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Multi Domain Battle: Welcome to the Jungle

New York City, summer 1980: A young Axl Rose steps from the Ford Econoline van he has hitched in from Indiana and out into the hustle and bustle of Hudson Heights. With their white skin, blue jeans, cowboy boots and long hair, Axl and his buddy from Tippecanoe County are aliens in the teeming diversity of the neighbourhood’s Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Haitians, Hindus and Chinese. Attracting attention as they head for Manhattan, a homeless man walks up to them and shrieks in their faces:


The future Guns N’ Roses frontman stays silent.


One gets the sense that Ukrainian artillery troops could relate to Axl and co.’s position. Late last year, IT security firm Crowdstrike issued a controversial report claiming that Russian hackers had penetrated an app used by dispersed Ukrainian Artillery Forces to increase the coordination and accuracy of barrages. In particular, the app reduced the targeting time for the Soviet-era D-30 Howitzer employed by the 55th Artillery Brigade forces from minutes to under 15 seconds. The report suggested that a Russian X-Agent malware implant had been used by the Fancy Bear group – the same folks accused of hacking the Democrat National Committee – to hack the app with devastating consequences. Although exact information is difficult to discern, a March 2017 update citing an IISS staff member put Ukrainian D-30 losses at between 15-20{4dab693c107f7b6d4058a0febcf4eed43717abc6a37e80004208d6080fd302b5} in the same period. However, as Elias Groll has noted, the Ukrainian creator of the app has refuted the controversial Crowdstrike report, as has the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.

Whatever the exact extent of losses caused by the hacking, I understand from a conversation with a very credible source that it did occur, and in the following manner. Russian hackers took control of the app and got the coordinates of all the Ukrainian batteries from it. Using the app, they then adjusted their barrels away from pre-identified Russian targets (it is not clear if they were laid onto other Ukrainian forces). All the Ukrainian batteries were then texted through the app to say they were about to be annihilated by a Russian attack and should save themselves. Moments later, Russian artillery stuck the Ukrainian batteries as ground forces launched a successful combined assault.

Welcome to the jungle, baby.

These two anecdotes are important because they highlight that we are facing such a profound shift in the rapidity and lethality of war that it may well prove to be a different paradigm from that we have faced thus far. This, as far as I can tell given the ongoing work on them, is what the U.S. Army’s Multi-Domain Battle, and in a different way, the British Army’s Integrated Action concepts, are all about.

Do You Know Where You Are?

General Brown and Perkins’ recent article outlined the bones of what MDB may look like and how the U.S. Army is synching its preparations to address it over time, but there was, understandably, a lack of detail as to what it all might mean. However, at RUSI’s recent and excellent Land Warfare Conference the chiefs of both the U.S. and British armies provided more ‘meat’ on the subject, General Mark Milley in particular, perhaps reflecting a greater focus in the U.S.

Milley spoke of a coming ‘fundamental change in the character of warfare’. He noted the economic and social changes driving this – most notably urbanisation – before honing in on the impact of the information age; ‘it is the speed of information and the ubiquitous nature of information’ that separates the coming era from the past. Crucially, the spread of real-time sensors linked to ‘highly lethal, highly accurate’ rapid and long-range munitions delivery systems will mean that the ability to mass large formations unseen is at an end. For Milley, ‘if you combine being seen and being hit, it is likely that the battlefield of tomorrow is likely to be far more lethal than battlefields of the past.’

Major General Bill Hix, the U.S Army’s Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy, hammered home the extreme violence and lethality of networked  IT systems-based warfare and elaborated further, outlining that the future operating environment will be fragmented and cluttered, with less time for decision making and the increased potential for [rapid] catastrophe due to systems dependencies. He stated that: ‘Ukraine may be the harbinger of the changing character of war… [we need to] think differently… [this is] a new generation of war… land forces are going to have to project power into other domains.’

The combined use of AI, algorithms and robotics in both wider society and militaries will only increase this further and attempts to limit them in warfare are unlikely to fully succeed. Hix outlined how the U.S. Army is pursuing ‘human-machine teaming’ and augmentation, noting ‘we’ve been perfecting the mechanised industrial way of warfare for 100 years, and I think we’ve hit the top of S curve. It seems clear we are entering the information age of potentially autonomous warfare.’ As other senior U.S generals have warned, science fiction is arriving, now.

