Would the U.S. Army be able to prevail in a war like the one in Ukraine, were it to realize its vision of multi-domain operations? The Army sent a team of experts to Europe to collect lessons and paused the process of codifying its future warfighting concept into doctrine to find out. This is important because once the concept of multi-domain operations becomes doctrine, it becomes the authoritative guidance for how the Army will fight in the future. Until now, the multi-domain operations concept has been a statement of how the Army thinks it wants to fight. Concepts become doctrine after they are run through the wringer of evaluations, exercises, wargaming, and analyzed through the prism of relevant combat experience. This concept has gone through all the wickets except the last one. The war in Ukraine offers an important real-life case study through which to test multi-domain operations, especially since it involves Russia — one of the two “great powers” — the U.S. military has been instructed to aim at.
As I have previously written in these pages, the last time this type of analysis was possible was during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Soviet Union was not directly engaged, but the Arab militaries were using Soviet materiel and doctrine. This was close enough to create a crisis in the U.S. military, as Arab forces almost defeated the highly regarded Israeli military. Consequently, the war served as a wake-up call, particularly for the U.S. Army and Air Force, that they had to change if they were going to successfully contest the actual Soviet military.
Despite some other claims, the most important domain in the Russo-Ukrainian War is that of land. And as this war unfolds, I suspect Army researchers will find that the sort of operations and capabilities envisioned in the multi-domain concept would likely have been irrelevant in deterring and, when deterrence failed, defeating Russian aggression. Finally, I will offer several questions for the Army that can help frame its assessment of the war to ensure it is analyzing, rather than validating, the relevance of multi-domain operations.
The Domains in Ukraine Are Mainly On the…?
Whether or not multi-domain operations would have worked as advertised in Ukraine is of critical importance to the U.S. joint force as well as the Army. Will the armed services look to the war to challenge their own warfighting concepts, or will they cherry-pick insights that validate what they are doing?
The Russo-Ukrainian war is showing that war is still a brutal, grinding business that defies pat solutions and grandiose concepts. Geography and distance continue to impose their tyrannies, and mud continues to suck the momentum out of armies. Furthermore, dumb olive drab artillery rounds, rather than precision silver bullets, remain the greatest killer on the battlefield and may determine the outcome of the war. And Murphy’s Law, as well as friction, inevitably find their way into the well-oiled plans of both combatants.
The war is providing insights about peer conflict that are at odds with much of the thinking within the Department of Defense about how operations in the air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace domains contribute to operations. Aside from being important operational questions, the relative importance of a specific domain has significant bureaucratic implications. Each domain is associated with a service or major command, each of which has its own theory of victory centered on the importance of its domain. In short, greater domain relevance equals higher budgets.
To begin with, neither side has been able to establish general air superiority, much less supremacy. Furthermore, Russia and Ukraine are suffering significant numbers of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft losses. As with much else about this war, Western perspectives are being shaped by adroit Ukrainian information operations coupled with their very competent operational security. We simply do not know actual aircraft losses on either side beyond their self-reporting, which is probably biased towards depicting the other side’s losses as higher than they may be. Nor is it clear what is causing the losses, whether Stingers, high-end air defenses, or air-to-air combat. Nevertheless, it is clear that neither side rules the skies. Given the centrality of air dominance in U.S. doctrine, these details are incredibly important. Just asserting that the Air Force would have air supremacy in a conflict is no longer sufficient, because its absence affects every aspect of U.S. joint operations.
Sea control has also not been a key determinant of the military course of the war to this point, although the Russian blockade is wreaking havoc on the Ukrainian economy and the world’s food supply. Indeed, operations at sea are at a bit of a stalemate. Russian naval forces are tightening the blockade of the Ukrainian coastline and Odessa, the last major port under Ukrainian control. Although Ukrainian forces have sunk several Russian vessels, this has forced Russian naval forces to operate far from shore, not to quit operating.
Cyberspace has not been a dominant component of the war. Any details are shrouded in secrecy, but there are no reports of strategic calamities or any evidence of the centrality of cyber in this war as predicted by advocates. At the tactical and operational levels, more traditional electronic warfare operations such as jamming, locating adversaries, and listening in on their insecure communications have been useful. High-value targets — senior personnel and headquarters — have been located and targeted. Nevertheless, cyber has not been the absolute gamechanger many have predicted, given assumed Russian dominance in this domain.
Finally, space has contributed in important ways, particularly in providing overhead imagery for intelligence. Furthermore, commercial satellites have proven particularly useful. Which, as predicted, means this important resource will likely be widely available to all combatants even if they do not have their own space capabilities. Space-based assets, in combination with the proliferation of drones, are making the battlefield transparent. This calls for a close inspection of the age-old principle of surprise. Nevertheless, space has also not proven to be the next frontier after all — at least not so far.
That leaves the land domain. Thus, despite the naysayers, T.R. Fehrenbach’s caution happens to be as true today in the Russo-Ukrainian War as it was during the Korean War:
…you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.
