Interchangeability Of Fire And Multi-Domain Operations

Soviet “forces and resources” chart. [Richard Simpkin, Deep Battle: The Brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii (Brassey’s: London, 1987) p. 254]

With the emergence of the importance of cross-domain fires in the U.S. effort to craft a joint doctrine for multi-domain operations, there is an old military concept to which developers should give greater consideration: interchangeability of fire.

This is an idea that British theorist Richard Simpkin traced back to 19th century Russian military thinking, which referred to it then as the interchangeability of shell and bayonet. Put simply, it was the view that artillery fire and infantry shock had equivalent and complimentary effects against enemy troops and could be substituted for one another as circumstances dictated on the battlefield.

The concept evolved during the development of the Russian/Soviet operational concept of “deep battle” after World War I to encompass the interchangeability of fire and maneuver. In Soviet military thought, the battlefield effects of fires and the operational maneuver of ground forces were equivalent and complementary.

This principle continues to shape contemporary Russian military doctrine and practice, which is, in turn, influencing U.S. thinking about multi-domain operations. In fact, the idea is not new to Western military thinking at all. Maneuver warfare advocates adopted the concept in the 1980s, but it never found its way into official U.S. military doctrine.

An Idea Who’s Time Has Come. Again.

So why should the U.S. military doctrine developers take another look at interchangeability now? First, the increasing variety and ubiquity of long-range precision fire capabilities is forcing them to address the changing relationship between mass and fires on multi-domain battlefields. After spending a generation waging counterinsurgency and essentially outsourcing responsibility for operational fires to the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps are scrambling to come to grips with the way technology is changing the character of land operations. All of the services are at the very beginning of assessing the impact of drone swarms—which are themselves interchangeable blends of mass and fires—on combat.

Second, the rapid acceptance and adoption of the idea of cross-domain fires has carried along with it an implicit acceptance of the interchangeability of the effects of kinetic and non-kinetic (i.e. information, electronic, and cyber) fires. This alone is already forcing U.S. joint military thinking to integrate effects into planning and decision-making.

The key component of interchangability is effects. Inherent in it is acceptance of the idea that combat forces have effects on the battlefield that go beyond mere physical lethality, i.e. the impact of fire or shock on a target. U.S. Army doctrine recognizes three effects of fires: destruction, neutralization, and suppression. Russian and maneuver warfare theorists hold that these same effects can be achieved through the effects of operational maneuver. The notion of interchangeability offers a very useful way of thinking about how to effectively integrate the lethality of mass and fires on future battlefields.

But Wait, Isn’t Effects Is A Four-Letter Word?

There is a big impediment to incorporating interchangeability into U.S. military thinking, however, and that is the decidedly ambivalent attitude of the U.S. land warfare services toward thinking about non-tangible effects in warfare.

As I have pointed out before, the U.S. Army (at least) has no effective way of assessing the effects of fires on combat, cross-domain or otherwise, because it has no real doctrinal methodology for calculating combat power on the battlefield. Army doctrine conceives of combat power almost exclusively in terms of capabilities and functions, not effects. In Army thinking, a combat multiplier is increased lethality in the form of additional weapons systems or combat units, not the intangible effects of operational or moral (human) factors on combat. For example, suppression may be a long-standing element in doctrine, but the Army still does not really have a clear idea of what causes it or what battlefield effects it really has.

In the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf War and the ensuing “Revolution in Military Affairs,” the U.S. Air Force led the way forward in thinking about the effects of lethality on the battlefield and how it should be leveraged to achieve strategic ends. It was the motivating service behind the development of a doctrine of “effects based operations” or EBO in the early 2000s.

However, in 2008, U.S. Joint Forces Command commander, U.S Marine General (and current Secretary of Defense) James Mattis ordered his command to no longer “use, sponsor, or export” EBO or related concepts and terms, the underlying principles of which he deemed to be “fundamentally flawed.” This effectively eliminated EBO from joint planning and doctrine. While Joint Forces Command was disbanded in 2011 and EBO thinking remains part of Air Force doctrine, Mattis’s decree pretty clearly showed what the U.S. land warfare services think about battlefield effects.

Should The Marines Take Responsibility For Counterinsurgency?

United States Marines in Nacaragua with the captured flag of Augusto César Sandino, 1932. [Wikipedia]

Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr recently reported in Breaking Defense that the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), led by chairman Senator John McCain, has asked Defense Secretary James Mattis to report on progress toward preparing the U.S. armed services to carry out the recently published National Defense Strategy oriented toward potential Great Power conflict.

Among a series of questions that challenge existing service roles and missions, Freedberg reported that the SASC wants to know if responsibility for carrying out “low-intensity missions,” such as counterinsurgency, should be the primary responsibility of one service:

Make the Marines a counterinsurgency force? The Senate starts by asking whether the military “would benefit from having one Armed Force dedicated primarily to low-intensity missions, thereby enabling the other Armed Forces to focus more exclusively on advanced peer competitors.” It quickly becomes clear that “one Armed Force” means “the Marines.” The bill questions the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) and suggest shifting that role to the Marines. It also questions the survivability of Navy-Marine flotillas in the face of long-range sensors and precision missiles — so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems — and asked whether the Marines’ core mission, “amphibious forced entry operations,” should even “remain an enduring mission for the joint force” given the difficulties. It suggests replacing large-deck amphibious ships, which carry both Marine aircraft and landing forces, with small aircraft carriers that could carry “larger numbers of more diverse strike aircraft” (but not amphibious vehicles or landing craft). Separate provisions of the bill restrict spending on the current Amphibious Assault Vehicle (Sec. 221) and the future Amphibious Combat Vehicle (Sec. 128) until the Pentagon addresses the viability of amphibious landings.

