Fires and protection are ever-competing warfighting functions. In every era of warfare, technology, tactics, and operating concepts set the conditions that determine the balance of power between fires and protection. In the Middle Ages, armored knights dominated the battlefield until tactical improvements in archery eroded their advantage. This trend of fires domination continued nearly unabated until the development of armored personnel carriers, air defense artillery, radar, and tanks during World War II. Today, the maturation and proliferation of long-range surveillance and target acquisition, precision guidance, and missile and drone technologies have expanded the advantage of fires over protection once again. Overhead and over-the-horizon reconnaissance systems paired with precision-guided fires can engage static and moving targets continents away. Even nonkinetic fires benefit from the current paradigm: it is much easier to launch a cyberattack, jam frequencies, or initiate an information operation than defend against these effects.
Fires’ present superiority over protection does not uniformly affect the offense/defense balance. Instead, it provides an advantage to the side that can mass effects against an opponent while physically dispersed. Forces that must mass for offensives or who defend static positions are equally vulnerable. In practice, the dominance of fires over protection has two main effects on battlefield dynamics. First, the effectiveness of modern fires will discourage the aggregation of capabilities into large, easily targetable formations, monolithic networks, or weapons platforms. Rear areas of the battlefield are increasingly vulnerable. Warfighters will need to disperse and restructure units, build redundant networks, and flexibly use frequencies to preserve capabilities during large-scale combat operations. Second, fires’ current dominance inhibits maneuver, making it more difficult to conduct military campaigns capable of accomplishing political objectives. Conducting operational maneuvers over long distances or expeditionary warfare has become harder. Even opponents sharing national borders need to establish fire superiority before effective offensive maneuvers can begin.
To overcome these challenges, militaries must examine new operating concepts, formations, and equipment architectures that allow forces to quickly disperse or aggregate while projecting force and conducting operations. They must also invest in force structures capable of winning reconnaissance-strike contests at the expense of the current maneuver-centric paradigm. Policymakers have a different challenge. Political leaders must carefully consider how the imbalance between fires and protection affects the utility of military force with perspective that extends beyond the last war.
Protecting the Rear Area of the Battlefield
When protection dominates fires, tactical units consolidate. Roman legionnaires employed a tight testudo (tortoise) formation to shield themselves from missiles. Conversely, when fires dominate protection, units disperse. Nineteenth-century firearms caused combat units to disaggregate for survival. The lethality of twenty-first-century long-range fires will cause further disaggregation, extending to rear of the battlefield as well. The dispersion of capabilities and units increases their survivability environment by making them harder to locate, reducing the lethality of area effects, and increasing the utility of camouflage and concealment. Dispersion also allows units to change positions with greater frequency to avoid detection, reducing the chance of being wiped out in a single salvo.
Modern long-range fires make it difficult for ground forces to mass combat power using existing formations and support concepts. An armored brigade combat team requires seventy-six thousand gallons of fuel, seventeen thousand gallons of water, eighteen tons of food, and twenty-five tons of ammunition to sustain daily operations. To meet these needs, brigades and divisions aggregate sustainment forces into large support areas from four square kilometers (brigade) to ten square kilometers (division) in size. The size of these support areas makes them easy to locate and target. Furthermore, the need to provide timely support to the brigade or division requires support areas to remain within the threat ring of missile artillery systems like Russia’s Iskander or Tochka. The aggregation of sustainment units into support areas eases the administrative burden of command. It does so, however, at the expense of survivability.
Air defense systems like the US Patriot or Israeli Iron Dome provide protection to rear areas and units as they mass but at a disadvantage to enemy fires. First, attackers have a quantitative advantage. An Iron Dome battery in a division headquarters can defend roughly seventy square kilometers around it. That single battery could face threats from conventional artillery (twenty-five to seventy kilometers away), close- and short-range ballistic missiles (up to five hundred kilometers away), ground- and air-launched cruise missiles (two hundred to fifteen hundred kilometers away), drones, aircraft, or even strategic weapons like medium-range, intermediate-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Most missile artillery systems outrange air defense systems, allowing attackers to overwhelm point defenses by concentrating strikes. Even if a single system like the Iron Dome could engage incoming munitions with a large number of attack profiles, it would soon be out of interceptors. Long-range artillery systems can mass fires while physically dispersed. Current air defense systems cannot.
