Fight, Survive, Win

Image: US Army/Graigg Faggionato
The following story was originally featured on The Strategy Bridge as a two-part series titled “Fight, Survive, Win — Imagining Multi-Domain Battle.” It can be read here in its entirety courtesy of The Bridge’s editors.
Part I  Attack

Prologue

The United States faces a changing and more uncertain military future. The military dominance that the United States easily assumed following the end of the Cold War – and demonstrated in the Gulf War – is no longer so assured. Potential American adversaries are developing capabilities to challenge American strengths. The American military must develop new concepts and capabilities to continue to guarantee the military supremacy Americans expect. Multi-Domain Battle is an effort to develop these necessary concepts and capabilities. It will provide the means to counter adversaries who seek to break the current American military system. Multi-Domain Battle will deepen and expand current joint doctrine. It will allow the services to move beyond synchronization and converge their capabilities in their respective domains to open windows of relative advantage in a domain or several domains to gain the initiative. The concept also specifically challenges land forces to adapt and prepare for situations in which the complete American control of the air, sea, cyberspace and space, formerly a forgone conclusion, is no longer. This fictional depiction describes how the United States military might apply Multi-Domain Battle as a concept to defeat a near peer threat. The story does not describe any real potential adversary. The majority of geographic locations are fictional. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to any real individual is accidental.


030713LAUG21, Red Field, the principal theater airport

Despite himself Captain Jose Alvarez reached for his emergency can of Copenhagen and threw in a dip. This was not the moment to quit tobacco, he thought. He stared at a burning Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile launcher and pondered the last few hours. “Son of a…the intelligence officer was right, he cursed under his breath. Damn effective surprise attack….”

His First Sergeant (1SG) and the Battery Executive Officer (XO) walked up and jolted him back into the moment.

“Sir, we are 50% on launchers that were active and in position during the attack,” the XO mumbled, sounding almost stunned at what he said. “Top, what about casualties?” Alvarez asked. The First Sergeant, grim faced, looked down at her notebook and gave Alvarez a quick rundown of the human toll.

No one was dead. Most of the battery’s personnel had been dispersed in well-constructed fighting positions; still, there were several severely wounded soldiers who had been in the fire control shelter that had taken a near hit. All the wounded had been evacuated to the battalion aid station or beyond. Alvarez took it all in. He steeled himself for what lay ahead. Thankfully, several launchers had not been employed and were hidden in anticipation of this very type of attack. Also, the radar’s active protection system had worked. There had been multiple missile strikes on spoofed radar locations. The radar had suffered damage to several important circuit cards due to the high power jamming attack, but those cards could be easily replaced. Still, someone on the ground had done pinpoint reconnaissance of launcher positions. Alvarez now knew the “little green men” were out and about somewhere. They were going to make his unit’s life hard—this was very different than what he and his NCOs experienced before. He was glad he had been “that guy” and emphasized proper fighting positions and small arms proficiency.

In addition to that problem, Alvarez still had to accomplish his true mission—protect the theater’s most important airfields and provide theater ballistic missile defense, particularly against the enemy’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, so that the Navy could transit critical maritime choke points at the right moment.

Alvarez sucked on his dip, spat, and gave quick instructions to the XO and the 1SG. The war was on. His battery was deep in the fight. When the moment came he was confident he could provide critical air and missile defense. Still it was a shock—the enemy had shown some scary capabilities—jamming, long range precision fires, stealthy local reconnaissance to pinpoint critical targets. There had even been a cyber-attack that had prevented the battery from getting much warning before things started blowing up.

030815LAUG21, International Broadcast Partners (IBP) Television Studio, London

Alistair Gordon-Cooke shuffled the papers on his anchor desk, straightened, and looked into the camera. In clipped tones, he relayed to the world—at least those in a spot comfortable enough to watch TV—that the war many had feared was now a reality. “IBP correspondents across the region are reporting multiple explosions at airports, ports, communications facilities, and other critical infrastructure. We have sporadic communication with our correspondents and will keep our audience as up to date as possible based on those reports.” In his impeccably tailored suit, Gordon-Cooke projected a detached calm despite the emerging turbulence.

Inclining slightly to listen to the producer in his earpiece, Gordon-Cooke announced, “We have just reestablished contact via cellphone with our correspondent Juliette Chang—Juliette, what can you tell us?” Chang’s voice scratched across the airwaves—“Alistair, I am in the basement of the Intercontinental Hotel. Several hours ago sirens began blaring. My cameraman and I witnessed multiple explosions centered on the airport, what seemed like a direct hit near the city center forced us into…” The phone connection ceased abruptly, dead air echoing across the line as Gordon-Cooke, slightly off-balance at the sudden silence, responded slowly. Faced with no one to talk to, Gordon-Cooke improvised—rehashing the outlines of the crisis that had led to this moment—to fill the airtime the loss of communications had thrust on him.

