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Precision Strike: The Future Operating Environment

18 March 2020
Land combat
Military theory

This blog is Part Two 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.

This is the second article in the Precision Strike series and will explore how the growing precision strike regime will shape the future operating environment. This is an important step in our journey and looks at how precision strike will affect the structure of warfighting. This is essential to understanding how the Australian Army can respond as a Future Ready land force.[1] This article will examine how precision capabilities will render substantial military advantage to those that field it. This advantage will manifest across the strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfighting, as well as the air, sea and land warfighting domains.  In order to become Ready Now and Future Ready, it is important for Army to understand how precision strike will influence and shape the future operating environment, particularly in our immediate strategic neighborhood.

At the strategic level, theatre level missiles such as Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) will provide powers such as China and Russia the ability to impose their will on their surroundings.[2] Conventional missiles play to the strengths of continental regional powers that are able to exploit their proximity to contested environments strategically, as opposed to insular island powers such as the United States or its allies such as Australia, that are compelled to project power across vast stretches of ocean and airspace.[3] This ‘tyranny of distance and time’ means that at the strategic level, precision capabilities have the potential for a state such as China to seek a fait accompli, launching a first strike on the forward deployed bases and installations the US and its allies rely upon, creating a strategic dilemma as to whether intervention is worthwhile or even feasible.[4] Precision capabilities also provide the ability to reliably strike fixed, strategic targets in rear areas, such as ‘power plants, cities, transportation hubs, or other civilian value targets.’[5] Hypersonic missiles are another strategic capability, with the potential to both defeat missile defenses and dramatically shorten warning times, heightening the feasibility of a debilitating first strike.[6] Finally, perhaps the most important strategic benefit afforded by precision capabilities is the capacity to interdict air and sea-surface movement.[7] This could include the strategic option of a missile-enabled blockade against vulnerable littoral states such as Japan or South Korea, or attacking amphibious elements seeking ‘forcible entry’ at range.[8]

The strategic utility of precision capabilities bleeds into their operational impact on the battlespace, as the ‘tyranny of distance and time’ will have flow on effects for on-the-ground realities.[9] Efforts by commanders to ‘orchestrate, sequence and resource tactical actions’ in a battlespace shaped by precision strike will have to account for the latent capacity of conventional missiles that sit menacingly just over the horizon.[10] Most consequential for the Australian Army will be the reality that, in a contested environment shaped by precision capabilities, getting land forces into a position from which to enter the fight will become a challenge in and of itself.[11] Army’s ‘core competency’ is combined arms maneuver, and this requires the application of combat power at the right time and place to defeat enemy forces and seize, occupy and defend land areas.[12] If Army can’t get to the fight, then the constraints imposed by A2/AD at the strategic level will create a flow on loss of initiative at the operational and tactical levels. At the operational level then, mature precision capabilities will allow an adversary to curtail ‘operational latitude’ and restrict freedom of action in the battlespace.[13] 

At the tactical level, precision capabilities do not allow the diverse types of fire that the traditional employment of artillery provides, such as preparation or defensive fire.[14] However, conventional missiles can still be utilised within the four principles for the employment of artillery: cooperation, concentration of fire, economy of effort, and sustainment.[15] As discussed above, the constraints of these capabilities, specifically high costs and limited numbers, will mean that at the tactical level, precision capabilities will play a limited and specialised role against high value enemy targets. Precision capabilities will therefore have an impact at all warfighting levels, but due to existing and projected constraints, it is likely that conventional missiles will primarily shape the future operating environment at the strategic and operational levels, with missiles to remain an insufficient substitute for less expensive, high volume indirect fires provided by traditional artillery or other types of precision munitions at the tactical level.

