Precision Strike: Developing an Operating Concept for Army
This blog is Part Three of a four-part series on Precision Strike, written by the author during his completion of a research internship at the Australian Army Research Centre.
So far, this series has examined the growth of the precision strike regime and how it will likely render military advantages for those that field it now and in the future. We have explored why precision strike is and will be of relevance.
Now we shall examine how the Australian Army can respond. One possible and obvious approach to contending with precision capabilities is developing an indigenous land-based strike capability of our own. Indeed, the Australian Army is currently in the process of acquiring and developing its own land-based precision strike capability. These include anti-ship missiles, long-range rocket systems, and mobile surface-to-air missile systems that will allow the Joint Force to strike deep into Australia’s maritime and air approaches. However, having this ability to sense and strike the enemy at long range is only part of the puzzle. Army cannot risk being overwhelmed by losses in personnel and platforms to enemy sensors and fires. Nor can the Army risk surrendering freedom of action and initiative in a war of attrition to a larger and potentially more dynamic adversary in an emerging strategic environment of great power competition.
One feasible and cost-effective method for ensuring Army is Future Ready is developing dynamic concepts for operating in a warfighting environment shaped by precision strike. Concepts are ‘explorative’ and seek to create military advantage. The competitive environment remains dynamic, and in the future as in the past, advantage will accrue to those military institutions that are able to ‘innovate or transform’, applying the best operating concepts to exploit existing and emerging capabilities.
This blog will now explore six operating concepts that the Australian Army could exploit to create and maintain access, persistence and versatility in a future operating environment shaped by precision strike.
Counter-Battery Fire (CBF) is intended to destroy, neutralise or compel the redeployment of enemy indirect weapon systems. This approach would require the Army to develop its own land-based strike capability to at least match the effective range of enemy fires. Effective counterfire would have the effect of limiting or shutting down the ability of the enemy to utilise its precision strike capability across domains. One way to enable effective counterfire would be to leverage the asymmetries inherent between the land, air and sea domains. Leveraging these asymmetries in depleting the precision capabilities of the enemy would then enable friendly forces to operate more freely. Naturally, this would not happen in isolation, and enemy precision fires will also seek to ‘disrupt or destroy’ Army’s land-based strike capability or artillery assets with CBF of their own. At the commencement of hostilities, the counterfire fight will depend on friendly precision fires avoiding detection while simultaneously hunting down and neutralising enemy fires wherever possible. The former may require discipline in reducing ‘Firing and Communication Signatures’ which may expose artillery elements, including considerations around the ‘siting of equipment, the use of terrain, engagement policies and radio discipline’ in order to mitigate the risk of debilitating counterfire. Ultimately, it is likely that in terms of numbers and capability, the Army will be at both a quantitative and qualitative disadvantage in terms of a one-on-one engagement with a state fielding a mature precision capability. Army would have to make the most of its smaller missile force, while gradually degrading the utility of enemy precision fires.
This operating concept would be designed to limit the utility of enemy precision capabilities by lowering the value of potential friendly targets in the respective battlespace. Given that the Army’s operational history has been characterised by a heavy emphasis on tactical and small unit approaches, this would leverage Army’s existing strengths as a relatively small land force that generally needs to maintain overmatch at the tactical level to achieve sustained operational and strategic effects. As demonstrated by the US-led coalition in the Gulf War, precision munitions place any large force moving over open ground at great risk. One possible approach to this problem would be to disperse across urban environments or rugged terrain for the fight on land, as not only do they offer improved cover from precision fires, they also offer concealment from enemy sensors. Dispersal will require not only the disaggregation of personnel over a larger area, but also the distribution of platforms that enable access, persistence and lethality. This may involve smaller ‘combined arms teams’, and greater firepower at the company, platoon or even section levels. Ultimately however, decisive engagements will still depend on the ‘concentration of force at critical locations and times.’ In a major conflict, Army may face the dilemma of being unable to concentrate ‘large massed formations at operationally advantageous distances’ without being attrited by enemy precision fires. One innovative potential solution to this would be ‘operational swarming’, where small Army units leverage rapid and dispersed operational and tactical movement to close with the enemy. Swarming is effective against defensive strongpoints such as A2/AD systems, as they are inherently designed to counter large, offensive threats, not decentralised swarms. This approach would provide the advantages of ‘overwhelming volume, speed and maneuverability, improved situational awareness, and a reduced signature’, undermining the utility of enemy precision fires. As dispersed swarming and counterfire take their toll on enemy precision fires, Army could shift back to traditional combined arms maneuver, concentrating for more decisive breakthroughs.
