Multi-Domain Battle: AirLand Battle, Once More, with Feeling

June 20, 2017

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

There is a buzz in the air. Scholars, service members, bloggers, and journalists are all writing about a new U.S. Army and Marine Corps concept for future warfare.

Yet to some, this concept might sound familiar, closely resembling things that came before. In the absence of any substantial formal document (save for a white paper), there is much confusion, and the term slowly but surely is becoming a catch-all phrase, pasted with varying degrees of relevance across articles, news stories, and PowerPoint slides.

So, what is this Multi-Domain Battle that everyone seems to be talking about? Is it a brave new concept that will carry the day and the Army to a revolution in military affairs? Or is it just AirLand Battle with a dose of cyber?

I thought I’d try to summarize, for the baffled, short-on-time reader, the essence of this idea as it stands today. Given the amount of relevant material available online, this effort will, by no means, be a comprehensive coverage of the current debate. It will, however, try to serve as a basis for more concrete discussions in future articles about alternative warfighting concepts and relevant force structures. First, I turn to the official documents regarding this new concept. Then, I tackle several themes that emerge from the unofficial writing trying to describe Multi-Domain Battle.

Multi-Domain Battle: The Authorized History

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have not yet published an official concept paper regarding Multi-Domain Battle (such a document should be finalized sometime in the next fiscal year). However, this does not prevent them from doing things like testing it in wargames. The Army has put up several webpages, both on the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) website and on the Army University Press website dedicated to the issue. From these, and from the official white paper that was published, we can learn the following:

First and foremost, the new concept is specifically targeted to answer the challenge of peer competitor adversary and high intensity conflict.

Second, it’s a concept for the employment of ground forces. According to the concept, this future, “multi-domain” ground force should be able to “project combat power from land into other domains to enable Joint Force freedom of action, as well as seize positions of relative advantage and control key terrain to consolidate gains.” Thus, despite some lip service to the joint force, it is not joint in nature, but very service specific: It is primarily about land forces and their operations.

Third, it closely follows the logic of AirLand battle in that it calls upon the force to “integrate and synchronize joint, inter-organizational, and multinational capabilities to create temporary windows of superiority across multiple domains and throughout the depth of the battlefield to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative and achieve military objectives” [emphasis added].

All in all, Multi-Domain Battle seems similar to what the Army is already doing (or at least, used to do back when Jedi were men, successful superhero movies were from DC Comics, and the war to end all wars was one strategic corporal away). The Army doesn’t shy away from this similarity and admits “Multi-Domain Battle is not unprecedented, rather it is about using capabilities in more innovative ways to overcome new challenges.”

Even if we put aside the operating concept and concentrate on the multi-domain force, we must contend that there is no such thing as a single domain force. Any capable force, operating on any domain (including the U.S. Army in the past and present) can project power (if only for self-defense) to other domains. U.S. ground forces neglected many such capabilities and became almost wholly dependent on the Air Force, even for land effects, strictly due to the post-Soviet hubris.

In light of this similarity, one might ask what is all the fuss about? If all the Army did was add some post-9/11 lingo (also known as the JIM for “oint,” “inter-organizational,” and  “multinational”) to a 1980s material, why sell the old wine in new bottles (unless of course, the entire purpose is to sell, or to buy)?

Blogosphere, to the rescue(?)

If the official materials offer little explanation to the innovation of Multi-Domain Battle, one must look for it outside these channels (as the Army itself is doing, when it’s putting the concept forth for wide debate). Luckily, there is a preponderance of articles about the subject and one can chart several themes that appear in them.

