Joint Chiefs Seek A New Warfighting Paradigm After Devastating Losses In Classified Wargames

U.S. Forces “failed miserably” in the wargames, which simulated a battle for Taiwan among other scenarios.

byBrett Tingley|
China photo


The Joint Chiefs of Staff are rethinking the United States’ warfighting concepts after failing “miserably” in a wargame that simulated a variety of scenarios. Many of the Pentagon’s core strategies for conducting warfare proved themselves futile in the face of modern threats and capabilities, forcing the Joint Chiefs to explore a warfighting concept known as “Expanded Maneuver.” While the overall concept is new, many of the ideas in Expanded Maneuver build on the overarching focus on distributed operations and information-sharing networks the Pentagon has been pursuing in recent years.

The Expanded Maneuver concept was described by General John Hyten, the 11th Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in reporting by Defense One’s Tara Copp. The specifics of the wargame that prompted Hyten to rethink warfare are classified, but an unnamed defense official told Copp that one of the scenarios simulated a battle for Taiwan. While Hyten didn’t reveal much about the wargames themselves, he did state that the simulated U.S. forces were swiftly and thoroughly dominated. “Without overstating the issue, it failed miserably. An aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us. They knew exactly what we're going to do before we did it,” Hyten said this week during a launch event for the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute

A recent Joint All-Domain Command & Control System demonstration at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, USN/MC2 Michael H. Lehman

One of the issues that compounded the blue forces’ losses in the wargame was the fact that U.S. forces concentrated together in one area in order to combine firepower and reinforce one another. “We always aggregate to fight, and aggregate to survive. But in today’s world, with hypersonic missiles, with significant long-range fires coming at us from all domains, if you're aggregated and everybody knows where you are, you're vulnerable,” Hyten said.  

Another decisive factor was that the “blue team,” or simulated American forces, lost their ability to use networked communications from the outset of the wargame. “We basically attempted an information-dominance structure, where information was ubiquitous to our forces. Just like it was in the first Gulf War, just like it has been for the last 20 years, just like everybody in the world, including China and Russia, have watched us do for the last 30 years,” Hyten said according to Defense One. “Well, what happens if right from the beginning that information is not available? And that’s the big problem that we faced.” 

General John Hyten, DOD

Prior tabletop wargames that also portrayed China as the central adversary had similar outcomes and prompted similar discussions within the Pentagon. Earlier this year, Air Force Lieutenant General Clint Hinote, the service's Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements, stated that “we should never play this war game scenario [of a Chinese attack on Taiwan] again, because we know what is going to happen. [...] The definitive answer if the U.S. military doesn’t change course is that we’re going to lose fast.” Hinote even added that the F-35 would essentially be useless in such a conflict, and that “Every fighter that rolls off the line today is a fighter that we wouldn’t even bother putting into these scenarios.”

The new Expanded Maneuver concept outlined by General Hyten contains four key directives for the services to integrate in order to better compete on the battlefield of today: contested logistics, joint fires, Joint All-Domain Command and Control, and information advantage. These aren’t necessarily new ideas, and in fact, build on initiatives that have already been in development. 

Contested logistics in this sense refers to finding new concepts for keeping warfighters stocked with fuel and other supplies no matter where they are operating. This would also include being able to defend logistics assets and requiring logistic units to possibly have to fight their way to forward areas. Several initiatives along these lines are already in progress. The U.S. Army, for one, has explored new ideas in recent years that would see combat brigades be able to operate for a whole week without resupply. The Air Force is also pursuing a “Rocket Cargo” concept that aims to be able to put 100 tons of cargo anywhere on Earth within an hour using rocket technologies already available on the commercial market.

U.S. Marines from Combat Logistics Battalion 8 work together with Navy personnel during an Expeditionary Logistics Wargame in 2012., USMC/Sgt Anthony Ortiz

Hyten also expanded on how the concept of joint fires is integral to his Expanded Maneuver vision. “You have to aggregate to mass fires, but it doesn't have to be a physical aggregation,” Hyten said. “It could be a virtual aggregation for multiple domains; acting at the same time under a single command structure allows the fires to come in on anybody. It allows you to disaggregate to survive.” Hyten admitted that joint fires is “unbelievably difficult to do.” 

Still, this concept has been explored in the past. The Marine Corps, for one, has eyed using combat units spread out in small boats as opposed to using centralized larger ships, largely based on lessons learned from wargaming. The Air Force has also tested using F-35s to cue artillery strikes, allowing it to remain undetected by not engaging threats directly while still using its sensors to identify and mark targets. Larger, more distributed live-fire tests of similar concepts have been conducted involving assets simultaneously on the ground, in the air, and in space.

Hyten’s third directive, Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, is an attempt to connect sensors and communication networks from across the services into a singular architecture. Essentially, JADC2 would create a digital cloud-like environment for sharing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data, as well as other information, across the DOD’s vast system of communications networks in order to enable faster decision-making. The Air Force, in particular, has tested a wide variety of systems that could eventually fall under the larger JADC2 umbrella, including some that utilize joint fire concepts. Assets like the shadowy RQ-180 could fit into this architecture, serving as long-endurance, survivable information gateways in contested environments.

A demonstration of the Command Post Computing Environment which combines warfighting functions into a common user interface, reducing the training burden on Soldiers and accelerating the integration of new capabilities. , US Army

The concept of information advantage Hyten describes as part of Extended Maneuver is essentially a sum of the other three concepts, enabled by real-time information and data sharing across the entire military enterprise. Hyten says that if these concepts could be successfully deployed throughout the services, “the United States and our allies will have an information advantage over anybody that we could possibly face.” While Hyten didn’t specifically mention machine learning or artificial intelligence, other military leaders have signaled in the past that these systems will play a huge part in establishing and maintaining information advantage in the future.

As the Center for New American Security’s Becca Wasser notes on Twitter, sometimes the integration of new concepts like Hyten’s Extended Maneuver can be hindered by what she calls a “broken” process of developing new military strategies and visions.

Hyten has been particularly vocal about this broken process in the past, claiming that what worries him most is that America's defense-industrial complex has lost the ability to "go fast," meaning bureaucratic red tape can often hold back progress when it comes to military innovation.

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There is always a push-and-pull struggle between the interests of each branch of the services, the military-industrial complex, and the true realities of joint capabilities. Getting the vast enterprise that is the U.S. military to coordinate and work together on massive paradigm shifts in terms of concepts of joint operations is not easy, to say the least. Many past joint networking concepts over the last few decades have failed, leaving some to wonder if the new push for JADC2 will succeed or succumb to inter-service competition, technological roadblocks, and recalcitrance. 

Simulated U.S. “blue team” forces losing in wargaming is nothing new, and past wargames have likewise shown that some current concepts of joint operations would lead to devastating losses. Still, the fact that this latest classified wargame directly simulated a battle over Taiwan - a prospect which seems more and more likely, based on some recent developments - could give military leadership pause to rethink entrenched warfighting and developmental concepts. 

The Joint Chiefs’ General John Hyten may not be introducing completely novel ideas with his Extended Maneuver vision, but given that Hyten says the simulated U.S. forces “failed miserably” should be enough for the Joint Chiefs to reevaluate current warfighting capabilities and tactics in light of potential adversaries’ rapidly advancing capabilities and growing ambitions.

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