Assessment of the Operational Implications of 21st Century Subterranean Conflict

Major Haley Mercer was commissioned in 2006 as an Engineer Officer from the United States Military Academy at West Point and is completing the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). Prior to SAMS, Haley completed the Command and General Staff College (USCGSC) and two MS degrees from the University of Missouri S&T (2010) and Georgia Tech (2015). She served as Deputy Detachment Commander of the 521st Explosive Hazards Coordination Cell. Haley also has two operational deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan, Consolidation II (2007-2009) and Transition I (2012-2013). She can be found on Twitter @SappersW.    Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


 Title:  Assessment of the Operational Implications of 21st Century Subterranean Conflict

Date Originally Written:  April 30, 2019. 

Date Originally Published:  May 8, 2019. 

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the point of view of the U.S. Army and future large-scale ground combat operations. 

Summary:  At the operational level, the United States Army’s mental model does not work against the deep fight against an enemy whose subterranean networks make them impervious to lethal, deep-fires effects. The answer to the subterranean threat is not in the next tactical solution, rather it is in the operational artist’s creative and critical thinking and ability to reframe the problem, apply systematic processes, and provide better solutions to the commander. 

Text:  The subterranean battlefield poses unique challenges, and the U.S. Army lacks the requisite skills to operate within that complex environment. Success against a subterranean threat begins at the operational level of war. While tactical implications must be addressed, they do not solve the larger problem of effectively designing, planning, and executing operations against an enemy that leverages the subterranean domain. A lack of preparedness at the operational level results in the U.S. Army reaching its culminating point short of achieving its strategic aims.

Similar to quantum mechanics, no one can ever project with certainty when, where, how, and with whom the next great conflict will occur.  However, with historical trends and patterns, a keen operational planner can embrace the reality of complexity and make predictions that focus future combat preparations[1].

Today, the United States is more observable, predictable, and understandable than ever before.  While still a critical part of the equation, superior military strength and might is no longer a guaranteed formula for victory.  The 21st century battlefield is more complex than ever, and it requires new ways of thinking. Today’s operational artists must display coup d’ oeil, seeking answers beyond simplistic assessments perpetuated by past experiences, heuristics, and expertise in order to shape the deep fight against an enemy whose subterranean networks make them impervious to traditional, lethal, deep-fires effects.

Shaping the deep fight against a subterranean threat in large scale conflict requires a distinctly different approach. Figure 3 below depicts the systematic approach for effective deep area shaping against a subterranean enemy. Step 1, cognitive design.  Cognitive design is the operational planners’ ability to leverage creative and critical thinking to reframe and develop a plan that address the underlying problem rather than the symptoms. The design process requires a non-traditional systems approach involving a holistic understanding of the relationships and connections between all actors in the system. There must be a deep understanding of what reinforces the enemy’s actions and behaviors through a relational understanding of their values, desires, morals, worldview, beliefs, and language. One cannot defeat what one does not understand. All of this cannot be accomplished without cognitive patience and the ability to communicate understanding to others resulting in action.

The U.S. Army’s current mental framework focuses on combating an adversary’s use of the subterranean domain, but this domain also offers opportunities. In January 2019, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency announced the initiative to expand the combined arms maneuver space to include a vertical dimension, to exploit both natural and man-made subterranean environments[2]. The United States can benefit from the same subterranean opportunities that are afforded to our adversaries. A friendly subterranean infrastructure could supply secure basing and extend operational reach within an area of conflict while minimizing exposure to the enemy. Furthermore, it can mitigate the logistical challenges posed by the Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) threat and decrease vulnerability to enemy fires.  

Step 2, virtual effects. According to current U.S. Army doctrine, FM 3-0, Operations, Joint force commanders gain and maintain the initiative by projecting fires, employing forces, and conducting information operations[3]. Capabilities within the virtual domain are viewed as a supporting role to projecting fires and employing forces. Against a subterranean threat, virtual effects will likely serve a primary role with traditional physical effects in support. Shaping the deep fight through virtual effects includes all capabilities inherent within electronic warfare, artificial intelligence, and both offensive and defensive cyber actions. With nested and synchronized objectives, all of these assets provide the friendly forces with deception opportunities and narrative control to shape the deep fight prior to arrival of any physical effects. A formulated narrative can promote proactive thinking, gain public support, and deliver false information in support of a deception plan[4].  

Step 3, physical effects. Against a subterranean threat, physical effects are most effective subsequent to cognitive design and virtual effects. Some common physical effects include lethal fires, A2AD, counter weapons of mass destruction, boots on ground, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and humanitarian support. The physical effects include the combined arms tasks that lead to enemy destruction, exploiting opportunities, minimizing risk, and ultimately shaping the deep fight for the lower echelon elements. Countering a subterranean threat is manpower intensive thus, the solution lies in the partnerships and relationships with the joint, interagency, and multi-national forces. The subterranean threat is not just a U.S. Army problem, rather it’s a defense problem requiring combined resources and assets at all echelons. However, physical effects are most effective when they are preceded by deliberate cognitive design and virtual shaping effects.   

Mercer_Graphic

Figure 3. Shaping The Deep Fight, A Systems Approach. Source: MAJ Haley E. Mercer

Surprise is a primary principle of joint operations and creates the conditions for success at the tactical, operation, and strategic level of war. Surprise is non-negotiable and necessary for gaining and maintaining contact with the enemy.  Surprise affords the attacker the ability to disrupt rival defensive plans by achieving rapid results and minimizing enemy reaction time[5].   According to Carl von Clausewitz, “surprise lies at the root of all operations without exception, though in widely varying degrees depending on the nature and circumstance of the operation.”  Deception operations are essential to achieving surprise[6]. Deception operations do well to integrate electronic warfare capabilities and signature residue manipulation. Electronic signatures are everywhere on the modern battlefield making it difficult to hide from the enemy. From Fitbits, to Apple watches, to RFID tags, to global positioning systems, surprise is difficult to achieve unless operational planners can creatively alter virtual fingerprints to effect enemy actions.  

While still an important facet, the answer to the subterranean threat is not in the next technological advancement or tactical solution, rather it is in the operational artist’s creative and critical thinking and ability to reframe the problem, apply systematic thinking, and provide better options to the commander. Success against a subterranean threat lies at the operational level of war.


Endnotes:

[1] Everett C Dolman, Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age (London; New York: Frank Cass, 2005), 100.

[2] “The U.S. Military’s Next Super Weapon: Tactical Tunnels, The National Interest,” accessed March 27, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/us-militarys-next-super-weapon-tactical-tunnels-46027.

[3] US Army, FM 3-0 (2017), 5-1.

[4] H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed., Cambridge introductions to literature (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 12.

[5] US Army, ADRP 3-90 (2012), 3-2.

[6] Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 198.

Assessment Papers Haley Mercer Option Papers Subterranean / Underground