Projecting all the stiff upper lip aplomb he could muster, Gordon-Cooke spoke:

As many will recall, the last several months have seen a dramatic increase in regional tension. Despite efforts over several years to reduce tensions among the United States, American allies, and their adversaries, the fundamental interests of all parties continued to clash. Border tensions, widespread social media agitation, and rising political rhetoric on all sides increased temperatures. After increasingly assertive troop maneuvers along their borders and reports of cross border air incursions, American allies requested the United States deploy troops into the region in an effort to lessen tensions. The United States, hoping to prevent the war of words from moving further, agreed and deployed roughly 15,000 troops to critical locations across the region. As IBP has reported repeatedly, instead of calming the situation, US troops’ presence seems to have emboldened their adversaries.

Anxious to demonstrate their growing military capabilities, America’s adversaries positioned surface to air missiles to challenge its air dominance. Additionally, many defense experts see medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles as a real threat to American naval power. Moreover, IBP’s defense commentators have repeatedly highlighted the fact that the American Navy would have to transit several constricted sea straits to reinforce their troops ashore.

Gordon-Cooke paused, perhaps to let both himself and the audience grasp the magnitude of what he was saying and then began speaking again:

As IBP correspondents have reported in the past, new, 21st century capabilities have been clearly on display over the recent months. While it has been impossible to independently verify these claims, there have been widespread reports of cyber-attacks and hacking across the region. IBP experts have likened these reports to similar activity in Georgia and Ukraine during those conflicts of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Additionally, we have received multiple reports of missile and air attacks. IBP has only intermittent communications with its correspondents across the region. The best available evidence shows that many critical communications nodes are no longer functioning. The reports received here at IBP headquarters suggest many have been destroyed or cannot communicate due to sustained jamming and denial of service cyber attacks.

Gordon-Cooke paused, squinted, and listened intently to his producer’s voice. While an experienced anchor, he was most comfortable simply setting the stage for a reporter in the field. The voice buzzing in his ear told him for the moment he was on his own. All IBP attempts to contact its correspondents were failing. Like a Greek chorus observing an unfolding tragedy, Gordon-Cooke thought, he seemed destined to spend the next several hours narrating the suddenly violent confrontation.

030733LAUG21, Combatant Command Headquarters

His aide handed General Jeff Williamson, the Combatant Commander, a cup of coffee. Williamson sipped, looked up, and asked his director of operations, the J-3, Rear Admiral Darnell Jones, “what the hell had happened in the last six hours.” The rear admiral stood by the situation map and rapidly summarized current operations. First contact had been an enemy cyber-attack that paralyzed communications, he said. He confessed that much of what he was briefing was conjecture because the headquarters had only intermittent contact with most of its subordinate units. Jones’ words crashed over General Williamson in waves. Buzzwords of feared enemy capabilities turned deadly real—commercial drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and targeting, enemy special operations forces calling for fire, disrupting communications and attacking headquarters. Global Positioning System (GPS) jamming, communications satellites lost, US airpower partially negated by ground-based air defense, possibly multiple ships lost to ballistic missile strikes, Army, Marine, and forward positioned Air Force units isolated with little or no air support and only their local logistical stocks on hand––many of which were being targeted by cruise and ballistic missile attack. Intermittent reports came in of massed artillery devastating static units and fixed sites.

An old fighter pilot, Williamson allowed himself a moment of nostalgia—longing for that recent past when he and fellow pilots roamed above the battlefield almost immune to any enemy threat, able rain destruction with a well-placed Joint Direct Attack Munition, at will. He caught himself—that battlefield was gone, replaced by an almost infinitely more complex and lethal one.

The system had been broken into fragments, Williamson told himself. He knew everyone was fighting hard, but as far as he could tell the unified system that he had been a part of as a younger officer in Iraq and Afghanistan was now separate pieces fighting for survival. Williamson looked at the situation map. There was a lot of red—red diamonds with dashed lines. The intel folks had a lot of enemy units templated, but with so many pieces of the communications network broken apart, Williamson knew that many of the red unit locations pointing menacingly at critical American and allied positions were more the result of guesses than actual reports. He was in a new kind of fight. He had to find a way to get his forces synced again—focused to create even the smallest window or opportunity in time and space. Find that window he told himself. Gain the initiative somewhere and he was confident that he could exploit an opportunity in the air, at sea or on land to begin turning the course of the fight.

