war on the rocks

A Sailor’s Take on Multi-Domain Operations

May 21, 2019

Warfighting concepts come and go. Reflecting the predominant concerns of their times, some will produce lasting reforms with historical impact, whereas others will be unceremoniously discarded as their champions retire. Still others will quietly fade into obscurity as their useful contributions are absorbed into practice, their bad ideas are forgotten, and a yet-newer concept captures the imagination. “Multi-domain operations,” a concept which has taken various forms since about 2016, could go any of the three directions.

“Multi-domain” is an evolving term utilized primarily by futurists associated with the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. Expressed in noun form, “multi-domain operations” represent those futurists’ aspirations to improve integration of military forces across the operational domains — land, maritime, air, space, and cyber — through a combination of organizational reform and emerging technology. Excited commentators have called multi-domain operations everything from a conceptual successor to joint warfare to a 21st century analogue for the Apollo program. Likewise, skeptics have labeled the concept as a “slogan” laden with unrealistic ambition and “self-congratulatory prose.”

As a naval officer studying at the Air Command and Staff College, I have had the privilege to spend ten months in an academic program focused on a multi-domain approach to operational design. While this is admittedly a soda-straw perspective from which to draw conclusions about such a broad concept, the experience has afforded me the time and access to observe and read between the lines. This is my best attempt to encapsulate multi-domain concepts for the unacquainted, particularly my peers in the Navy who may be wondering what substance lies beneath the hype. I also try to advance the discussion by emphasizing that multi-domain operations should not be seen as a set of aspirations, but as an enduring characteristic of warfare, like “friction” or the “fog of war,” whose attendant challenges will only grow as conflict becomes more complex.

Multi-Domain Operations Today

The five-domain construct — land, maritime, air, space, and cyber — is heavily debated and probably due for an update. Multi-domain operations are linked to joint operations but are conceptually distinct. For example, a coordinated ground assault involving Marine and Army infantry is joint but is not multi-domain. In contrast, anti-submarine warfare involving surface ships and naval aircraft is multi-domain, but not joint. Multi-domain operations aren’t new, as coordinated campaigns between land and sea forces have occurred since antiquity. Army air defense is inherently multi-domain. So is naval aviation.

What is (relatively) new is the recognition of space and cyberspace as domains of warfare, where they were previously treated as enablers of land, air, and sea forces. If the United States does not need a new branch of the military to fight in every domain that technology affords, then fighting in space and cyberspace must be the job of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. Difficulty with this cognitive adjustment has led to strategic discourse peppered with neologisms like “cross-domain synergy,” “multi-domain maneuver,” and “all-domain access.” Where the word “domain” appears today, it is often code for the emphasis of space and cyber concerns within traditional service structures.

Before proceeding further, it’s necessary to clarify that Army and Air Force efforts featuring the multi-domain label are only coordinated at the most superficial levels. When researching this topic, it’s important to identify which service’s point of view you’re reading. The bulk of publicity surrounding multi-domain operations has related to a concept called “multi-domain battle,” which was proposed by Army thinkers with early contributions from the Marine Corps. “Multi-domain battle” began as an information-age analogue to the 1980s-era AirLand Battle concept, which coordinated ground and air forces to offset the numerical superiority of the Soviet army in Europe. Also a product of its time, multi-domain battle imagined a ground force under threat of high-tech weapons designed to constrain its freedom of action (“layered standoff,” or “anti-access/area denial;” pick your Pentagon buzz-phrase).

In December 2018 the Army dropped the “battle” in favor of “multi-domain operations,” expanding its concept’s scope to include non-combat operations and improving alignment with Air Force efforts. The updated concept document, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, appears to have been carefully titled to avoid placing an Army trademark on the previously generic phrase “multi-domain operations” (and for the remainder of this article, I will use “multi-domain operations” in the generic sense, not referring to the Army’s proprietary concept). The Army seeks multi-service support for its vision, with a long-term goal of rolling it into a joint concept. A host of experiments and exercises have occurred under the multi-domain battle/operations label, including the Army’s participation in sinking the ex-USS Racine using HIMARS artillery during the 2018 Rim of the Pacific naval exercises.

While the Army’s approach to multi-domain operations is a broad conceptual framework in the model of AirLand Battle, the Air Force is zeroing in on the necessities of command and control, which it sees as the greatest impediment to global multi-domain operations. The Air Force desires an all-seeing, artificially intelligent multi-domain command and control system to connect its forces and to interpret data streams from all over the world. “System” in this sense entails not just the hardware, but the organization of commanders, staffs, and operators who will employ that hardware to execute decisions. The Air Force has commenced an annual exercise, the first instance of which occurred last November, to ideate organizational reforms in support of its vision. It has also created a new “13 Oscar” career path for command-and-control specialists with multi-domain expertise.