First is the theme of the ground forces as a net “consumer” of the joint force, as opposed to a net “supplier” (which is everyone else). According to this theme, which also appears in the Army’s documents, the ground forces are limited in their current abilities and are in constant need of support from the other services. Ostensibly, Multi-Domain Battle will give the ground forces the ability to influence other domains, thus allowing them to both support the other services and even operate independently of them. This betrays a technological focus on what ground forces currently lack and therefore need to affect other domains. Appearing on the shopping lists are the “usual suspects:” long range missiles of various flavors (surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, anti-ship, etc.), unmanned vehicles (both aerial and ground), electronic warfare systems, and cyber capabilities. Also mentioned are more obscure technologies (sometimes called “third offset technologies”) such as artificial intelligence and man-machine teaming. However, the idea of the Army fielding a large scale, fixed wing combat aviation capability seems to be beyond the pale in the current debate.

Another theme celebrates the persistence of U.S. ground forces. While aircraft come and go and ships transit the high seas, the ground forces are the ones who stay for the duration — on land — in order to close with and kill the enemy and hold ground. This gives them two important features: First, it is the ground forces who can seize and hold objectives (be they small facilities or whole states) for long time. Second, since the enemy holds his facilities and forces on land, effects created by the ground forces can serve to influence other domains. For instance, if a battalion destroys an anti-aircraft missile battery, it supports freedom of action for U.S. aircraft. As opposed to the previous theme, which was technologically oriented, this theme is more planning oriented. As a result, it is not (only) a matter of having multi-domain assets, but of the ground forces’ commander appreciating multi-domain issues. This appreciation should span planning the ground maneuver to affect these issues as well as knowing how to use capabilities from other domains, both in planning and “on the fly.” This approach, among other things, tries to push jointness to the tactical level — as low as the platoon.

A subset of this theme dwells particularly on the issue of command and control. Accordingly, current employment of the multi-domain capabilities and effects does not go lower than the “operational level” (usually joint force headquarters) and thus it is not really integrated, but rather deconflicted or coordinated. This sub-theme claims that to truly achieve what is already envisioned by joint doctrine, the U.S. armed forces need to develop new command and control methods along with the panoply of other force generation elements such as doctrine, training, and systems.

A third theme looks at the issue from the threat’s angle. Accordingly, the future war will be one of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD), where the enemy will employ high-tech weapon systems in and against all domains (some though are focusing the challenge more on the information domain). This will prevent the Air Force and Navy from both approaching the area of operations and from operating freely in it. Thus, it will be up to the ground forces to open up the way and enable the other services to achieve even temporary superiority in their domains. These ground forces will have to be able to operate on their own as well as affect the other domains — thus implying they will require both offensive and defensive capabilities in other domains.

This theme is also tied to the concept of “distributed warfare/maneuver/operations.” According to this concept, land maneuver will be conducted by many small forces, which are dispersed throughout the area of operations, sometimes outside of mutual support ranges. Being widely dispersed, these units could be able to affect large areas while avoiding being targeted by the enemy’s reconnaissance and large volume fires. They will also be able to find the cracks in the enemy’s defenses that will allow penetration and exploitation. Such a force, being distributed, would have to be combat and logistically self-sufficient in all domains, since the other services might not have the capacity to support it. Also, it will require the ability to concentrate and disperse at will. Distributed maneuver per se is nothing new and can be traced (in modern warfare) back to World War I. The innovation here is to conduct a distributed operation on an “operational scale,” rather than on a tactical scale.

A fourth theme is that of the “temporary superiority.” As opposed to the last few wars, where the United States has enjoyed continuous superiority and counted on retaining it, Multi-Domain Battle assumes that any superiority will only be temporary and short lived. The term often used to describe this situation is “windows of superiority” and the assumption is that these windows might be abruptly shut by the enemy at any minute. That means that the Army will work the same way as before to achieve superiority, but the superiority will be different. The idea of temporary superiority might seem to be just stating the militarily obvious. This observation is somewhat reminiscent of the 1980s when the Soviets could overcome U.S. superiority both on land and in the air.  However, in today’s context, it is an important observation and might need to be restated after all these years of counter-insurgency warfare.