031442AUG21L, Black River, AB1234 4321

Sergeant First Class Austin Farmer quickly updated his platoon’s status card. It did not tell a happy story. While they still had all four tanks, the platoon’s fuel status was inching towards black. Each tank was at about 75% on ammo. One tank had all its antennae blown off. Another had thrown track, although they had succeeded in recovering it and getting it going again. None of the platoon’s Blue Force Trackers or GPS was working without intermittent interference. His tank platoon had just moved to its fourth defensive position since the fighting started. His tankers were exhausted. No one had slept more than 45 minutes at a stretch since the night had exploded with artillery. He thought that had been about twelve hours ago, but it was hard to say exactly. He stared momentarily at his watch and tried to do the math. He quickly gave up, judging that there were better uses for his limited remaining mental energy. Farmer had told his platoon leader grab a nap. They both now knew what to expect next. They might hear a drone; someone might catch a glimpse as a tiny unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fluttered just above the wood line. That was the only signal they might get, and there was a good chance that no one would notice the drone. Next the whistle of incoming artillery would fill the sky. Farmer was convinced that enemy ground forces were lurking nearby, but they had had no real direct fire contact so far.

Farmer nudged Specialist Jeff Wilson, his tank’s gunner, awake with his foot. Farmer joked to Wilson “and you said you didn’t want to reenlist because there was no chance for anything exciting to happen—us old timers got all the action. Aren’t you glad I talked out of that stupid plan? You would have missed all the fun we’re having.” Wilson chuckled, staring through his sight, scanning, and replied “I don’t know what I would do without your wisdom, Sergeant.” Farmer, an experienced platoon sergeant, wanted to keep the platoon on an even keel. He could always find the black cloud when things seemed to be going great and a silver lining when everything seemed like it was going to hell—it was past time for some silver lining.

After the first artillery strike, Apache helicopters had tried to flush out any artillery forward observers along the platoon’s front. Two had ventured too far forward of the platoon’s position. They vanished in an instant in a volley of enemy surface to air missiles. Since then the brigade commander had decided to save his remaining helicopters. There had been limited fixed wing air support. Several hours before, the word had come across the net that friendly close air support (CAS) was inbound shortly. It seemed like only moments later a flurry of distant missile contrails from the enemy’s slide of the lines had filled the air. Clearly, the enemy’s air defenses were thick. They wanted to break apart the Americans’ air-land team. Surface to air missiles were the best way to do that. A few CAS strikes had given moments of respite. He was thankful for that limited air support, but it wasn’t like the past he remembers when a tight situation almost always brought a friendly aircraft to make it go away. He had seen enemy aircraft skimming the treetops in the distance. The brigade’s air defenders had generally kept the manned enemy air at bay. They had less success with the UAVs. Air defense had made the skies a virtual no man’s land.

Farmer shocked himself thinking how grateful he was that the brigade’s air defenders knew their business. “Duck hunters, who knew they could be so important,” Farmer laughed to himself. Farmer was an old enough soldier to have a sense of what was going on. They were isolated, almost fixed in place, unable to maneuver. The enemy was still unwilling to test the strength of American direct fire. But that would not last. Eventually, after enough artillery, and once the Americans had burned more fuel, when the drones had identified most of the American positions, the enemy’s land forces would emerge and try to overwhelm them.

031440LAUG21, Combatant Command Cyber Headquarters

Staff Sergeant Karen George looked up from her boredom and started to pay attention when the briefer said most of the friendly network was down. As an Air Force offensive cyber expert, she generally found these status updates a waste of time––“blah, blah, blah . . . all systems green . . .blah, blah, blah.” This time, instead of a dull drone, she heard barely controlled panic. Now alert, George, listened more intently. “Large scale distributed denial of service attack” … “multiple vectors crippling the network…” Someone who knew what they were doing was on the other side. Instinctively, she admired their skill. If things were this serious, she told herself, her team might finally get to use some of their tools. Until now their rules had been so restrictive they couldn’t do anything. But, if the enemy was doing everything the briefer described, everyone above her who was always worried about the right authorities, whether they would leave detectable traces or cause collateral damage, might grow some courage and let them loose.

She could only hope. The recon was done. They had meticulously mapped the enemy network’s vulnerabilities. Her mind started racing. If things got really intense, it could be the greatest worm hack ever. When she thought about hacking, she still thought of herself as warm, her old hacker handle—too bad she would never be able to brag about any hacks they did—stupid security regulations and everything. The adrenaline started to kick in. This could get good.

031554AUG21L, 1234 North Latitude, 4567 West Longitude, aboard USS Nimitz, Carrier Strike Group 8, moving west

USS Nimitz

USS Nimitz

Rear Admiral Bill Forester scowled. He felt like his Carrier Strike Group (CSG) was nearly deaf and functionally mute. He had very little communications with either the Maritime Operations Center or the Combatant Command headquarters. The CSG’s communications had been reduced to rudimentary High Frequency (HF) and Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio links and barely readable phone patches. The satellite links his carrier strike group depended on for communications, weather forecasting, and space-based reconnaissance were suddenly so limited as to be almost unusable. He and his fleet were nearly isolated; steaming alone in the ocean like it was World War II. The sudden loss of much of their communications capabilities had the strike group on edge, alert for potential threats. Normally, the detachment from higher command would bring him comfort, but given the circumstances, the unknown gnawed at him. He knew the fleet with its attached Marine expeditionary unit was rapidly approaching the effective range of the enemy’s anti-ship ballistic missiles. Was the nation at war? He suspected so, but did not know for certain. He commanded an impressive array of naval power, but lacked enough information to know where or whether to apply it.

