war on the rocks

Scaling the Levels of War: The Strategic Major and the Future of Multi-Domain Operations

It takes less than 24 hours after a Game of Thrones episode airs before the armchair generals emerge, eagerly dissecting the show’s latest events, including failures of strategic thinking. Yet those same military professionals often begin at the tactical level when contemplating future warfare, as is the case for the solution du jour — multi-domain operations, which began as the more tactically-focused multi-domain battle. Although this shift up the levels of war represents a step in the right direction, some commentators disagree. By contrast, we suggest the need for a more strategic approach to multi-domain operations at a moment when it seems the United States struggles to develop a strategy for global competition.

In many ways, multi-domain operations represent a more sophisticated conceptualization of joint operations, but it is also context agnostic in that it is not meant to be a response to a specific strategic challenge. In late 2011, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, asked the Military Education Coordination Council What’s after joint?” Concerned that joint warfare, the backbone of how the U.S. military fights, might no longer be enough in the face of dramatic technological change, Dempsey asked this group of military educators how the United States would fight in a future where its traditional dominance on land, sea, and in the air might no longer suffice. The answer was slow in coming, but many suggest that war will need to be fought simultaneously across traditional warfighting environments as well as space and the electromagnetic spectrum. The concept is still nascent and the services have only recently begun exploring combining their individual efforts on multi-domain operations. Yet momentum is building as the concept spreads throughout the U.S. military. It now appears that multi-domain operations will change how the U.S. military fights at the operational level of war if it can overcome several significant challenges to enable the services to cooperate more seamlessly.

A recent War on the Rocks article by Maj Gen. (ret.) Robert H. Scales — certainly no armchair general — challenges the direction in which multi-domain operations are going, arguing that they should be more tactical in focus. Scales appears to be skeptical of this concept and clearly finds the rhetoric overblown. But, far from representing a “flurry of self-congratulatory prose,” as Scales contends, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 — one of the most recent articulations of the concept — promises no easy answers. Nor does the U.S. Air Force, which has even established a new career field to tackle the “wicked-hard” problem of multi-domain operations. The tone of Army in Multi-Domain Operations in 2028 particularly represents a major departure from much of the previously unrealistic rhetoric that has characterized multi-domain operations’ supporters, noting that in a war against an opponent equipped with nuclear weapons it is an “unlikely expectation to hope for a vanquished opponent.” Scales furthermore takes Army in Multi-Domain Operations in 2028 to task for being a “slogan” rather than a doctrine. This is somewhat unfair, as from the first page it acknowledges it is attempting to take the “first step in doctrinal evolution.

The thesis of multi-domain operations presented in Scales’ article maintains that “emerging technologies have added new dimensions to the traditional combined and joint layers of warfare: artillery, infantry, armor and air power.” These developments center largely on the electromagnetic, space, cyber, and information domains.

Scales, by contrast, challenges these relationships by putting infantry and “tactical art” at the tip of the spear and everything else in a support role. This represents his true challenge to multi-domain operations, and that is where he gets it wrong. What the Army proclaims is the “central idea” of multi-domain operations is the “rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare” in the context of the challenges of “layered stand-off” posed by adversaries. Scales might be viewing future challenges through a lens honed by his participation in the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, which focuses on leveraging technology to create the best small unit maneuver forces possible. As a result, the retired artilleryman has enthroned a new “king of battle”: infantry, with the assumption being that small units of close combat infantry will have enough battlespace awareness to run the operation. Although it is unclear how infantry will penetrate through layered stand-off, the author envisions it operating – indeed orchestrating – all domains of warfare. This infantry-centric approach removes the principal of combined arms warfare that long has been essential to how the Army wages war. Furthermore, this setup would neglect the complex and extremely challenging task of synchronizing effects in other domains at the tactical and operational levels to enable the infantry’s maneuver.

Scales’ focus on tactical maneuver, also moves “[t]raditional supporting enablers such as fires, intelligence, [and] medical aid” further back on the battlefield. Indeed, these tactical units – i.e. infantry – will be required to “increasingly fend for themselves.” Their principle purpose, though, is not primarily to “win the close fight.” Rather, their main job is to “work as human sensors, decisional ‘gatekeepers,’ and facilitators responsible for translating killing power residing at a distance into killing effects on the enemy.” Because technology such as F-35s and tanks are on the verge of obsolescence, according to this argument, the infantry is left with a “fires app” from which they can rapidly acquire “precision mortars, precision grenade launchers, and immediate access to cheap, proliferated precision delivered from artillery and aircraft.”