This proposed change would drastically shift the U.S. Marine Corps’ existing role and missions, something that will inevitably generate political and institutional resistance. Deemphasizing the ability to execute amphibious forced entry operations would be both a difficult strategic choice and an unpalatable political decision to fundamentally alter the Marine Corps’ institutional identity. Amphibious warfare has defined the Marines since the 1920s. It would, however, be a concession to the reality that technological change is driving the evolving character of warfare.

Perhaps This Is Not A Crazy Idea After All

The Marine Corps also has a long history with so-called “small wars”: contingency operations and counterinsurgencies. Tasking the Marines as the proponents for low-intensity conflict would help alleviate one of the basic conundrums facing U.S. land power: the U.S. Army’s inability to optimize its force structure due to the strategic need to be prepared to wage both low-intensity conflict and conventional combined arms warfare against peer or near peer adversaries. The capabilities needed for waging each type of conflict are diverging, and continuing to field a general purpose force is running an increasing risk of creating an Army dangerously ill-suited for either. Giving the Marine Corps responsibility for low-intensity conflict would permit the Army to optimize most of its force structure for combined arms warfare, which poses the most significant threat to American national security (even if it less likely than potential future low-intensity conflicts).

Making the Marines the lead for low-intensity conflict would also play to another bulwark of its institutional identity, as the world’s premier light infantry force (“Every Marine is a rifleman”). Even as light infantry becomes increasingly vulnerable on modern battlefields dominated by the lethality of long-range precision firepower, its importance for providing mass in irregular warfare remains undiminished. Technology has yet to solve the need for large numbers of “boots on the ground” in counterinsurgency.

The crucial role of manpower in counterinsurgency makes it somewhat short-sighted to follow through with the SASC’s suggestions to eliminate the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) and to reorient Special Operations Forces (SOF) toward support for high-intensity conflict. As recent, so-called “hybrid warfare” conflicts in Lebanon and the Ukraine have demonstrated, future battlefields will likely involve a mix of combined arms and low-intensity warfare. It would be risky to assume that Marine Corps’ light infantry, as capable as they are, could tackle all of these challenges alone.

Giving the Marines responsibility for low-intensity conflict would not likely require a drastic change in force structure. Marines could continue to emphasize sea mobility and littoral warfare in circumstances other than forced entry. Giving up the existing large-deck amphibious landing ships would be a tough concession, admittedly, one that would likely reduce the Marines’ effectiveness in responding to contingencies.

It is not likely that a change as big as this will be possible without a protracted political and institutional fight. But fresh thinking and drastic changes in the U.S.’s approach to warfare are going to be necessary to effectively address both near and long-term strategic challenges.

Senate Armed Service Committee Proposes Far-Reaching Changes To U.S. Military

Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (R-RI) listen to testimony in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 11, 2017 in Washington, D.C. [CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images]

In an article in Breaking Defense last week, Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr. pointed out that the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has requested that Secretary of Defense James Mattis report back by 1 February 2019 on what amounts to “the most sweeping reevaluation of the military in 30 years, with tough questions for all four armed services but especially the Marine Corps.”

Freedberg identified SASC chairman Senator John McCain as the motivating element behind the report, which is part of the draft 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. It emphasizes the initiative to reorient the U.S. military away from its nearly two-decade long focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to prioritizing preparation for potential future Great Power conflict, as outlined in Mattis’s recently published National Defense Strategy. McCain sees this shift taking place far too slowly according to Freedberg, who hints that Mattis shares this concern.

While the SASC request addresses some technological issues, its real focus is on redefining the priorities, missions, and force structures of the armed forces (including special operations forces) in the context of the National Defense Strategy.

The changes it seeks are drastic. According to Freedberg, among the difficult questions it poses are:

  • Make the Marines a counterinsurgency force? [This would greatly help alleviate the U.S. Army’s current strategic conundrum]
  • Make the Army heavier, with fewer helicopters?
  • Refocus Special Operations against Russia and China?
  • Rely less on stealth aircraft and more on drones?

Each of these questions relates directly to trends associated with the multi-domain battle and operations concepts the U.S. armed services are currently jointly developing in response to threats posed by Russian, Chinese, and Iranian military advances.

It is clear that the SASC believes that difficult choices with far-reaching consequences are needed to adequately prepare to meet these challenges. The armed services have been historically resistant to changes involving trade-offs, however, especially ones that touch on service budgets and roles and missions. It seems likely that more than a report will be needed to push through changes deemed necessary by the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and the Secretary of Defense.

Read more of Freedberg’s article here.

The draft 2019 National Defense Authorization Act can be found here, and the SASC questions can be found in Section 1041 beginning on page 478.

What Is A Breakpoint?

French retreat from Russia in 1812 by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov (1812) [Wikipedia]

After discussing with Chris the series of recent posts on the subject of breakpoints, it seemed appropriate to provide a better definition of exactly what a breakpoint is.