Intelligence had warned that a coordinated enemy attack using cyber, communications jamming, and targeting critical American space assets might result in widespread and persistent communication difficulties. Instinctively, Forester had been skeptical. Now he thought he was living that nightmare. Forester knew he had the only carrier strike group in the theater. It was too precious to risk in the complete unknown, and the information coming over HF wasn’t enough yet. Forester prided himself on his aggressiveness—like any good naval aviator and a fighter pilot at that. Now he thought it might be time for caution—play the waiting game; let the situation develop until more information was available. Aircraft carriers were hard to replace—he could only risk it at the right moment.

Instinctively, he wanted to embrace Navy tradition, damn the torpedoes and charge ahead. Yet, he knew that was not his role, not in this fight. There was a chance that he was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. He had to preserve his fleet, synch his actions with the rest of the joint force. Together they would win with their combined efforts. He shocked himself thinking the Navy might no longer have complete command of the sea––the unknown threatened over the horizon.

“XO, order the group to come about. We cannot enter missile range until we have a better idea what’s out there. And dammit, we have to be able to communicate more effectively!”

The carrier strike group slowly turned to the east, away from danger. As the group’s ships cut through the water, they moved further away from a raging land battle.

032345AUG21L, Aloft, F-35 flying east

Major Jennifer “Speed” Sakamoto keyed the mic and made sure her wingman was still there. The call sign sounded cool but it really came from a reckless driving ticket as a lieutenant and a superior who told her to keep the speed in the cockpit. Damn, Speed thought––that had gone to shit faster than expected.

The intent had been to drive a wedge in the enemy’s anti-access/area denial umbrella. They needed to expand the bubble of American air superiority well beyond the straits to allow the carrier strike group’s freedom of maneuver. To accomplish that, the coalition forces air component commander (CFACC) had planned a series of strikes on suspected enemy air defense radar sites and land based anti ship ballistic missile radars that allowed effective surveillance of the strait. The strike also planned to target as many of the mobile surface to air missile (SAM) launchers as had been identified or were forced to reveal themselves under the pressure of the attack.

At first things had seemed to be going well. They hit several of their targets. However, the enemy’s mastery of deception and spoofing quickly revealed itself. Many of the targets turned out to be fake, mock-ups left behind when the real equipment moved. Spoofed radar locations got missiles that found no useful target. Just as they were starting to realize that, the enemy sprang an ambush. A well-targeted missile forced the AWACS to break station and give up positive, and radar directed control. The friction caused the fight to slip out of control. Flight leads continued as best they could with their own radar direction. Jamming, a cluttered and constantly changing radar picture, and clouds of SAMS turned the flight chaotic, almost uncontrolled. Unable to press home the attack decisively, they broke off––and ran into another SAMS ambush positioned to interdict a possible exfiltration route. It was hard to tell what the losses had been.

Speed reassured herself that they had done some real damage, but the enemy clearly knew how to contest air control from the ground––if not win it outright. Now time to hit the tanker, return to base, and start figuring out what to do next.

040517AUG21L, Combatant Command Headquarters

Williamson absorbed everything that Admiral Jones told him. Despite the badly degraded communications, it was clear that the enemy had succeeded in fracturing the American military system. Air was contested throughout the theater. The enemy had nearly crippled US communications by a combination of jamming, cyber-attacks on computer networks, and the destruction of a critical US communications satellite. Williamson did not have an accurate naval picture. He feared possible ship losses to anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles. He did not know whether they still had control of the sea-lanes. Army and Marine units ashore and forward Air Force units were isolated and sustaining bombardment. The enemy’s robust air defenses prevented most friendly air support and interdiction efforts throughout the theater. Scattered reports suggested that enemy artillery was having devastating effects. Friendly air and ballistic missile defense was either at its capacity or completely overwhelmed. It would take some more time before counterattacks would roll back the enemy’s air defenses and enable both air support and interdiction efforts more broadly.

So far everyone was mostly fighting only in his or her own element…

So far everyone was mostly fighting only in his or her own element. Williamson knew he had to reverse that quickly. He needed to find ways to fully converge air, land, sea and cyber capabilities so that he had the initiative somewhere—at least temporarily. If he could get the separate pieces focused on one objective, to create a window somewhere, at sea, on land, or in the air, even for a brief time, he could start regaining the initiative.

