Re-shaping Forces for the High-End Fight: The Challenge of Overcoming the Legacy of the Land Wars


By Robbin Laird

With the return of the high-end fight, and the challenge of delivering tailored military capabilities to ensure escalation dominance in the maritime domain, a broadened focus on maneuver warfare in the maritime space has emerged. Distributed operations within a wider capability to integrate the force is a key focus of shaping a way ahead for the high-end fight and crisis management.

For North Atlantic defense, Second and Sixth fleets are working with the joint force and allies to shape distributed forces which can integrate to deal with various Russian threats, from the hybrid to the gray zone to high-end warfare. For the Pacific, the defense of the outer islands of Japan through to Guam to Australian defense provides the core defense zone from which power is projected into the areas where the Chinese are pushing out for greater influence and combat effects.

But for effective capability to leverage distributed operations to deliver an integrated effect is a work in progress. It is an art form which requires significant training as well as capabilities to deliver C2 at the tactical edge.

Connectivity among the pieces on the chessboard is required to provide for the kind of escalation dominance crisis to engage effectively in full spectrum crisis management. With the development of flexible multi-mission platforms, there is an ability to flex between offensive and defensive operations within the distributed battlespace. It is clearly challenging to operate such a force, delegate decision making at the tactical edge, but still be able to ensure strategic and area wide tactical decision-making.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously.  This is enabled by the evolution of C2 and ISR systems. By shaping an evolving ISR enabled C2 systems inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which provide for kill web integratable forces, an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations.

With the Biden Administration’s Blitzkrieg withdrawal strategy, the curtain was drawn on the core commitment of the U.S. military to stability operations and counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan.  With this comes a significant historical shock – the U.S. military has been focused by its political masters on fighting a non-peer competitor and has built a force structure optimized for such operations.

But the Chinese and the Russians as peer competitors have not been focusing on Afghanistan or fighting what the U.S. military has been optimized for. This is a significant strategic disconnect which the U.S. military is working to correct.

This is a short- and long-term challenge. The world is not going to wait while the U.S. military goes into a long-term retooling.  As Secretary Wynne noted when discussing a military force twenty years out: “you already have 80% of that force today.”

But what if you have stockpiled equipment for stability operations and counter-insurgency and your Commander and Chief simply decides to end this effort, but now faces direct threats from China and Russia?

What do you do then? What are core war winning capabilities?

You have a military which has not really thought about nuclear weapons. They have not really focused on a major theater war.  They have not really integrated their forces for a high-end fight, During the land wars what passed for joint operations was what the services provided the U.S. Army leadership who dominated the definition and execution of joint operations. Now the maritime and air arms of the U.S. military clearly recognize the need to work force integration, but how they have done so for twenty years is not the same as fighting peer competitors.

Note this comment from the commander of the USS Carl Vinson strike group made this August.

“This is the first large-scale exercise held in decades and I am excited about the high-end integration of the carrier, and all that it brings, at sea,” said Capt. P. Scott Miller, Vinson’s commanding officer. “Carl Vinson and our embarked air wing are trained and ready to participate in the first Naval and amphibious large-scale exercise conducted since the Ocean Venture NATO exercises of the Cold War.”

To say that there is a disconnect between the force you have inherited and what you need to do today is certainly where one has to start. The United States has significant combat capability for the high-end fight, but unfortunately it resides in services that largely do Piaget’s notion of young children doing parallel play, rather than working together to achieve a combined result.

Force integration can be a key advantage for the United States if it can achieve it. The problem is that there is too much long-range “planning” for force integration for the future force. We will not get to that future unless we deliver enhanced capability in the short term.

A key way to do so is to ramp up efforts to integrate distributed forces packages which are more survivable but also integratability across the services with  the C2/ISR capabilities built into those force packages to deliver an aggregated effect. To be blunt, this is not about working the entire gamut of U.S. forces as an integrated force, for frankly, this is not within the ken of the current force and might never be.

But by focusing on force distribution, integrated modular task forces can be in the very short term.

But this requires focusing on the kind of C2 and ISR available within a modular task force tailored to combat wherever that task force is operating. By working integrated distributed force packages and operating as kill webs to train and fight in terms of joint or coalition aggregated effect, the adversaries face a force which is more survivable and more lethal across the spectrum of warfare. And you weed out of the equation those forces that simply not cannot operate this way.

Doing a self-blitzkrieg defeat is not a path to victory; getting on in the short term with more integrated USAF-US Navy-USMC and where appropriate U.S. Army force packages is.

And as the forces learn to do so, a path is opened to a broader strategy of force integratability.

The future is now; we don’t have time to what till the results are in for force structure redesign 2030, 2040 or 2050.