A near-peer conflict between the U.S. and China will be a nightmare lived in real life. Just how scary the nightmare of war might be is dependent on what is done now. As policymakers and war planners prepare for the potential of near-peer conflict — the biggest fight of modern times — two imperatives must be considered: the rapid investment and fielding of highly employable technology, and greater autonomy and expectations from novel warfighters on the battlefield.
In a recent conversation at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said that we will have to use everything in the cupboard to prevent conflict with China. At present, open-source war games predict that American fire power and expertise would prevail in a conflict with China. However, the current “victory gap,” is not static, and our military advantage over a near-peer adversary is not guaranteed in perpetuity.
While progress has been made to step up the pace of acquiring new weapon systems through existing acquisition authorities, it can be argued that much more speed is needed to ensure the force is ready for the next fight. This will mean more robust legislative reforms that entrust the Department of Defense with the authority to speed up the acquisition of emerging technology from future years to real-time relevance. It may even mean a radical idea: Buy now and report as soon as possible.
Moving faster should not mean less oversight and accountability of taxpayer dollars but rather a shared understanding of the high stakes that face the future of rules-based order.
Emerging technology being fielded by industry today has enormous potential to provide the U.S. military with the competitive advantage that will be needed to sustain and win on the battlefield. Large U.S. companies are pushing beyond the envelope with 5G technology, all-electric aircraft and autonomous systems, which could prove critical in a near-peer fight. The U.S. military’s imperative is to rapidly find, fund and field the very best ideas.
In a near-peer fight in the Indo-Pacific region, distributed operations will not just be a paragraph in the overall operational campaign executed by high-end forces; it will have to be the main order of battle. A key to the success of distributed operations could be a new concept using multicapable warfighters defined as individual effects teams, or IET.
These basic combat skills trained two-person teams — sourced from across the ranks of the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force — that could be deployed with discrete mission tasks all designed to deceive, disrupt, deny and defeat the enemy. A radical approach to the IET is that the ideal candidate would not be an infantry professional at all; an Army finance clerk could be tasked to join up with an Air Force Security Forces airman, or a Marine cook could join an Army admin troop.
Armed with combat skills training, leading-edge technology and discrete mission orders, nontraditional front-line combatants could provide critical effects enabling deceive-campaign effects.
IETs would not just shoot, move and communicate; in fact, they might not directly engage the enemy at all. Each team could be strategically deployed alone but unafraid and armed with cutting-edge technology. IETs could deploy in mass, creating a “swarm effect.” Thousands of IETs operating in front of, behind and next to the enemy’s line would be designed to prep and shape the battle space by overwhelming the adversary’s battlefield situational awareness, providing gaps for conventional forces and supporting fires to make strategic advances.
In effect the enemy would die a death of a thousand cuts as IETs — along with conventional and special forces — focus on defeating key centers of gravity.
IETs could be tasked with a single mission: to simply deploy to an area and do nothing as part of a larger mission effects profile. Alternatively, an IET could deploy disruptive technology the size of a backpack and return to base.
A more involved mission for an IET might involve setting up an austere landing field, which could include flying onto a deserted island as a passenger on an automated, low-signature, all-electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. Once on the ground the IET could set up a pocket-sized communication node, and generate water from the air and aircraft fuel from sea water hours before the first aircraft landing.
The Department of Defense and Congress must push the envelope harder to reduce the time it takes to field and acquire new systems — technology at the speed of relevance. The private sector is ripe with cutting-edge solutions, but many are dying on the vine.
Finally, the services should fully explore the cumulative effects that multicapable warfighters can bring to the vast, distributed battlefield. Every service member deployed to the front lines except for medical personnel and chaplains should be prepared to operate outside the wire as a multicapable warfighter as part of an individual effects team.
War is horrible, and those who have seen it hope it never returns. However, man is not perfect and is a reliable creature of habit, so we must prepare to win today.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ernest “Nest” Cage is a senior defense fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank. He previously served as deputy executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This commentary does not necessarily represent the official policies or views of the U.S. Air Force or the U.S. Defense Department.