Williamson gave some rapid instructions to Jones, the Combatant Command Chief of Operations, and the other staff members assembled. Despite the fact that the war was barely 24 hours old, they had to stop reacting to the enemy. They needed to restore freedom of action. The first step was to regain use of the cyber realm and greater ability to communicate. Once they were confident in effective communications with subordinate units, it was time to converge domains. The purpose was clear—gain a window of air superiority and sea control to allow reinforcements and supplies to reach land. Get the carrier strike group and the Marine expeditionary unit, followed by logistical resupply, through the region’s critical chokepoints and in position to reinforce. For now these were the most critical things to accomplish. Ultimately, he needed that window of control. But he knew it was going to take air and land forces and some hard work by the cyber folks to give him that window. Once that was done he could focus on a counterattack on land.

After several hours his staff gave General Williamson a hurried update. Brigadier General Kristen O’Malley, the Director of Intelligence, delivered a quick but thorough recap of what hours of detective work had gleaned on the enemy’s disposition and the thrust of their operations.

Speaking rapidly, O’Malley reported, “the enemy’s main effort seems to be attacks on US communications. They want to blind us, break us apart, and fight us in isolated bits. So far they are succeeding. They are employing communications and GPS jamming, as well as distributed denial of service network attacks very effectively. We do not have a clear picture of what is going on in space at this point. We do know we do not have the full use of satellite communications and reconnaissance, and where we do, we cannot quickly access that intelligence.” O’Malley paused to let these startling facts sink in.

“Enemy attacks on our communications are not our only problem. As we feared, the enemy has an even more robust air defense system than we templated.” Jones quickly added that US efforts to pierce the enemy’s anti-access/area denial bubble had been less successful than anticipated––with greater than expected losses.

O’Malley began speaking again, the staccato of her New England accent highlighting the deft ways the enemy had linked cyber, long-range surface-to-surface missiles and massed artillery, robust, multi-layered air defense, jamming, special operations attacks and even early indicators of social media misinformation claiming wanton civilian casualties, to seize the initiative. Her briefing on the multi-screen situation map clearly displayed the overlapping and mutually supporting air, sea, space, cyber, and land components of the enemy’s operations.

Part II  Counterattack

040543AUG21L, Combatant Command Headquarters

Next, Jones spoke. He described the plan to regain the initiative.

Everything was in place. While the US and allied forces were still struggling to fully defeat enemy denial of service attacks, they had been able to communicate in short bursts with subordinate units. The plan was set. Land-based long-range missiles would initiate the attack by destroying enemy sea based jammers. At the same time, a manned-unmanned teaming attack, combining stealthy Air Force UAVs for targeting and Army long range missiles, would pinpoint and destroy the enemy’s air defense nodes to begin to regain contested airspace. Simultaneously, other manned-unmanned teaming attacks would also target mobile anti-ship ballistic missiles. Land forces would counterattack to break out of their fixed positions. The intent for that attack was clear—bypass everything else, find and destroy enemy air defense artillery, surface-to-air missile, and counter-maritime systems. The combined effects of air, land, and sea power would create a window during which time the enemy could not target US maritime forces as they transited key choke points. The key was to knock out the enemy’s missile capabilities and suppress enough of the air defense system. That would allow US airpower to establish a degree of superiority as cover to naval forces and the cargo ships bringing the supplies needed to continue the fight. A window of sea control gained by the combined efforts of all US and allied forces would continue efforts to regain the initiative.

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets take off from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier | Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez, US Navy

Two F/A-18E Super Hornets take off from the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier | Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ignacio D. Perez, US Navy

Williamson spoke forcefully. “We are fragmented. We cannot regain control of everything at once. We are focusing everything we have at the moment to regain air superiority and control of the sea-lanes to allow the Nimitz strike group to maneuver freely. That will allow us to reinforce where needed. With temporary control of the sea and the reinforcements that we can land from the sea, we are in position to shift our focus to regaining the full initiative on the land.” He sensed the increasing stress, even shock filtering across his staff — all battle tested professionals who knew intellectually that the enemy had new, dangerous capabilities that made this a different fight than what they had experienced before. Still knowing and confronting in action were starkly different.

He spoke as much as anything to reassure, to bolster the confidence he knew everyone needed to make their plan work:

My intent for everyone should be clear. Communications will remain contested. That will be an enduring characteristic of this fight. Get the order out. Confirm receipt. Once that is done expect subordinates to execute. We will not be able control events from this headquarters. Trust those truly fighting to do what must be done. At the same time, everyone must understand the purpose of this phase of the fight is to converge the effects of all our domains to gain and maintain air superiority and open a window of maneuver at sea to allow reinforcements—both troops and logistics—to land. Once that happens we will be in a position to transition to the next phase of operations. We are going to win. We will do the things we must to make that happen.

Around the room heads nodded, staff officers scribbled notes and whispered to each other. As General Williamson stopped speaking, people began scurrying to put the plan into motion.

