Some New, Some Old, All Necessary: The Multi-Domain Imperative


“War is both timeless and ever changing. While the basic nature of war is constant, the means and methods we use evolve continuously.”  – Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 1

I deployed to the Middle East in 2008 as part of a large U.S. Air Force expeditionary operation. Our group and its squadrons had many challenges: bedding down and feeding hundreds of people flowing in and out of theater, sustaining combat operations for different types of aircraft, and keeping up a non-stop tempo of diverse missions in a fight against terrorists and insurgents. However, we weren’t worried about our base getting attacked with long-range missiles. We knew our radios and computer networks wouldn’t be jammed or disrupted. We had no doubt that our outfit’s huge logistics requirements would be satisfied. While the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan posed a constant danger to soldiers and marines on the ground, they presented little threat to operations in the air and space, at sea, or in cyberspace. However, those days are gone. The U.S. military faces a new reality – one with “multi-domain” challenges to our preferred way of fighting. As such, the way the U.S. military builds its force, integrates its planning, and synchronizes its operations must change, and it must change quickly.

Domain” is one of those words thrown around often in military circles. It’s worth exploring exactly what we mean here to explain changes in the character of war. A domain is “a region distinctively marked by some physical or virtual feature(s).” In modern military lingo, there are five interrelated domains: land, maritime, air, space, and cyberspace. Operations in the land domain are dominated by geographic features: roads, cities, towns, as well as significant limiting factors on the ease of travel, such as mountains or rivers. The maritime domain has different physical limitations. It is constrained by chokepoints and other geographic features, and requires the use of specialized vessels for movement and survival. It includes everything on and underneath the surface of the sea, as well as the shores and islands that touch the sea. The air domain is not as dominated by terrain features and permits faster movement and maneuver than operations on land or at sea. However, like those in the maritime domain, operations in the air require advanced, specialized vehicles. It is also more difficult to stay in the air domain, since “what goes up, must come down” for fuel and other resources at predictable intervals. The space domain — the world of orbits and satellites — is also a physical domain with a unique set of limitations and is the most technology-dependent. Satellites can remain in orbits for years and years, but operations in space are somewhat inflexible. Whatever is in orbit right now is all that can be counted on until a new space launch. Cyberspace is the only virtual domain. It consists of “pathways,” made of computers, networks, and IT infrastructure that permit the movement of data. The cyberspace domain is wholly man-made and is ever-changing. The U.S. military uses this five-domain construct to build its future force, to plan, and to conduct joint operations.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and before the rise of China, the U.S. military experienced a fairly long period of unchallenged dominance. The military services focused on excellence in their domains of warfare: the Army on land and the air above in support of operations on land; the Navy and Marine Corps on the seas, littorals, and the air above; and the Air Force in air and space. For decades, these forces have been used by the Pentagon in a specific way and in accordance with a consistent model: With the Air Force and Navy providing air superiority, maritime superiority, theater-wide awareness, and long-range communications, Army and Marine forces move into theater and freely maneuver. This model relies on combatant commanders to plan, task, and execute operations using functional components. These components,  aligned largely along domain lines with the special operations component being a notable exception, plan and execute all operations for the unified combatant commanders. For a particular task, a component is designated as the lead and is then “supported” by the other components to complete its mission. To sustain this model, the military departments develop capabilities to dominate their domains. The Army develops forces to dominate on land, naval forces dominate the maritime environment, and the Air Force focuses on control of air and space. Integration across service or component lines occurs mainly after deployment into a theater. This warfighting model has been effective at deterring and defeating conventional adversary forces. This is not to say U.S. forces have not been successfully taxed and challenged by low-end enemies, but with almost no challenge in these theaters in the air, maritime, space, and cyber domains, the U.S. military been able to effectively mass fires and maneuver and operate as a joint force the way it is designed.