The two preeminent efforts featuring the multi-domain label are unapologetically service-specific. While a multi-domain command-and-control system may someday synchronize operating forces in every domain, its proponents’ stated objectives are firmly established in the air, space, and cyber domains. Likewise, the Army’s approach to multi-domain operations self-identifies as a concept to describe the operations of “Army forces, as an element of the Joint Force.” These limited approaches are not symptoms of service parochialism, but self-awareness, in that their architects recognize the limits to their authority and deliberately avoid prescribing roles, functions or organizations for sister services or allies. They see their efforts as necessary early steps to what should eventually become a joint, multi-agency, combined endeavor.

Multi-Domain Operations are the Problem

Despite the differences between the Army and Air Force visions, a handful of characteristics connect them. They agree upon a need to defeat highly capable, peer- or near-peer competitors across the full spectrum of operations. They are both reminiscent of the Obama-era “Third Offset Strategy,” aspiring to harness emerging technologies for military advantage and anticipating that adversaries will do the same. Motivated by these broad concerns, multi-domain enthusiasts propose to unlock latent potential in existing military capabilities through seamless integration across organizations and operational domains. They aspire to a cycle of cross-domain perception, decision-making, and action that is accelerated to the point where these functions occur almost instantly and simultaneously, a sort of operational nirvana the Army’s theorists call convergence.

Because these noble aspirations are exciting, they tend to dominate discussions of multi-domain operations, such that the concept can become indistinguishable from a vague sense of war-futurism. The danger here is that aspirations are seen as empty promises by the cynical or ill-informed, and optimistic commentary quickly devolves into misinformation. Because these aspirations are far from being achieved, it is unproductive to present them as solutions to peer military competition and doing so only triggers the defenses of skeptics. In fact, true convergence may be unachievable, but it is the approach to convergence that can produce an advantage.

Instead of a solution to peer military competition, multi-domain operations are better viewed as a set of problems describing it. This is not to impugn the value of multi-domain operations as a concept, as the most important step in any intellectual undertaking is asking the right questions. These problem sets represent the right questions, providing critical points of departure for the long journey of peer military competition.

Problems of Integration

There are many barriers to the fluid and universal interoperability that is envisioned by multi-domain proponents. At the most basic level are the technical limitations, such as incompatible battle networks on platforms that previously had no need to exchange tactical data. The problem becomes more complex when these networks handle information classified at different levels. While the solutions can be glitchy and inelegant, hardware incompatibilities like this are nothing new and are managed every day in major weapons systems. They can usually be resolved through the decision of a single program office.

Incompatibility between organizations is tougher and can require the commitment of an entire military service to solve. Bureaucratic stovepipes are an ancient problem, but they persist today, compounded by hard classification boundaries between some warfare communities. Technical language barriers have also always existed, but they reveal themselves in new ways as operators from different disciplines attempt to coordinate for the first time. Until recently, for example, there was probably not much demand for field artillery officers who understood naval maneuver. Hurdles like this are overcome through training, exercises, and experimentation, but these require time and resources from many stakeholders with competing priorities.

While joint organizations provide avenues for integration across disciplines, a mark of multi-domain thinking is wholesale dissatisfaction with the present quality of joint integration. Joint warfare always starts with deconfliction, but too often it ends there. Merely staying out of one another’s way does not prevent the unnecessary duplication of capabilities and does not produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Joint warfare commands exist to move beyond deconfliction into true cooperation and have done so with mixed success. Multi-domain initiatives aim to move beyond cooperation and into selective interdependence, pushing integration between services and warfare disciplines down from the operational level to the tactical level.

The point of tactical-level integration is to ensure that multi-domain operations continue after communications with the joint headquarters have been denied. Distributed units of various services and warfare disciplines must be prepared to reconstitute fluidly when attacked and to employ effects across domains in support of their commanders’ intent. Not only must they know what to do, but they must have to have the authority to do it. In addition to technological solutions to improve redundancy and interoperability in communications, this will require rethinking the distribution of authorities, and it isn’t as simple as just trusting lower echelons with mission orders. When combat decisions have the potential to escalate conflict between nuclear powers, the risks require close analysis.

Problems of Speed

A tenet of operations under threat of high-tech weapons, which dates back to the 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept, is the notion of “windows of superiority.” Traditional thinking among the sea and air services is that achieving tactical control of their primary domains is a necessary precursor to major operations, and conflicts against non-state actors have done little to challenge that convention. Peer competitors, in contrast, will challenge the Joint Force in every domain. Windows of superiority are not original to multi-domain operations, but multi-domain thinking builds on the concept to emphasize creating a temporary point of advantage in one domain to enable effects in others. A crude example is the use of cyber effects to temporarily blind an integrated air defense system, enabling long-range bombers to destroy the targeting radar for coastal anti-ship missiles. A window of superiority lasting a few hours in one domain can be exploited to create a semi-permanent window in another.