Dorothy Kneeland Clark was the first to define the notion of a breakpoint in her study, Casualties as a Measure of the Loss of Combat Effectiveness of an Infantry Battalion (Operations Research Office, The Johns Hopkins University: Baltimore, 1954). She found it was not quite as clear-cut as it seemed and the working definition she arrived at was based on discussions and the specific combat outcomes she found in her data set [pp 9-12].


The following definitions were developed out of many discussions. A unit is considered to have lost its combat effectiveness when it is unable to carry out its mission. The onset of this inability constitutes a breakpoint. A unit’s mission is the objective assigned in the current operations order or any other instructional directive, written or verbal. The objective may be, for example, to attack in order to take certain positions, or to defend certain positions. 

How does one determine when a unit is unable to carry out its mission? The obvious indication is a change in operational directive: the unit is ordered to stop short of its original goal, to hold instead of attack, to withdraw instead of hold. But one or more extraneous elements may cause the issue of such orders: 

(1) Some other unit taking part in the operation may have lost its combat effectiveness, and its predicament may force changes, in the tactical plan. For example the inability of one infantry battalion to take a hill may require that the two adjoining battalions be stopped to prevent exposing their flanks by advancing beyond it. 

(2) A unit may have been assigned an objective on the basis of a G-2 estimate of enemy weakness which, as the action proceeds, proves to have been over-optimistic. The operations plan may, therefore, be revised before the unit has carried out its orders to the point of losing combat effectiveness. 

(3) The commanding officer, for reasons quite apart from the tactical attrition, may change his operations plan. For instance, General Ridgway in May 1951 was obliged to cancel his plans for a major offensive north of the 38th parallel in Korea in obedience to top level orders dictated by political considerations. 

(4) Even if the supposed combat effectiveness of the unit is the determining factor in the issuance of a revised operations order, a serious difficulty in evaluating the situation remains. The commanding officer’s decision is necessarily made on the basis of information available to him plus his estimate of his unit’s capacities. Either or both of these bases may be faulty. The order may belatedly recognize a collapse which has in factor occurred hours earlier, or a commanding officer may withdraw a unit which could hold for a much longer time. 

It was usually not hard to discover when changes in orders resulted from conditions such as the first three listed above, but it proved extremely difficult to distinguish between revised orders based on a correct appraisal of the unit’s combat effectiveness and those issued in error. It was concluded that the formal order for a change in mission cannot be taken as a definitive indication of the breakpoint of a unit. It seemed necessary to go one step farther and search the records to learn what a given battalion did regardless of provisions in formal orders… 


In the engagements studied the following categories of breakpoint were finally selected: 

Category of Breakpoint 

No. Analyzed 

I. Attack [Symbol] rapid reorganization [Symbol] attack 


II. Attack [Symbol] defense (no longer able to attack without a few days of recuperation and reinforcement 


III. Defense [Symbol] withdrawal by order to a secondary line 


IV. Defense [Symbol] collapse 


Disorganization and panic were taken as unquestionable evidence of loss of combat effectiveness. It appeared, however, that there were distinct degrees of magnitude in these experiences. In addition to the expected breakpoints at attack [Symbol] defense and defense [Symbol] collapse, a further category, I, seemed to be indicated to include situations in which an attacking battalion was ‘pinned down” or forced to withdraw in partial disorder but was able to reorganize in 4 to 24 hours and continue attacking successfully. 

Category II includes (a) situations in which an attacking battalion was ordered into the defensive after severe fighting or temporary panic; (b) situations in which a battalion, after attacking successfully, failed to gain ground although still attempting to advance and was finally ordered into defense, the breakpoint being taken as occurring at the end of successful advance. In other words, the evident inability of the unit to fulfill its mission was used as the criterion for the breakpoint whether orders did or did not recognize its inability. Battalions after experiencing such a breakpoint might be able to recuperate in a few days to the point of renewing successful attack or might be able to continue for some time in defense. 

The sample of breakpoints coming under category IV, defense [Symbol] collapse, proved to be very small (5) and unduly weighted in that four of the examples came from the same engagement. It was, therefore, discarded as probably not representative of the universe of category IV breakpoints,* and another category (III) was added: situations in which battalions on the defense were ordered withdrawn to a quieter sector. Because only those instances were included in which the withdrawal orders appeared to have been dictated by the condition of the unit itself, it is believed that casualty levels for this category can be regarded as but slightly lower than those associated with defense [Symbol] collapse. 

In both categories II and III, “‘defense” represents an active situation in which the enemy is attacking aggressively. 

* It had been expected that breakpoints in this category would be associated with very high losses. Such did not prove to be the case. In whatever way the data were approached, most of the casualty averages were only slightly higher than those associated with category II (attack [Symbol] defense), although the spread in data was wider. It is believed that factors other than casualties, such as bad weather, difficult terrain, and heavy enemy artillery fire undoubtedly played major roles in bringing about the collapse in the four units taking part in the same engagement. Furthermore, the casualty figures for the four units themselves is in question because, as the situation deteriorated, many of the men developed severe cases of trench foot and combat exhaustion, but were not evacuated, as they would have been in a less desperate situation, and did not appear in the casualty records until they had made their way to the rear after their units had collapsed.

In 1987-1988, Trevor Dupuy and colleagues at Data Memory Systems, Inc. (DMSi), Janice Fain, Rich Anderson, Gay Hammerman, and Chuck Hawkins sought to create a broader, more generally applicable definition for breakpoints for the study, Forced Changes of Combat Posture (DMSi, Fairfax, VA, 1988) [pp. I-2-3]

The combat posture of a military force is the immediate intention of its commander and troops toward the opposing enemy force, together with the preparations and deployment to carry out that intention. The chief combat postures are attack, defend, delay, and withdraw.

