moment and then replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.’’’
- Excerpt from interview by Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., which originally appeared in the premier issue of Vietnam Magazine in 1988.
The “little green men” have been filtering into Druskininkai for at least the last eighteen hours. The Lithuanian government first identified the infiltration by mining local dash-cam footage taken from Uber-drivers transporting clientele in vicinity of the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. The Lithuanian Chief of Defense soon orders the scrambling of jet fighters from the Zokniai Airfield in Siauliai, but finds that the airport control tower’s operating system has crashed. In addition, fuel for its Aero L-39 Albatros fighter jets is unavailable having been rerouted weeks prior due to reportedly Russian-inspired protests by a trade union outside of the Lithuanian Air Force’s primary fuel depot. Simultaneously, a Lithuanian motorized battalion stationed in Alytus, some 30 miles from Druskininkai, attempts to mobilize in an effort to intercept the massing “little green men”, but finds that the main highway between the two cities is insurmountably blocked by traffic caused by multiple overturned vehicle trailers originating from assembly plants located in Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast. The Chief of Defense attempts to confirm the status of two American infantry platoons located in Siauliai. He receives reports that power has been shut off to the American compound and that almost a hundred “foreign” men wearing civilian attire and a dozen hovering quadcopter drones are beginning to mass around the compound’s surrounding facilities. In response, the Chief of Defense orders the shutdown of Siauliai’s commercial cellular and wi-fi networks to disrupt any potential actions of the “foreign” men. Minutes before his own government communications network crashes, the Chief of Defense learns of the successful shutdown of Siauliai’s cellular network. Outside the American compound, over FireChat, a smartphone application that enables its users to bypass cellular and wi-fi infrastructure via a bluetooth mesh-network, a Russian Spetsnaz officer orders his first assaulting troop composed of “foreign men” to initiate the breech on their target compound.
Tools such as FireChat, though impressive in their own right, are representative of emerging disruptive technologies that can be used to either enable or inhibit military operations. Cheap commercial technology, such as Unmanned Aerial Surveillance (UAS), and a revolution in supply chain paradigms like modern ecommerce platforms are relevant in both today’s and tomorrow’s battlespace. Not only should our formations seek to understand the tactical considerations of these examples, but they should also seek to understand the social implications, which often are intangible and ever-evolving. Though we are confident that our Army Brigade commanders can prevail in competitions regulated by traditional fire and maneuver, most have never been exposed to an environment with opponents who possess and employ sophisticated cyber and information operations capabilities. Last year, while participating in a Cyber Electromagnetic Activities to Corps and Below (CSCB) rotation at the National Training Center, we were reminded of our Army’s obligation to prepare our soldiers for modern warfare; warfare that will undoubtedly transcend the Land Domain into the Cyberspace Domain.
Since the early 1980s, the Army has used the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, CA to spearhead the evolution of our formations. Used as an environment to both fine-tune and experiment with new concepts, the blood, sweat, and intellectual energy expended at NTC has continued to guarantee our Nation that it possesses the greatest Army in the world. In the spirit of those past soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, NTC continues to be both a proving and testing ground for new ways of fighting. Recently, NTC and Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER) invested heavily in building-out modern cellular and wi-fi infrastructure to replicate our increasingly networked world. This investment and partnership between NTC and ARCYBER has helped to push the edge of combat realism during Direct Action Threat Environment (DATE) scenario cyber pilot rotations. This forced the Rotational Training Unit (RTU) to not only cope with conventional opposing forces (OPFOR), but also with guerilla-like elements, and neutral, indigenous civilians. These unconventional forces are quickly able to leverage information, smart devices, and modern internet services in a way that imitates what combat will likely be in developed regions like those in Eastern Europe or the Levant. Not only do the guerillas, OPFOR, and civilians use their smart devices and internet for day-to-day activities, but they also perform Mission Command and disseminate collected intelligence via a combination of open and encrypted internet applications. As lessons from these NTC Cyber Pilot rotations emerge, other training centers will be able to mirror NTC’s capabilities to better train their RTUs, through realism, challenge, and experimentation.
Readiness continues to be GEN Milley’s highest priority as the Army Chief of Staff and is a multi-faceted construct. While there is tactical, physical, and material readiness, there is yet another kind of readiness in which we need to invest: is the current Army psychologically ready to fight on a new and increasingly complex battlefield? Leading initiatives, like CSCB, are ongoing to examine, assess, and improve our ability as an Army to operate beyond the operating environments that we experienced fighting in over the last decade and a half. Dense urban warfare, cyber-enhanced warfare, and autonomous military systems will certainly dominate future operating environments, and we must be ready to fight and win in those environments. The Combat Training Centers (CTC) have been the crucible for fire and maneuver training for the last three decades. They are places sure to test even the best of our commanders, and they must continue to be places that allow us to challenge current concepts and experiment with new.
