The Army’s vision of how it will fight in the future rests on the notion of the “dilemma.” Multi-domain operations as a concept proposes that the joint force can achieve competitive advantage over a near-peer adversary by presenting multiple complementary threats that each require a response, thereby exposing adversary vulnerabilities to other threats. It is the artful combination of these multiple dilemmas, rather than a clear overmatch in terms of any particular capability, that produces the desired advantage.

Over the last year, the 1st Infantry Division headquarters trained through a series of command post exercises where we attempted, as best we could achieve, to put this concept to the test in simulations against a highly trained and capable opposing force (OPFOR). Our train-up culminated in April 2019 with a corps-level exercise—Warfighter Exercise 19-04—that featured III Corps as a training audience, the 3rd (United Kingdom) Division as a partnered division and fully engaged training audience, and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment as a dedicated corps reconnaissance and security force.

The exercise offered a glimpse of what the multi-domain operations concept will look in practice like when applied on the battlefield. The 1st Infantry Division, for example, achieved some success in its ability to rapidly erode enemy defenses through the integrated use of fires, aviation attacks, tactical deceptions, vertical envelopment by light infantry, and armored penetration. These complementary tools, when applied rapidly and in close synchronization, exchanged mass for tempo and forced the enemy into multiple dilemmas across multiple domains. What follows is an explanation of how the division accomplished this, what we learned, and how we got better along the way.

Managing Risk in the Wood Chipper

In our initial command post exercise, the division commander challenged us to reframe how we defined risk to the force. Received wisdom from previous Warfighter exercises suggested that the most dangerous of all courses of action in the face of this peer enemy would be to do nothing, or worse, to halt and await favorable conditions to be set while our very limited armor capability sat within range of the enemy’s long-range artillery. In this fight, audacity—when properly seasoned with a prudent understanding of the risk—is a critical combat multiplier. Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commanding general of US Army Europe, cautioned us to decide up front “how we would enter the wood chipper”; how we would identify its forward edge; and once in it, how we would proceed audaciously with the simultaneous commitment of all forms of contact that the division could generate. Once in the “wood chipper,” we realized that the most dangerous and risky thing we could do was to stop attacking.

This challenge is further complicated by the presence of underground facilities throughout the exercise’s area of operations. Prior to our Warfighter, key battle staff in the 1st Infantry Division had the unique opportunity to observe the World Class OPFOR, from the Mission Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth, as they fought in Warfighter Exercise 19-03, and paid particular attention to how they effectively employed underground facilities to deny coalition forces what has traditionally been our greatest asymmetric advantage—the ability to shape and attrit OPFOR prior to the advance of the main body. We observed a very carefully calibrated set of triggers for the OPFOR decision to uncover its artillery from underground facilities and a period of extreme vulnerability as the OPFOR exited those facilities—often in single file. Our goal then was to ensure we were prepared to exploit this window of opportunity either with the timely application of attack aviation or through the insertion of light infantry forces who would then move, often many kilometers, to block the exits to these underground facilities at the opportune moment.

Long Live the King of Battle

Observation of the World Class OPFOR in the fight clearly demonstrated that the enemy’s greatest strength and center of gravity was its long-range artillery. Over 70 percent of our casualties during the exercise were from this artillery. Naturally, its destruction or suppression became the primary focus of our maneuver operations. The division commander made this clear in his commander’s intent: “This is artillery-based maneuver. The tempo of maneuver units will create the conditions for massing effects against enemy artillery.” Just as it was difficult for the staff to re-learn how to think about risk, it was also difficult to rearrange the staff’s conceptualization of offensive operations. Nearly two decades of counterinsurgency taught division staffs to see their role as setting conditions for subordinate brigade combat teams to succeed. While this remains true in many cases, we found that it was more often true that the brigades were setting conditions to allow the division artillery and the combat aviation brigade to destroy the enemy’s long-range shooters.

The results of this approach proved well worth the investment that we made. During the 197 hours of fighting, the division prosecuted more than 1,100 fire missions, primarily against enemy long-range artillery. Of these, more than 825 were fired by general-support rockets and cannon under the command of the division artillery. In addition, the Air Force delivered more than 135 lethal missions against these and other high-payoff targets. The division’s Joint Air Ground Integration Cell also sent more than 275 fire missions to III Corps when (and only when) range and joint asset availability prevented us from engaging.

The end result was that the enemy’s most effective long-range artillery (its 240mm multiple rocket launcher systems and G6 self-propelled cannon systems) were reduced to zero by the final day of the fight. Only six of twenty-five 9A52 Smerch systems (another multiple rocket launcher) and ten tactical ballistic missiles systems remained. The OPFOR commander noted that this degradation had a decisive impact on his ability to delay our momentum.