Similarly, as Igor Sutyagin has detailed, U.S. and British uncontested dominance of the electro-magnetic spectrum is at an end, while the proliferation of non-sate actors and near-peers’ pursuit of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategies, and their use of ambiguous hybrid methods and information operations to support them will further complicate the battlespace, as will electro-magnetic deception.

MDB is not therefore, to paraphrase Schmuel Schmuel, a re-boot of Air-Land Battle with cyber latched on. It will be much more profound, and will stretch far beyond the land domain. So what are the implications for the future battlespace?

You’re Gonna Die

Let’s start at the top. Although the army’s focus is currently on limited land operations, by its very nature, MDB implies compression of the tactical, operational and strategic levels, from the home base all the way to the foxhole. If land manoeuvre and fires are to be complimented by those in the cyber and space domains, actions to achieve tactical effects could have immediate strategic consequences.

For example, Russia and China are developing anti-satellite missiles, and even if not fully operational, these programmes demonstrate how these nations hope to fight. In contrast, the U.S. space programme was recently described as ‘old’ by the officer responsible for it.

A relentlessly contested future space domain means that much of the RMA’s effectiveness could be undermined by satellite strikes and the loss of situational awareness and targeting systems upon which it relies.

As MDB notes, in such contested space and cyber domains, pulses of data flows may be restored, giving forces ‘temporary windows of superiority’ before the next round of satellite and/or sensor based-strikes return them to relative darkness and inferiority. Those that can maintain and exploit these windows the longest will be ultimately be victorious, but the ability to operate without relying on networked based information technologies such as GPS and targeting systems will also contribute to survivability.

In this regard, both Milley and Hix identified that this increased lethality and rapidity of targeting will force a major distribution of command and control. Command will be further decentralised and operational and tactical headquarters will have to ‘move much more frequently than in the past; we are not going to be stable, or in a single location, for more than two, or three, or four hours. The consequences of that on the human dimension of warfare – on the ability to stay awake and endurance – is obvious if you have to move every two or three hours in order just to survive.’ In such an environment, and especially if David Kilcullen is proved right, even the uniform may have to be dispersed of to ensure survival.

In response to the lethality and patchy situational awareness of highly contested network warfare, and in contrast to Conrad Crane’s recent piece, its seems clear that this further decentralising of command will result in a greater need for clear intent and mission command. And, Tony King points out in his excellent forthcoming book on command, complimenting the need for smaller, rapidly moving battlefield headquarters, larger ‘reach back’ headquarters will remain in secure home bases battling to maintain the initiative and contact with forward deployed forces.

If Milley, Hix and others are right, then field commands will become lighter, more rapid and operate with and without situational awareness, while operational command will bunker down in more easily protected sites out of theatre, if such a notion will still exist. Reflecting this need to secure sites to protect vital command and control systems, when asked what he needed more of recently a Ukrainian general simply replied: ‘Concrete’.

One operational level problem climbing back up the priority list is how to logistically sustain forces in such an environment. Lines of communication will be insecure and supplies very vulnerable to targeting if delivered by conventional means. Similarly, as my PhD showed, in the past 15 years military logistics delivery has been transformed around Post-Fordist and Supply Chain Management principles and technologies that are vulnerable to network attack and reliant on relatively stable assumptions of supply and demand. Technologies like 3-D printing, swarm drone delivery, and robots may offer help mitigate the threat, but ground forces are likely to have to operate in an era of much increased logistical austerity. Coupled with decentralised command, this will have major implications for the training, missions and expectations of soldiers.

Finally, what about mobility? In the future urban environment the U.S is preparing for, the mobility and survivability of forces, and the ability to sustain them will be key factors. I live in London, and cannot help but notice the effectiveness of criminal motorbike gangs in the urban environment. Cheap, fast, highly manoeuvrable, easy to hide and maintain, and with a logistically light footprint, one simple answer to the need to disperse may be the mass re-introduction of motorbike troops. While Special Forces have long recognised their utility, the British Army at least has all but ended this capability. Given massed motorbike forces’ long range, easy dispersal and high potential for swarm tactics, they may even have utility outside the urban environment.

Which brings me back to Guns N’ Roses. Terminator 2 has just been re-released in 3-D and GnR provide the soundtrack to the central scene of an urban motorbike chase including two autonomous war fighting machines and a human. Perhaps not so far-fetched?

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed through our contact form

Dr Patrick Bury
Defence and Security Analyst | Website

Patrick Bury is Lecturer in Defence and Strategic Studies at the University of Bath and a former regular British Army officer. Mission Improbable: The Transformation of the British Army Reserveis out now with Howgate Publishing.

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