“It failed miserably.” With these words, Gen. John Hyten dropped a bomb on the Defense Department’s vision for fighting China and Russia, the joint warfighting concept. He told a defense industry group that an adversary red team “ran rings around” a U.S. team using the concept in an October 2020 wargame. Some defense thinkers claimed this was no big deal. However, although American teams lose wargames all the time, this is, in fact, a very big deal.
The joint warfighting concept is a top priority for the Pentagon. It’s supposed to align the armed services’ operational thinking and inform future force development. The Defense Department has been developing the concept for years, and yet it still failed. More worrying is why it failed. According to Hyten, the concept assumed U.S. forces could achieve information dominance in a great-power conflict, akin to what the American military attained during the 1991 Gulf War. That assumption is fatally flawed.
Nearly three years after the 2018 National Defense Strategy identified gaining and maintaining information advantage as a critical mission, thinking among Defense Department leadership about information advantage remains muddled. They don’t understand what it means, what it requires, or how to achieve it. This intellectual vacuum permits “zombie ideas” like information dominance to shamble onward while the department and armed services treat technology as a panacea for their operational and strategic headaches.
There’s an exit from this morass. The Pentagon should accept that the post-Gulf War era of imagined U.S. information dominance is over and abandon the idea of connecting “every sensor to every shooter.” Instead, it should design its concepts around the fact that degradation, disruption, and disorder are endemic features of warfare and focus on connecting enough sensors to enough shooters under combat conditions. The department should build new networks and data processing technologies, but it should also recognize the critical role of humans in the emerging “techno-cognitive confrontation” with China and Russia. Gaining information advantage requires accompanying new technologies with updated command philosophies, organizational constructs, and training paradigms that will allow U.S. forces to prevail in the chaotic conditions that will characterize great-power conflicts. The alternative is more failure and possible military defeat.
How Did the Defense Department Get Here?
The wargames and analysis that informed the 2018 National Defense Strategy all hammered home the same point: Information and the systems that gather, transmit, store, and process it have become the single biggest vulnerability in putative conflicts with China or Russia. This is the result of three interrelated trends.
First, information technology has become as central to the American way of war as it is to the American way of life. Just as it’s difficult to imagine looking for information without Google, it’s difficult to imagine mission planning without PowerPoint. Digitization of the force began in earnest in the 1970s, boomed following the Gulf War, and accelerated again after 9/11. Looking at the Gulf War’s lopsided outcome and the important roles that information systems and precision-guided weapons played, it’s easy to understand why many post-Cold War defense thinkers viewed information dominance as a key source of U.S. operational advantage. But, it became a solution in search of future problems instead of what it actually was: a fleeting phenomenon created by the confluence of U.S. investments, a perfect opponent, and luck.
Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and its replacement in defense planning with regional threats like Iraq and North Korea, shifted the assumptions underpinning the development of U.S. information systems. Rather than designing them to withstand Soviet attacks, the Pentagon built systems with weaker adversaries in mind and those enemies couldn’t threaten U.S. systems in space, cyberspace, or the electromagnetic spectrum. The post-9/11 explosion of information systems exacerbated this problem: U.S forces have become increasingly reliant on systems, like satellite communications, that are susceptible to myriad attacks by capable military adversaries. By building an information architecture on the assumption that it is impervious, the Pentagon turned its greatest strength into its most worrying vulnerability.
Beijing and Moscow took note, and the third trend saw their armed forces develop capabilities to attack U.S. information systems as part of their respective strategies to offset American military superiority. In the event of a crisis or conflict with the United States or its allies and partners, China and Russia would seek early advantages by degrading U.S. information systems. They could then achieve their objectives quickly before resolving the conflict on favorable terms. Wargames suggest this is a plausible outcome.
A New Vision, Undefined and Partly Executed
In response to these trends, the 2018 National Defense Strategy prioritized developing a more resilient information architecture and added gaining information advantage to the force-planning construct, which comprises the missions U.S. armed forces collectively need to execute. Lamentably, neither the strategy nor the subsequent Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment publicly defined information advantage.
As a member of the team that wrote the defense strategy and one of the people responsible for including information advantage in the force-planning construct, I recall how our team understood information advantage at the time. In contrast to previous technology-focused thinking, information was defined broadly and included technical systems, cognitive processes, and perceptual/psychological effects. The term “advantage” was meant to convey how contested the information environment would be in competition or conflict with an opponent like China or Russia. Unlike “superiority” or “dominance,” with their connotations of decisive or lasting ascendancy, advantage was meant to be marginal, ephemeral, contingent, and constantly fought over.