Purpose-Driven Operations

Operational frameworks are difficult to conceptualize, yet they are fundamental to a logical plan. The 1st Infantry Division utilized operational frameworks as a cognitive tool to clearly visualize and describe the application of combat power in time, space, and purpose. It provided a logical architecture and foundation on which the subsequent detail, resource, permission, responsibility, effort, operation, concept, and task were built. Through a clearly articulated concept of operations, the division ensured that actions that it and the brigade combat teams executed were in pursuit of the commander’s end state.

All plans must have a coherent and guiding logic to them or they risk becoming nothing more than just a series of unrelated actions. Building this logic first requires a clear “theory of victory”—essentially, a hypothesis that says, “If we apply these resources in this way, we will achieve our stated objectives.” Clearly articulating the logic and risks in this theory of victory is essential to the development of a coherent plan. Early in planning, the division identified the decisive operation as the seizure of a particular piece of decisive terrain, and then continuously set favorable conditions—the most important of which was the destruction of enemy long-range artillery as it egressed from underground facilities—to enable the eventual capture of this piece of ground.

During planning, dividing an area of operations into parts categorized as deep, close, support, and consolidation only explains the plan by time and space. Meanwhile, assigning operations as either decisive, shaping, or sustaining and units as the main or supporting efforts explains actions by purpose. Combining all three frameworks achieved what the division and brigade commanders needed: to explain actions and responsibilities in time, space, and purpose.

Presenting Multiple Dilemmas

In this particular Warfighter exercise, the division observed that the terrain limited options for ground maneuver. A single penetration, though conservative and often effective, would not achieve the commander’s intent. The penetration presents the enemy with one problem—a problem that other units have presented repeatedly. Dilemmas are not the same as problems. A problem is a situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful that must be dealt with and overcome. A dilemma, by contrast, is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones. To present the enemy with multiple dilemmas across multiple domains and in multiple locations, the division combined penetrations with audacious turning movements and tactical deceptions, complemented and reinforced with nonlethal effects.

The turning movements were achieved by conducting air assaults across the coordinated fire line and up to the fire support coordination line (the CFL and FSCL, respectively, in the graphic above). To avoid enemy air defenses, these air assaults were often offset by several kilometers and at least a major terrain feature away from their intended target. The targets were often key points of overwatch for particular underground facilities suspected of housing long-range artillery, or points of domination that could cover major avenues of approach. Timely execution of these air assaults forced the enemy to divert resources and attention from the advance of our armored formations along heavily defended avenues of approach and thereby dislocated the main enemy defenses. In the cases where we were successful, the division forced the enemy to react to our operations and enter the fight on our terms. More importantly, we were able to achieve tempo not just through the sustained geographical advance of the forward line of troops, but by persistently presenting complementary dilemmas to the enemy in unexpected ways. These actions diminished the enemy’s decision space and disrupted the enemy’s understanding of its own plan. Using John Boyd’s “O-O-D-A Loop” (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), the division sought to continuously present multiple dilemmas to ensure the enemy became stuck in the “O-O.”* By the time the enemy observed and oriented on one dilemma, the division sought to present another, thereby causing the enemy to not render a decision on the initial dilemma.

From Football to Rugby

Sustaining both momentum and tempo against a capable enemy required the division to reframe how we achieved synchronization during sustained and dynamic combat operations. Too often our decision-making process in combat operations mirrors the activity of a football team on the gridiron. In the midst of a long offensive drive, we seek to impose periods of planning (i.e., the huddle), an approach march, a decisive operation where synchronization is optimized, and a culminating point that leads into a period of disengagement and another planning session. This “battle period” model, thankfully obsolete at our brigade training centers with the advent of open phasing, is equally inappropriate in a Warfighter exercise. Instead, we needed to think like a rugby team, where synchronization occurred rapidly and unexpectedly with fleeting moments of opportunity quickly identified and exploited by individual players who then become the supported effort as the team synchronizes around them. This required a different and more dynamic approach with near-term (<24 hours) tactical planning, far-term (>24 hours) planning, and targeting cycles all occurring constantly as conditions changed on the ground.