Air defense systems also expend munitions faster than attackers because they require multiple interceptors to destroy a single incoming rocket or missile. Even the Iron Dome, which Israel claims to be 85 percent effective at intercepting close-range ballistic missiles likely needs to employ two or more interceptors against each projectile to achieve this probability of intercept. Furthermore, interceptors are generally more expensive per unit than the munitions they intercept, granting attackers a cost advantage in prolonged exchanges. In a prolonged exchange, these factors provide fires systems cost and logistical advantage over protection systems. The use of decoys, cluster munitions, and micro-precision-guided munitions by attackers shift the advantage even further in their favor. Moreover, clever attackers will use cheap munitions or drones to deplete defender stockpiles of interceptors before attacking high-value targets. The successful development of energy-based or more affordable gun-based interceptors could change this cost paradigm. However, at present, missile-on-missile exchanges provide attackers a significant cost advantage.
Protection systems could also regain the advantage by gaining enhanced abilities to defeat enemy reconnaissance. Still, the proliferation of low-earth orbit satellites and drone systems will make it difficult for large units to avoid detection. The cost to destroy these reconnaissance systems is higher than the cost of deploying them. Attackers could flood the battlefield with disposable reconnaissance assets and satellites to detect defending forces immediately prior to launching large salvos against them.
Defenders can attempt to destroy long-range enemy artillery prior to launch but locating enemy artillery before they reveal their position through an attack is hard. Road-mobile transporter erector launchers (TELs) are approximately the size of eighteen-wheelers. Their mobility further increases their survivability. If their operators employ camouflage, concealment, and communications discipline, they are challenging to fix and finish before firing. Coalition attempts to destroy Saddam Hussein’s Scud TELs during the First Gulf War were completely unsuccessful. Advances in imagery collection paired with artificial intelligence may make hunting them more manageable in the future. Coupled with a faster kill chain, defenders could destroy artillery pieces immediately after firing. Locating long-range artillery assets prior to launch, however, will remain a difficult problem.
The Greater Effects of Fires Dominance
Between near-peer states, the dominance of long-range fires over protection inhibits the massing of combat power and operational maneuver unless one side establishes fires superiority or neutralizes enemy reconnaissance. In the past, artillery would duel across battlefields to establish fire superiority to allow infantry and cavalry to maneuver. Now, long-range fires enable the duel to stretch from home station to the frontlines. This will affect warfare in several ways. First, expeditionary operations will become more difficult for the attacking state, increasing the value of forward-positioned forces. Second, fires’ dominance will force armies to pursue attritional strategies at the beginning of conflicts in lieu of maneuver. Third, fires’ dominance makes frozen conflicts more likely by increasing the difficulty of conducting large-scale maneuver. Collectively, these three factors will make it more difficult to use military force to accomplish political objectives.
Fires dominance will make expeditionary operations more challengingly to conduct by increasing the difficulty of aggregating in theater. Defending a division or brigade support area from long-range precision fires is challenging. Protecting fixed sites like ports or airports is harder still. As a recent Joint Staff wargame determined, the “Iron Mountain” of supply is dead. Shipping delays related to COVID-19 have disrupted global supply chains. Missile attacks against a handful of ports supporting expeditionary operations could be catastrophic.
The US Army’s Multi-Domain Operations concept recognizes the threat posed by long-range fires but still insists that corps and divisions will serve as principal warfighting formations. This is unlikely, at least in a campaign that requires the United States to cross an ocean to confront a state with long-range strike and reconnaissance capabilities. An expeditionary operation of that magnitude will require a prolonged, joint campaign to neutralize long-range fires threats and reconnaissance before large-scale operational maneuver or deployments can ever begin. In 1940, Germany only needed to secure air superiority in the Battle of Britain before securing the sea and invading Great Britain. Today, in contrast, the same force would need superiority across a range of domains to gain fires superiority across the theater.
The need to neutralize enemy long-range strike and reconnaissance capabilities before maneuvering will cause increased reliance on strategies of attrition. Evenly matched adversaries, or great powers attempting to fight across long distances, will likely spend weeks or months attempting to attrit adversary systems to enable a ground offensive, or in the case of an expeditionary operation, enter the theater of operations. This period of attritional warfare would end when one side establishes a lasting or temporary advantage, decides to disengage, or runs out of advanced munitions.
