Emerging DoD "Cross-Domain Fires" Strategy: Army Will Attack Enemy Ships

The Pentagon wants air-and-sea-based fighter jets to acquire and pass targeting information to land-based artillery and rockets - allowing for land weapons to destroy enemy ships at greater distances.

“Imagine this. An F-18 Hornet acquires a target at sea, an enemy ship, and then passes the track data through Link-16 to any potential shooter with the right munitions and within range of the enemy ship. That information is passed through a gateway to several potential shooters on land such as the Paladin or High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS.”  --Adm. Harry Harris, Pacific Commander, at LANPAC Symposium earlier this year. 

An emerging Pentagon concept for warfighting is aimed at vigorously increasing “cross-domain” fires wherein air assets provide fires for ground attack weapons fire support in real time. This concept also includes Army rockets and artillery to destroy maritime targets such as ships off the coastline, just as sea and air force assets attack targets on land. 

Pentagon leaders, including leading Army weapons developers speaking last month at the Association of the United States Army annual convention, regularly now refer to the fast-increasing emphasis upon using air, land and sea weapons and technology through faster, more lethal networking and coordination.

“The Army does surface to surface fires. The fact that one end of the surface is wet is not the most significant thing. We have to use all the joint assets of a cross domain effort,” Rickey Smith, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-9,Training and Doctrine Command, told Scout Warrior in an interview. “We can use land forces to open gaps in air defenses and then hold it. Then use the Air Force.”

Cross-domain tactics are far more impactful than merely sustaining information sharing; the idea includes leveraging quickly-networking for information, targeting and location of friendlies and adversaries.   

  The concept, for example, is to enable a Paladin or HIMARS to kill that enemy ship from the land, weapons developers and senior service leaders have said. 

Also, Smith elaborated that electronic and satellite communications technologies such as GPS are increasingly themselves vulnerable to enemy attack. For this reason, Army developers continue to work on communications technologies which can function in a degraded mode as well as in what’s called a “denied” environment. Given the pace of global technological change, cross-domain operations will increasingly involve cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum.

While posited at a theoretical prospect, senior Pentagon leaders have explained that this kind of “cross-domain” fires has already been demonstrated and is now gaining momentum within senior Pentagon circles.

A 6,000-personnel strong joint-training exercise last year called Northern Edge, hosted by Alaskan Command above mountain ranges and the Gulf of Alaska, used networking technology to quickly send targeting coordinates from a fighter jet to land-based weapons. 

Major participating units include U.S. Pacific Command, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, U.S. Army Pacific, Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, Air Force Materiel Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command and U.S. Naval Reserve.

When it comes to networking technology, one example involves the use of something called Joint Range Extension Applications Protocol, or "JREAP."

 JREAP enables tactical data messages to be transmitted long distances, over the internet, effectively extending the range of the Link-16. Due to the internet, JREAP-C tracking data can then be passed, developers have explained. The JREAP-C “cloud” is necessary because Link-16 is already over-subscribed, senior Navy leaders and weapons developers have explained earlier this year.  

The Navy is now closely coordinating the strategy, tactics and approaches of cross-domain fires with the Army and Air Force, senior officials explained.

“If the network is your greatest advantage, it can become your greatest vulnerability so you have to have many options. The notion of cross-domain operations should not be limited to single fires,” Smith said.

“We need to improve how we project power from land into the other domains – air, sea, space and cyberspace. All domains are becoming more congested and contested," he added. 

If you want to stop a cyber-attack, put a 120mm tank round through the server and the operator of the cyber attack will stop,” he explained. 

 An increased use of cross-domain fires would bring a commensurate need to de-conflict frequencies, communications and fires between different domains, protecting things like space, land and air assets.

At the same time, integrating fire-control technology is essential to these operations, as geographical, tactical and targeting information needs to be processed, integrated and coordinated with land-based firing assets such as artillery, HIMARS rockets or Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, or GMLRS.

“Just because you can send me information does not mean I know how to process the information in time to strike a target,” Smith elaborated."There is much work to be done." 

In some instances, the U.S. military may need to give up warhead capability to gain additional range for weapons attacking maritime targets with a small, longer-range explosive as a necessary trade, Smith added.

Air-Ground-Sea interoperability designed to facilitate “cross-domain” fires is not new, but this modern warfare phenomenon is growing. The Army Operating Concept in 2014 highlighted future warfighting as Joint Combined Arms Maneuver where U.S. forces,operating in multiple domains, cause multiple dilemmas for the enemy and offer options to U.S. Commanders. The emphasis for expanding the approach is rapidly gaining traction amid fast-moving global technological trends. 

