Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work wants service members, from Army leaders to recruits, to remember that forces are not defined by the technologies they use, but "how they hone it" in a multi-domain space.
The concept refers to a future conflict likely to take place in the air, on land, at sea, in space and cyberspace.
"This isn't about Skynet and Terminator. This is about Ironman," Work told audience members at the annual Association of the United States Army conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
Work spoke before panelists -- including Army Gen. David Perkins, commanding general of U.S. Training and Doctrine Command; Undersecretary of the Navy Janine Davidson; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein; Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller -- came together for a highly anticipated forum to discuss the multi-domain battlespace and joint forces in future conflicts.
Work took the audience back to the escalation of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War fought throughout Sinai and the Golan Heights, quoting then-Brig.Gen. Robert Scales, who said it was "the first evidence of the precision revolution in warfare applied to ground combat."
Work said it was "clear the character of combat" had changed during the encounter, in which the U.S. Army was "shocked" to see just how Soviet-built equipment had advanced.
Fresh out of Vietnam, the U.S. lacked proper Pentagon funding and resources, and was a smaller force altogether, he said.
"So the response really bears remembering. We concluded that a smaller ground force backed by technology and honed by training could still form the foundation of a credible, conventional deterrent," Work said, hinting at the current model of U.S. joint forces working to sustain "an operational battle network."
"Like the 1973 war, Russian operations in both Ukraine and Syria have given us a glimpse of how this may play out" on the tactical battlefield. Work clarified, "We're not planning to fight a war against Russia, but it would be foolish not to pay attention to their operations because they are, quite frankly, a pacing competitor that tells us where we need to go to make sure that we have operational and tactical superiority.
"Look, technology is one thing, but there's all sort of technological advances we can do. But if that technology is not guided and shaped by good operational concepts and organizational constructs, it just isn't going to work," he continued.
Work took it a step further, saying troops shouldn't look at it from an "air-land battle 2.0," perspective as he once did, but should apply the strategy to multi-domains, many of which didn't exist at the height of the Cold War, such as cyber and electronic warfare.
"Multi-domain battle and cross-domain fires get at the very heart of the changing character of war. Ground forces will be central, as they always have been in the joint-war fight," he said.
Perkins said additive, correlational forces are the only way the U.S. can advance.
"How do we use some of the technologies, the autonomy, the machine-to-machine language, learning software … How do we use some of that to take the volume of ones and zeroes and pull that together so that commanders who are trying to make a decision can actually decide and move forces ... at a pace that the enemy can never keep up with?" Goldfein said. "We want them guessing."
Goldfein and Perkins both mentioned pushing back at nations in the anti-access area denial space, or A2/AD -- which more broadly refers to weapons and capabilities designed to keep the U.S. from approaching or encroaching upon foreign territories and holdings, or prohibiting access to global common areas.
Unlike Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, who yesterday announced the Navy was done with the term A2/AD, Work encouraged Army leadership to "drive on" in its quest to challenge adversaries in the anti-access, area denial environment across air, land, sea, space and subsurface zones.
"Just like we own the night, I want you to tell us how we're going to own the electromagnetic night. I want to know how we do multi-domain battle. I want to know how command and control has to change," Work said.
The strategy to better fight across the multi-domain battlespace, likely to last decades, is where each of the services currently finds itself funneling ideas and working to properly train and equip troops for future wars, the officials said.
Neller said, "We need to change enough where we have an advantage."