The question before the U.S. joint force, particularly its Army, as it dissects the ongoing war in Ukraine, is how best to deter adversaries in the future, and, if they cannot be deterred, how to defeat them in a conflict. Again, this war shows that wars will be decided on land. The other domains will surely be in play and will affect an adversary’s ability to continue a war. Nevertheless, the endgame will be with the surrender or destruction of enemy ground forces and, if necessary, the defeat of any recalcitrant partisans or insurgents in their land areas of operation.
Question Multi-Domain Operations Rather than Reason Backwards
I believe that the Ukraine war offers the same opportunity for introspection about our Army as did the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Sending an assessment team to Europe is a sound decision if its orders are to critically assess the war and seek out flaws in the Army’s vision of multi-domain operations. It will be less useful if the approach taken is to attempt to simply validate the concepts the Army has preferred over the past several years. There are, however, early indications that self-validation is already creeping in, as reported by a recent article in Breaking Defense: “Army leaders have said that its massive modernization effort, which predated the Russian invasion and ranges from helicopters to secure communications, has been validated by the conflict.”
Therefore, it is extremely important to look at the war through a lens that is searching for questions and challenging assumptions, rather than seeking to verify predetermined outcomes. To this end, I will give an assessment of how I believe multi-domain operations would have performed in the current war.
The Army’s evolving concept for multi-domain operations, as U.S. Army doctrine has traditionally been in the past, is focused on the offense. This is because of the deep cultural belief in the Army — and the other services for that matter — that only offensive operations win wars.
A bit of Army history is useful in understanding how deeply the spirit of the offense is embedded in the Army DNA. In its 1923 Field Service Regulations, when the service was endeavoring to transition permanently from what had been a frontier to constabulary to a modern army, how to win was crystal clear: “The ultimate objective of all military operations is the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces by battle…Decisive results are obtained only by the offensive.”
These words are repeated almost verbatim in the 2001 FM 3-0, Operations, with which the Army prosecuted Operation Iraqi Freedom: “The offense is the decisive form of war. Offensive operations aim to destroy or defeat an enemy. Their purpose is to impose U.S. will on the enemy and achieve decisive victory.”
Multi-domain operations has a similar orientation toward offensive operations in conflict, with three key components that are all clearly offensive in nature: penetrate, dis-integrate, and exploit. A key assumption in being prepared for offensive operations is that there are sufficient forces in the theater when the war begins to slow the enemy sufficiently for the main force to arrive. How this happens is largely absent from the concept.
Finally, at the end of the day, multi-domain operations is in competition with the other services for how a joint force commander will fight a war. At the moment, the services are all going their separate ways in developing their warfighting concepts and the joint warfighting concept is behind service efforts. In Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, each service fought its doctrine in its area of operations. This was not an issue against the Iraqis. It surely could be against Russia or China when unity of effort and allocation of resources will be critical.
What is the Army’s Mission in Europe?
This is the central question. My sense is that the Army’s mission in NATO is to deter aggression, not defeat aggression. This calls for a strategy of denial that seeks to deter adversary aggression “by making it infeasible or unlikely to succeed, thus denying a potential aggressor confidence in attaining its objectives.” A denial force is focused principally on defensive, rather than offensive, operations.
Additionally, an offense-focused multi-domain operations concept has other implications. The concept of multi-domain operations lays out how the Army wants to fight; Ukraine shows that it might not be relevant to how it will have to fight in Europe if such a day comes. If one shifts the battlefield from Ukraine to a Russian invasion of the Baltic countries, the scenario most often used in European conflict analyses, then the concept faces several showstoppers.
First, forces trained, organized, and equipped principally for offensive multi-domain operations will, by definition, be less prepared to defend.
Second, multi-domain operations’ battlefield architecture, particularly the strategic fires component, presupposes political willingness to cross a threshold by striking targets deep inside the adversary’s homeland. Against a nuclear-armed enemy, political constraints, shaped by the understandable desire to avoid escalation, could make this key part of multi-domain operations unusable. One should recall that it is only 600 kilometers from the Latvian border to Moscow. Furthermore, given political realities, the Army’s expensive hypersonic missile, with its range of over 2,500 kilometers, may not be usable.
Third, a forward presence of NATO forces on the eastern flank of NATO designed to deny Russian aggression means that it is capable of thwarting an attack if deterrence fails. Any offensive operations should be limited to restoring violated territory. To do more than this—entering the exploitation phase of multi-domain operations whose purpose is to “exploit the resultant freedom of maneuver to achieve strategic objectives [win]” could lead to broadening the war, depending on how the Russians interpret “win” and our strategic objectives. In any case, the Russians could believe that they are on the ropes. This, by their doctrine is one of the conditions when nuclear weapons become an operational option. Putin specified this in a 2020 decree, making it clear that Russia: “retains the right to use nuclear weapons…in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is put under threat.” I imagine that if Russia used, or threatened to use, a low-yield nuclear weapon on a U.S. exploitation force perceived to be driving into Russia — on Russian soil — we would think twice about responding with nuclear weapons, much less continuing operations.
