Thinking about major war is back in fashion as forever wars shuffle off and near-peer conflicts become considered plausible.  Counter-insurgency is giving way to postulated high intensity wars between technologically advanced great powers.  The operational level concepts that describe in an abstract manner how military forces might be used in such battlespaces are being dusted off and revised.  

Such concepts have long lineages and have progressively evolved.  This process means that the modern operational concepts of most nations are more alike than different.  In many respects they converge around the same ideas, some first elaborated by Soviet inter-war military thinkers.  In a future major war, the two opposing sides may then work off similar foundational ideas and, even if not fully realising it, be set on waging somewhat symmetrical operations.  In this regard, Russian, Chinese and US operational concepts are interesting to discuss to throw up commonalities and differences in emphasis between their thinking, and also where one might be stumbling towards the next evolutionary step.

A Soviet heritage  

In the interwar period, Soviet strategists argued that instead of conceptualising the adversary force arrayed on the battlefield in a thin, linear fashion as in World War One’s trench warfare, it should instead be viewed as being a system.  The adversary force was much more than solely the frontline of combat soldiers and included second echelon forces, reserves, indirect fire units, transportation means, logistic support, and command and control elements.  Moreover, like any system, this force was more than the sum of its parts.  Given this, simply attacking the frontline was inadequate as new combat forces were always being moved forward into the frontline to continue fighting.  Soviet thinkers conceived the enemy as a system but crucially this was a system with considerable depth.

Soviet thinkers stressed defeating this system through shock, both physical and cognitive.   The aim was to cause system paralysis neutralising the opposing systems operational rationale so it could not perform the tasks assigned it by the strategic level.  

The way to achieve this shock was threefold.  Firstly, through placing an operational manoeuvring group into the defence’s depth that fragmented the adversary forces.  This separated the frontline from its necessary rear support and degraded force cohesion.

Secondly, simultaneity. That is attacking both the frontline and in depth simultaneously.  The intent of this was to force the adversary force elements to fight independently and thus destroy the system’s synergies, prevent the adversary force retiring in good order, stretch the adversary’s fighting resources, and interrupt the command and control system’s dynamics.

Thirdly, maintaining the momentum relative to the adversary forces and disrupt their movement and tempo. 

Modern heritage

Modern Russian strategists have built on this Soviet legacy and incorporated experiences from campaigns in Syria and the Ukraine.  However, the conceptualisation of the depth of the opposing system has shifted from being simply that of the military forces, as the interwar Soviet thinkers postulated, to encompassing the entirety of the opposing state including its society.  Accordingly, the means of deep penetration have been broadened beyond just the military forces originally envisaged into hybrid warfare, soft power, and information warfare.   The system paralysis and shock sought to achieve victory is now not just to the adversary’s military forces but also targets the state.  

This expansion of the physical dimensions has been accompanied by an expansion in time with a new stress on the initial period of war (IPW).  This begins before the start of combat operations when the soon-to-be warring states start conducting operations to create favourable conditions for when their military forces are finally committed.  The broad intent is to have pushed the adversary to the edge of defeat by the time hostilities begin by damaging its political and economic situation.   

IPW activities not just increase the ‘fog of war’ for the adversary but also aim to manipulate them psychologically and cognitively.   In recent years more emphasis has been placed on ‘reflexive control’, the systematic shaping of the adversary’s perceptions, and thus decisions, in a way that they voluntarily act in a way favourable to Russia’s strategic interests.  This is achieved by manipulating the adversary’s ‘sensory awareness of the outside world’ through disinformation, repositioning military forces, and creating time pressures so as to alter their understanding of ‘the material world.’

Overall, the Russians place much greater stress in their operational concepts on attacking an adversary’s cognition than China or the US.  This may be because their long range strike capabilities are weaker and so compensation is sought by endeavouring to use an adversary’s networks against it. 

China’s embrace

Chinese military thinkers have paid close attention to Russian military thought.  The modern People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) development has been strongly influenced by Soviet and now Russian strategic thinking, military doctrine and force structure developments.  Prominent in this is the PLA’s adoption of also viewing war from a system perspective.  The PLA considers contemporary military conflict as a ‘systems confrontation’ between ‘opposing operational systems’.  Accordingly, the PLA conceives of its war-winning entity as an operational ‘system of systems’ composed of five sub-systems: the command system, the reconnaissance intelligence system, the firepower strike system, the information confrontation system, and the support system.  The firepower strike system and the information confrontation system are often combined and referred to as the integrated operational force system.