A change in combat posture (or posture change) is a shift from one posture to another, as, for example, from defend to attack or defend to withdraw. A posture change can be either voluntary or forced. 

A forced posture change (FPC) is a change in combat posture by a military unit that is brought about, directly or indirectly, by enemy action. Forced posture changes are characteristically and almost always changes to a less aggressive posture. The most usual FPCs are from attack to defend and from defend to withdraw (or retrograde movement). A change from withdraw to combat ineffectiveness is also possible. 

Breakpoint is a term sometimes used as synonymous with forced posture change, and sometimes used to mean the collapse of a unit into ineffectiveness or rout. The latter meaning is probably more common in general usage, while forced posture change is the more precise term for the subject of this study. However, for brevity and convenience, and because this study has been known informally since its inception as the “Breakpoints” study, the term breakpoint is sometimes used in this report. When it is used, it is synonymous with forced posture change.

Hopefully this will help clarify the previous discussions of breakpoints on the blog.

Breakpoints in U.S. Army Doctrine

U.S. Army prisoners of war captured by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. [Wikipedia]

One of the least studied aspects of combat is battle termination. Why do units in combat stop attacking or defending? Shifts in combat posture (attack, defend, delay, withdrawal) are usually voluntary, directed by a commander, but they can also be involuntary, as a result of direct or indirect enemy action. Why do involuntary changes in combat posture, known as breakpoints, occur?

As Chris pointed out in a previous post, the topic of breakpoints has only been addressed by two known studies since 1954. Most existing military combat models and wargames address breakpoints in at least a cursory way, usually through some calculation based on personnel casualties. Both of the breakpoints studies suggest that involuntary changes in posture are seldom related to casualties alone, however.

Current U.S. Army doctrine addresses changes in combat posture through discussions of culmination points in the attack, and transitions from attack to defense, defense to counterattack, and defense to retrograde. But these all pertain to voluntary changes, not breakpoints.

Army doctrinal literature has little to say about breakpoints, either in the context of friendly forces or potential enemy combatants. The little it does say relates to the effects of fire on enemy forces and is based on personnel and material attrition.

According to ADRP 1-02 Terms and Military Symbols, an enemy combat unit is considered suppressed after suffering 3% personnel casualties or material losses, neutralized by 10% losses, and destroyed upon sustaining 30% losses. The sources and methodology for deriving these figures is unknown, although these specific terms and numbers have been a part of Army doctrine for decades.

The joint U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps vision of future land combat foresees battlefields that are highly lethal and demanding on human endurance. How will such a future operational environment affect combat performance? Past experience undoubtedly offers useful insights but there seems to be little interest in seeking out such knowledge.

Trevor Dupuy criticized the U.S. military in the 1980s for its lack of understanding of the phenomenon of suppression and other effects of fire on the battlefield, and its seeming disinterest in studying it. Not much appears to have changed since then.

TDI Friday Read: U.S. Airpower

[Image by Geopol Intelligence]

This weekend’s edition of TDI’s Friday Read is a collection of posts on the current state of U.S. airpower by guest contributor Geoffery Clark. The same factors changing the character of land warfare are changing the way conflict will be waged in the air. Clark’s posts highlight some of the way these changes are influencing current and future U.S. airpower plans and concepts.

F-22 vs. F-35: Thoughts On Fifth Generation Fighters

The F-35 Is Not A Fighter

U.S. Armed Forces Vision For Future Air Warfare

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force Debate Future Air Superiority

U.S. Marine Corps Concepts of Operation with the F-35B

The State of U.S. Air Force Air Power

Fifth Generation Deterrence


U.S. And China: Deterrence And Resolve Over North Korea

U.S. B-1 bombers overfly Korean Peninsula after North’s ICBM test, June 20th, 2017. [picture-alliance/AP Photo/Lee Jin-man]

While North Korea tests its inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM)s, the U.S. and China demonstrate their capabilities and resolve to use force, both nuclear and conventional. These shows of force seem to be ratcheting up, as the North Korean tests occur more frequently.  Flights of bombers and naval exercises are also complemented by words, sometimes quite strong words, such as those by the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Scott Smith, who while speaking at the Australian National University’s security conference in late July, said,

Every member of the U.S. military has sworn an oath to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as commander and chief appointed over us.

Asked by an academic in the audience whether he would make a nuclear attack on China next week if President Trump ordered it, Swift replied: “The answer would be: yes.”  These words are then reported in the press as “US admiral would ‘nuke China next week’ if Trump ordered it.” (South China Morning Post)  That kind of bombast is sensational, and intended to draw in readers. The reality of nuclear deterrence is that it has to be credible, meaning that the target nation must believe that nuclear weapons would be used if a certain line is crossed. This may make uncomfortable reading today, as Cold War memories are fading, but it has been reality since 1945.

[Photo deleted at the request of AFP]

China, meanwhile, has staged two different naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, likely organized to mark the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) 90th Anniversary on August 1st, 2017. It is ironic that naval exercises celebrate the Army’s anniversary, and that concurrently the PLA is shrinking relative to the Chinese Navy and Air Force. The PLA Army will likely take the brunt of the reduction, and the PLA Navy and Air Force are expected to increase in size,” according to Dr. David Finkelstein of the Center for Naval Analysis. Both the Navy, officially the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Air Force, officially the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) are nominally part of the PLA.