Scales envisions these units being protected by an undefined “cone of impunity” and “surrounded by a constellation of unmanned vehicles” as they communicate with higher headquarters via applications similar to Facebook and Twitter. What is missing is an understanding of the extreme vulnerability of these units via the electromagnetic spectrum. U.S. soldiers and their unmanned vehicles will be emitting signatures that cannot be hidden; the more these troops and their unmanned aerial vehicles communicate the easier they are to target. American adversaries have demonstrated the capability to track electromagnetic signatures and exploit them with devastating effect. The military’s reliance on the electromagnetic spectrum is significant and growing, as demonstrated in some of the technologies being developed in the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, yet the military’s understanding of the accompanying risks is lagging. The only way for such a well-connected unit to arise is if the United States first gains electromagnetic superiority. The reality is the U.S. military will likely be forced to fight in a communications degraded environment. Mission command, coupled with secure communication limited to only the most essential information, will play an integral role in multi-domain operations conducted in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment.



Multi-domain operations, at the core, recognize the six domains the military operates in – the electromagnetic spectrum, space, air, land, maritime, and the human domain – and the vulnerabilities and opportunities that exist in each. They call for a holistic understanding of these domains and the synchronization of effects in two or more domains towards mission objectives. Because of advances in technology in every domain, war has become even more complex. As a result, the established paradigms of combined arms and joint warfare alone are not enough to deal with this complexity.

This is also where a strategic perspective is essential. Indeed, despite Scales’ emphasis on the tactical, he does acknowledge that good tactics cannot overcome bad strategy. And one of the most compelling elements of this concept may be the least appreciated and understood. Multi-domain operations forces planners and commanders to think higher in the levels of war because it requires the synchronization of effects far outside their component, service, and domain. The capabilities that provide multi-domain effects reside throughout the instruments of national power, within the private sector, as well as within coalition partner instruments of national power. Therefore, all future multi-domain strategies should be built with the coordination of all of the services and government agencies.

This requires a strategic perspective that is challenging to acquire. As Jeff Reilly explains, strategic design’s focus goes far beyond a region or joint operations area. The primary reason for this geographical spread is that the problem and/or solution may exist far outside the confines of a distinct region or area of operations. Strategists must be able to recognize global system linkages, understand the effective use of the national instruments of power, and evaluate actions that impact the long-term attainment and preservation of national security interests.

For example, a multi-domain operation where the objective is to disrupt an adversary’s command-and-control network could combine synchronized actions in the electromagnetic, air, land, sea, space, and human domains, which would require a host of entities to work together at a very high level. A cyber-attack on the adversary’s power grid, using access points developed months in advance, might require assets from the National Security Agency. Space assets that maneuver to be co-orbital with enemy communication satellites and disrupt their signals would need to be coordinated at the highest levels of the Department of Defense with Space Command and possibly civilian agencies. Naval underwater unmanned vehicles could be used to cut or degrade sea cables connecting the mainland with nearby islands containing early warning radars. Air Force F-35s could be used to slip through the gaps in the enemy’s radar coverage to strike elements of their integrated air defense system on the mainland, enabling fourth-generation fighters to perform strikes on command-and-control centers. Special Forces elements on the ground could sow confusion throughout the local defense by targeting the enemy’s tactical communications. Each of these actions are significant efforts on their own. The coordination required to ensure that each action occurs at the right time and delivers the desired effect would be herculean in the current decision-making structure – not to mention the authorities an operation like this would require. Such an operation would require the strategic vision to leverage capabilities across domains and throughout the government. This is why each service cannot have its own version of multi-domain; the employment of service-centric concepts to a whole-of-government problem will fail. That is how multi-domain operations answer Dempsey’s query “What’s after joint?” and that is where a tactically focused approach to how the United States will fight and win a future near-peer conflict falls short.

While the technological and logistical challenges of small unit maneuver on the future battlefield are significant, the U.S. military has a tendency to focus on the tactical as quickly as possible. This is understandable, for many senior leaders had their formative experiences at the tactical level as captains and lieutenants. They are most comfortable in the cockpit, in the battalion tactical operations center, or on the bridge of the frigate. When faced with the extremely challenging problem of fighting a near-peer conflict in an anti-access/area denial environment, solving the tactical level of war is easier than providing solutions at the operational and the strategic levels. Yet, that is where the United States must get it right. The United States has plenty of recent experience in achieving tactical and even operational success in wars that were strategic blunders. Those experiences were costly enough; a bad strategy in a near-peer fight could have catastrophic consequences, and yet recent commentators have questioned the extent to which even the National Defense Strategy constitutes a real strategy.

Tomorrow’s battlefield may look quite different to the 18-year-old with a rifle, but Scales’ vision of an extremely well-connected soldier with a host of capabilities at their fingertips and a constellation of drones ready to do their bidding cannot become reality without a complete understanding of how the warfighting domains interact and well-executed multi-domain operations. And none of it will matter if actions at the tactical and operational levels do not meet national aims at the strategic level. Let’s get strategy right first to understand fully how to fight in a multi-domain environment.



Heather Venable, PhD, is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.

Jared R. Donnelly, PhD, is an assistant professor of military and security studies in the Multi Domain Operational Strategists concentration at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed are the authors’ alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Image: U.S. Central Command photo by Sgt. Christopher Prows