The End of Assured U.S. Dominance

How long can the traditional American warfighting model endure? Perhaps not much longer. This way of organizing to fight remains useful for combat against the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. But when it comes to Russia, China, and other nation-states, the times are changing. These states are developing capabilities to counter or undermine U.S. advantages. The character of war (the distinction between war’s character and its nature was succinctly explained by Chris Mewett in these pages) is changing as a result. A good example of this change is a new generation of Russian and Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles. These advanced missiles are precise, have longer ranges, boast several forms of guidance, and can be launched from a variety of platforms. Other nations are not simply “playing catch up” and attempting to field forces similar to those of the United States. If this were the case, the U.S. military could comfortably stay ahead using the same methodology that produced its advantages in the first place. Instead, competitors are deliberately seeking and presenting asymmetrical challenges to U.S. operational access, basing, communications, and freedom of action. America’s ability to dominate domains, relied upon since the end of the Cold War, is being rapidly undermined.

These changes not only contest U.S. dominance in each domain, they present challenges that transcend these domains in a complex way. Traditionally, the best way to attack a fielded force operating in a domain is with a capability from a different domain. For example, attacks from the air domain against land forces are particularly devastating because of the mismatch in speed of maneuver, the unpredictability of the direction of attack, and the fact land vehicles like tanks have specific defensive weakness that air attacks exploit.  This has not changed. However, in the emerging “multi-domain reality,” an attack will often come from multiple domains simultaneously: jamming of radios and datalinks, persistent surveillance, and precise, long-range fires, from any or all domains. Potential adversaries have only recently achieved this level of complexity and asymmetry. For example, an American land force (like a tank battalion) can now be effectively attacked from land, sea, air, and cyberspace (and maybe soon space). And this can all happen from long range, in ways that are difficult to defend against, and all at the same time. This was not true 20 years ago.

Given these challenges, should the U.S. military simply improve integration along the lines of the traditional model or build a new multi-domain model? Any answer to this question must address two additional questions. First, can the U.S. military fully integrate space and cyberspace into its operations? Second, can the services learn to think of each other as teammates rather than adjuncts and build command and control mechanisms which make that possible? Thinkers from all services and outside the military are starting to advocate that the Department of Defense must think, plan, and operate with a multi-domain approach.

But is this really necessary? Operations in multiple domains has existed since the first attack on land from sea. Militaries have been operating in air and space for decades. Cyberspace is more pervasive than ever, but is at least 30 years old as well. It is tempting to stay the course and continue to lean on the current warfighting model. After all, U.S. forces have demonstrated their operational superiority many times in the recent past. But before we reaffirm our confidence in the traditional model, we need to consider what is actually new today: Adversaries are increasingly targeting U.S. proficiency in the information environment — the complex area wherein space, cyberspace, communications, and command and control networks intersect. U.S. forces, along with the rest of American society, are increasingly reliant on exquisite and assured communications, information technology, and infrastructure. Much of the qualitative advantage enjoyed by U.S. forces is rooted in advancements in space and cyberspace. Yet both are now contested domains in which adversaries can exploit vulnerabilities and weaken U.S. advantages.  A theoretical but realistic example is a successful cyberspace attack on U.S. naval communications networks that degrade situational awareness and cause surface combatants to resort to slower and less efficient back-up networks. In a conflict where U.S. advantages are already small, this type of disruption may be all an adversary needs to seize the initiative.

I am not arguing that the required solution to this problem is revolutionary. In fact, multi-domain operations are another form of jointness, but far more advanced and profoundly different than the kind of jointness the U.S. military has been accustomed to since the Goldwater-Nichols Act. My point is that relying on the traditional warfighting model presents vulnerabilities that capable enemies will exploit, potentially at great cost in American blood and treasure. Trusting in improvements to the fringes of the old way of doing things is the equivalent of just “trying harder.” Rather than ignoring the new reality and assuming domain dominance as some sort of American birthright, the U.S. military should engineer multi-domain thinking into what it buys, how it plans, and how it executes. The military needs more than just having and using capabilities across the five domains. It needs the ability to integrate planning and conduct operations with capabilities from all domains regardless of which service, component, or level of command they come from. This will be a tall order, for certain, but the strategic environment demands it.