Infiltration operations would reconceptualise the infiltration tactics employed on the Western Front during the Great War. This would involve small, mobile forces infiltrating the A2/AD envelope created by enemy precision capabilities, leveraging superiority in small unit actions to disrupt and frustrate enemy movements. This approach could be further exploited where personnel and assets are forward deployed of the main battle line, presenting lodgments and bubbles within an adversaries’ A2/AD umbrella. This could also involve the deployment of small Army teams fielding precision land-based strike capabilities to remote islands, deploying ahead of the front or within a friendly A2/AD envelope, delivering fire or creating temporary bubbles for the Joint Force to exploit. An innovative example of this capability is the US Army’s HIMARS Rapid Infiltration (HIRAIN) operating concept, that leverages air mobility (C-130s) to rapidly disembark a HIMARS platform, conduct a fire mission, and re-embark. An important trap to avoid here is viewing A2/AD umbrellas as ‘perfect or impenetrable’, and seeking to completely destroy or blind precision fires, as operating concepts such as AirSea Battle (ASB) sought to do. Rather, at the outset of operations, Army would carry out ‘reconnaissance, raids, and seizures’ at the edges of an A2/AD umbrella where it is most vulnerable to bubbles or attrition.
This approach would involve masking or distorting the signatures of Army dispositions and movements using concealment, camouflage, decoys and other methods in order to deceive enemy sensors and fires. The aim of the game here would be to increase uncertainty in the decision-making cycle of enemy commanders by undermining their Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Target Acquisition (RSTA), complicating the cost-benefit calculus necessary for the effective use of precision capabilities. Winning this ‘scouting campaign’ through deception may involve a combination of ‘false targets (decoys), making real targets less detectable (stealth), degrading enemy communications (cyber or electronic warfare), or injecting false information (counter-intelligence).’ Ultimately, deception can achieve objectives by either creating enough uncertainty as to ensure missiles never fire, or where they are fired, misleading them to strike false targets.
Blinding operations would seek to disrupt the targeting chain of precision capabilities by degrading, disrupting or neutralising the targeting chain necessary to deliver missiles to targets. In the context of precision strike, blinding would include dedicated measures designed to deny or degrade enemy sensors. For example, for an A2/AD system to reliably deny access to a contested environment, radar is critical, as alternatives such as infrared or visible-light detection or electronic emission intercepts fulfil ultimately ancillary roles in RSTA. Such blinding operations could involve the use of offensive measures such as Anti-Radiation Missiles (ARMs) to eliminate radar installations, or the use of Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASATs) against satellites. Without reliable radar or satellite coverage, bubbles will emerge in an A2/AD umbrella, and at this juncture, to be exploited by the Joint Force.
This operating concept would involve hardening Army bases and forces with passive and active measures designed to improve survivability and resilience. Exploiting the advantages of the subterranean environment is worth exploring, as they can insulate forces and critical infrastructure even against ‘near zero miss’ precision missiles. Hardening may also be critical for crucial forward bases, such as those in the littoral Western Pacific, that are increasingly vulnerable to being eliminated entirely at the outset of conflict by missile volleys, compelling friendly forces to have to regroup thousands of kilometres from where they are needed. Though theater-wide hardening would be unfeasible and ludicrously expensive, ‘area and point’ missile defense, especially around Army’s own precision missiles would be of high utility. Rather than focusing on a defensive mindset, where the fundamental physics of missile technology will produce advantages for attackers, Army should instead use hardening to protect friendly precision capabilities and critical infrastructure such as C4ISR, and to assist Joint forces in creating bubbles within an enemy’s A2/AD umbrella.
The growth of the precision strike regime remains in its infancy, but it is likely to mature rapidly in the near future. The growing reach, accuracy and versatility of conventional missiles are likely to create military advantage for those that field it, across the air, sea and land domains, and at all levels of warfighting. This presents both threats and opportunities for the Australian Army to contend with. Developing a land-based strike capability of our own is only part of the puzzle. By developing operating concepts for contending with an adaptive adversary, Army can prepare more dynamically for a future operating environment shaped by precision strike. Thankfully, the operating concepts proposed above are not new, nor are they fiscally unfeasible. Preparedness is inherently dynamic, and Army will need to adapt how it fights on, from and onto the land to prepare for a future operating environment shaped by precision strike. This article is a first contribution toward a current and ongoing discussion that Army must have about how it creates and maintains access, persistence and lethality in a future operating environment shaped by precision strike. In the fourth and final article of this series we will explore one of the more transformative impacts precision strike may have on the future battlefield, looking at how the Australian Army might look at a new and aggressive role for the Corps of Artillery. This final instalment will look at how precision capabilities may restore Artillery as the king of battle once more.
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The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.