In sum, information advantage should be understood as gaining a temporary and contested edge in using information through technical systems, cognitive processes, and perceptual/psychological influence to achieve tactical, operational, or strategic advantages against a competitor in peacetime or an adversary in war.
In the absence of any formal definition, the Pentagon has doubled down on building new systems like the joint all-domain command and control architecture. Each service is pursuing its own initiatives within this framework. The Air Force is developing its Advanced Battle Management System. The Army has its Integrated Battle Command System and Project Convergence, while the Navy and Marine Corps have Project Overmatch.
This approach is understandable, but potentially dangerous. While the U.S. military desperately needs a new information architecture to replace its aging patchwork of networks and datalinks, the degree and scope of connectivity these concepts envision is difficult to achieve under benign conditions. They are nearly impossible to realize in the event of a Chinese or Russian attack. Aiming for dominance — rather than advantage — creates unrealistic expectations, warps requirements, and sets these programs up for failure and going over budget. Additionally, by focusing on technology, these initiatives ignore the human aspects of information. China and Russia may target American information systems, but their goal is to degrade U.S., allied, and partner forces cognitively and psychologically. The technical ability to gather and share information is useless without the ability to trust it, convey it to the right audiences, make sound decisions, and take actions based on it.
The Defense Department should simultaneously set less ambitious requirements for its information architecture while expanding the scope of its efforts to gain information advantage.
A New Concept for Information Advantage
Chinese and Russian military writing provides American defense planners some signposts for how to gain information advantage — properly understood — over Chinese and Russian military forces. There are dozens of useful and accessible English sources that summarize Chinese and Russian thinking. Collectively, these sources reveal four approaches that should inform U.S. planning.
First, in the scenarios that most concern American defense planners — like a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a Russia-NATO conflict — Chinese and Russian political leaders are likely to try to limit the conflict to avoid unwanted expansion or escalation. Second, both states see themselves as locked in a continuous information confrontation or struggle in which they counter U.S. information operations while creating advantageous conditions for themselves. They seek to do this by, among other things, attacking the perceptions of key audiences, like the populations and elites of the United States and its allies and partners, undermining the cohesion of U.S.-led coalitions and potentially endangering U.S. basing access or overflight rights. Third, they plan to attack U.S. and coalition information and command systems early in a conflict — preemptively if possible. Finally, both Chinese and Russian leaders try to exercise tight, centralized command and control over their armed forces in various ways, including through automation, routinized tactics, and political officers.
A U.S. concept for information advantage should pursue four lines of effort to exploit or counter these Chinese and Russian approaches.
Exploit Tensions Between Active Defense Strategies and Limited Objectives
A key aspect of gaining information advantage — or minimizing disadvantage — early in a conflict is to make China or Russia confront a dilemma of choosing between conflict limitation and escalation control on one hand and operational aggression on the other.
The Defense Department should start creating this dilemma by limiting the effectiveness of reversible and non-kinetic attacks by adversaries, particularly in space. Non-kinetic and reversible attacks carry less risk of escalation than kinetic strikes. Increasing the U.S. space constellation’s resilience to jamming, laser dazzling, or cyber attacks, for instance, would force China and Russia to choose between limiting their space offensives or attacking with kinetic weapons and risking escalation and the creation of debris that might imperil their own constellations or those of neutral parties.
Next, the Pentagon should disperse its information and command systems, which are concentrated at overseas locations like Ramstein Air Base. Dispersing them within the theater would force China and Russia to attack more targets and increase the likelihood that some U.S. systems would survive initial strikes. Spreading systems to more countries also raises the possibility that Chinese and Russian aggression might expand or solidify a U.S.-led coalition.
The United States should also develop an ability to rapidly relocate key overseas functions — like air operations centers — to the homeland. U.S. Central Command recently demonstrated this capability by relocating its Combined Air Operations Center from Qatar to South Carolina. This move took months of planning, but during a contingency combatant commands will need immediately executable options. If critical nerve centers can be relocated quickly, China and Russia would face a dilemma between leaving them unharmed or escalating a conflict by attacking the U.S. homeland. This approach works hand in hand with dispersing key systems overseas. Some functions, like satellite ground stations, should be located forward and should be dispersed. Others, like air operations centers, are such critical targets that relocating them to the homeland is more appropriate.
