Commanding the Contested
By Brigadier General Robert E. Schmidle, U.S. Marine Corps, and
Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)
Proceedings, September 2004
Lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq established the need for
improving our capability to conduct wide-ranging netted operations that
present more uncertainty to an adaptive and elusive enemy.
The U.S. military currently enjoys “command of
the commons,” to use one academic’s phrase. This
translates into an unparalleled capacity to leverage the oceans, space,
and air—and the corresponding ability to negate their use by our antagonists.
It is a crucial element of our overwhelming military
superiority. While we dominate the commons, however, recent combat operations
suggest a shift toward more complex contested zones, including the dense
urban jungles and congested littorals, where the majority of the world’s
population and economic activity are centered.
Our adversaries realize their relative impotence in conventional force-on-force
operations, and they are making an effort to draw U.S. forces into arenas
where our conventional capabilities and technological edge are blunted.
As evidenced in Kosovo, Afghanistan,
to engage us in contested zones, our adversaries will adopt tactics
and modes of operations they believe will offset our advantages.
The U.S. military must develop more agile strategies and adaptive tactics
if it is to succeed in this complex environment. While our current capability
overmatch in conventional operations will continue for some time, we
must achieve the same level of capability in more unconventional situations.
Building on their expeditionary skills, U.S. forces must improve their
capacity for irregular warfare: decentralized and nonlinear operations
in the contested zones, including the littorals and complex terrain.
This new requirement does not obviate the need for the core competencies
we currently provide to the combatant commanders (CoComs). The capabilities
we seek to develop and test have been articulated in a concept called
distributed operations, which adds an arrow to the CoComs’ quivers.
Distributed Operations Defined
Distributed operations entail netted units physically dispersed and
operating over an extended battle space. They are characterized by decentralization,
multidimensionality, simultaneity, and continuous pressure over the
adversary’s entire system to preclude his ability to reconstitute or
adjust. Distributed operations are conducted by squad- to battalion-sized
units operating as part of a Marine
air-ground task force (MAGTF). Units trained and equipped to perform
such operations can make a contribution across the full range of military
operations, from stability and support missions to joint forcible entries.
This concept is consistent with current trends
in conflict and the enduring aspects of the operational art. It is particularly
oriented on the acute requirements for greater agility, decentralization,
and multidimensionality in future conflict. Distributed
operations seek to achieve the high degree of operational tempo and
fluidity inherent to maneuver warfare. They avoid linear, sequential
and predictable operations, and they do not rely extensively on attrition.
They are based on decentralized means of command and control, which
pushes decision making down to the lowest level, exploits human capital
and agility, and accelerates the operational speed and tempo of operations.
Success in the contested zones requires situational awareness, autonomy,
and increased freedom of action at lower tactical levels, thereby enabling
subordinate commanders to compress decision cycles, seize the initiative,
and exploit fleeting opportunities. Shared situational awareness—owing
to extensive training and a common operating picture—accelerates the
horizontal integration and mutually supporting action of spatially dispersed
units. Centralizing decisions at too high a level leads to greater uncertainty
and increased latency of information. In the contested zone, opportunities
are fleeting and must be exploited rapidly.
Distributed forces present complexity to the adversary. The relative
mobility of the dispersed force and its modular structure enable rapid
adaptation and self-organization, thus presenting the opponent with
a greater degree of uncertainty regarding its positions, intentions,
and objectives. Complexity induces confusion and ambiguity in the opponent
and produces a competitive advantage for our forces. The more inputs
(or ambiguity) the enemy must recognize and react to, the harder his
decision making becomes and the slower he can react. Our
advantage also leverages our ability to introduce forces and create
effects over an extended battle space, which puts the enemy at a potential
disadvantage in many locations—in time and space. The challenge for
us in the future is to present an appropriate degree of complexity at
the right scale as the enemy adapts.
