Training for the High-End Fight: Defining the Challenge

By Robbin Laird

Earlier this year, I published a book entitled Training for the High-End Fight: The Strategic Shift of the 2020s.

That book focused on discussions with warfighters at various training centers central to reshaping U.S. forces for the high-end fight. Those visits were to Norfolk, Virginia; Jacksonville and Mayport, Florida; San Diego, California; and Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada.

I argued in the book that along with C2 and ISR becoming very different with the strategic shift from the Middle East land wars, training was changing significantly in terms of its focus and what was required to make the strategic shift.

And because the current generation of officers have largely grown up with the land wars, it is a much a strategic shock as well as a strategic shift. There are a small number of senior officers in the service who served at the end of the Cold War and their memories and training from that period provide a seed corn in the training reset as well.

Or put another way, with a re-focus on the high-end fight, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force need to operate throughout the extended contested battlespace.

And with nuclear armed peer competitors, the nuclear dimension weighs over extended conventional operations as well.

As my colleague Ed Timperlake often reminds me, the legendary Admiral Arleigh Burke underscored that training started with the core requirement – know your platform. Training clearly must start with ensuring that the warrior knows how to fight effectively from the ground up with the platform he operates from.

But training today, knowing your platform is clearly not enough.

What the U.S. military is shaping is a distributed but integratable force.

They are taking their resources, dispersing them and operating with a mix and match modular task force capability.

Learning to fight with a distributed force is part of the new training challenge.

Being able to cross-link platforms within evolving task force packages is another part of the challenge.

In a 2020 interview with Lt. Jonathan Gosselin, a P-8 Weapons and Tactics Instructor at the Maritime Patrol Reconnaissance Weapons School, during my visit to Jax Navy, the challenge of learning cross-platform targeting was highlighted as an example of the new training challenge posed by shaping maritime kill webs.

When he first deployed, the P-8 was an anomaly. Now it is deployed to all of the COCOMS worldwide. The P-8 global fleet provides ISR, ASW, and Surface Warfare products to the combatant commanders. In his current position, he serves as an innovation, cross-functional team lead where he works with innovation experts, defense industry, and the Navy to shape projects which are then generated for implementation by industry. He works as well on process changes where advances in TTPs can be enabled as well.

For Lt. Gosselin, at the heart of the effort is really understanding, training for and executing third party targeting. He argued that moving from a stove-piped mentality where one is both the sensor and the shooter, to a kill web perspective where the P-8 could provide the sensors for a firing solution, or whether the P-8 would deliver a weapon provided by another asset to perform the firing solution is at the heart of the change.

In effect, dynamic targeting across a distributed integrated force is the goal.

As Lt. Gosselin put it: “We’re talking about taking targeting data from one domain and quickly shifting to another, just like that. I have killed a target under sea. I am now going to go ahead and work the surface target and being able to understand the weapon-sensor pairing network and being able to call in fires from different entities using commander’s intent to engage the target. That’s what we’re trying to do. Get our operators to understand that it is not just a one-piece answer. There may be a time when you have to transfer the action to another shooter.”

To do so, he is engaging significantly with the Triton squadron as well to shape a way ahead for kill web dynamic targeting.

Lt. Gosselin noted: “With the P-8 and Triton we are able to expand our envelope of SA. We can take that and now take the baseline concepts from what the P-3 did and apply them to a more advanced tactics, techniques, and procedures in the form of integrating with the B-21, the B-1, the F-18’s, the F-35 joint strike fighter in a dynamic targeting kill web.”

And with regard to the cultural shift, this is what he added: “It’s important to talk not about how can I defeat this target, but really it should be, how can we defeat this target? Let’s break ourselves out of this stovepipe and understand that I may not always be the best shooter. I may be the best sensor, but I’m not be the best shooter.”

Another key focus going forward for the joint and coalition force is learning how to leverage flexible basing as a key requirement for distributed integrated operations.

For example, with the return of the high-end fight, and the challenge of delivering tailored military capabilities to ensure escalation dominance in the maritime domain, a broadened focus on maneuver warfare in the maritime space has emerged For North Atlantic defense, Second and Sixth fleets are working with the joint force and allies to shape distributed forces which can integrate to deal with various Russian threats, from the hybrid to the gray zone to high-end warfare.

But distributed operations which can deliver an integrated effect is an art form which requires significant training as well as capabilities to deliver C2 at the tactical edge.

But they also provide for connectivity among the pieces on the chessboard to provide for the kind of escalation dominance crisis to full spectrum crisis management. With the development of flexible multi-mission platforms, there is an ability to flex between offensive and defensive operations within the distributed battlespace.

It is clearly challenging to operate such a force, delegate decision making at the tactical edge, but still be able to ensure strategic and area wide tactical decision-making.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously.  This is enabled by the evolution of C2 and ISR systems. By shaping an evolving ISR enabled C2 systems inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which provide for kill web integratable forces, an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations.

How do you train to do this effectively? 