Whither the U.S. Army?
Given the realities of what we are observing in Ukraine and the nature of future deterrence in Europe, Army concepts and their supporting capabilities should focus on denying a successful Russian invasion. Such a concept would drive a modernization strategy focused, at least in part, on providing capabilities to defend in depth and deny a Russian quick win. This would be more of an Active Defense 2.0, rather than an AirLand Battle 2.0.
This borders on heresy in the Army. Active defense was largely rejected by the Army in the 1970s because it was a defensive doctrine. AirLand Battle was much more in accord with Army culture. Clearly, there are antibodies within the Army, as well as among the other services, opposed to a defense-oriented doctrine.
There are several areas that the Army should be looking to discern from the war in Ukraine.
- Assess what Ukrainian force would have been sufficient to reach a sufficient correlation of forces with Russian forces to deter an invasion. Although this would not necessarily provide an answer for what is needed to prevent a Russian attack against NATO’s eastern member-states, given the potential protection offered by NATO membership, it would give an initial net assessment of the needed deterrent forces to prevent aggression.
- Analyze what capabilities a deterrent force would require if its primary mission was defense, rather than offense.
- Determine which Russian and Ukrainian capabilities were important in this war and how the Army will specifically provide itself with like capabilities as well as approaches to counter these capabilities. Foremost among these are drones, air defenses, combat vehicle (tank) survivability, and indirect fires.
- Understand potential Russian reactions to operational and strategic attacks into Russian territory.
- Assess the vulnerabilities of key Army systems, given Russian and Ukrainian losses in this war, in order to determine mitigating approaches, both technical and tactical.
- Examine the ability of the U.S. industrial base to keep up with munitions expenditures and materiel losses if a war with Russia is protracted.
- Assess the NATO theater medical system to understand its potential shortfalls if casualties approach those by both combatants in Ukraine. I led a RAND research effort before Operation Iraqi Freedom in this area and the results were sobering.
This is just a short list that should provide scope to the Army’s attempts to understand the implications of the war in Ukraine for multi-domain operations.
I would also offer a caution about avoiding seeing what we want to see. Thus far, much of the analysis of the war has blamed poorly trained Russian soldiers and ineffective leaders for their failures. As I wrote recently in War on the Rocks, the Army and the other services believe they do not share this problem. Given that the Russians have similar, and in some cases, better capabilities than the U.S. Army, and have a similar operational doctrine, such an assessment could lead to the false conclusion that the U.S. Army, with multi-domain operations and the envisioned new capabilities it is developing, would prevail because of the qualitative advantage provided by the all-volunteer U.S. military. But it is too early to reach this, much less any other determinations.
Clearly, the Army does not directly decide how a combatant commander will employ the forces it provides. Nevertheless, the forces it provides will be well-trained and professionally led. Again, this is the key pillar of U.S. military competence that it believes fundamentally differentiates it from the Russians. This force that will be primed to execute multi-domain operations will be less prepared to offer, much less execute, other options to the combatant commander or their civilian masters. Therefore, it could be that the Army’s professionalism may make it less prepared to fight the war it could find itself in with Russia or China. This is important for all the U.S. military services, as Michael Kofman notes: “The wrong ideas will guide U.S. efforts away from trying to get on the right side of a cost imposition curve in attrition warfare, which is likely to define the next great power war, whether defense planners like it or not.”
What the Army should be after at this stage is an understanding of what questions it needs to ask. The conclusion about personnel deficiencies as the root cause of Russian difficulties is a case in point. What if instead of bungling the invasion due to professional incompetence, the Russians realized that their attempted rapid coup de main against Kyiv was not going to work and purposely changed their strategy? Will their current approach of a grinding war of attrition wear down the Ukrainian forces?
The character of the war in Ukraine has changed, which suggests a final first-order question for the Army: are the multi-domain operations concept and an all-volunteer force prepared for a protracted war of attrition? Conrad Crane’s admonition in these pages about the ability of the U.S. military to withstand such a war is important for the Army to address if it is going to prevail in the wars it may have to fight, rather than the ones it wants to fight.
There is a great deal at stake, not only for the Army but more broadly for the United States and its allies. Given the centrality of land forces in viable deterrence and defense regimes, the Army must get it right with multi-domain operations.
How the current Army team approaches its task will be fundamental to what it learns. Will it seek to find flaws in multi-domain operations and challenge its critical assumptions? Or will it look for evidence to validate multi-domain operations and the associated materiel and organizational initiatives that multi-domain operations justifies? To be blunt, is the team empowered to tell the Army that, after years of effort, its warfighting concept for the future would not have provided the theory of victory it advertises itself to be against Russian forces in Ukraine?
David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army 1917-1945. From 2012 to 2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.