Increasing multilateral cooperation in critical functions — like space situational awareness —would also confront Chinese and Russian leaders with unwelcome options. They would have to choose between gaining information superiority and expanding a conflict by attacking a critical system on which many countries rely.
Level the Information Playing Field
Peacetime information operations aren’t the Defense Department’s core competence, by either proclivity or legal authority. However, the department is the organization most likely to bear the brunt of failure in the information environment. Gaining information advantage doesn’t necessitate countering every aspect of Chinese and Russian information warfare. Instead, U.S. forces should undertake targeted efforts to build trust with allies and partners to sustain basing access, bolster alliance cohesion, and improve situational awareness. Thankfully, some allies and partners, like Estonia and Vietnam, have proven capable of dealing with Chinese and Russian information warfare. The Pentagon doesn’t need to replicate their capabilities, but rather provide funding, technology, and an ability to disseminate best practices.
The armed services should also educate their personnel about Chinese and Russian information operations and train them on dealing with specific tactics prior to deployment. Once deployed, U.S. servicemembers and units should know that they are in an active information theater, where every action, whether on patrol or off duty, can have strategic ramifications. By aligning their information operations with their real-world operations, U.S. commanders can engender trust in key audiences.
As China and Russia have myriad means to attack U.S. information systems in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum, degradation is inevitable. Instead of trying to ensure information dominance through ubiquitous connectivity, the Defense Department should seek information advantage by being able to operate with degraded systems more effectively than America’s opponents.
Operating with degraded systems requires “loose” methods for managing information and executing command, in contrast with the Defense Department’s current “tight” command-and-control processes. Tight operations are rigid, hierarchical, methodical, centralized, and exquisitely precise. Loose operations are fluid, flat, omni-directional, improvisational, delegated, and adequately precise. Loose operations should coexist with, rather than replace, tight operations, and U.S. forces should be able to switch between methods as conditions and missions demand. They should get loose when attacking large numbers of armored vehicles in a highly contested and complex targeting environment, for example. But they should be tight when striking a strategic target with a hypersonic missile.
To operate loose, the armed forces should first adopt delegated command models like mission command or command-by-negation. In theory, the armed services already use these methods. In practice, however, command tends toward the “10,000-mile screwdriver.” Delegation is the linchpin of loose operations because it enables command with degraded communications, thereby retaining tactical and operational momentum in highly contested environments.
Second, command, control, and communication should be de-linked. In tight operations, these functions are combined as “C3,” creating a vulnerability whereby adversaries can sever command and control by jamming communications. Instead, command, control, and communications should each function independently. Unity of command would remain, but commanders could issue orders through whichever network is available and delegate control to lower echelons or to other units or services, depending on the mission and conditions.
Third, joint all-domain command and control should be a confederation of smaller networks capable of operating independently, rather than a single super network. The fundamental design principle of this system should be functioning locally when Chinese or Russian attacks degrade long-range connectivity. In that scenario, this federated architecture would retain local connectivity through mobile, ad hoc networks composed of nodes sharing data in multiple directions over short ranges. These short-range mesh networks are difficult to jam and resilient to the loss of individual nodes. Likewise, tactical cloud storage would increase resilience by providing forward forces with access to data without relying on vulnerable high-bandwidth connectivity to rear-area servers. Finally, universal data translators would function like dongles, making different frequencies, waveforms, and data standards mutually comprehensible, thereby allowing data to pass freely across diverse networks including legacy and allied systems. These translators will be crucial for connecting joint or combined forces in contested environments, while also allowing critical information — like command instructions or targeting data — to route around network outages using alternative networks.
The Pentagon is showing progress building this type of system. There’s broad agreement about the character of the architecture, and technology demonstrations and experiments show promise. Skeptics note, however, that the consensus is on broad principles and that the devil is in the details. Moreover, technology demonstrations are not major acquisition programs, and funding for these initiatives is inconsistent. These doubts are warranted, but the real cause for concern has to do with these programs’ design objectives and requirements: Currently they are too ambitious and emphasize persistent, high-bandwidth, long-range connectivity. Instead, they should focus more on resilience to degradation and disruption. These two objectives are in tension with each other. Attempting to do both could result in incoherence or going over budget.
