Over the Horizon: The Multi-Domain Operational Strategist (MDOS)

By Dr. Jeffrey Reilly

This site establishes an intellectual forum to explore the application of multi-domain strategy in future ill-defined operational environments. The word domain has existed since at least the 15th century when English, French and Latin versions of the word described a physical territory owned or controlled by an individual, federation or confederation of individuals. This journal defines a domain as a critical sphere of influence whose control or access provides the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission.

Although the concept of multi-domain operations is currently in vogue, maneuver in multiple domains is far from new. One of the first recorded uses of multiple domains to achieve operational objectives occurred in the 12th century B.C. when a consolidation of tribes known as the Sea Peoples attempted to conquer Egypt. Prior to their attempt to invade Egypt, the Sea Peoples attacked and destroyed numerous civilizations located along the Mediterranean coastal areas of Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and Canaan. The Sea Peoples’ plan to invade Egypt involved a land assault through southern Lebanon and an attack by sea. The Pharaoh Egypt, Ramses III met and defeated the Sea Peoples’ land assault at Djahy in southern Lebanon c. 1178 B.C., however, Egypt still faced the threat of a sea invasion. In 1175 B.C., that threat emerged in the vicinity of what some historians believe was the Pelusiac branch of the Nile River. The Sea Peoples’ ships were technologically superior to the Egyptians and Ramses knew he could not defeat the Sea People’s fleet in the open sea. As a consequence, he allowed the Sea people’s fleet to enter into the Delta unopposed. After the Sea Peoples entered the constrained confines of the Nile delta, Ramses simultaneously attacked the Sea Peoples with the Egyptian fleet and archers on land. Unable to maneuver out of the trap, Ramses annihilated the Sea People’s fleet.

The dominant question is if multi-domain operations are as old as antiquities, why is this concept so relevant today? The principal reason is technology has historically driven access to domains that were previously inaccessible and as the pace of technology progresses the complexity of domain interrelationships will drastically increase. Illustrations of this correlation abound throughout history. The advent of the ship over 6,451 years ago provided access to the sea and afforded naval forces the ability to bring asymmetric effects on the land domain. More than 8,000 years later the Wright Flyer’s 12 seconds of flight on December 17, 1903 ushered in the opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities on both the land and sea. This was followed in October and November 1957, by the successful Soviet launches of Sputniks I and II which thrust the United States into a race to dominate space. Today, advances in computing power are revolutionizing our ability to harness technological access to the unforeseen power of key properties embedded in the electromagnetic spectrum.

In 1965, Gordon Moore made the observation that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. Transistors control the flow of electricity in a circuit and the miniaturization of the transistor has enabled billions of transistors to be emplaced on single, wafer thin computer chips no bigger than a fingernail. As a result, computer processing power has been doubling every eighteen months to two years and is expected to continue through the year 2025. Although the world has undergone dramatic changes in technology in the past, we are only in the nascent stages of understanding this era’s monumental impact on future military operations. The worldwide flood of powerful, inexpensive, and readily available commercial technology is mandating a much more sophisticated approach to military affairs. The exponential growth of the computing power associated with Moore’s Law has created a security environment where the pace of cyber, directed energy, nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology advancements are far beyond the normal capacity to predict their effects.  Additionally, the advent of quantum computing will compress planning, decision, and execution (PDE) cycles providing only fleeting opportunities to decisively act. It is estimated that by 2025 quantum computing power will surpass the power of the human brain and by 2045 the power of all human brains combined. As a result, historical approaches to achieving superiority in the air, land and sea domains may no longer be valid.

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Advances in technology are catapulting the entire globe into a realm of time where all previous notions of battlespace are being radically altered by the fact that access or lack of access in one domain can have cascading effects in one or more domains. The consequences of this domain interdependence has forged a complex interrelated continuum of domains that will dominate future military operations. Our joint doctrine recognizes five domains. These consist of Air, Land, Sea, Space and Cyberspace. However, an alternative way of thinking about domains is the continuum of domains. Under this construct there are six interrelated domains composed of the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS), Space, Air, Land, Sea, and Human domains.

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A linear explanation of this continuum is control or access to critical segments of the EMS allows Space to provide key enablers for the domains of Air, Land, and Sea. This ultimately provides a means of influence or control over the most important domain of all — the Human domain. Understanding the continuum of domains and its potential for asymmetric maneuver requires a fundamental knowledge of the EMS and its core properties. The reason for this is that an emerging digital ecosystem, which allows advanced technology to function, resides in and is governed by the EMS’s frequencies and wavelengths of photons. The EMS is a physics-based maneuver space essential to control the operational environment during all military operations. The spectrum represents the range of wavelengths or frequencies over which electromagnetic radiation extends. It encompasses the use of electromagnetic radiation associated with radio, microwave, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays and it exerts a dominant influence on all domains and military operations dependent on advanced technology. This includes cyber operations that are dependent on the EMS to transmit packets of 1s and 0s.

