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"Multi-Domain Battle": Old Wine In a New Bottle?

Thirty-four years ago, the U.S. Army adopted a new fighting doctrine. Formalized in two successive editions of Army Field Manual 100-5, Operations, it became known as AirLand Battle.

While several strands of thinking informed the new doctrine, the problem that ultimately led to its name was very specific: how to defeat a deeply echeloned Soviet attack on Western Europe.

Existing NATO and Army doctrine visualized mounting a positional defense well forward, defeating the initial Soviet onslaught through attrition. The doctrinal watchword became "Win the First Battle."

What would follow then was problematic, however. Wargames and exercises revealed that such a defense merely would delay the inevitable. Follow-on attacks would force friendly forces depleted in that initial fight to choose between defeat and nuclear escalation.

History suggested another alternative. Exploiting observed weaknesses in Soviet command arrangements, NATO forces might be able to envelop and destroy lead formations at less cost, provided that follow-on echelons were delayed or disrupted long enough to allow friendly forces to complete those maneuvers and reset.

But the Army lacked the wherewithal to create that delay. Only the Air Force could do that. The revised doctrine thus implied close "synchronization" of air and ground offensive operations, whence AirLand Battle.

The new doctrine took some selling to an Air Force that carefully guarded its independence, never mind the Germans on whose territory it would have to be executed. Within the Army itself, however, AirLand Battle doctrine proved powerfully compelling.

Happily, the specific military threat that inspired its sobriquet never materialized. But its essentials guided Army planning in the First Gulf War until allied offensive operations were curtailed by what some still claim was an unwise and premature political decision. 

After Desert Storm, however, Army doctrine fell into a technological rabbit hole. Seduced by the promise of new sensor and information systems that, some insisted, would finally dissipate Clausewitz's fog of war, successive Army operating concepts were long on claims but short on evidence of performance.

 Instead, wargame results challenging those claims repeatedly were discounted, until actual battlefield experience in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed their inadequacies. That experience produced the first real doctrinal innovation since AirLand Battle, in the form of Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency.

But however useful in its own terms - a utility still debated today - the new doctrine addressed an even narrower military problem than the one that had informed AirLand Battle. Meanwhile, with limited institutional investment in counterinsurgency, the Navy and Air Force turned their conceptual sights elsewhere.

Elsewhere principally was the Pacific and a rising China. Ironically inspired by AirLand Battle doctrine (or at least, by its perceived success in eliciting budget support), in 2009 the Navy and Air Force jointly proposed a new AirSea Battle concept aimed at defeating "asymmetrical"- principally anti-access/access-denial - threats in the Pacific and the Persian Gulf.

Subsequently endorsed in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, AirSea Battle soon became the wholly-owned property of a joint Navy-Air Force concept development office comprising a dozen-odd carefully selected Air Force colonels and Navy captains. 

Although the office eventually expanded to include Army and Marine Corps representatives, AirSea Battle proponents were unable to shake criticism that it was no more than a lobbying effort. In January, 2015, it finally vanished, its place taken by the bureaucratically more acceptable if less resonant Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, under the aegis of the Joint Staff's Force Development Directorate.

Whatever its other accomplishments, one result of AirSea Battle was to prod an Army already nervous about public disaffection with counterinsurgency and a resulting mounting challenge to the Army's perceived future utility. That, a growing modernization deficit, and 15 years of single-minded training preoccupation with pre-deployment preparation, all urged resurrecting attention to conventional ground combat operations. 

But justified by what threat? Happily, as it did in the late 1970s, the Russian Bear once again saved the day. Interventions in Ukraine and Syria, evidence of significant Russian force modernization, and NATO's resulting jitters all have combined to justify renewed Army attention to high-intensity warfare and the need for new means with which to conduct it.

 Thus, reporting this week on the recent meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, The Hill's Kristina Wong writes that "Russia is one of the top concerns behind the Army's new "multi-domain battle" concept to overcome adversaries' growing abilities to keep the U.S. from operating near their borders, a strategy referred to as "anti-access, area denial" or A2/AD."

Except, of course, that, in NATO Europe at least, the crucial A2/AD problem seems to be denying access to the other fellow, just as it was 40 years ago. 

The doctrinal bumper-sticker may be new. The challenge prompting it looks very old indeed. 

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