Windows of superiority are not about giving up on theater-wide domain control, but about presenting the full scope of military complexity before domain control is achieved. Adversaries must not be permitted to reduce any service to a single-minded campaign for domain control just by presenting a threat. Opportunities to exploit gaps in enemy defenses will afford mere seconds to interpret indications and act, though, which demands a level of agility and risk tolerance that is currently beyond the U.S. military. This is where artificial intelligence can be revolutionary; not to make decisions about the use of lethal force, but to inform the humans who do, acting as an invisible routine in an interface that transforms a torrent of raw data into situational awareness.

The greatest impediments to speed may not come from overwhelming information, but overwhelming self-inflicted complexity. Bandwidth crowding, network congestion, micromanagement, and connectivity addiction have all been concerns since satellite communications were introduced decades ago. These issues have been managed through a sort of balance under tension between those who demand more communication and those who demand less of it. Multi-domain operations will likely cause this balance to shift in response to the integration demand signal. Communication paths will multiply, inviting sluggishness and paralysis under friction if command authorities do not evolve with the technology.

Problems of Organization

The traditional structure of the geographic combatant command, designed to manage a terrestrial, geographically contained war in three domains, is increasingly inadequate for the full spectrum of operations. Years of irregular warfare have reinforced the need for a whole-of-government approach which will only become more pronounced when dealing with peer competitors. Especially relevant in multi-domain operations are the evolving authorities and resource-sharing relationships between the military and intelligence arms of government, who are still coming to terms with their responsibilities in space and cyberspace. Multi-domain actions incur multi-domain consequences that transcend boundaries in almost every sense of the word.

For example, a commander’s decision to manipulate an adversary network must consider that the attack may only work once, as operators at the target network are likely to discover and patch the vulnerability that provided access. That same vulnerability might also provide access for valuable intelligence operations, meaning that the decision to attack might come at the expense of ongoing collections of even higher value. Competing operations against a single target network may originate from separate arms of government operating under different legal authorities. Furthermore, when intelligence exploitations are discovered at target networks, they can be indistinguishable from cyber-attacks and might be mistaken as a prelude to kinetic operations.

Operations in space involve yet another ensemble of risks. Anti-satellite operations, for example, can originate from almost anywhere on earth and are likely to generate ripple effects that are equally unconstrained. For example, space systems used for navigation also support synchronization and timing for civilian power grids, and some satellites that support military communications also support international commerce. Space systems targeted for tactical ends might support nuclear indication and warning systems whose disruption could upset the strategic balance with unpredictable effects. These are precisely the kind of issues that an independent Space Force is expected to manage, while a properly realized multi-domain organization might provide an alternative that doesn’t take space away from the Air Force.

Beyond Buzzwords

While it has not yet fully penetrated the maritime sphere of discourse, “multi-domain” is approaching culmination as a Pentagon buzzword, where new ideas or programs can find the label hastily affixed to them in the hopes of keeping with fashion or capturing resources. It may soon fall out of vogue, in which case military thinkers will attack its timeless challenges under some other moniker. Arguably the most inherently multi-domain branch of the military, the Navy could partake in the labeling fad, but it should not. The Navy has its own futuristic concepts to hammer out, and although these concepts occasionally dovetail with the aspirations of sister services, adopting fashionable lexicon will not improve their outcomes. For now, the value propositions of multi-domain operations are in the associated wargames, exercises, and other forums for interservice dialogue focused on peer adversaries.

Fully realized, the Army’s concept of multi-domain operations could mature into a doctrine for joint operations, and the Air Force’s quest for multi-domain command and control could produce the nervous system of the future Joint Force. Until then, multi-domain operations are not a doctrine, a technology, or a solution to peer military competition. They are most accurately regarded as a characteristic of warfare that must be managed and navigated to prevail in modern conflict.

War with a peer competitor will involve more cross-domain complexity than has ever been seen before and will demand decisions of higher risk and speed than existing command structures can accommodate. These factors will exist independent of labels or slogans. When viewed as an aggregation of these problems, multi-domain operations offer a conceptual center of gravity to the challenge of peer military competition.


Lt. Cmdr. Will Spears is a U.S. Navy submarine officer and a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist course at the Air Command and Staff College. He has served aboard multiple attack submarines in the Western Pacific area of responsibility. 

The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the Air Command and Staff College, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, or any part of the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams