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Army-Air Force joint warfare doctrine will get a huge upgrade

The Army and the Air Force are launching a new, collaborative war-gaming operation to assess future combat scenarios and, ultimately, co-author a new inter-service, cross-domain combat doctrine.


The concept of cross-domain fires, something inspiring fast-growing attention at the Pentagon, is grounded in the premise that future war challenges will require air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace synergies to a much greater extent than may have been envisioned years ago.

Operating within this concept, Army TRADOC Commander Gen. David Perking and Air Force Air Combat Command Commanding General are launching a new series of tabletop exercises to replicate and explore future warfare scenarios – the kind of conflicts expected to require technologically advanced Army-Air Force integration.

In a Pentagon report, Holmes said the joint wargaming effort will "turn into a doctrine and concept that we can agree on."

Such a development would mark a substantial step beyond prior military thinking, which at times over the years has been slightly more stove-piped in its approach to military service doctrines.

The Pentagon, headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, taken from an airplane in January 2008 (Wikimedia Commons image by David Gleason)

Interestingly, the new initiative may incorporate and also adjust some of the tenants informing the 1980's Air-Land Battle Doctrine; this concept, which came to fruition during the Cold War, was focused on integrated air-ground combat coordination to counter a large, mechanized force in major warfare. While AirLand battle was aimed primarily at the Soviet Union decades ago, new Army-Air Force strategy in today's threat environment will also most certainly address the possibility of major war with an advanced adversary like Russia or China. In fact, the Army's new Operations 3.0 doctrine already explores this phenomenon, as it seeks to pivot the force from more than a decade of counterinsurgency to preparedness for massive force-on-force warfare.

Jumping more than 40 years into the future beyond AirLand Battle into to today's threat climate, the notion of cross-domain warfare has an entirely new and more expansive meaning. No longer would the Air Force merely need to support advancing armored vehicles with both air cover and forward strikes, as is articulated in Air-Land Battle, but an Air Force operating in today's war environment would need to integrate multiple new domains, such as cyber and space.

After all, drones, laser attacks, cyber intrusions, and electronic warfare (EW) tactics were hardly on the map in the 1980s. Forces today would need to harden air-ground communications against cyber and EW attacks, network long-range sensor and targeting technology, and respond to technologically-advanced near-peer attack platforms, such as 5th-generation stealth fighters or weaponized space assets.

These considerations are at the heart of the Army-Air Force initiative. A recent article in the National Defense University Press, authored by Holmes and Perkins, defines the parameters of this emerging Army-Air Force cross-domain initiative.

"The rate and speed of current and future world events will not allow us the time to synchronize federated solutions. In order to present the enemy with multiple dilemmas, we must converge and integrate our solutions and approaches before the battle starts. We must also become sensor-shooter agnostic in all our platforms, and we must develop a common operating picture," the article in the National Defense University Press states.

While the particulars of any new doctrine have yet to be determined, based in large measure upon what is learned through these upcoming war games, the U.S. military services are already moving forward testing and advancing the broad parameters of cross-domain fires.

At exercises such as Northern Edge, fighter aircraft have been used in close coordination with Army ground weapons and surface ships to identify and attack targets together in a coordinated fashion. One senior Army official, speaking at length to Warrior Maven, explained that many current mobile ground-attack systems, such as artillery, can be used and adapted for attacks on air and sea enemy targets.

To cite an example, the senior official said an Army Self-Propelled Paladin Howitzer could be used in strategically vital areas, such as the South China Sea, to hold enemy aircraft or enemy ships at-risk.

The Army's Program Executive Office Missiles and Space, as part of this strategic effort, is currently pursuing software upgrades to the ATACMS missile to better enable the weapon to hit targets at sea. These concepts, which seek to envision roles and dynamics not initially envisioned for a ground-to-ground weapon, comprise the conceptual epicenter of cross-domain fires.

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The notion of Cross-Domain fires is woven into the recognition that new sensor technologies, faster computer processing and things like artificial intelligence increasingly enable attack platforms to function as sensors – nodes on a larger, joint, integrated combat enterprise.

A uniquely modern element of this hinges upon the rapid evolution of networking technologies connecting domains in real-time to shorten sensor-to-shooter time and respond to the widest possible range of threats in combat.

The Army's emerging Integrated Battle Command System is engineered for the purpose of networking nodes within a broader combat apparatus, able to detect threats and relay information across domains. For instance, a land-based sentinel radar could cue a Patriot missile battery or air-attack platform.

Operating through modern command and control systems, aerial ISR nodes could identify targets and relay coordinates to surface ships or ground weapons using next-generation datalinks.

The Air Force plans to actualize key aspects of this with, for instance, LINK 16 upgrades to the F-22 that enable it to improv data-sharing with the F-35 and 4th-generation aircraft in real-time in combat.

"The F-22 program is developing enhanced "5th-to-5th" generation and "5th-to-4th" generation aircraft communications via the TACLink 16 program," Capt. Emily Grabowski, Air Force Spokeswoman, told Warrior Maven.

F-22 Raptors parked at Rickenbacker ANGB in Ohio. (Image from USAF)

Grabowski added that this program includes hardware and software modifications to field LINK 16 transmit on the F-22. While not eliminating the need for voice communication, transmitting and receiving via LINK 16 datalinks can expedite data- and video-sharing, target coordination and more secure non-voice connectivity.

Air Force officials tell Warrior Maven that cross-domain operations are currently figuring prominently in the ongoing Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

"Exercises, such as Red Flag, ensure we and our allies are ready to respond to contingencies by providing realistic, advanced, multi-domain combat training in a contested, degraded and operationally-limited environment employing assets in air, space and cyberspace," Maj. Christina Sukach, Public Affairs Chief, 99 Air Base Wing, told Warrior Maven.

The Red Flag combat exercises, while not discussed in detail by Air Force officials, did assess the challenge of cross-domain connectivity in a GPS-denied environment. This scenario, wherein satellites are attacked or disabled by enemy weapons, speaks to the importance and challenge of cross-domain fires.

Both the Army and the Air Force are currently exploring a wide range of high-bandwidth frequencies and other communications technologies able generate what the military calls "Positioning, Navigation and Timing," in the absence of GPS.

These moves are of great relevance to the emerging Army-Air Force cross-domain effort because both services currently rely heavily upon GPS for combat systems. The Army's Blue Force Tracker and handheld navigation systems, coupled with Air Force JDAMS air-ground coordination are all, at the moment, reliant upon GPS. Any new cross-domain doctrine, it therefore stands to reason, would need extend these efforts to specifically incorporate Army-Air Force combat connectivity in a war without GPS.