042005AUG21L, IBP Headquarters, London

Despite the best efforts of the IBP makeup crew, Alistair Gordon-Cooke was starting to look haggard. Even his finely tailored suit was wilting, physical evidence of the hours he had spent on air. Visibly tired, Gordon-Cooke arranged himself in his seat, look at the camera, and gave yet another update:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. IBP continues to have only limited contact with our correspondents in the region. As we previously reported, communications in and out of the conflict zone are occasional at best. Despite these limitations, we can update you with several important developments. As best we can determine, neither side has been able to establish control of the air. We have heard rumors of significant losses to American and allied air forces. Official spokesmen have not confirmed these. Both official websites and social media associated with America’s adversary have claimed that the United States’ air advantage has been blunted, if not effectively destroyed. It is impossible to verify these claims independently. Still if true, this turn of events marks a dramatic departure from previous conflicts, when many have grown used to the United States operating from the air with near impunity.

Gordon-Cooke turned to Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Lindsfield, a retired Royal Navy officer and an IBP defense expert in studio to provide context and help fill air time, and asked, “Admiral, are you surprised at what we know of events to date?”

Lindsfield answered slowly:

“The overall situation is much more confused than many might have assumed. Whether or not claims of destroyed American air power are correct, it is clear that the United States has not been able to establish the same mastery of the air that first appeared in 1991 and has been a central feature of every American conflict since then. As a navy man I will be quite interested in how the confrontation between anti-ship ballistic missiles and American aircraft carriers unfolds. The United States relies on control of the seas to project power and deliver critical logistical support to their and allied forces. If America’s enemies can prevent both the US Air Force and the US Navy from operating freely, the United States will face a strategic environment it has not confronted since the Cold War, or even World War II. Alistair, as you have seen, there are many bold claims of the effectiveness of these new anti-ship missiles. So far they have not played a major role, but they have the potential to be a decisive new weapon. At the same time, the Americans must neutralize them and find a way to gain and exploit control of the seas if they hope to prevail. They are at the end of a very long supply line. Air and sea control allows them to bring their advantages in materiel to bear. Without them, they cannot win.”

051103AUG21L, Combatant Command Cyber Headquarters

“I almost can’t believe they pay me for this,” Staff Sergeant George thought to herself. She was in full worm mode, getting ready to get lost for hours snaking her way into the enemy’s network. Her cyber cell was about to go on the attack. They had a multi-pronged cyber-attack ready to explode. The enemy thought they knew how to execute a denial of service attack—wait to see what was next. They had a virus that would route messages into an endless loop. They had also had a social media deception operation ready to go—it aimed to trick the enemy into thinking US forces were where they were not.

051327LAUG21, Red Field, the principal theater airport

The order had come through in fits and starts. Alvarez thought they had the general concept. He could not tell if they had received everything. Still, the intent was clear: the United States and its allies were counterattacking. A carrier strike group was soon attempting transit of the choke points he was over watching. His battery was central to that plan. It was going to help create a window of air superiority at a critical moment. They had to expect a missile attack. It was coming soon.

He stared at the fire control displayed. His battery had rallied well after the jolt the enemy’s surprise attack inflicted on everyone. Now their training was also grounded in bloody experience. More fully aware of the potential threats than they had ever been, his perimeter security had detected what they thought were the infamous “little green men” attempting surveillance. It could have been nothing, but several bursts of machine gun fire along with even greater alertness by the sentries had quieted things down.

Still shaken by the damage to the battery and the casualties they had suffered, everyone wanted to fire back. As he walked around and talked with his soldiers, he heard the edge in their voices. It was time to get a shot off, and not just with their small arms. Everyone wanted to prove they could defeat the ballistic missile threat.

Sgt. 1st Class Benson Gatchalian raises the launcher of a THAAD unit outside the THAAD Instructional Facility as Sgt. 1st Class Penieli Vaisagote monitors | Clifford Kyle Jones

Sgt. 1st Class Benson Gatchalian raises the launcher of a THAAD unit outside the THAAD Instructional Facility as Sgt. 1st Class Penieli Vaisagote monitors | Clifford Kyle Jones

He snapped his finger and packed another dip. The last couple of days had ended this attempt to quit tobacco. His THAAD battery was one of the enemy’s highest priority targets. At least for the time being tar and nicotine were not the most significant threats to his life, he kept telling himself.

“No targets yet,” Alvarez muttered mostly to himself as he massaged the tobacco in his cheek. The fire control specialist sitting in front of him heard, and whispered back “No, how long will that last?” “Not long, not long. Intelligence says they still have anti-ship ballistic missiles left. They’ll fire. They can’t let us maneuver an entire carrier strike group and a Marine expeditionary unit through the straits and not take their shot. Those missiles are coming.”

A red screen flashed in front of them “Warning, Warning—Missiles inbound” a tinny, soullessly automated voice announced without fanfare––devoid of the sweaty cocktail of nerves and purpose every air defender in the shelter collectively felt.

