Empowering Junior Military Leadership in Future Information Contested Battlespaces
Image from US PACOM
By Nicholas Sinopoli
For the last 30 years, America's greatest military advantage was its robust and consistent lines of communication which connected all levels of leadership across every hemisphere of the world. From an operations center in Tampa or the Pentagon, commanders watch live drone feed and hear tactical communication between units, giving them greater control over the minutiae of warfighting than ever before. The wars America fought in the Greater Middle East were characterized by heavy intervention from strategic and national level leaders in tactical events due to the emergence of high-speed, secure communications and information systems unchallenged by foes.
Future wars will bode differently as adversarial nations now have the capacity to jam or destroy American communication nodes, degrading friendly command and control functions. This impending dilemma portends a rude awakening for American military commanders and policymakers, as American leaders will be unable to interface with commanders on the ground, creating chaos and exacerbating the “fog of war.” Additionally, the possibility that enemy nations will be able to intercept American communication transmissions opens the possibility of American units being unable to coordinate with each other on the battlefield, ceding the initiative to the enemy.
Both Russia and China have anti-communication weapons, and have clearly stated in their doctrines that electronic warfare is a vital component of their future warfighting strategy. Russia utilized electronic warfare in the Ukrainian conflict, jamming GPS and communications arrays, tracking cell phone usage in order to hone in on Ukrainian artillery positions and intercepting radio transmissions. Similarly, the DOD’s 2020 China Military Power Report states, “authoritative PLA sources call for the coordinated employment of space, cyber, and EW as strategic weapons” to paralyze and sabotage the enemy’s operational and war command system early in a conflict. The Chinese have also integrated electronic warfare installations on multiple reefs and artificial islands, pointing to their insistence that electronic warfare will play a major role in suppressing command and control by America and its allies at the outbreak of hostilities. Frederick D. Moorefield, the deputy chief information officer for command, control and communications for the Department of Defense states that the DOD does not have the "access and use that we used to have. The DOD used to use a spectrum any way they wanted to. Those days are over."
What can the US military rely on when its technology fails in a future conflict? What it has always relied on: its soldiers, sailors and airmen who have been rigorously trained and are capable of making calculated decisions in the absence of higher command. Whether on remote islands in the South China Sea or in the harsh Caucasus Mountains, the American soldier, rather than technology, is America’s best hope for victory.
While the US military must continue to modernize its communication infrastructure and strategy, it is imperative that it takes the necessary steps to prepare leaders for the likely possibility that they will be operating independently, cut off from communication with both higher headquarters and subordinates. Decentralized command and control has been and will continue to be vital to winning the battles of the next major war and the military must invest now in inculcating the confidence and audacity junior leaders will need to fight and win. Empowering junior leaders is the way forward, as the notion of the “strategic corporal,” the junior soldier that is forced to make vital strategic decisions based on their training and experience, will only increase in importance in the information-contested future.
Junior leaders empowered with clear mission intent and a specific endstate will succeed in contested environments. Commander’s guidance broadly shapes a unit’s goals while giving units the latitude to complete their mission without micromanagement. Broad mission intent allows junior leaders to make critical decisions in real-time and seize upon unexpected opportunities presented by a confused battlefield without needing higher guidance.
The US military must rewrite and train on doctrine that does not rely on wireless communication and micromanagement by higher command. This may require further study of lessons learned in Vietnam, where the dense jungles inhibited US technological superiority and demanded initiative by small unit leaders. As one battalion commander stated, "As I saw the war in Vietnam, it belonged to the company commander. He was the key to success-a planner, a doer, an independent operator, and a leader of men." Fighting in an information-contested environment may replicate the same conditions, where units are unable to interface with superiors and their individual initiative determines mission success or failure.
In Call Sign Chaos, General James Mattis discusses how through the process of “command and feedback,” rather than command and control, his Marines were able control the tempo of engagements in both the Gulf War and the Invasion of Iraq without his intervention, as he gave broad guidelines for them to adhere to. By trusting the competence and training of his soldiers, he reasoned that his subordinates had the best understanding of the tactical situation, and based on their feedback, he could then coordinate the actions of multiple units on a larger scale, both confusing and overwhelming enemies with rigid command and control structures.
Likewise, the concept of “little groups of paratroopers,'' or ”LGOPs, that seize the initiative on their own in a contested battlespace has existed since World War Two. These LGOPs were used with extreme effectiveness during the Sicily Landings in July 1943. Their dispersed nature confused the German defenders, tying down key installations and units that could have been used to reinforce the landing beaches. These paratroopers did not rely on their radios but attacked different objectives simultaneously without waiting for orders. The Army today should take inspiration from the LGOP concept, and expand it to include other combat formations such as mechanized, armor and infantry, alongside airborne units. A modern expansion of this concept has been put forth by military thinkers from Modern War Institute at West Point, who have posited the tactic of "swarming," which proposes that units should attack from all directions based on rules based decision making with an emphasis on rapid tempo and aggression.
As senior leaders evaluate the use for new tactics to counter enemy electronic warfare, it is equally important that national training centers incentivize training that prepare soldiers to conduct combat operations independently in those environments. An increased emphasis should be placed on fighting in a communication-contested environment, where platoons or companies may be isolated facing a superior opposing force. This rigorous training will simulate the conditions that will likely occur in America's next near peer conflict. The burden for enforcing training standards are on the OCTs and small unit leaders to ensure that soldiers remain disciplined and adhere to the conditions of the exercise.
The victor in the next major war will be the combatant that executes decisions quicker than the other. With fierce, competent and empowered junior leaders, America stands a better chance of winning the next war when all else fails.