It is also ironic that these naval exercises will close a portion of the maritime commons to commercial traffic, also known as Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), articulated by Alfred Thayer Mahan, of the U.S. Naval War College.

The PLA Navy’s North Sea Fleet and the Shandong Maritime Safety Administration announced in the past two days that the central part of the Yellow Sea would be cordoned off to all marine traffic from Thursday for military purposes. An area of about 40,000 square kilometres off the coastal city of Qingdao, where the North Sea Fleet is headquartered, was expected to be affected by the drill, which would involve live ammunition, Weihai Evening Post reported on Wednesday. [Korea Times]

A US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II VFMA 121 refuels using a KC-130J Hercules with VMGR 152 during Aviation Delivered Ground Refueling training at MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, on 11 April. The technique will increase the STOVL fighter’s ability to refuel in austere locations when other resources may not be available. [USMC]

The US Marine Corps (USMC) has deployed the F-35B to their forward operating base in Iwakuni Japan, and continues to innovate with their doctrine and Concepts Of Operation (CONOPS), as previously reported in this blog. This stealth strike fighter capability, on the relative doorstep of North Korea, and also relatively difficult to reprisal strikes from North Korea, seems to be one of the strongest deterrent forces.

More to follow on the on-going F-35 debate, as retired Marine Lt. Col. David Berke (also previously quoted in this blog), and Pierre Sprey go head to head on the topic in an Aviation Week podcast.

Trevor Dupuy on Military Innovation

In an article published by the Association of the U.S. Army last November that I missed on the first go around, U.S. Army Colonel Eric E. Aslakson and Lieutenant Colonel Richard T. Brown, (ret.) make the argument that “Staff colonels are the Army’s innovation center of gravity.”

The U.S. defense community has settled upon innovation as one of the key methods for overcoming the challenges posed by new technologies and strategies adapted by potential adversaries, as articulated in the Third Offset Strategy developed by the late Obama administration. It is becoming clear however, that a desire to innovate is not the same as actual innovation. Aslakson and Brown make the point that innovation is not simply technological development and identify what they believe is a crucial institutional component of military innovation in the U.S. Army.

Innovation is differentiated from other forms of change such as improvisation and adaptation by the scale, scope and impact of that value creation. Innovation is not about a new widget or process, but the decisive value created and the competitive advantage gained when that new widget or process is applied throughout the Army or joint force…

However, none of these inventions or activities can rise to the level of innovation unless there are skilled professionals within the Army who can convert these ideas into competitive advantage across the enterprise. That is the role of a colonel serving in a major command staff leadership assignment…

These leaders do not typically create the change. But they have the necessary institutional and operational expertise and experience, contacts, resources and risk tolerance to manage processes across the entire framework of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities, converting invention into competitive advantage.

In his seminal book, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1980), Trevor Dupuy noted a pattern in the historical relationship between development of weapons of increasing lethality and their incorporation in warfare. He too noted that the crucial factor was not the technology itself, but the organizational approach to using it.

When a radically new weapon appears and is first adopted, it is inherently incongruous with existing weapons and doctrine. This is reflected in a number of ways; uncertainty and hesitation in coordination of the new weapon with earlier ones; inability to use it consistently, effectively, and flexibly in offensive action, which often leads to tactical stalemate; vulnerability of the weapon and of its users to hostile countermeasures; heavy losses incident to the employment of the new weapon, or in attempting to oppose it in combat. From this it is possible to establish the following criteria of assimilation:

  1. Confident employment of the weapon in accordance with a doctrine that assures its coordination with other weapons in a manner compatible with the characteristics of each.
  2. Consistently effective, flexible use of the weapon in offensive warfare, permitting full employment of the advantages of superior leadership and/or superior resources.
  3. Capability of dealing effectively with anticipated and unanticipated countermeasures.
  4. Sharp decline in casualties for those employing the weapon, often combined with a capability for inflicting disproportionately heavy losses on the enemy.

Based on his assessment of this historical pattern, Dupuy derived a set of preconditions necessary for a successful assimilation of new technology into warfare.

  1. An imaginative, knowledgeable leadership focused on military affairs, supported by extensive knowledge of, and competence in, the nature and background of the existing military system.
  2. Effective coordination of the nation’s economic, technological-scientific, and military resources.
    1. There must exist industrial or developmental research institutions, basic research institutions, military staffs and their supporting institutions, together with administrative arrangements for linking these with one another and with top decision-making echelons of government.
    2. These bodies must conduct their research, developmental, and testing activities according to mutually familiar methods so that their personnel can communicate, can be mutually supporting, and can evaluate each other’s results.
    3. The efforts of these institutions—in related matters—must be directed toward a common goal.
  3. Opportunity for battlefield experimentation as a basis for evaluation and analysis.

Does the U.S. defense establishment’s organizational and institutional approach to innovation meet these preconditions? Good question.