The ability to understand  an enemies activities and direct actions in multiple domains with speed and agility is the key to all of this. Multi-domain operations will require truly integrated joint planning, tasking, and execution — from the theater/campaign level to the level of tactical units. This will probably prove impossible without a high degree of automation to enable U.S. forces to gather more data than ever before, make sense of it more accurately and more quickly, and direct actions and make decisions as immediately as possible. Yet automated systems come with their own vulnerabilities. So, along with advanced information technology, the U.S. military needs to instill in its commanders the ability to deal with ambiguity and incomplete information — the fog of war in the digital age — yet continue to operate in a manner consistent with the higher commander’s intent. This idea is sometimes called “mission command” or “command by negation” and is most effective when it enables well-trained and independent-minded people with powerful decision support tools. While this will be more difficult and complicated across domains, the value of pushing decision-making authority – based on the commander’s intent – to the lowest practical levels will be critical.

While the services remain tied to domain-centric force structures, the good news is the services seem to collectively understand the nature of the challenges and the requirements of the solution. Each of the services is developing operational concepts to describe its specific role in the multi-domain solution. This includes the Air Force’s Adaptive Basing concept, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept, and the Navy / Marine Corps’ Littoral Operations in Contested Environments (LOCE) concept. The Army and Marine Corps recently completed a white paper describing “multi-domain battle.” This will be followed by a multi-service concept document. In the interests of full disclosure, I am one of the Air Force folks working with the Army on this concept.

The Need for a Multi-Domain Battle Concept

In a widely read War on the Rocks article earlier this year, Air Force Col. Mike Pietrucha offered a critique that made many advocates of multi-domain battle sit up and take notice. He took the Army and Marine Corps proposals to task, reminding the Army of how dependent land forces are on the Air Force.  While his descriptions of the force of today and yesterday are undeniably accurate, they do not have to be true for the force of tomorrow. If anything, Pietrucha’s article reinforces the fact that no single service can go it alone – the notion that animates multi-domain battle.  Rather, force posture, power projection, and presence in all domains will require a yet unseen organization and operational construct that integrates all services and agencies.

The fact that the U.S. Army does not currently possess a truly multi-domain force does not invalidate the idea. If that were the case, nothing would ever advance past the concept phase. The ideas behind multi-domain battle are what matter for future force development, not a rehash of the history of operations based on a different model. These ideas must become ingrained in U.S. military culture across the services. This, however, comes at a cost: The services are understandably reluctant to trade proficiency in their core competencies for futuristic-sounding but potentially empty promises of multi-domain prowess. This is why the concept of multi-domain battle is important for the U.S. Army and the entire military. To become skilled at integration across service and functional boundaries, each service must first instill multi-domain thinking into its own force.

The Army and Marine Corps multi-domain battle white paper calls for a mobile land force that can deny freedom of action to an adversary while protecting itself from attack. Such a force requires organic firepower (including cyber teams), tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and air defense capabilities. Additionally, this force must also possess the ability to distribute tactically and withstand adversary attack. This land force would not operate alone. The contested environment demands forces from all domains to fight as a single complex, adaptive organism. Such a fully integrated multi-domain force can generate opportunities for itself while creating multiple dilemmas for an adversary.  This integrated U.S. team, made up of forces from multiple domains, can act quickly and regain the initiative over an adversary. As an example, the Army does not sit and wait for air (or maritime) superiority to be created — it is inherently involved from the beginning in achieving this objective.

The point of multi-domain battle is not to develop land forces that independently create their own access and freedom of action. This would be duplicative of what an integrated joint force offers. Multi-domain battle as a concept cannot be about any one service. It is instead about all services playing on the same team in an environment in which deconfliction, supported/supporting relationships, or basic synchronization are no longer sufficient. The future land force cannot remain a heavy force that becomes relevant only after other forces create theater-wide air and maritime superiority. It should be forward, tailorable, and able to rapidly maneuver and conduct integrated multi-domain operations. This can only be accomplished by working continuously with the other services, creating habitual relationships between tactical units, and training according to a “multi-domain, all the time” mindset. To this end, a multi-service, multi-domain battle concept is a welcome step in the right direction. It serves as a clear recognition of the changing complexion of the character of war, and the necessary moves the entire Joint Force must make to succeed in the security environments of today and tomorrow.


Bill Dries is a strategist working in the Air Staff’s concept division. He is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and command pilot with over 3000 flight hours. He has commanded at the squadron and group level, and is currently working with the U.S. Army and Marine Corps on a multi-domain battle concept.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Scott M. Ash

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