The preeminence of the EMS is recognized by both Russian and Chinese militaries. As far back as 1973, Russian Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov stated, “The next war will be won by the side that best exploits the electromagnetic spectrum.” Over the past decade, Russia has invested heavily in systems such as the Krasukha-4 which reportedly creates a dome that is impenetrable to electromagnetic waves. A number of Chinese authors echo Admiral Gorshkov’s assertion about the EMS. One of those authors is Wang Zhengde. In the book, On Informationalized Confrontation, Wang explores warfare in the electronic realm and argues “both sides in any conflict want control of the electromagnetic spec­trum.”

The emphasis on the EMS above is not intended to denigrate the dynamic power of cyber operations. Cyber is already a dominant force and in the future it will have an even more significant role. However, before that era evolves we must have a thorough understanding of how the EMS functions in conjunction with budding technological developments. We must understand a host of operational factors including cognitive electronic warfare (EW), dynamic bandwidth allocation, radio whispering, and directed energy weapons. Control of the EMS does not necessarily weight electronic warfare (EW) over cyber. It simply underscores the fact that these two critical types of operations operate within the spectrum and their effectiveness depends on control or access to the spectrum. The reality is cyber and EW must work in concert with one another or we will lose access to the use of advanced technologies in the traditional domains of Air, Land, and Sea and the multifaceted power of Space.

Since 1991, the US has become increasingly reliant on space-based capabilities to support military operations. Space assets provide the means to communicate globally, conduct the positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) necessary for precision strikes, and empower enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Additionally, Space furnishes virtually unimpeded overflight access to conduct the monitoring essential for missile launch detection, missile tracking, and early warning. Potential adversaries clearly recognize Space’s intrinsic role as a US force multiplier and they also possess an understanding of its considerable vulnerabilities.

A satellite system consists of three basic components: the satellite itself, the ground stations used to command and control them, and the communication links between the components. All of these components have varying degrees of vulnerabilities. Satellites are nearly impossible to hide. They move along predictable paths, are visible to observers over large swaths of the Earth, and it takes significant effort to appreciably change their orbit. Adversaries can employ a variety of attack options including kinetically attacking the ground stations, jamming or spoofing links, and using directed energy to dazzle or partially blind the satellite. On a more revolutionary level, future adversaries could use “parasitic microsatellites” or systems such as the Russian Kosmos 2499 or the Chinese Shiyan that could latch onto a satellite and disable it, alter its orbit, or hijack the information gathered by it. Denial of access to Space or the EMS will not stop military operations in the Air, on the Land or at Sea. It will, however, significantly degrade the capacity to leverage advanced technology in those domains.

The dramatic technological changes that are currently occurring across the globe represent an extraordinarily clear signal that we must adapt how we invest in technologies, conduct operations, and educate future military leaders to asymmetrically maneuver across a continuum of domains. Unlike ever before, joint force commanders (JFC) and their staffs must have a clear and common understanding of simultaneous operations across multiple domains. The enduring nature of warfare has not changed. However, the complexity of the operational environment is quietly being revolutionized and we can longer remain focused solely on the comfortable confines of our individual service’s operational domains. This requires a fundamental shift in how we develop strategies to influence the human domain through deterrence, compellence or suasion. As a result, this journal is dedicated to exploring the continuum of domains and their impact on future operational strategies.

Dr. Jeffrey Reilly is the director of joint education at the Air Command and Staff College. He is a retired Army officer with 26 years of active-duty service. Dr. Reilly is the author of Operational Design: Distilling Clarity from Complexity for Decisive Action.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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5 comments

  1. WRT your continuum of domains, I would suggest the relationship between the EMS and the other domains is non-linear. The EMS is ubiquitous and while it can ultimately provide a means of influence or control over the human domain, it can also directly influence or control that most important domain as we saw the Russians attempt to do (or succeed in doing) in the 2106 Presidential election.

    1. You’re absolutely right. The EMS is ubiquitous and can create asymmetric effects across the entire continuum. The linear explanation I provided was simply to highlight “a” correlation between the domains. Great comment…Thanks!

  2. Hopefully that understanding is becoming more widespread across the joint force. Up until my retirement in 2014, I was frequently frustrated by the tendency to treat cyber as a separate stovepipe, much the way we unfortunately treated the other three warfighting domains where you can delineate physical separation between them (despite the ability to create cross-domain effects).

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