U.S. Marine Corps Concepts of Operation with the F-35B

Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration. [US Navy photo by Andy Wolfe]

The US Marine Corps (USMC) is practicing some new concepts of operation (CONOPS), using their new F-35B aircraft. The combination of a stealthy, Short-Take-Off-Vetical-Landing (STOVL) fighter with great sensors, with the aviation-centric configuration of the America Class vessels; the “Lightening Carrier (CV-L)” concept, and the flexible basing options from their CONOPS have some great potential to rapidly extend the power of the USMC ashore. “After fifteen years of emphasizing sustained operations ashore, the Marine Corps is refocusing on its naval and expeditionary roots and full-spectrum operations across the range of military operations (ROMO).”  (2017 Marine Aviation Plan)

The 21st century Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) conducts maneuver warfare in the physical and cognitive dimensions of conflict to generate and exploit psychological, technological, temporal, and spatial advantages over the adversary. The 21st century MAGTF executes maneuver warfare through a combined arms approach that embraces information warfare as indispensable for achieving complementary effects across five domains – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. The 21st century MAGTF avoids linear, sequential, and phased approaches to operations and blends maneuver warfare and combined arms to generate the combat power needed for simultaneity of action in its full range of missions. The 21st century MAGTF operates and fights at sea, from the sea, and ashore as an integrated part of the naval force and the larger combined/joint force. (emphasis added) (ibid)

The concepts laid out in the USMC document are:

  • Distributed Aviation Operations (DAO) – this is a plan to reduce predictability and operate from austere locations, “independent of specialized fixed infrastructure”
  • Distributed STOVL Operations (DSO) – similar to DSO, but with “[F]uel and ordnance resupply conducted at mobile forward arming and refueling points (M-FARPS) located closer or within the operating area.”
  • “Complementing…is the mobile distribution site (MDS) concept, a vehicle-mobile site located away from the M-FARP, intended to re-arm and re-fuel the M-FARP while maintaining an element of deception and decoy. DSO is sustainable using surface connectors, land-based MDSs and host nation support, enabling readiness and sortie generation for the MAGTF.”

We might never need to employ this way…but to not lean forward to develop this capability, to train and exercise with it, is to deny ourselves a force multiplier that highlights the agility and opportunity only the Navy-Marine Corps team can provide. (ibid)

How Do These USMC Lightening Carriers Compare?

The America Class amphibious assault ship, which at ~45,000 ton displacement is larger that the French nuclear carrier Charles De Gaulle (~42,000 tons), and approaching the size of the Russian and Chinese Kuznetsov class carriers (~55,000 tons), about the same size as the Indian modified Kiev class carrier (~45,000 tons), and bigger than the Japanese Izumo Class “helicopter destroyer” (~27,000 tons), which to a layman’s eyes is an aircraft carrier; even though these vessels operate only helicopters today, the capability to operate F-35B aircraft in the future is certainly exists. Of course the dominant carrier force is the US Navy’s Nimitz class, and newer Ford class (~100,000 tons), which  operate aircraft using Catapult-Assisted-Take-Off-But-Arrested-Recovery (CATOBAR). Interestingly, the British initially designed their Queen Elizabeth class carriers (~70,000 tons) to be CATOBAR, which gives the advantage of being able to launch heavier fighters (i.e. more weapons and fuel). A doubling of the estimated cost for CATOBAR forced a redesign back to a STOVL design back in 2012.

Are STOVL Aircraft Inherently Inferior?

This is an excellent question. The physical laws of nature have a vote here, because a STOVL aircraft must carry a smaller payload, than a CATOBAR aircraft, since it lacks the initial thrust provided by the catapult. David Axe of War is Boring has delivered a scathing account of the STOVL concept and history, (to again target the F-35). The USMC pursued STOVL technology, in spite of ” …crash-plagued experimentation throughout the early years of the jet age — every STOVL or V/STOL prototype from 1946 to 1966 crashed. “USMC interest in a working V/STOL attack aircraft outstripped the state of aeronautical technology.”

The British, meanwhile, concerned about Russian bomber and missile attacks on their airfields during the Cold War, developed the Harrier Jump Jet, which did not require a lengthy, fixed runway.

But the Harrier, so appealing in theory, has been a disaster in practice … In the 1991 Gulf War, the front-line concrete lily pads never showed up, so the jump jet had to fly from distant full-size bases or assault ships. With their very limited fuel, they were lucky to be able to put in five or 10 minutes supporting Marines on the ground — and they proved tremendously vulnerable to machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles.

Indeed, Mr. Axe quotes the infamous Pierre Sprey – “The Harrier was based on a complete lie.” (emphasis added).

Was The Harrier Really That Bad?  

Some claim that the Sea Harrier [is] the forgotten hero that won the war in the Falklands.  The US Air Force air chronicles states …

Harrier jump-jets performed well beyond the performance expectations of most military experts. The remarkable record of the aircraft is attributed not only to relatively sophisticated gadgetry, such as warning receivers and electronic countermeasures to confuse Argentine antiaircraft weapons, but also to the skilled British pilots…and the older Argentine planes…. In spite of its spectacular successes against British ships, Argentina lost the air-to-air war decisively. Argentine fighter aircraft failed to shoot down a single Harrier. British Harrier losses totaled nine–four to accidents and five by surface-based air defenses–surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and antiaircraft artillery (AAA).

The USMC concepts specifically called out the ability to exploit spatial advantages, which also played a key roll in the Falklands:

The 400 miles from Argentina to the islands partially explained why the score was so lopsided. To make the 800-mile round trip from the Rio Gallegos Air Base on the coast severely strained the maximum operating range of the Argentine aircraft. Consequently, Argentine pilots had all they could do to reach the conflict area undetected and deliver their ordnance, “getting in and getting out” as quickly as possible.” (Ibid)

This geo-spatial situation is reminiscent of the Battle of Britain, where the RAF operated fighter aircraft nearby the battle location, while the Luftwaffe operated at the edge of their range, a limitation which was also widely credited as an important factor in the outcome.