It was round two for the THAAD battery. This time they were ready to fire.

Alvarez watched, satisfied as his soldiers quickly and efficiently executed their battle drills. Commands rang out, were acknowledged and confirmed. In less than 90 seconds, missiles were leaving launchers.

He and his soldiers watched the respective missile tracks, as they seemed to inch closer together.

Lines on computer screens crossed.

The missile threat to the fleet ceased—at least temporarily.

One key to opening the window was in place.

051647LAUG21, AB1234 5676, 1st Land and Naval Fires Control Detachment

Captain Keith Jones and Commander Steve Allen looked at their joint unit’s situation map as it updated off UAV and Navy E-2D Hawkeye feeds. The naval officer was confident that they had identified the enemy’s ship-based jammers that were disrupting communications. The E-2D provided Navy Cooperative Engagement Capability targeting information to the Army fires battalion allowing effective long-range precision fires from land to target ships at sea. Jones watched as the Army’s anti-ship missiles streaked across the screen. Ship and missile icons intersected and the missiles disappeared. The UAV quickly confirmed multiple burning vessels. The enemy jamming signals disappeared almost as suddenly.

051736LAUG21, FG3456 7687, 8th Battlefield Coordination Detachment

Staff Sergeant Oscar Silva confirmed that they had a good feed from the Air Force UAV. The UAV had been airborne for almost twenty-four hours. Several UAV pilots had cycled through. With the UAV’s long loiter time, Silva, an artillery forward observer, was confident that they had clearly identified the enemy’s long-range air defense. The next target set, anti-ship missile launchers, had also been confirmed. “Sir, we have them. It is time to fire.” Lieutenant Colonel Josh Frederick agreed. The battlefield coordination detachment quickly transmitted the fire mission. The fires battalion processed it in minutes. Seconds ticked and missiles were airborne.

Within an hour the battle damage assessments began coming in—almost all the targets were burning. The enemy’s air defense system was cracking open.

060037LAUG21, Aloft, F-35 strike force

F-35 | US Air Force Photo

F-35 | US Air Force Photo

Speed peered into the night sky, nothing but eerie static echoing in her helmet. Her F-35 was flying in formation. The silence was occasionally shattered by brief commands relayed between the fighters on the F-35’s multifunction advanced data link (MADL), which allowed extremely low power, directional communication between the aircraft in formation. It was virtually undetectable. The squadron was tracing a circuitous route to their objective, attempting to ride the seams in enemy radar coverage to minimize the possibility of being targeted. An AWACS was airborne ready to control the fight. It was much further away from the objective than was optimal, with its radar off. The plan was simple—simple in concept at least. The theater air commander had a tailored strike package that would drive an even deeper wedge in the enemy’s air defense system once surface fires gave them the crack they needed to infiltrate. They were all waiting for a breach in the enemy’s air defense system and the Army was supposed to make that happen. With a deep wedge, the airmen knew they could widen and expand it, winning the air superiority the CSG needed to maneuver freely. A window of air superiority and the position of advantage it gained would open the torrents.

While the strike force flew in near complete silence, a broad deception plan filled the air around them with as much noise as possible. The plan was for the strike force to slip silently through a blizzard of deception jamming and powerful radar signals, undetected until in striking range. Sakamoto longed for the break in radio silence. There were a series of long loiter, low signature communications UAVs flying to fill the gap created by the loss of communications satellites. Once conditions were set the UAVs would begin transmitting. “Doolittle” was the code word to continue with the attack. That single word would keep them bearing down on their targets. They were to remain as silent as possible until at the release point for their attack approach. She stared at her instruments, scanned outside the cockpit for the shadows of her fellow aircraft and waited anxiously. Say “Doolittle” dammit, Sakamoto thought to herself. Say it. The waiting, the unknown was the worst part.

A near whisper broke the silence on the net, reaching through the tethered communication links between the UAVs: “Doolittle.”

Let’s get it on; let’s get it on, Speed told herself.

Air power was getting its chance.

060214LAUG21, RT9876 3498

Burning breach bots marked the hasty lane through the enemy’s defensive obstacles. Sergeant First Class Farmer joked to his crew, “You guys think you’re harder than woodpecker lips, artillery, tanks, red air and everything else, you can’t really be hard with these robots to breach for you. You haven’t lived until you proofed the lane with a mine plow on the front of your tank. Back at the NTC, I can’t tell you how many times I died in the middle of a breach—whoopee lights flashing, lasers flying everywhere….”

Wilson, the gunner, whooped with laughter—“That sounds like hell, Sergeant, killed by MILES gear.”

“It was, it was,” Farmer deadpanned. “Stuck in the middle of the California desert, running out of ice in the cooler, nothing cold to drink—hell I tell you, hell.”

