Airpower in a Fragmented Battlespace

July 1, 2006

The Bomb Control Line, the Forward Line of Own Troops, the Fire Support Coordination Line—in one form or another, lines on the battlefield have challenged airmen since World War I.

Those lines were essential to controlling maneuver and fires for massed armies in the field. Airmen, for their part, needed to know where the friendly and enemy forces were, where they should attack, and where to hold back.

While airmen often chafed at the limits, learning how to mesh airpower and the ground force’s lines of operations became the highest test of combined arms warfare.

Now, classic lines on the battlefield may be going the way of the horse cavalry.

The emerging concept is one of a nonlinear, noncontiguous battlespace—where forces operate at many dispersed locations. In this construct, no true “rear” areas remain.

This is all on the mind of Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff. In April, he spoke of the challenges ahead for airmen “if in fact the Army is moving down the road [toward] a nonlinear battlefield.”

The issue for the Air Force is, “how do you then support land component activities in nonlinear, distributed battlespace?” Moseley asked. “How do you provide the signals from sensors? How do you provide resupply at near real time, etc.? That’s a different challenge than Cold War, central region Europe—or even Korea.”

Air Force intelligence providers, mobility forces, and expeditionary combat support units such as base-builders all will have to respond.

Commanders showed long ago that they could score big in nonlinear operations. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George C. Kenney did so in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. More recently, nonlinear operations have been the norm in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the change on the horizon constitutes a major shift in joint warfare. A decade from now, joint operations may be centered on nonlinear warfare.

That’s the Army’s hunch, as seen in one of its most influential doctrine publications. In 2005, the Army issued a new Training and Doctrine Command plan, “The Army in Joint Operations: The Army’s Future Force Capstone Concept 2015-2024.”

This land-force document said: “Simultaneous, distributed operations within a noncontiguous battlefield framework enable the Future Force to act throughout the enemy’s dispositions.”

In short, the future Army will be attacking at multiple points, in semi-autonomous units of action, deep in enemy territory.

Operations in the nonlinear battlefield could force a top-to-bottom re-examination of expeditionary operations and how the Army—and Air Force—will conduct and support those operations. Many specific changes are already in the works.

To grasp how big the changes may be, it’s important to look back at the pre-existing template.

Standard Linearity

Commanders since the era of Napoleon have marked out notional lines on the battlefield. The picture of lines defining the combat area was familiar enough. The last 200 years of operational art for land warfare relied on lines. Concepts of the “front line” and being “behind enemy lines” were clearly understood.

Complex maneuver warfare had to pull together various units and keep a hold on logistic support—whether that was horses, railways, trucks, or air transport.

Despite dramatic shifts in doctrine and tactics, the key assumption was that major units would be in close contact with each other and with their supply lines. Operations of massed armies had to be connected.

Boundary lines also kept one unit in contact—contiguous—with another beside it or behind it. Bold moves stretched these lines to the limit—in both operations and logistics.

Flank attacks went after an opponent’s force, set in its own lines, to achieve decisive engagement at a key point.

At Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee, facing a massed front line, divided his forces, with Stonewall Jackson sweeping around to encircle Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Union troops.

At Gettysburg, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, on Little Round Top, barely—but successfully—beat back repeated Confederate attacks and kept the South from breaking through the far end of the Union line.

This was the linear, contiguous battlespace.

Operating areas assigned to divisions, corps, and field armies were drawn precisely to ensure mutual support and to prevent “friendly fire” attacks. Commanders had to keep within their operating areas and keep abreast of the formations beside or behind theirs.

Even the boldest moves in maneuver warfare were predicated on contiguous lines.

The flank attack, collapsing the salient, even Guderian’s panzer thrusts or Patton’s rapidly advancing columns—all were linked on at least one side to a supporting formation, and all used forward and rear control lines.

Fitting in airpower required a sophisticated process. Those same lines became the basis from which generations of airmen made the most of airpower. The air support operations center, for example, was created to help master the application of airpower within the linear battlespace. Errors—like placing a fire support coordination line too far forward—could exact a high cost in American deaths.

Through the Cold War, the linear battlespace dominated major campaign planning. Doctrine and warfighting concepts were built around the concept of keeping rear areas safe to support the maneuver force.

Multiple corps stood shoulder to shoulder. This was the case in Operation Desert Storm, for example, where six coalition corps worked along a broad front that stretched from western Saudi Arabia to Kuwait’s Persian Gulf coast.