Another means of increasing complexity is to employ combined arms in
concert with strike operations. We call this multidimensionality
to extend the traditional definition of combined arms to include kinetic
and nonkinetic means and all forms of joint fires. The challenge is
to target the opponent from multiple sources, thereby limiting his options
while increasing ours. This rarely can be achieved with a single source
or form of attack. U.S. military operations in Kosovo
disproved the idea that a single-dimensional attack could achieve operational
results. Like precision air power, unitary solutions
can produce only limited effects, and those effects frequently are transitory
if not followed up by maneuver forces.
The adversary is further disrupted by combined
arms or multidimensional attacks if our force can combine these effects
across the depth of his force or defensive system simultaneously. Rapid
dislocation of the opponent is best achieved by concomitantly striking
or maneuvering against him in many dimensions. This is the essence of
simultaneity. Achieving operational shock in
this fashion remains an enduring and valid means of gaining success.
By increasing the ability to simultaneously attack
in many directions with all forms of fires and maneuver, distributed
operations put continuous pressure on the enemy. The resulting higher
tempo prevents the opponent from adapting or readjusting his force posture
or from effectively reconstituting capabilities. Continuous pressure
degrades his overall combat effectiveness and produces paralysis or
induces systemic collapse. The ultimate aim of any commander is to “implant
a picture of defeat in his opponent’s mind.”
Continuous pressure from multiple lines of attack throughout the battle
space is how we seek to implant this picture against a diffused and
The combination of these characteristics blinds and disorients the
adversary. It produces a sudden psychological dislocation when he realizes
his options and assets are declining at an accelerating rate. Distributed
operations provide an additive capability to the combatant and MAGTF
commanders. They influence a much greater area—in depth and breadth—than
can be accomplished with more conventional operations. The commander
is able to influence and shape the battle space across the range of
military operations, from patrolling during stability operations to
shaping missions conducted during sustained operations ashore in a conventional
Distributed operations can be used to:
• Enable persistent and actionable intelligence collection by maintaining
observation over designated objectives or personnel. This can be accomplished
from the lower end of the conflict spectrum to joint advanced force
operations by an expeditionary strike group (ESG) early in the campaign.
(Persistent, actionable intelligence obviously is essential during major
combat operations ashore as well.)
• Shape the battle space or act as a screening force; again, either
to precede forcible entry operations or during sustained operations
• Direct and call precise joint fires on targets, especially elusive
moving targets in complex terrain.
Distributed operations help to build situational awareness and provide
persistent and actionable intelligence by building a complete picture
from the bottom up. Inserted teams can contribute to the overall intelligence
effort and can provide additional fidelity to the common operating picture.
The MAGTF will exploit this intelligence throughout the operation using
“reconnaissance pull” tactics to take advantage of gaps while avoiding
identified obstacles and strong points.
From a commander’s perspective, distributed operations generate options
for exploitation by either ground forces or by other elements of the
joint force. Precision targeting devices enable distributed units to
conduct observation and the calls for fires. Automated position-location
devices and a strong communications network enhance fire support coordination.
Ground mobility assets will promote maneuver and reassembly of squads
when a gap in the enemy’s defensive posture is identified, or when the
enemy attempts to maneuver against separate units. Distributed operations
include maneuver throughout the extended battle space.
Maneuvering across the dispersed battlefield may trigger an opponent
to try to mass his defensive forces in response. By doing so, he increases
his vulnerability to our precision fires, made more lethal with the
intelligence and targeting guidance of distributed units. As the enemy
disperses to avoid our strikes, he is increasingly vulnerable to our
attacking squads or larger units.
|Figure 1: Tactical Options
Squad-sized distributed operations teams can be inserted individually
or collectively in platoon- or company-sized configurations. When
inserted as part of a larger formation, they can disperse and maneuver
(sometimes called “swarming” by theorists) to their assigned operating
areas or operate from a platoon or company patrol base. Based on their
reading of the situation, unit commanders can direct—or teams can autonomously
react through harmonious initiative and lateral coordination—by reaggregating
the teams into a larger ground formation. (See
Figure 1.) Commanders normally will deploy with their subordinates or
position themselves to best support the mission. They must be prepared
to seamlessly transition between various modes of operation and conduct
conventional operations as part of a larger MAGTF.
