Faced with the seemingly impossible task of solving the puzzle of the German military coding machine commonly known as “Enigma” during World War II, British mathematician Alan Turing and his team used a new kind of technology. They built a computing machine that foreshadowed the age of software and algorithms, breaking a code that the Germans changed every 24 hours.
Turing’s legacy is profound, in war and peace. Today, anyone who has spent time on the internet or social media can’t help but have noticed the speed by which algorithms help companies direct targeted advertisements to us — in seconds and minutes — based on their ability to track online interests and behaviors.
It is no overstatement to say that the same kind of intuitive speed in understanding and directing information is what our military needs in order to win future wars. This new kind of warfare will require us to defend against and attack foes on land and sea as well as in the air, space and cyberspace. In military parlance, the term for this is “multidomain operations,” an ungainly phrase that has nonetheless become a major focus for each of the military services, including my own, the U.S. Air Force. The term is in vogue now for good reason: Whoever figures out how to quickly gather information in various “domains” and just as quickly direct military actions will have the decisive advantage in battle.
Figuring out how to master multidomain warfare will be difficult, but do it we must. History has many lessons here. One analogy I like dates to the American Revolution. As British military forces were preparing to attack Lexington and Concord, patriots devised a simple system to alert Colonial troops. They hung lanterns in the Old North Church in Boston — one if by land, and two if by sea. But how many lanterns would the patriots have hung if the British decided to conduct multidomain operations and attack from both the land and the sea? This would have created a dilemma because they would have to choose to either divide their force and defend both approaches or choose one to defend.
However, the patriots had no need to worry about this because the British did not have the ability to control a split force using both land and sea approaches. Without a suitable command-and-control system, a military force cannot effectively take advantage of multidomain operations.
Fast forward to today. Having the ability to credibly attack enemies independently by land, sea, air, space or cyberspace — or all at once — creates untenable dilemmas. I’d like our adversaries to always be in the lantern-buying business.
Developing the systems, training and methods by which to practice this new brand of warfare will require extraordinary focus from our military. We will have to master and apply quantum computing, artificial intelligence, hypersonic flight, and new concepts for command-and-control that will need to span the globe. In order to build this capability, we will have to develop a new ethos that allows for experimental failure, just as the private sector has done in order to bring us smartphones, robotics and many other cutting-edge technologies that define the speed and precision of modern life.
America’s new National Defense Strategy correctly focuses the bulk of our nation’s efforts on what is called great power conflict, the potential for war with formidable foes like Russian and China. We have known for some time that both are building militaries that harness AI, quantum computers, hypersonic flight and the ubiquitous threat from cyberattacks. To build a military capable of defending and deterring against such threats, it is imperative that the United States learn to fight and defend from beneath the ocean to the outer reaches of space, and everywhere in between.
Last month the Air Force kicked off the inaugural Doolittle Wargame, named for the World War II hero Jimmy Doolittle, who led the daring air raid on Tokyo in 1942 that helped turn the tide of war in the Pacific. That mission personified multidomain warfare in that it was launched from an aircraft carrier hauling heavy bombers, something the Japanese were not expecting and were not prepared for. The Doolittle Wargame is the start of our efforts to learn how to harness the potential for extremely fast, unpredictable warfare from the heights of air and space to the expanses of cyberspace. If we can pull this off, it may redefine conventional deterrence in the 21st century.
Gen. David Goldfein is the chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force.