Simultaneity and Momentum

Conducted simultaneously, the penetrations, turning movements, and tactical deceptions enabled the division to achieve a degree of irreversible momentum against the enemy. The armor penetrations kept the enemy’s sensors engaged. The turning movements avoided the enemy’s principle defensive positions and seized objectives behind the enemy’s current positions causing the enemy to both dislocate from its positions and to divert forces to meet the threat. The tactical deceptions, in particular feints, kept the enemy fixed on sizable threats, which influenced the enemy’s decision to prematurely unmask forces in sanctuary inside its underground facilities. Additionally, the combat aviation brigade was employed as an independent maneuver organization focused on destroying enemy high-payoff targets—in particular long-range artillery. Synchronizing all of these actions in time, space, and purpose became a tremendously complex task and the primary focus for the division main command post. We managed this effort with a centralized division synchronization matrix that was incredibly detailed, included all subordinate, adjacent, and functional unit actions, remained prominently posted on our current operations floor, and printed in placemat form at every major battle-rhythm event, especially the targeting working group and the target decision board. The synchronization matrix allowed us to forecast 12–72 hours out and visualize the timing of the dilemmas that would be presented to the enemy as we fought through the typical frictions of a large and complex operation.

Targeting and the Plan

The division ensured that the targeting process was nested within the plan and that the plan was flexible enough to adapt with the targeting process. From the beginning, targeting was aligned with the commander’s intent—to “cause the rapid erosion of the enemy’s defenses and will to fight.” The division’s targeting imposed the commander’s will, in the form of physical, temporal, and cognitive effects, on the enemy. The division simultaneously employed multiple defeat mechanisms to accomplish its mission, while at the same time removing the ability for the enemy to present dilemmas to the division. The targeting process integrated all warfighting functions, but specifically integrated the enemy plan, the maneuver plan, tactical deceptions, lethal effects, and non lethal effects to exhaust the enemy’s ability to make sound and timely decisions. Targeting was assessment-driven, and therefore required specificity in information collection and analysis to evaluate the effects. In the deep fight, this process disintegrated the enemy—disrupting and degrading the enemy’s ability to conduct operations while leading to the collapse of enemy capabilities and will to fight. In the close fight, this process prevented the enemy from massing combat power on the BCTs.

What We Got Wrong

While this article emphasizes where the division succeeded in an effort to share our best practices, there was also plenty that we got wrong. Most importantly, we failed to fully appreciate the critical importance of all forms of short-range air defense in the division. We invested a lot of effort into apportioning and assigning tactical tasks by phase to our Avenger teams but failed to provide the same rigor and detail in the employment of man-portable Stinger teams. The enemy clearly targeted our Avengers early on and then exploited early success with attack avation. After a few days, we were able to generate additional Stinger teams after being resupplied by the Corps, which enabled us to regenerate a coherent air-missile defense coverage. Additionally, we failed to anticipate the approval times required for specific cyber effects and therefore often found ourselves missing the critical window to employ those effects at the right time. Finally, we struggled at times to get our guns forward in the order of march on congested mountain roads and learned that tempo was best defined not by the forward advance of our tanks but by how far forward our artillery could reach to continue to target the enemy deep.

Our experience in this Warfighter exercise confirmed practically the conceptually central idea of multi-domain operations—that competitive advantage emerges from the skillful integration of complementary capabilities, sequenced in time, space, and purpose to create multiple dilemmas for an adversary. When we achieved this effect, we found success. When we failed, the very capable enemy we faced quickly overwhelmed and defeated our exposed forces. Presenting multiple dilemmas required the divison staff to redefine its understanding of prudent risk and to develop a natural bias toward action rather than inaction. Once in the “wood chipper,” the most dangerous and risky course of action was the failure to act. This required a very clear intent from the commander and a staff that could coordinate, integrate, and anticipate actions in time, space, and purpose, with higher, adjacent, and subordinate unit headquarters. Simultaneity across all domains and irreversible momentum can only be achieved through a well-trained and experienced team of teams. “Presenting multiple dilemmas to the enemy” is more than a pithy catchphrase. Achieiving it requires clear intent, a culture of empowerment, a capable staff, and a level of risk tolerance that many of us may be uncomfortable with. But, when properly and artfully executed it can yield a signficant competitive advantage on the modern battlefield that ultimately saves lives and produces decisive results.


* Thanks to AMSP Class 2018, Seminar (Coterie) 6 for inspiring this idea through an informed discussion and analysis of theory, history and doctrine.


Col. Curt Taylor is the Commander of the 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade. When this article was written, he was the Chief of Staff of the 1st Infantry Division. Col. Taylor holds a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy and two master’s degrees from the Command and General Staff College in military art and science and in strategic studies.

Maj. Larry Kay is an Infantry Officer in the United States Army and is currently assigned as the Operations Officer for 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment (Vanguards), 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. Maj. Kay is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Studies.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: 1st Infantry Division