Get Out of Your Lane: The End of Discrete Domains


Speaking to the Army War College in early 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work charged the Army with developing a new operational concept to account for the changing character of war, a concept he termed “AirLand Battle 2.0.” The Army went even further with its work on what it calls multi-domain battle — a vision for future combined arms operations against advanced adversaries. Multi-domain battle (MDB) is an emerging warfighting concept initiated by the Army and Marine Corps, but coordinated across all services. It aims to account for new technologies and adversaries able to contest the United States in all domains, including in cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Yet a recent article at War on the Rocks by Air Force Col. Mike Pietrucha contends that MDB seeks to marginalize the air and sea arms of the joint force in favor of the ground forces. His argument largely comes down to one about sequencing of air and sea fights, before ground fights. Alongside that, he concludes that the Army has little role to play in cracking the anti-access nut.

There is a tendency in the Department of Defense to water down emerging concepts to ensure they are coordinated and properly vetted across the services. That way of thinking can stymie creative thought, new ideas, and more innovative ways of warfighting. It would be truly regrettable if the promising ideas coming together under the nascent multi-domain battle concept were to suffer from yet another inter-service tussle. Indeed, it would also be ironic as a real strength of MDB is the recognition shared by all the services that the future operational environment will be dramatically different than the one the American military has encountered in the various conflicts since the end of the Cold War.

This changing character of warfare will demand entirely new ways of warfighting. Deputy Secretary Work has been beating this drumbeat since he came into office. He believed the Department of Defense had grown complacent during an extended period of unrivaled military superiority. By virtue of its early and aggressive adoption of guided munitions in the second offset, the United States enjoyed a substantial advantage against potential state actors for at least the past 25 years. That comfortable tactical and operational overmatch has steadily eroded.

Near-peer competitors have studied the U.S. way of operating and invested heavily in capabilities to challenge America’s ability to both deploy forces into theater and operate once there (the so-called anti-access/area denial threat). These competitors now approach rough parity in guided munitions warfare. In such an environment, reinforcing U.S. forces will have a more difficult time fighting their way into a theater and will be targeted by dense salvoes of guided weapons once there. In addition, future operations will be conducted in highly contested cyber and electronic environments. In close combat, ground forces will face tactical systems uncomfortably close to America’s performance.

One need only look at Chinese military advances or Russian operations in Ukraine and Syria to see that America’s most advanced competitors are closing the technological edge the U.S. armed forces have long maintained. We should not be surprised that the technologies the U.S. military used to achieve dominance – such as precision guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles, and stealth — have diffused to advanced competitors

Since America’s potential adversaries have adapted, it is high time the United States does the same. The Army and Marine Corps should be commended for moving out on an operational concept that accounts for the changing character of war.

MDB calls for combined arms operations across all domains with ground forces bringing joint force capabilities to bear in both the long-range fight and close combat. With MDB, the Army is attempting to augment air and sea power, not operate independently. Yet it acknowledges that broad sea and air control may not be available in a future fight when ground forces need to push forward. As such, ground force maneuver should be able to extend the operational reach of air and sea forces. We can look to the Guadalcanal campaign in the Pacific during World War II for a historical analogy. In this campaign, ground, air, and sea forces operated in concert because no one domain possessed superiority – at least not until the later stages. We know America’s adversaries have studied the U.S. military playbook and they will expect ground forces to move to contact only after air forces fight for air superiority. If the U.S. military stays glued to the traditional operational sequencing script, its decisions will be all too predictable, which could lead to disaster.

MDB is far from a finished product. The Army and Marine Corps will need to subject MDB to rigorous wargaming and experimentation. To make it work, the ground forces will need to work through its implications for the current architectures of fire support, logistics, intelligence, and command and control. But the Army has been here before. The concepts that became AirLand Battle began to emerge in the 1970s, long before the systems and weapons to enable those concepts entered the force. The ideas coming out of the ground force’s warfighting labs as part of MDB show promise in addressing some of the most pressing operational challenges faced by the United States. They’re not exclusionary of any service. Rather, they seek to complement the direction of joint concept development.

The march of history has seen militaries transition from single arm formations to supporting arms to combined arms to jointness. MDB suggests the potential to move beyond a joint system of de-confliction to a joint system of superior integration by design — in other words, a new jointness. The issue at hand is whether the current level of integration and cross-domain capability throughout the joint force may be insufficient to meet future operational dilemmas. The current embodiment of jointness is simply the ability of one service to coordinate well with another. The next level of jointness is all services not only receiving support or enablers from another domain, but for each to have the ability to influence other domains more routinely.

A new jointness means working together dynamically in near real time at much lower levels of planning, command, and execution. While there has been progress, right now cross-domain integration occurs at higher levels. That often means three-star air operations centers or three-star joint task forces, with service liaison officers in two-star and higher headquarters. In practical terms, that means that cross-domain planning, beyond land and air, occurs at higher levels. Only occasionally in execution does some final terminal coordination occur at the point of the spear when all the cross-domain effects come to bear.

MDB conceptualizes bringing jointness down to the tactical level allowing tactical units to communicate and coordinate directly across the services, at the company level, platoon level, or below. It seeks to achieve a new level of decentralization and dynamism because that is where the battlefield environment is pushing operations and it is also the way the ground forces believe they can exploit their advantages and win. Achieving this decentralization will require new command-and-control constructs, perhaps something akin to the Navy’s battle command doctrine of “command by negation.”