We must train in a cohesive manner where fire, maneuver, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities are not isolated from each other but rather integrated and synchronized at all levels of war. Accordingly, our information domain warriors including Information Operations, Psychological Operations, Intelligence, and Cyber personnel need to train together more often and more integrated in order to truly harness the strengths of each discipline. We can conceive increasingly technical OPFOR, but to viscerally understand, visualize, and describe we must be on the receiving end at our CTCs - repetitions against OPFOR with just as good or better capabilities stretches and overloads us, making us better.
The time to embrace our digitized world is here, and our enemies are working to leverage any offset they have, whether through technology, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, autonomous systems, or information operations to increase their advantage. Almost a century ago, then Captain Dwight Eisenhower reflecting on lessons learned and inconclusive results from World War I, authored “A Tank Discussion” outlining the need to thoroughly explore the employment of the tank in modern warfare. In response to the article, GEN Eisenhower’s career was almost cut short by superior officers who believed motorized armored warfare to be a fad. However, through the course of the next two decades, GEN Eisenhower and his peers, such as GEN Omar Bradley and GEN George Patton, thought about and experimented with motorized armor at places like Fort Irwin to “figure out” just how the integration of the tank might work. Their thought-leadership and experimentation contributed greatly to both the Army and our Nation’s success in World War II. Whether digital native or immigrant, we must all look to undertake “A Cyber Discussion”. Our best and brightest will be the ones who demonstrate technical and tactical competence across the spectrum of functions. We need to seize upon change and recognize talent who grasp operations in both the cyberspace and land domains. Comfort is drawn from the knowledge that our Army is comprised of multiple generations of great Americans working together in support of our Nation’s security. To truly achieve the readiness required to fight and win on battlefields anywhere in the world, whether we did or did not grow up in the information age, we must all embrace technological change and work together to collectively better understand, visualize, and describe operations in complex environments and against highly adaptable adversaries. However, we must do this in the face of uncomfortable, yet manageable, risk.
While safety in training is paramount, we must also be cognizant not to stymie innovative training and the use of new technology and capabilities simply because we currently do not understand them or feel they will too quickly create excessive, unmanageable risk. Instead, our Army’s senior leaders must weigh the risks of using new and untested training techniques and technologies against going to combat ill prepared to face precarious scenarios. The news recently has been filled with reports of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies, such as drones being used by allies and enemies to provide them tactical advantage without risking loss of human life. To incorporate these new training techniques, we must be open to the need for streamlining and for revising regulations, safety controls, and lengthy approval processes that may prevent us from training against such emerging and protean technology. We’ve already read stories of our Marine Corps innovatively incorporating adversarial COTS drones into training scenarios to identify friendly wired-obstacles and living areas, and we’re openly seeing the roles COTS drones are playing in Syria and Ukraine. To address these evolving threats, we need to rapidly increase our injects for realistic, creative, technologically savvy, and largely unconstrained opposing forces into training scenarios ranging from challenging home station training to tough CTC rotations.
Lastly, one point of concern while fighting within the Information Environment (IE) is the disparate and sometimes lofty authorities required to maintain offensive tactical initiative. Between the different channels of information operations, psychological operations, intelligence, and cyber is the ability to employ effects and quickly pivot based on mission is often held at too high a level of command, therefore causing a delayed operations cycle. With the era of modularization and the Brigade Combat Team (BCT) as the Army’s primary unit of employment, we have not yet decided what offensive authorities a BCT commander should have at his level. The speed and quickness in which the IE changes, and in which the BCT Commander must operate, requires a major overhaul of the way we manage and delegate offensive authorities. In this uncharted technologically-enabled space, we cannot expect well-established, streamlined policies and processes for capabilities that we have yet to employ. Rather, we must pursue “policy-by-CONOP” methodologies where we first identify both the operational problems and their offensive solutions, then rapidly request policies to that enable the employment of those solutions. We must empower our BCT Commander’s on the tip of the spear to be able to think and act strategically while leveraging information and the IE to enable their freedom of maneuver at the tactical level.
Even at the tactical edge, today’s adversaries are capable of rapidly engineering their own technical tools or repurposing commercial solutions in the midst of combat to gain martial advantage. We must inculcate in our leaders the mental processes and behavior to compete creatively and proficiently beyond fire and maneuver and inspire them to actively battle in the IE, an environment that is increasingly influenced by fast moving technologies and has irreversible momentum. Thankfully, emerging Army concepts like Multi-Domain Battle are working to address the accelerating complexity that the IE will present to future commanders and staffs. Ultimately, our Army’s ability to embrace and fully and quickly integrate concepts like Multi-Domain Battle from the Strategic to Tactical levels of war, will prepare it to keep “rolling along” on future battlefields.