In addition to enhanced and more focused training, execution of distributed
operations will require certain capabilities, including position-location
indicators, networked communications systems, and target designation
equipment designed for small-unit use. Depending on the mission and
nature of the terrain, teams will be provided with tactical mobility
assets, usually internally transportable vehicles that can be deployed
by the MV-22
Osprey. Logistic support will be air delivered primarily by unmanned
aerial vehicles or unmanned logistics delivery systems.
Development and testing of this concept will focus in the near term
on the forward-deployed ESG and its organic Marine expeditionary unit
(special operations capable) (MEU[SOC]). Although distributed operations
are relevant across a wide range of scenarios and are applicable to
larger formations, we deliberately focus here on forward-deployed naval
forces at the unit level (squad to company) to provide combatant commanders
the speed of response and flexibility they need to provide early joint
operations with persistent surveillance. This level of capability is
most relevant to today’s global threat. Further, it will allow us to
refine the individual and unit training necessary to bring this capability
to the operational level of war.
The basic building block of distributed operations is the rifle squad,
augmented as necessary with mission-essential specialists. Underpinning
this team will be additional small-unit training aimed at independent
tactical actions, patrolling, and fire support coordination. This special
training will be part of the ESG and MEU predeployment training cycle.
We will develop the necessary training and experimental plans to field
a prototype distributed operations capable MEU as part of an ESG deployment
in 2006. The operational experimentation will increase understanding
of the potential for distributed operations and help planners rapidly
refine the requisite training and required technologies with the help
of field input from the Fleet Marine Force.
|Marines are no strangers to distributed
operations. Early in the Pacific campaign of World War II, the 1st
Raider Battalion under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Merritt
Edson—center, briefing his Raiders for an upcoming mission—carried
out a version of these operations on Guadalcanal, demonstrating
the versatility of well-trained Marines in unconventional and conventional
warfare. (Photo courtesy of the Naval Institute Photo Archive)
The idea of dispersed or distributed operations is not new. It is consistent
with the historical trajectory of combined arms warfare, reflecting
a trend for combined arms by smaller and smaller units over increasingly
extended areas. Distributed operations shares some
commonality with the tactics and techniques pursued by the Marine Corps
Warfighting Laboratory during the Hunter Warrior experiments in the
1990s. The current concept,
however, places greater emphasis on decentralized decision making and
more dynamic maneuver, while seeking to leverage many insights about
command and control and training garnered from the Hunter Warrior series.
This approach is consistent with guidance from Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld and emerging joint concepts and is compatible with Marine
Corps doctrine. Finally,
it accepts the enduring nature of the fog, friction, uncertainty, and
chance that are “conditions embedded in the fabric of war.”
Distributed operations are designed to deal with ambiguous threats and
help commanders fill in the blanks that technology alone cannot resolve.
We seek to leverage the abilities of Marine forces by harnessing technology,
without becoming slavishly devoted to the technological dimension.
Looking back farther, there are other precedents
that contain elements consistent with distributed operations. During
World War I, the German Army developed “Hutier” tactics to escape the
mindless attrition of trench warfare. These
tactics revealed a remarkable element of adaptation under severe wartime
conditions. After the war, German military officers devised the fundamentals
of blitzkrieg (lightning war). Their approach maximized the shock and
simultaneity of combined arms to achieve a breakthrough and collapse
of enemy defenses.