The US Navy’s account of the Falklands War gave similar credit to the Harrier’s effectiveness:

[T]he Royal Navy was forced to go to war with only two short vertical takeoff and landing (STOVL) ships and their STOVL aircraft, the Harrier…. [T]hese units performed very well. It has been stated that had the British not had aircraft with the capabilities of the Harrier (STOVL, high reliability, and high availability) and the two small ships to operate them, it is unlikely the United Kingdom would have committed itself to hostilities in the South Atlantic…. Perhaps its greatest feature was surprising flexibility…. One of the best features of the Harrier was versatility in operating from a variety of platforms under actual combat conditions.

It is precisely this flexibility that STOVL aircraft—both the F-35B and the Harrier before it—which is leveraged in the USMC concepts. The F-35B has the added advantage that one of its key capabilities is the delivery of timely, accurate information. This information is delivered across the battle network at the speed of light, and weighs nothing, so the STOVL limitations do not apply in the same way. It seems clear that any evaluation of the F-35B’s capabilities need to consider these advantages, rather than focusing exclusively on metrics related to the Energy-Maneuverability Theory, such as wing loading, thrust to weight ratio.

U.S. Armed Forces Vision For Future Air Warfare

[Source: Naval Air Vision 2014-2025]

I’ve been reviewing the U.S. armed forces vision for how to fight and win with the F-35. It plays a pretty central role in each services’ vision documents, meaning that they have all adapted to the “top-down” strategic guidance given by the Department of Defense (DOD). But the interesting part is the differences between the services’ documents and statements.

How The Services View Their F-35s

Below are the U.S. armed forces I’ve focused on, and their current and future plans for the F-35. The table is from the FlightGlobal World Air Forces 2017 report.

Given the large numbers of aircraft going to training units, we can see that all forces are building their new pilot numbers, and according to Lt Col Berke (via an Aviation Week interview), they will put new pilots into F-35s, so they simply learn a fifth generation mindset from scratch, rather than having to “un-learn” the fourth generation mindset.

We can also see the U.S. Marine Corps building active combat units, in their relative haste to declare Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in July 2015, and in support of their first F-35B overseas deployment to Iwakuni Airbase, Japan in January 2017. This deployment location is a good way to support both possible confrontation sites in Korea and the East China Sea.

[Source: Forbes]

Another viewpoint exists on the U.S. military force posture in Asia that is essentially militaristic. The map image above is from a Forbes article, calling other US media “blind to the militarism of its own mentality and approach, as well as to the essential militarism of the U.S. alliance system in Asia, with its “cornerstone” of U.S. bases, including the headquarters and the Seventh Fleet, and some 100,000 force personnel in Japan and South Korea.” The Marine Corps is apparently quite keen to replace their ageing AV-8B and early model F/A-18A/B/C/D aircraft (as they have skipped out on the Super Hornet F/A-18E/F).

Meanwhile the U.S. Navy has articulated their vision in a document from Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) entitled Naval Aviation Vision 2016-2025. They state:

The supersonic, multi-role, multi-service F-35 Lightning II represents a quantum leap in air superiority capability. Combining the next-generation fighter characteristics of radar-evading stealth, supersonic speed and fighter agility with the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history, the F-35 delivers unprecedented lethality and survivability to Naval Aviation [emphasis added].

Their characterization of the F-35 as an instrument of air superiority is perhaps a bit too optimistic, or stretches the F-35 capability a bit too much. In an assessment from the U.S. Naval War College of “Chinese Air Superiority in the Near Seas”, the F-35 does not stand out from the pack of Chinese and American fourth generation fighters, in the same way that the F-22 clearly does:

Indeed, while the U.S. Air Force has big plans for the F-35, it also offers some cautionary words about the force design and balance that the F-22 brings to the fight. According to Chief of U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command Gen. Michael Hostage in a February 2014 interview:

Dealing with the Joint Strike Fighter, Hostage says he is ‘going to fight to the death to protect the F-35’ since the only way to keep up with the adversaries, which ‘are building fleets that will overmatch our legacy fleet’, is by employing a sufficient fleet of 1,763 (‘not one less’) F-35s. You can update and upgrade the F-15 and F-16 fleets, but they would still become obsolete in the next decade.  But, the F-22 Raptor will have to support the F-35. And here comes another problem. When the Raptor was produced it was flying ‘with computers that were already so out of date you would not find them in a kid’s game console in somebody’s home gaming system.’ Still, the U.S. Air Force was forced to use the stealth fighter plane as it was, because that was the way the spec was written. But now, the F-22 must be upgraded through a costly service life extension plan and modernization program because, ‘If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22,” says Hostage to Air Force Times.’ [emphasis added].