Classic Exceptions

Compare the map of Desert Storm with that of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, theater commander for the campaign, presided over simultaneous operations in which special operations forces, Afghan allies, and airpower hit Taliban and al Qaeda strong points all across the country.

This was a demonstration of nonlinear battle. Gone were the traditional lines and controls, the broad opposing fronts, and the rear areas. Close, deep, and rear area operations took place all over Afghanistan.

Throughout history, there have been spectacular examples of nonlinear airpower operations such as this, but they were exceptions.

In the Pacific Theater in World War II, Kenney became efficient at landing his troops and supplies under fire and, in September 1943, pulled off the first large-scale airdrop at Nadzab, during the battle for Lae, New Guinea. (See “The Genius of George Kenney,” April 2002, p. 66.)

Subsequently Kenney and MacArthur mastered the techniques of leapfrogging battle lines by forward insertion and airdrop. The “island hopping” strategy in the Pacific allowed Allied forces to move forward without seizing every Japanese outpost along the way.

Examples such as these, whether from World War II or Afghanistan, had several factors in common. They were joint operations, with strong unity of command, which took place in relative geographic isolation. Close air support and interdiction were key missions.

It took the many advances in air dominance, communications connectivity, and precision firepower during the 1990s to make it feasible for ground units to roam more widely without being in close contact with supporting units at all times.

Army transformation brought nonlinear concepts center stage.

The Army’s drive to make land component forces lighter, leaner, and relevant for 21st century conflicts seeks a force optimized for direct attack on the enemy at multiple points. (See “Army Change, Air Force Change,” March, p. 36.)

The concept of a wide-open battlefield began to make appearances in Army doctrine in the 1990s. Several factors pushed it along, including a concern about lethality. In a war zone filled with enemy short-range missiles or weapons of mass destruction, conducting operations—and surviving—required more dispersion.

Better communication connections was another factor that cracked the old linear model. Army units moving in war zones would need a more autonomous information flow and the ability to act on it faster.

Access also was an issue. Few expected to have the safe ports and airfields used by the coalition in Operation Desert Storm. Instead, units might have to fight to get in.

At the same time, the Army was laying plans to field lighter and faster-deploying forces such as today’s Stryker brigade combat teams.

Together, these changes brought nonlinear battle and simultaneous operations to the forefront of military strategy.

Wargames showed the advantages. In the late 1990s, Army wargames began to simulate rapid operational maneuver, vertical envelopment, and austere deployments. Simulations compared two-dimensional maneuver to warfare using the deep insertion of land forces.

In one futuristic simulation, “vertical envelopment” with notional heavy-lift vertical takeoff and landing platforms reduced casualties from 8,200 to 4,000. Backed by wargame results like this, the concepts became very appealing and were fed into Army long-range planning and concept documents.

War in Afghanistan

The theoretical underpinnings of nonlinear battlespace were firmly in place by the time Afghanistan came along.

All the access challenges pictured in the late 1990s came to fruition in Operation Enduring Freedom. The problem was that Afghanistan was a land-locked, mountainous country far from traditional US allies and operating locations. Yet the United States and its partners swiftly toppled the Taliban and took control of the country.

Airmen on the ground, elite special operations forces, and the blanket of coalition airpower in the sky made it happen. Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 became the clearest example of nonlinear battle in decades. (See “Enduring Freedom,” February 2002, p. 32.)

“That was an innovation in war,” said Brig. Gen. Michael A. Longoria, head of the Joint Air-Ground Combat Division at Langley AFB, Va. “I’m not sure people expected that.”

To Longoria, Afghanistan represented a nonlinear conflict because “we didn’t draw our traditional lines on the ground” to separate Army battlespace from Air Force battlespace.

A blend of linear and nonlinear operations may now be the norm. Operation Iraqi Freedom was “very different,” Longoria continued. “Iraq was a somewhat traditional linear, contiguous battlefield where each [of the commanders] understood where their lines of authority and their battlespace were.”

After the major, traditional combat operations came to an end in Iraq, the operation became more and more distributed, with small (and often changing) pockets of friendly and hostile forces throughout the country.

As the Air Force already recognizes, securing bases is a job for airmen. No longer will bases be tucked well behind contiguous front lines. The air component needs the independence to be able to establish and run operations at a forward base on its own when necessary.