U.S. Marines are no strangers to distributed and
simultaneous operations. In World
War II, they devised a multidimensional series of strikes to dislodge
the Japanese defending Guadalcanal and its surrounding islands. Mixing
naval gunfire with close air support, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner’s
Task Force 62 conducted five separate assaults in early August 1942
that initially stunned the Japanese defenders. Lieutenant Colonel Merritt
Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion conducted an assault on Tulagi, while another
rifle company landed on Florida Island as a supporting attack. The 1st
Marine Division then conducted the main attack on Guadalcanal. Later
in the afternoon, the 1st Parachute Battalion seized Gavutu and Tanambogo.
This demonstrated the versatility of well-trained and well-led Marines,
in both conventional and unconventional warfare.
The Marines employed different variations of distributed
operations in the Vietnam War. Combined Action Program (CAP) units reinforced
Vietnamese Popular Force units in isolated villages and demonstrated
how squad-sized elements can have operational effects in stability operations.
Their limited connectivity made them vulnerable, but they secured many
villages against the Viet Cong, and history views the CAP effort as
an effective counterinsurgency measure.
In the 1990s, versions of distributed operations
occurred in Chechnya. Vastly outnumbered and completely outclassed in
terms of technology, the defenders of Grozny managed to maul their Russian
attackers. As reported by a team of analysts, this may be the face of
future conflict. The Chechens fought back with small, mobile teams of
light but well-equipped fighters. Instead of centralized command and
control, the Chechens gave great latitude for action to their dispersed
but highly interconnected bands, which fought in a nonlinear fashion,
enabling them to repeatedly swarm on advancing Russian columns from
Afghanistan and Iraq
Our lessons-learned efforts underscore the utility
of distributed operations in today’s war on terrorism. During Operation
Enduring Freedom (OEF), for example, al Qaeda fighters proved quite
elusive until cornered. Long-range, precision fires did not dislodge
them, and standoff warfare was not effective. It took determined and
highly professional forces, capable of adroitly applying fire and maneuver,
to defeat determined elements that knew how to exploit complex terrain
and proved resistant to unitary solutions.
Lessons from OEF and early lessons gathered in Iraq reinforce the need
for improving our capacity to conduct distributed operations. The joint
after-action report from Operation Iraqi Freedom indicates that many
commanders believed there was limited actionable intelligence and excessive
reliance on overhead imagery (with long cycle times) that caused a reversion
to attrition operations. Units trained and equipped to conduct distributed
operations could have been deployed to augment reconnaissance efforts,
screen the Iraqi borders to prevent infiltration,
and perform more responsive battle damage assessments.
As Marine Corps battalion commanders found in
Fallujah, small-unit leaders have to be prepared to face complex situations
with all the training and tools at their disposal. Agile adversaries
have demonstrated the ability to adapt with increasingly sophisticated
tactics, including simultaneous attacks. We
must prepare our “strategic” corporals and sergeants for their roles
in winning the three-block war.
National security objectives require us to do more than “command the
commons.” We must leverage our dominance of the commons to achieve operational
success ashore. This cannot be achieved from afar or with a single tool
because tomorrow’s threats are too adaptive. To secure our nation’s
interests, we must master the ambiguity and chaos of the contested zones,
where future fights will be won or lost.
The barbarians are not at sea—they are at the
city gates and beyond. This does not mean that
four pillars of “Sea Power 21” are inappropriate to today’s global challenge
and tomorrow’s conflicts. Sea Shield, Sea Basing, Sea Strike, and ForceNet
are necessary components of naval transformation. Commandant of the
Marine Corps General Michael Hagee and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral
Vern Clark have detailed how their services are adapting in tandem to
deal with tomorrow’s threat. Distributed operations are a new element
of this ongoing effort.
Because we do not have all the answers yet, we are pursuing operational
experimentation with an ESG, which is part of an ongoing process of
debate and discovery. Like the MEU(SOC) and maritime prepositioning
in the 1980s, the distributed operations concept is the latest in a
series of transformational initiatives. The Corps can extend its impressive
record of innovation—but only with the invaluable input of Marines and
sailors around the world. While we continue to dominate the commons,
we must master the contested zones.