“Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson said of disrupting opponents’ thinking through violence. Today, China and Russia channel Tyson through strategies that attack U.S. military information and command systems and exploit the resulting cognitive and psychological disruption. They believe that degrading these systems and functions will turn traditional U.S. strengths into weaknesses and allow them to win limited, local conflicts, or deter the United States from fighting altogether. This belief isn’t misplaced.
The Pentagon will soon unveil its solution to this challenge, Joint All-Domain Command and Control, which envisions an overarching network-of-networks enabled by artificial intelligence and cloud data storage. In theory, this hyper-network will restore U.S. information dominance by linking every sensor to every “shooter” across vast theaters to deliver converging effects from dispersed forces, thereby presenting multiple insoluble dilemmas to Chinese or Russian armed forces.
After 30 years fighting below its so-called weight class, the Pentagon has largely forgotten how to deal with opponents that can disrupt its information and command-and-control systems. U.S. armed forces desperately need a new network architecture, but this vision is simultaneously too ambitious, and not ambitious enough. China and Russia have spent decades developing capabilities and operational concepts to disrupt U.S. information and command systems in space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. Countless wargames, simulations and historical lessons suggest these domains will be highly contested, and systems operating within them will be heavily degraded. Regaining the information dominance U.S. forces enjoyed during the post-Cold War era is a chimerical goal. Instead, the Pentagon should aim for degradation dominance: operating effectively enough with degraded systems. Put simply, the Pentagon needs a plan for getting punched in the mouth.
Rather than connecting every sensor to every shooter across a theater — likely impossible given Chinese and Russian countermeasures — degradation dominance would emphasize building networks that, when degraded, can reliably connect enough sensors to enough shooters over relevant distances. Instead of an overarching system with strict interoperability standards, this approach would use universal data translators to build flexible, ad-hoc mesh networks that could pass information across multiple paths and degrade gracefully under attack.
New networks are necessary, but they won’t be enough to achieve degradation dominance. Chinese and Russian strategies target information technology as a means to disrupt U.S. forces cognitively and psychologically. Passing data more quickly between U.S. forces won’t matter if personnel can’t understand what they’re seeing or act quickly enough under attack. Improving the cognitive function of command will require much more difficult and far-reaching reforms.
U.S. armed forces must be organized differently for degraded operations. The proliferation of precision-guided weapons is driving U.S. forces to disperse to evade enemy targeting. Concurrently, emerging operational concepts emphasize the need to coordinate effects across operating domains from space to under the sea. In wargames, Chinese and Russian attacks on communications networks routinely sever communications between widely distributed, multidomain forces. Rather than fighting cohesively, dispersed U.S. units fought alone and, without access to multidomain support, often died alone.
U.S. command and control must change to enable dispersed operations across domain boundaries. Command structures should become flatter and combine forces and functions from different services and domains into standing multidomain/multifunction units at lower levels of command. While maintaining unity of command, U.S. armed forces must also separate control and communications from command when necessary. This could entail an Air Force fighter communicating through Navy networks to direct Army fires to attack an air-defense radar.
Implementing these changes will require U.S. forces to embrace mission command and other forms of delegation. More a culture based on trust than a method of issuing orders, mission command enables rapid decision-making in degraded conditions by empowering subordinates to take initiative while commanders focus on the big picture. Though espoused in doctrine, U.S. command more frequently resembles the “10,000-mile screwdriver,” by which distant commanders use long-haul communications to micromanage subordinates.
This combination of ad-hoc networks, multidomain units, flexible control and mission command could enable U.S. forces to operate “loose” in future conflicts. As opposed to current “tight” operating operations with centralized command and control rigidly coupled to inflexible networks, loose operations sacrifice efficiency and precision for flexibility and resilience. Loose operations enable dispersed, multidomain forces to maintain initiative by degrading gracefully under Chinese and Russian attacks. Faced with loose operations in wargames, Chinese and Russian teams became visibly frustrated as they failed to land decisive blows.
China and Russia aren’t pulling punches. They write openly about winning the struggle for information to gain an edge in peacetime competition and seize the initiative in a crisis or conflict. The Pentagon faces a choice: focus on technologies promising continued information dominance, or take a holistic approach to information and command that seeks degradation dominance in the chaos of modern warfare.
Christopher M. Dougherty is a senior fellow on the defense team at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (Strategy and Force Development) where he worked on the NDS Core Writing Team.