The final component of loose operations is “good-enough” targeting. The introduction of precision-guided munitions fundamentally altered the role of information in warfare. With the advent of such munitions, information allowed a few weapons to destroy precisely identified and located targets. Counter-terrorism high-value target interdiction represents the apotheosis of this development, with terabytes of exquisite data, collected over weeks, used to target a single person for a drone strike. This deliberate, information- and time-intensive targeting process would be impossible when trying to strike many moving targets in the harried, chaotic, and degraded environments of great-power war. The U.S. military will need to design targeting processes and weapons around information that is “good enough.” This requires larger numbers of affordable weapons — like area-effects munitions — as well as smarter weapons, such as the Brilliant Anti-Tank Munition, capable of identifying targets with imprecise initial targeting information.
Organize and Train for Degradation
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act spread a layer of joint frosting on top of a service-dominated cake. Geographic combatant commanders rely on component commanders to plan and execute operations, and component commands align closely with the Air Force, Navy/Marine Corps, and Army. Tensions abound where service interests and responsibilities tangle, like air component commands where every service has assets and demands for support. In wargames, these components often plan independently at the expense of joint priorities. When Chinese or Russian attacks degrade joint communications, each component fixates on its own battle. Rather than achieving synergies, components become less than the sum of their parts.
The ad hoc character of many joint commands exacerbates this problem. Given their roles as de facto military ambassadors, combatant commanders often delegate operational command to joint task forces. Unlike standing combatant command staffs, these commands may not have experience working together, and they may be overseeing unfamiliar rotational forces. The trust and familiarity that are critical for operating in chaotic conditions may be lacking. To remedy this, the Pentagon should create sub-unified commands focused on China (under U.S. Indo-Pacific Command) and Russia (under U.S. European Command). These commands would plan for conflict and oversee standing joint units trained, organized, equipped, and postured specifically to compete with and deter China and Russia.
These shifts would improve integration near the top of the chain of command, but, in a great-power conflict, lower echelons should also work seamlessly across organizational boundaries and operating environments. As communications degrade, tactical commanders lose coordination with joint colleagues and access to capabilities controlled by higher joint headquarters. To address this, the department should “federate” joint commands, pushing them to lower echelons and giving them control of joint capabilities like cyber attacks.
This new operating method requires a new training paradigm that better represents the challenges of operating with degraded systems in contested environments. Given the difficulties involved in incorporating space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic spectrum operations into training ranges, this will require new forms of live, virtual, and constructive training. Wargaming is a cheap and effective tool for preparing personnel — from general and flag officers to junior enlisted — for potential conflict with China or Russia. However, wargame designs need to improve their representation of information challenges to better capture the character of future warfare.
Finally, training should enable the profound inter-service cooperation required by great-power conflict. Current training processes are service oriented, with joint training and exercises generally occurring at the very end of or after deployment. If the department expects units to fight cohesively across services and operating environments, they should train together earlier and deploy together. This is the only way to develop the familiarity and trust needed to execute mission command and delegated control across organizational boundaries.
A Radical Transformation
Information dominance in a conflict with China or Russia is a fantasy. Disruption and degradation are reality. However, this reality presents potential advantages because chaos cuts both ways.
If China or Russia attacks the United States or its allies and partners, it will want to keep the conflict limited and tightly controlled. U.S. forces that can operate effectively after absorbing punches in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum negate the idea of a quick, limited war. American counterattacks, combined with the fog and friction of conflict, will degrade Beijing’s and Moscow’s detailed operational pictures and disrupt the ability of their leaders to maintain tight control of their armed forces. In this phase of the conflict, the side that can deal with chaos and operate more effectively with degraded systems will likely seize the initiative.
In theory, this is a competition in which professional, highly trained, well-educated, and combat-experienced U.S. forces should excel against Chinese or Russian forces operating under tight, centralized command and control. In practice, however, U.S. forces continue to assume that military advantage is their birthright, rather than something for which they must continually fight. Hyten’s comments are a warning to the entire defense community that assuming advantage is a path to defeat. Instead, U.S. forces should become so comfortable operating with degraded information systems in the chaos of combat that China and Russia cannot see a feasible path to victory.
Chris Dougherty is a senior fellow in the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His research areas include defense strategy, strategic assessments, force planning, and wargaming. Prior to joining CNAS, Mr. Dougherty served as senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development at the Department of Defense. During this time, he led a handful of major initiatives including the development and writing of major sections of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, including the Global Operating Model, the Force-Management and Planning Construct, and the Force-Planning Priorities.
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