If nonlinearity is now the norm, expeditionary combat support will be affected directly by its demands. Air Force combat support now centers on giving the combatant commander modular backup tailored to specific needs. According to doctrine, “Highly skilled personnel and complex equipment can be transported in specific quantities, to specific localities, in minimum response timing.”

Keeping that up in the nonlinear battlespace will depend on clearer projections as to how air and land component forces will operate. Today, there are five different, scaleable base-building modules: open the air base, command and control, establish the base, generate the mission, and operate the air base.

To get a base up and running, arrival of a small assessment team is followed quickly by tiered deployment of essential personnel, from special tactics and contracting to weather. Exercises such as Eagle Flag rehearse deployment of the first three modules in detail and fine-tune concepts with lessons learned from such deployments.

That same combat support is needed in the nonlinear battlespace environment—but the factors that determine how to scale each module could change. For example, opening an air base under hostile conditions could call for more security forces or RED HORSE construction forces. Combat weathermen or air traffic control personnel may arrive earlier.

The demands of air base opening get steady attention from Air Mobility Command, security forces, and others involved in the process. The nonlinear battlespace could up the ante.

Even in a more permissive environment, what it takes to operate an air base could vary widely depending on how long the base is needed. And there’s a big difference between what’s needed to insert and sustain SOF teams and what is needed for a Stryker brigade combat team.

Airmen need to be ready for all contingencies, but they also will need more guidance on the size, composition, and requirements of forces operating in the nonlinear battlespace.

Getting clarification on joint requirements and the role of airpower in the nonlinear battlespace is essential. This is not about roles and missions; it’s about operational art. In recent years, the air and land components have built up a high level of trust, but such a major shift in the battlespace template demands even more mutual confidence.

Moseley said the Army and Air Force have “spent lots of time sitting down” and discussing the new issues, including air defense and base defense.

“The central prerequisite of a commitment to interdependence is a broad understanding of the differing strengths and limitations of each service’s capabilities,” Army Lt. Gen. John M. Curran, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, has said. This includes “clear agreement about how those capabilities will be committed in any given operational setting and absolute mutual trust that, once committed, they will be employed as agreed.”

It is likely that the nonlinear battlespace will become the dominant template for joint operations. That will require securing air bases and evaluating lift requirements to sustain joint operations at multiple, dispersed locations.

The challenge ahead is conducting nonlinear battle on a very large scale. Taking a closer look at TRADOC’s concepts shows how the land component’s future operations may fan out.

From shaping and entry to sustainment, the Army envisions combat in 2015-24 centering on operations in numerous areas. Multiple entry points will overcome access challenges. The Army expects to conduct “operational maneuver from strategic distances”—such as from the United States to a conflict area—with advanced joint lift platforms. Planners hope to reduce or eliminate dependence on fixed ports and bases.

Then come the core concepts. In theater, the Army plans to maneuver across a wide area to generate dislocating and disintegrating effects through ground, air, and sea operations. Decisive maneuver will achieve campaign objectives through simultaneous, distributed operations, controlled operational tempo, and direct attack of key enemy capabilities and centers of gravity. Stability operations will already be under way.

If the operational aspects were not daunting enough, combat support also will change. The Army’s goal is continuous sustainment of committed forces in all phases of the operation with the smallest feasible deployed logistical footprint.

According to Army thinking, future operations will shed the concept of the “operational pause,” the better to maintain a brisk tempo of operations.

In making this change, the Army is surrendering much of its old structure for theater war. As units of action, divisions are gone. So are the “bowling alley” lines for corps and division boundaries and the associated air control measures. Giving each brigade up to 200 unmanned aerial vehicles will alter airspace control requirements.

At the same time, the Army’s units of action will not be operating shoulder to shoulder and forming a shield for rear-area air bases.

In short, expeditionary warfare is entering a dramatically altered state. Nonlinear war zones increase joint force reliance on the air component and create unique stresses. All of this forces the air component to take a new look at its job. Success in future joint warfare will depend on figuring out—in advance—more details on what the components need in order to operate.

This depends on sticking to some timeless principles, whether the battlespace is linear or not. “You have to get control of the airspace first,” Moseley said. “Job one is still air dominance. Once you get that, then all things are possible.”

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association. Her most recent article, “Death in the Desert,” appeared in the June issue.