The PLA’s theory of victory is based on using information dominance, precision strikes, and joint operations to paralyse, or ideally destroy, the critical functions of an enemy’s operational system.  These cyber, electronic, and physical attacks are aimed to disrupt information flows within the adversary system, degrade its essential elements and nodes, and upset the adversary systems operating tempo.  Once the adversary system cannot effectively function and becomes less than the sum of its parts, the enemy will then “lose the will and ability to resist.” 

The PLA has long acknowledged cognition, particularly in terms of the ‘three warfares”: public opinion, psychological impact, and legal warfare.  Moreover, there is an emerging interest in cognitive control warfare, which has some resonances with Russia’s ‘reflexive control’ construct.  However, the PLA today places more importance on systems destruction through waging target-centric warfare aimed at either physically destroying the system or disrupting it technically.  

America returns

In returning to thinking about major wars, the United States is building on its 1980’s AirLand Battle concepts that originally incorporated some Soviet ideas and which underpinned the successful 1991 Desert Storm campaign.  In this, the US has now moved past the former’s extended battlefield ideas into new notions of an expanded battlefield across the five domains of land, sea, air, cyber and space.  In warfighting throughout these multiple domains the focus is on achieving so-called convergence: “the ability to enable any shooter, with any sensor, through any headquarters with the right authorities, in near real time.”  This operational concept abandons the older linear kill chains in single domains for resilient multi-domain ones that can leverage multiple pathways to achieve the same effect.

Like the original Soviet and AirLand Battle ideas, the new American multi-domain operations concepts envisage simultaneously engaging the adversary in both close and deep areas.  Firepower, manoeuvre, and deception will be used to dislocate the enemy forces, fragmenting them physically and cognitively to allow friendly units to penetrate deep into rear areas, gain local superiority and achieve favourable force ratios.   This approach is anticipated to impose complexity on the enemy’s command and control.  But, as in the PLA’s concept, a significant focus in US thinking is on physical effects.

Russian thinking is also having an impact.  In a manner similar to the Russian IPW construct, the United States is placing renewed emphasis on the pre-war period by reconceiving it as a time of continuous competition that may flow into conflict.  The pre-war phase is envisaged to include detailed tactical and operational intelligence preparation of the battlefield, counter adversary reconnaissance activities, analysis of the operational environment and civil network, deception operations, and information warfare.  

At the strategic level, the emerging and still evolving integrated deterrence idea aims to bring convergence to the pre-war period.  Multi-domain operations involving conventional American forces are seen as being integrated with nuclear forces, cyber, non-military instruments of national power and the assets of partner nations and allies.  US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sees these diverse elements being “all woven together and networked in a way that is so credible, flexible and so formidable that it will give any adversary pause.”  Implicit in this is seeing war from a system perspective and thus able to be deterred by threats of striking deep using fires of all types, as very broadly conceived, in a manner that influences an adversary’s cognition.  There are inchoate hints here of China’s cognitive control warfare and Russia’s ‘reflexive control’.

Common ground and a possible next step

Where the three national concepts all agree is that future war is, to use Chinese terminology, a system confrontation.  The Russians and the Chinese include the wider society in envisaging the adversary system while the United States is more constrained and focused on hostile military forces. In this, Russia, China, and the US have all raised the importance of the immediate pre-war period, essentially agreeing that this is ‘the initial period of war’ not a fundamentally different period.  For all, the boundary between peace and war continues to be purposefully blurred. Gray zone is not just a Chinese forte. 

Russia, China, and the US are similarly all moving towards interchangeability warfare, a form of warfare that accentuates protection and firepower while restraining mobility.  The force does not move around the battlefield, instead letting the range and lethality of its firepower substitute for mobility.  This firepower ascendancy is essentially a late Cold War idea; Glenn Ottis wrote: “we…will fight conventional battles using firepower of all kinds from longer ranges, much of it indirect – not eyeball-to­eyeball using direct fire.  We ‘ll use long range fires as the spearhead of the attack to the extent that the ground manoeuvre forces may only need to mop up after the fires.” 

The idea has expanded so that today fires will be all-domain including virtual.  With firepower ascendancy, war becomes a “battle of signatures” where the aim is to disappear amongst the battlespace clutter.  The mantra becomes aggregate to attack, disaggregate to survive.  An obvious Achilles heel in interchangeability warfare is logistics; the use of firepower requires extensive supply and so is inherently vulnerable in high intensity wars.


In general, the three nations all stress fighting deep using multi-domain attacks including kinetic, electronic and cyber.  The deep is much more than just the battlespace of World War Two or the Cold War.  The deep is now global.  In this, the US and China are seeking to impose adverse physical and technical impacts on the opposing system whereas the Russians place much more emphasis on negatively impacting the adversary’s cognition.  

This interest in cognition hints at the next operational concept evolution.