Strategies of attrition rarely yield quick or decisive results between relatively equal powers. During World War I, the Allied Powers and Central Powers attempted to bleed each other dry because technology and tactics made decisive maneuver difficult on the Western Front. Conversely, Germany overran France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in a month using maneuver warfare concepts in the spring of 1940. The need to attrit strike and reconnaissance assets before large-scale maneuver can begin will increase the cost and length of military campaigns. Moreover, long-range strike and reconnaissance assets improve deterrence by threatening to impose clear costs at the beginning of a conflict.
The Effect on Future Campaigns
Conflicts fought between adversaries with near-equivalent precision fires and modern reconnaissance systems will likely produce fewer outcomes that lead to new political equilibriums. While the US military and a handful of other states may develop the capabilities and tactics to establish fires dominance throughout a theater, most will not. Without realistic hopes of obtaining fire superiority, most militaries will struggle to find ways to concentrate maneuver forces in a manner that leads to decisive victories. The dominance of fires over protection means that maneuver will be less effective for seizing terrain. The Nagorno-Karabakh War and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict have already given a hint of what can be expected. Even massing with a visible signature as a brigade can be catastrophic.
Frozen conflicts like the Russo-Ukrainian War may become the norm. This is equally true for expeditionary operations conducted by the United States against near-peer states. Even if the United States has the potential to invade a near-peer state after crossing an ocean, it is unlikely to have the political will to expend the resources to make it happen. Instead, appetite for pursuing the conflict may erode as the United States and its adversary fight a long-range war of attrition, costing lives, and depleting treasure, but with the political situation incrementally changed at best.
The imbalance of fires and protection does not solely affect great powers, but any state attempting to concentrate combat power on the ground, in the air, or at sea. Fires’ dominance over protection means that aircraft carriers lose combat effectiveness because air defense systems cannot guarantee their survivability. It means that stationing an F-35A squadron within 500 to 1000 kilometers of an adversary is less appetizing due to the threat of sustained indirect fire against airfields. And it means that a ground force that masses for an offensive or defensive action places itself at greater risk. This is a problem for the age. How do militaries disperse capabilities while maintaining the ability to mass effects? How can militaries disaggregate and win in a way that produces the desired political outcomes?
Only experimentation, practical experience, and a willingness to challenge assumptions derived from previous paradigms can answer these questions. However, fires’ current dominance will likely lead to the following trends. First, militaries will continue to embrace special operations forces, advisory brigades, and the use of partisans because of their ability to maintain low signatures, rely on smaller logistical footprints, and punch above their weight. Furthermore, they provide useful forward observation for strategic fires while they liaise with allies and partners. Second, conventional forces will become more capable of independent operations at lower echelons. Brigades and battalions will contain more organic combat support capabilities and possess the ability to disaggregate into smaller, independently survivable units. Third, historically significant formations like corps and divisions may again fall into disuse or adopt different roles than those performed in maneuver-centric warfare eras. Fourth, artillery, air defense, signal, and reconnaissance forces will grow as a proportion of ground forces at the expense of maneuver assets. Instead of the United States rushing armored divisions overseas like the Cold War–era REFORGER exercises, initial expeditionary deployments will likely consist of more long-range artillery, reconnaissance, air defense, and support units necessary to achieve fire superiority and deter aggression.
No imbalance in warfare is permanent. Protection has been dominant over fires and may be again as technology, tactics, and operating concepts adapt to the threat posed by modern fires and reconnaissance systems. Until that time, militaries will need to factor in the effects of fires dominance as they organize units and task forces, explore how they can disaggregate capabilities across smaller, less vulnerable elements, and discern the best paths to triumph in future reconnaissance-strike contests. Policymakers must scrutinize how a fires-dominant environment affects the ability of the state to achieve political ends through violence. This paradigm may cause policymakers to increasingly lean on actions in the cyber and information domains over kinetic ones. Political leaders may also embrace periodic skirmishes and proxy wars to achieve incremental milestones in national objectives. In all cases, policymakers must devote time to evaluate how this fires-dominant paradigm has affected the ability of the state to achieve political ends through coercive military force.
Jules “Jay” Hurst is an army strategist who previously worked as a targeting officer and targeteer. He currently serves as an Army Congressional Fellow.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Specialist Gyassi Thomasson