Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten recently announced a new U.S. Department of Defense joint war-fighting concept will summarize capabilities needed for future all-domain operations and eliminate artificial lines on the battlefield used to deconflict U.S. operations in the past.
Hyten also noted the concept will seamlessly integrate “fires from all domains, including space and cyber,” to overwhelm an enemy.
While these aspirations are laudable, there are indications the concept could fall short of what is needed to inform cross-service trade-offs that must be made in an era of flat or declining defense budgets.
The DoD creates operating concepts to define preferred approaches to perform specific missions or execute a campaign to defeat an enemy. They also provide a foundation for the services to assess new technologies, force alternatives and resource priorities. Said another way, they are the tissue that connects top-level National Defense Strategy guidance to actual plans and programs.
While a joint all-domain war-fighting concept is urgently needed, Hyten has not made it clear the one in development will lead to trade-offs that maximize the DoD’s war-fighting potential. For instance, Hyten has said it will call for every service to conduct long-range strikes: “A naval force can defend itself or strike deep. An air force can defend itself or strike deep. The Marines can defend itself or strike deep. ... Everybody.”
This could mean the concept will support a degree of redundancy across the services that has never existed. Setting aside tough trade-offs that eliminate excessively redundant programs will waste defense dollars and reduce capabilities available to U.S. commanders.
More specifically, the concept might endorse the Army’s plan to buy 1,000-mile-plus, surface-to-surface missiles that cost millions of dollars each. Doing so would ignore analyses that have determined using large numbers of these weapons would be far more expensive than employing bombers that can strike any target on the planet for a fraction of the cost, then regenerate and fly more sorties. Furthermore, the Army’s long-range missile investments could be at the expense of its ability to defend U.S. theater air bases against missile attacks.
Not only has air base missile defense long been an Army mission — it has long neglected and underfunded the mission. Chinese or Russian strikes against under-defended air bases could cripple the United States’ primary combat sortie-generation operations.
If the concept does not consider these kinds of trade-offs, it could be due to the approach used to create it. The Joint Staff’s doctrine development process is notorious for seeking consensus instead of making cross-service trade-offs necessary to maximize the DoD’s war-fighting potential. Assuring bureaucratic service equities versus optimizing combat lethality can lead to operating concepts that fail to create clear priorities or — worse yet — declare everything a priority. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.
Moreover, each service was asked to develop a subordinate concept that will be integrated into the whole. This piece-part approach could result in the services ladening their subordinate concepts with their own equities instead of working together to develop the most effective, decisive options.
In short, a bottom-up, consensus-driven concept for all-domain warfare would not be an effective baseline to compare the DoD’s force structure and capability alternatives. Three things could help to avoid this mistake.
First, the secretary of defense should approve a new all-domain war-fighting concept, and the secretary’s staff should be deeply involved in its development. Some say the latter is inappropriate, believing the military, not DoD civilians, should create war-fighting concepts. However, it is entirely appropriate for the secretary’s staff to be part of the concept’s creation if its purpose is to shape the DoD’s plans and programs.
Second, DoD leaders should rigorously examine the services' existing roles and missions during the concept’s development, and make changes to reduce excessively redundant responsibilities, forces and capabilities. This may need to be driven by congressional language.
Finally, the DoD should jettison the word “joint” as part of the concept’s title. This would stress the concept is focused on integrating operations across all domains, not on the services that provide forces to combatant commanders. The point is not for all to participate, but instead for all options to be considered, and those that provide best combat value be prioritized. Otherwise, it becomes a case analogous to all the kids chasing a soccer ball.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy was the beginning of the effort to shift the DoD toward preparing for peer conflict. Given that dollars and time are short, the DoD must now get a concept for all-domain warfare right. Like the National Defense Strategy, the concept must be top-down driven, not a bottom-up, consensus-driven product that fails to make trade-offs across the services and provides a rationale that supports what each service desires to buy. Rather, its ultimate objective should be to seek best-value capabilities and expand theater commander options to defeat peer adversaries.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Mark Gunzinger is the director for future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces transformation and resources within the policy office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.