F-22 + F-35 = Air Superiority

[Source: 5th Generation Fighters, Lt Gen Hawk Carlisle, USAF ACC]

So, is the F-35 a capable air superiority platform, or not? General Hodges in 2014:

[E]xamine [the] Raptor versus the Lightning. A Raptor at 50-plus thousand feet at Mach 2 with its RCS has a different level of invulnerability than a Lightning at 35,000 at Mach .9 and it’s RCS.  The altitude, speed, and stealth combined in the two platforms, they give the airplanes two completely different levels of capability. The plan is to normalize the Lightning’s capability relative to the Raptor by marrying it up with six, or seven or eight other Lightening’s. The advanced fusion of the F-35 versus the F-22 means those airplanes have an equal level or better level of invulnerability than the Raptors have, but it takes multiple airplanes to do it because of the synergistic fused attacks of their weapon systems.  That’s the magic of the fifth-gen F-35, but it takes numbers of F-35s to get that effect. That’s why I’ve been so strident on getting the full buy. Because if they whittle it down to a little tiny fleet like the Raptor, it’s not going to be compelling.

In a separate interview in 2015, “Re-norming of Airpower in Practice: An F-22 enabled Air Combat Force,” General Hawk Carlisle made the point that

[T]he F-22 was a key enabler for the air combat force currently, and had led to a re-norming of airpower in practice … It’s not just that the F-22s are so good, it’s that they make every other plane better. They change the dynamic with respect to what the other airplanes are able to do because of what they can do with regard to speed, range, and flexibility. It’s their stealth quality. It’s their sensor fusion. It’s their deep penetration capability. It is the situational awareness they provide for the entire fleet which raises the level of the entire combat fleet to make everybody better.  The F-22s make the Eagles better, and the A-10s better, and the F-16s better. They make the bombers better. They provide information. They enable the entire fight. And its information dominance, its sensor fusion capability, it’s a situational awareness that they can provide to the entire package which raises the level of our capabilities in the entire fight. This is not about some distant future; it is about the current fight.

This point is nicely illustrated with the kind of cross domain information-sharing capability which embodies “joint-ness” and is demonstrated by F-22’s providing targeting data to submarines (SSGN) for land-attack cruise missiles.

General Carlisle also announced that “[t]he exercise coming up at Langley in December 2015 will feature the F-22 flying with the Typhoon (XI Squadron from the RAF) and the Rafales from the French Air Force. What these three aircraft have in come is that they all are about 10 years old in terms of combat experience and life.”

Perhaps these exercises were engineered to test improvements to the F-22’s combat capabilities, especially Within-Visual-Range (WVR), aptly named since the Mark 1 human eyeball becomes a sensor that stealth cannot fool. In May of 2015, the Raptor fired its first AIM-9X sidewinder, latest generation dogfight missiles. Along with a helmet-mounted sight, this capability was fielded by the Soviet Union in 1984, when the R-73 (AA-11 “Archer”) was mated to the MiG-29 Fulcrum. According to Lt. Col. Fred “Spanky” Clifton, who is one of the most experienced aggressor pilots ever, having flown the F-15, F-5, F-16 and the notorious MiG-29,  “[i]n the WVR (within visual range) arena, a skilled MiG-29 pilot can give and Eagle or Viper driver all he/she wants.”

The experience at Red Flag Alaska in 2012, a training exercise which saw the F-22 go up against Typhoons of the German Luftwaffe, was perhaps humbling for the Air Force to some degree, as the German pilots reported they had “Raptor salad for lunch,” and subsequently painted F-22 kills on their aircraft. This may have provided some impetus to deploy better capabilities; this year, Raptor pilots were happy to see the incremental update 3.2, which fielded the AIM-9X capability.

The 9X Block 1 version of the dual-use, infrared missile is “a dramatic leap within visual range missile capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Daniel, an F-22 pilot of the 95th Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. … with the AIM-9M ‘Mike’ we kind of went out there going, ‘We have six missiles,” Daniel joked, referring to the increased effort required to make the weapon effective in modern combat operations. ‘With AIM-9X, we step out the door going, ‘We got eight missiles on the jet.’

The helmet-mounted sight is due by 2020 for the F-22.

The Future of Air Superiority: BVR or WVR?

This seems clear, the F-22 dominates the fight from Beyond Visual Range (BVR), where its stealth and radar provide it the initiative and the ability to use the element of surprise in its favor. An analysis by Aviation Week, using publicly available data from system manufacturers, illustrates this quantitatively and graphically.

Large ‘fourth-generation’ fighters such as the F-15, Su-27 and Tornado have radar cross-sections (RCS) of 10-15 m2. The F-16 and “Gen-4.5” fighters—Typhoon, Rafale, Su-35 and Super Hornet—are believed to be in the 1-3-m2 range. The F-35 and F-22 RCSs are said to equal a golf ball and marble, respectively. Based on Sukhoi’s claims that its Su-35 can detect 3-m2 targets at 400 km in a narrow-angle, maximum-power search, Aviation Week estimated how far away it can detect these fighters. Note the detection range in a standard search is half as much. [Credit: Colin Throm/AW&ST]

Almaz-Antey says the S-400’s 92N6E “Gravestone” fire-control radar can detect a 4-m2 radar-cross-section target at 250 km. Based on this figure, Aviation Week estimated its detection range against modern fighter aircraft. [Credit: Colin Throm/AW&ST]

The F-35 should be able to use these same tactics, as it has those capabilities as well.  Once the fight devolves into WVR, even the Raptor, designed as an air superiority platform, finds challenges with capable fourth generation opponents. Should we expect the F-35 to fare better or worse than the F-22 in the same situation?

It seems this is one of the key questions in air-to-air combat modeling or war-gaming: how often are engagements taking place at BVR, and how often are they WVR? This is all the more challenging since “visual range” is a highly dynamic and situational.