Precision strike will also have a significant impact in accelerating movement toward ‘domain integration.’[16] The trend toward greater synergy in the Joint Force across the air, sea and land domains is likely to take on a greater sense of urgency against an adversary fielding a mature precision strike capability. The increasing reach of sensors and fires will require land forces to ‘address all domains and comprehensively integrate across them’, with networks and integration being the key to generating military power.[17] One critical factor in this greater domain integration will be the inherent asymmetry between the land environment and that of the air and sea environment. As Biddle and Oelrich argue, the sky and the surface of the sea are far simpler Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Target Acquisition (RSTA) environments than the land, and land-based precision capabilities therefore enjoy a ‘systematic RSTA advantage’ over airborne and sea-surface foes.[18] This will mean that precision capabilities may in future make it far more difficult to ‘project force over or near hostile territory defended by missiles.’[19] The two authors argue that this trend will continue with two likely outcomes: (1) controlled landmass will grant asymmetric advantage to land-based missile systems over sea or air based systems; and (2) this advantage fades proportionate to distance from controlled landmasses.[20] Consequently, against an A2/AD defensive system, no single service will likely be able to establish the conditions of victory on its own, and land forces will therefore remain vital in contributing to Joint Force objectives in an operating environment shaped by precision strike.[21] This challenge will be particularly critical in the littoral operating environment, where the greatest level of cooperation between services is required, and where there is also the greatest likelihood of cooperation with coalition forces.[22] Some commentators have astutely noted that advances in precision capabilities may well precipitate an expanded role for land forces in ‘sea control’, with land-based strike capabilities being used to shape the environment in the air and at sea.[23] Precision strike will therefore accelerate momentum toward greater domain integration, with increasing demands on future land forces to operate in non-permissive environments such as maritime areas of operation.[24]

Understanding the growth of the precision strike regime is the first and most critical in preparing the Australian Army for a future operating environment where adversaries can sense and strike at enormous range across the land, air and sea. Though it is impossible to predict the future with certainty, is highly likely that precision capabilities will have a systemic impact on the future operating environment. This impact will be apparent across the strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfighting, as well as across the air, sea and land domains. Army has a role to play, and precision strike may precipitate a larger role for Army within the Joint Force. As to the how, tune in for the next article in this series to see how Army can go about operating effectively in a future operating environment shaped by precision strike.


[1] Australian Army, “Accelerated Warfare” Futures Statement for an Army in Motion (2018) 1.

[2] Jacob Cohn, Timothy A. Walton, Adam Lemon, Toshi Yoshihara, “Leveling the Playing Field: Reintroducing U.S. Theater Range Missiles in a Post-INF World” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2019): 6.

[3] Cohn, Walton, Lemon, Yoshihara, “Leveling the Playing Field,” 6.

[4] Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, Billy Fabian, Peter Kouretsos, “Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2019): 1; COL Vincent Alcazar, COL Thomas M. Lafleur, “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD” Military Review (2013): 85.

[5] Stephen Biddle, Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia” International Security 41, no. 1 (2016): 13.

[6] Andrew F. Krepinevich, “The Japan-U.S. Alliance and Preserving Peace and Stability in the Western Pacific” Sasakawa Peace Foundation (2015): 37; Australian Army, “Army in Motion”, Chief of Army’s Strategic Guidance 2019 (2019): 15; Cohn, Walton, Lemon, Yoshihara, “Leveling the Playing Field,” 9.

[7] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 13.

[8] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 16; LTCOL James W. Hammond III, LTCOL Mike Cancellier, “Precision Munitions” (2013): 47.

[9] Mahnken, Sharp, Fabian, Kouretsos, “Tightening the Chain,” 1.

[10] Australian Army, “The Fundamentals of Land Power” Land Warfare Doctrine 1 (2014): 19.

[11] Alcazar, Lafleur, “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD,” 85.

[12] Brian J. Dunn, “The Tyranny of the Shores: Army Planning for the Asia-Pacific Theater” Military Review (2018): 106.

[13] Alcazar, Lafleur, “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD,” 81.

[14] Australian Army, “Employment of Artillery” Land Warfare Doctrine 3-4-1 (2009): 1.41.

[15] Australian Army, “Employment of Artillery,” 1.41.

[16] Australian Army, “Army in Motion”, 13.

[17] Australian Army, “Accelerated Warfare,” 2.

[18] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 12.

[19] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 12-13.

[20] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 13.

[21] Alcazar, Lafleur, “A Role for Land Warfare Forces in Overcoming A2/AD,” 80.

[22] Milan Vego, “On Littoral Warfare” Naval War College Review 68, no. 2 (2015): 30.

[23] Andrew S. Erickson, David D. Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea” Naval College Review (2009): 1.

[24] Vincent DePinto, “Avoiding the Archer: We must focus on tactical and technological innovation” Marine Corps Gazette 98, no. 3, (2014): 39.

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.


Thomas Rose on 24 March 2020 - 3:48pm

Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.