Part of the answer is given by training through exercises and then cycling lessons learned from exercises back into the evolving training regime.

But the nature of the systems being built and integrated into the force create another problem. Systems like the F-35 outpace and outreach physical training space. And shaping a kill web approach to cross-linking platforms to deliver the desired crisis management or combat effect needs to be part of training as well.

How much do you want to show the adversary in exercises?

And if you do not do that training in an exercise, where are you doing so?

Air Marshal (Retired) Geoff Brown put that challenge succinctly in an interview I did with him in 2019. “I believe it’s safe to say it is impossible to deny an adversary entirely of the ability to shape aspects of the information environment, whether it’s through spoofing or sabotaging ICT-based warfighting systems. As a result, our goal should be to sustain military operations in spite of a denied, disrupted, or subverted information environment.”

He underscored the challenge this way: “The requirement is that warfighters need to be able to fight as an integrated whole in and through an increasingly contested and complex battlespace saturated by adversary cyber and information operations. But how to do this so that we are shaping our con-ops but not sharing them with an adversary in advance of operations? The battle for information control needs to drive our training needs much more than it does at the moment. We need to provide warfighters with the right kind of combat learning.”

We then discussed current approaches such as at Red Flag and how we might change the approach to get closer to the kill web capability. “During large-scale exercises like Red Flag, cyber training is often employed in parallel with traditional kinetic training programs and is not fully integrated. Non-cyber war fighters do not necessarily experience the effects of “cyber play” while it is ongoing.

“When cyber effects are integrated into live training events, my experience is that they are often “white carded.” Although this does provide war fighters some insight into how their systems or platforms may be affected in the event of a cyberattack, the lack of realism precludes them from experiencing and subsequently troubleshooting that attack.”

He cautioned that there are good reasons why this is not done. “The integration of these effects into a live training environment could sabotage the other goals of the exercise, present safety risks to war fighters, and reveal platform vulnerabilities to inquisitive adversaries.” In spite of the limitation, “these live training challenges can’t preclude us from training for a future contested and complex battlespace.”

He argued that “We definitely need to train as we fight—so we need to develop tactical level cyber and information effects for simulators and to develop adversary cyber and info effects into our evolving concepts of operations.” In other words, Brown argued that live training remains very significant for organizing a strike and defense force and working the physical pieces of the task force or air group. But the virtual world is now a key area in which you will shape, work on and exercise your information force concepts of operations.

“One of the foundational assumptions I’ve always had is that high quality live training is an essential to producing high-quality war fighters but I believe that’s changed. Even if you don’t take cyber into account, and look at an aircraft like an F-35 with an the AESA radar and fusion capabilities, the reality of how we will fight has changed dramatically.

“In the world of mechanically scanned array radars, a 2v 4 was a challenging exercise—now as we have moved more towards AESAs where it is not track while you scan, but its search while track, it’s very hard to challenge these aircraft in the live environment. And to be blunt about it, the F-35 and, certainly the F-35 as an integrated force, will only be fully unleashed within classified simulations.

“This means that we will achieve the best training outcomes for aircraft like the F-35 only if we have a more comprehensive virtual environment.”

In short, the training function is facing significant challenges to be effective, realistic and to ensure that the joint and coalition forces leverage the full capability inherent in the force, rather than prioritizing what platforms do in stove pipes with whatever organic capability is on that particular platform.

Training is becoming redefined as a driver of combat development and platform changes in the context of evolving concepts of operations and tactics.

With the new generation of software upgradeable platforms, training driving combat development is part of then rewriting code and determining how platforms can cross-link and operate more effectively as flexible modular task forces.

This is how I concluded my book published earlier this year: “To train for and execute the capabilities of the high-end fight requires that training and exercises be well funded, and the innovation being generated by the warfighting centers drive force structure development.

“The force that is evolving is a very capable one, but the reset in its combat approaches and combat architecture are crucial to enhancing its capabilities to provide for the kinds of escalation management and skills need for the world we are now in.”

Featured Photo: A high-altitude airdrop of palletized munitions, JASSM simulants, from a C-17 using standard operational airdrop procedures was conducted during the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management Family of Systems (ABMS) Onramp #2 activities.

The photo was taken from an article by Brian W. Everstine, entitled “How Air Mobility Command Wants its Airlifters and Refuelers to Fight,” Air Force Magazine (April 2021).

“Air Mobility Command has big plans to overhaul its gray-tailed heavies for the high-end fight, turning airlifters into command and control assets and possibly putting air-to-air missiles on tankers.

The long-term planning is a shift away from the idea of keeping mobility assets away from a fight, using them instead just as delivery platforms for other combat forces.

“AMC boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost addressed concerns about the future of mobility and the idea of doing “something out of the box,” during a March 31 Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event, saying, “Why wouldn’t we?”

“Why wouldn’t we change the calculus by doing different things, moving away from the antiquated view that AMC just brings stuff when they’re called … to be a maneuver force inside the threat ring,” Van Ovost asked.”