Historic Precedent

During the first Barbary War in the early 1800s, American President Thomas Jefferson sent land and sea forces to project power from one domain to another, Smith said.

 Pirates related to the Ottoman Empire (Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli in Northern Africa) would demand “tribute” pay when ships passed through the Mediterranean – near the “Shores of Tripoli.” Jefferson refused to pay – and fought back against pirates by sending U.S. Navy ships to bombard pirate cities along the shores.

“U.S. forces attacked pirates on land at their ports on the “Shores of Tripoli’,” he said. The U.S. Marine Corps notes this action in their famous hymn. 

Smith also offered another historic example where Israelis defeated the Egyptians in 1973 by using ground assault as a way to destroy Egyptian air defenses before launching a successful counter offensive supported by air. Land-based tanks attacked and destroyed Egyptian air defenses on the ground to facilitate air operations, he explained.

“The air defense units did not stand a chance against the tanks; they knocked holes in their air defenses, giving the Israeli Air Force freedom of maneuver,” Smith explained.

This instance demonstrates a significant example of the inverse scenario from the Gulf War wherein stealth bombers and fighter aircraft were used to destroy Iraqi Air defenses, clearing the way for a ground invasion. Although the first shots were fired by ground force helicopters in an effort which would be characterized as a ground attack, the full-scale initial attacks in a broad scale invovled air-attacks which immediately followed. The first helicopter strikes knocked out Iraqi early warning radar as a way to open the door for the larger air-attacks. The combination of these efforts set the stage for a subsequent successful ground invasion. 

During his remarks, Harris added yet another example, citing an instance during the Civil War when Army coastal artillery was used to engage ships.

“In the early 1900s, the batteries at Fort Kamehameha here in Hawaii were built to defend against the maritime threat. The Army's Coast Artillery Corps took on this mission, as well as some mine warfare missions, and later anti-aircraft, too,” he added as another example. “But as time passed and the need for longer range and more mobile defenses increased, we developed maritime and air capabilities that allowed the Army to divest itself from the coastal defense business.”

Harris emphasized that, in the 21st Century, the Army should consider getting back into the business of coastal maritime attack.

Yet another example cited by Smith included the recent Russian use of ground-based air defenses to dominate air in Eastern Ukraine. Russian built air defenses, such as the S-300 and S-400, among the best in the world.

“The only thing flying in this airspace was what they allowed to fly,” Smith said.

Strategic Implications

A strategy of this kind seems particularly relevant in light of global technological weapons trends creating the existence of longer range sensors, missiles and communications systems. If surface ships are increasingly vulnerable to land-based precision fires – then having air assets assist with offensive and defensive operations could drastically improve protection and alter the tactical equation in favor of the U.S.

One such instance of this approach could be evidenced by the recent deployment of an emerging technology referred to as Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air, or NIFCA. The technology uses ship-based sensors, an aerial reconnaissance and targeting platform and an SM-6 missile to detect and destroy approaching enemy fire from distances beyond-the-horizon.

While initially conceived of as a defensive technology able to destroy incoming anti-ship missiles, Navy strategists are now stepping-up consideration of NIFC-CA as an offensive weapon able to extend the reach of attacks upon enemies. The sensors and increased reach of NIFC-CA seem to represent a technology which could coordinate with fixed or mobile land-based fires in a cross-domain effort. Its ability to detect attacking land-fired weapons, it seems, could also enable it to launch attacks against land-based enemy targets. This creates the inverse equation to firing from the land into surface targets and better enabling surface ships to attack land with greater precision from farther ranges.

NIFC-CA is an extremely signifcant current example of cross-domain fires, as it involves the use of an air-asset, martime surface vessel and, quite possibly, land-targets as well. 

The Navy previously talked about developing longer-range precision rounds to fire from the 5-inch guns on surface ships, further enhancing its ability to destroy enemy targets on land; one such possibility under consideration is a maritime variant of the GPS-guided 155m round known as Excalibur, however in recent days the Navy has not specified which, if any, precision round the service may be considering for deck-mounted guns. 

While seemingly geared at the vast geographical expanse and land-sea island terrain of the Pacific, “cross-domain” fires are also of great relevance in other strategically vital areas such as the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa, Smith said.

The Pentagon plans to increasingly conduct wargames emphasizing "cross-domain" fires against high-end adversaries. 

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