If successful, it would see full-fledged cross-domain fires and effects, rather than episodes of jointness. This would enable maneuver among components and bolster America’s conventional deterrence credibility in pursuit of strategic stability in the multi-polar world.

This does not degrade the unique contributions of the services. The Army continues to provide foundational capabilities on which the Air Force relies in logistics, theater ballistic missile defense, intelligence, communications, and engineering. The Army likewise relies upon strategic airlift and sea-lift, critical capabilities that it should never take for granted. The idea that MDB suggests that the Army can do without air and maritime superiority misunderstands the whole purpose of the concept. When overmatch across domains is not possible, U.S. ground forces will maneuver to create gaps and operational corridors in an enemy’s defenses that can be exploited by follow-on air or sea forces. While MDB emphasizes the need for each service to maneuver and project power across domains, each service will retain unique capabilities essential to joint force success.

The United States should double down on its joint advantage through, between, and across all domains. Relying on one service or mastering one domain is the path to failure, because a thinking adversary will always develop a counter. The United States cannot afford to cede any domain. If an enemy thinks it can nullify U.S. superiority in the air or sea, the United States will exploit his vulnerabilities on the ground. Ideally, the defeat mechanism is both physical and psychological. The enemy should not be able to know what is going to happen next, from where, or when. The most dislocating fire is that from a sniper because you don’t know where it came from. The essence of MDB is to put the enemy on the horns of multiple dilemmas across all domains. It’s the same concept as forcing the enemy to stay in his foxhole and die by airburst artillery or get out of his foxhole and die by machine-gun fire.

Following Pietrucha’s assertion that ground forces cannot enable the anti-access fight means ceding a domain right out of the chute. That makes no sense. And, in fact, MDB envisions adversary anti-access networks not as impenetrable bubbles, but rather like blocks of Swiss cheese. Effective ground forces will use maneuver and close combat to force enemies to unmask hidden weapons and overwhelm or infiltrate dispersed formations concealed from joint targeting and fire support – to include air defense systems. Maintaining ground force overmatch requires the enemy to expose dispersed or concealed forces to defeat in close combat, destruction from joint fires if they concentrate or stay in fixed positions, or the loss of key terrain if they disperse. Simultaneously, ground force tactical electronic and cyber-attacks will negate the enemy’s command-and-control and facilitate dislocation.

Let’s take the threat to persistent air superiority: Potential adversaries duly recognized air superiority as the joint force’s ace in the hole, invested heavily in capabilities, and developed ways of operating to degrade that advantage. In a future contest against a peer or even near-peer adversary, U.S. aircraft will face lethal, sophisticated, and survivable air defense systems. In operations over the Baltic states, for example, American pilots would face multiple, overlapping, very long-range, and highly-mobile Russian surface-to-air missile systems. Taking down a dense modern integrated air-defense system could severely tax the limited inventory of America’s most exquisite stand-off precision weapons.

All of this means U.S. ground forces must prepare to operate without persistent air superiority. Recognizing this, MDB aims to develop ways to stop adversary aggression in the absence of air superiority while simultaneously using fire and maneuver to take out adversary air defense from below. In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli ground forces helped defeat Egyptian air defenses and restore freedom of action for the Israeli Air Force. In a similar vein, instead of exhausting precision munitions and potentially losing aircraft, long-range ground fires – such as the Army Tactical Missile System.

– can range and strike enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems to provide short windows of access for U.S. aircraft in a future scenario.

Taking this idea a step further, the commander of Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, suggests using Army artillery, rockets, and missiles against enemy ships — holding the maritime domain at risk from the land. The Army is moving out on developing capabilities to strike ships from land, opening the possibility that ships at sea could call for supporting fires from the ground. Ground-based long-range fires combined with advance bases supporting special operations forces and unmanned platforms could change the way the next air and sea control fight might play out.

Pietruchia says Army Army Tactical Missile System can’t hit ships without being fed the targeting data from some other component. But the whole point of MDB is to disaggregate sensors and shooters so that any sensor can potentially que any shooter from any domain even if it is geographically separated. The “Holy Grail” is that the operator doesn’t care who owns the sensor nor who takes the shot, but instead focuses on prioritization and the actual effect needed. Making sensors and shooters agnostic helps shorten the time it takes to act. That’s the stretch problem. By all means the services should be encouraged to get after it.

If potential adversaries and competitors could imitate any aspect of the American way of war, it would be the U.S. military’s ability to fight as a joint force. The United States already embraces and encourages those concepts, but it is time to double down on them and develop new ways of fighting and new operational concepts. MDB is the first step in doing just that. If successful, the United States can reach the level of true integration of joint capabilities instead of mere synchronization and de-confliction. Once there, the Department of Defense may find that it has discovered real solutions to our military’s most pressing operational challenges on the horizon.


Greg Grant works in the Office of Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and is Director of the Advanced Capability and Deterrence Panel, an effort to improve the Department’s response to emerging and long-term strategic and operational challenges posed by near-peer competitors. 

Major Paul Benfield is an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and is currently serving as Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. 

Image: U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Sara Stalvey