Despite their exhaustion, the crew’s laughter echoed through across the intercom. Attacking was good for morale and a ridiculous joke helped calm everyone down.

Farmer was relieved to be back on the attack. His tank platoon glided over rolling plains. Turrets traversed left and right scanning for targets, although there weren’t supposed to be any threats in the vicinity. After evading artillery and moving nearly constantly, now was a moment to take the fight to the enemy. The battalion was the exploitation force following the breach of the enemy’s hasty obstacles.

As he understood the plan, another battalion was fixing enemy forces near their initial defensive positions. His task was to kill enemy air defense. That was going to be fun—save the main gun rounds for the next phase, coax machine gun and fifty caliber would do the job tonight. They were bypassing all significant resistance to get near the port and the airfield to allow reinforcements to land. Once the air defense ring on the outside was destroyed there would be hard fighting as they cleared the enemy out of the every inch of that port.

A couple hours later, Farmer reported—“Anvil 6, four S-400 destroyed.” “Roger,” came back across the net. The enemy’s air defense had been reduced to heavy machine guns.

Farmer understood his commander’s intent. Don’t stop. Bypass—Pursue. It felt like the bastards were on the run—step on their throat. His tank accelerated into the night scanning as it went.

060329LAUG21, AB1234 5678, USS Nimitz, Carrier Strike Group 8 moving west

With better communications and a clearer picture of the situation, Admiral Forester started to breathe easier. His carrier strike group with attachments had already come about. They were racing forward, intent on taking advantage of the sliver of sea control they had been given to get in position to land reinforcements from the Marine expeditionary unit and usefully employ his air wing. There was still a risk of mines, particularly as they passed through narrow choke points. He was confident that the allied minesweepers ahead were fully capable of dealing with that threat. They were expert at the task and knew these waters well. He was still worried about possible anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles. He knew that those systems had been priority targets for surface-to-surface long-range precision fires. With better communications they now had better intelligence. The reports indicated that the anti-ship missile threat had been mostly neutralized. He hoped so. Even better, his Aegis cruisers, riding shotgun, had not yet fired. If some anti-ship missile system had escaped, they were ready to deal with it. He had both air and surface forces scouting ahead. Even with the risks that remained, there was no time to waste. If they did not run into any unforeseen hazards, they would launch their first offensive airstrike with the rising sun and begin helping land forces with their business.

060713LAUG21, Combatant Command Headquarters

General Williamson was relieved. Communications were now almost acceptable. He had a basic understanding of what was actually going on across his theater. More importantly, he was confident his forces controlled the critical air space and sea-lanes to begin setting conditions for the next phase of the operation. He expected a counterattack, particularly against his communications and other cyber assets. Additionally, he knew the enemy would reposition air defense constantly to continue contesting the theater’s airspace. There was also still tough, close, urban fighting to come. That was why it was imperative to make the most of this window. Get naval forces and, perhaps even more importantly, reinforcements and supplies through the choke points. His tenuous air and sea control gave him a chance to exploit that advantage on land. But the tanks needed fuel. Fuel and more power to the fight—that is what he needed. He was getting ahead of himself, he thought. Focus on now. It’s still not won. Get through the choke points. Use this window.

060832LAUG21, IBP Studio, London

Alistair Gordon-Cooke had managed a nap. He now felt slightly less exhausted. Another anchor had covered the last several hours. With a fresh suit, a coffee, and the help of the talented makeup crew at IBP, he was ready to get back on air. It seemed that the chaos had, perhaps, lessened slightly. Still, he doubted that his role as the narrator of chaotic, distant, destruction would really change.

Gordon-Cooke squinted momentarily as his eyes adjusted to the studio lights. He inserted his earpiece and expected to return to his previous role filling confused airtime. He looked up, almost shocked when the producer told him they had a live feed from Juliette Chang. Looking at the camera, he asked, “Juliette, what can you tell us?”

…they have been able to integrate the effects of cyber, space, sea, air and land power in new ways, which gave them a window of opportunity to regain the initiative.

Chang replied, “Alistair, the situation has changed significantly in the last several hours. While communications are still generally poor, the Americans have allowed us use of their communications infrastructure to file this report. I can tell you from talking with American and allied spokespeople, who previously had nothing to say, they are now confident that the tide is tilting in their direction. Without providing real details, they have said generally that they have been able to integrate the effects of cyber, space, sea, air and land power in new ways, which gave them a window of opportunity to regain the initiative. While they cautioned that much hard fighting remains ahead, they seem confident that these new methods they hinted at will allow them to retain significant advantages.”

Gordon-Cooke, suddenly more animated at having an on scene perspective, asked, “Juliette, what can you tell us about the ‘new methods’ that allowed American and allied forces to create this ‘window of opportunity?’”


Mark A. Olsen is an Army officer currently serving as a strategist on the TRADOC Commander’s Planning Group. He is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is completing a PhD in history at Rice University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.