A fifth theme goes beyond the tactical level and straight through to the level of strategy. This concerns restoring the Army as a credible deterrent force able to respond to both the current high-end threat and to the “hybrid” threat below the threshold of American response. This theme is not military in nature, but rather touches on the level of policymaking or grand strategy. It requires some careful consideration regarding the question of how the Army’s concept of operations facilitates or even encourages its employment by national level policy makers (thus matching capability, signal, and intent to create a deterrent effect). This issue should be noted, but it is outside the scope of this article and will have to be a subject for a future one.

The myriad of “things” (ideas, concepts, programs, systems, etc.) associated with Multi-Domain Battle provide us with a sixth theme. It seems that there is no lack of horses harnessed to the multi-domain wagon. From logistics via drones, to land-based anti-ship missiles, to new flavors of command and control, to data fusion algorithms, it’s as if everything is now multi-domain. Among all these trees, the forest that is the core meaning of multi-domain (including the issue of what a domain actually is) can get somewhat lost.

If we add all these themes together, we can see the multi-domain ground force will be one capable of operating in an environment “contested” by and from other domains. It will at least be able to defend itself against threats from all domains and better use joint capabilities by integrating them at lower levels. Also, it will be able to use ground based capabilities either against enemy forces in other domains directly and/or integrate other domains’ considerations into the ground maneuver planning scheme — thus becoming a net “joint force contributor” rather than consumer. Finally, it will do all that under the familiar AirLand battle concept — attacking simultaneously throughout the battlespace (however defined), seizing and retaining initiative and superiority (for a limited duration), thereby enabling further joint force operations.

All this sounds very familiar. One might argue that the only “fresh” parts of the Multi-Domain Battle concept are the ideas of operationally scaled, distributed maneuver and temporary superiority — and both are less about multi-domain than about fighting a high intensity war against a peer competitor. The rest of the themes can be summed up as properly doing what the U.S. armed forces were already trying to do: Synchronize efforts across several domains; overwhelm the enemy’s decision-making process and forces; and seize and retain the initiative until the enemy collapses and victory achieved. Thus far, this has been referred to as jointness.


There is a feeling of dissatisfaction among American ground forces. The feeling is that current and future adversaries have learned the American “schtick” and spent many years (and rubles or yuan) preparing for it. As a matter of fact, it is accompanied by a feeling of “back to the future” (complete with a threat of tactical nuclear employment): U.S. supremacy is no longer assured and the future enemy will be strong, thinking and capable. It will be trained, disciplined and equipped and it will use all elements of national power (a strategy mistakenly called “hybrid warfare”) to achieve its political objective. Put these together and the outcome is the (very probable) understanding that next time around, things might be far tougher.

But to counter such a Cold War threat, the Army and Marine Corps ground forces seem to have chosen to recycle a Cold War concept, albeit with some added bells and whistles. In a way, they chose to do it once more, with cyber. This might not be such a bad idea — as the core concept of AirLand battle might be robust enough to withstand the test of time — but it should not be falsely portrayed as “innovative.”

If there is indeed very little difference between the Multi Domain Battle and the current Army and Marine Corps “way of war”, they can simply formalize a new modernization plan, according to the AirLand battle concept, and explain it as such.

However, if the situation has substantially changed since the 80s and will demand entirely new ways of warfighting, then trying to replay the “Battle of Fulda Gap” (only in the Baltics and with somewhat newer gear and acronyms) might turn out to be disastrous. A new operating concept requires some serious soul searching — nothing, including the Army’s role, should be taken for granted. Thus, understanding what should be the future Army’s concept requires, first and foremost, an inquiry into what will be the Army’s role in the next war. However, this is a topic for another article.


Shmuel Shmuel (yes, that is a real name) is a Military Analyst at the Israeli Defense Forces’ Dado Center for Military Studies — the IDF’s think tank for higher military studies. He previously filled positions at the IDF Training and Doctrine Department/J-3 and serves as a tank crewman in the IDF’s reserves. You can follow him on twitter @Samdavaham, in the Warhall or via the Dado Center website .

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not represent those of the Dado Center, or the IDF.

Image: U.S. Army, Pvt. Nicholas Vidro

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!