By Aaron Sick
In 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Act established the current joint military construct still in effect today. Due to several military failures caused by a lack of Service integration, this Act imposed new authorities and organization needed to ensure jointness of military action in the future. The change was needed to drive changes in how the Services related with one another to fight wars and how they culturally viewed one another. There is nothing inherently wrong with different cultures; they create the diversity of thought needed to excel in various operating environments and complete different missions. However, when cultures drive Services to fracture jointness, it severely degrades US defense readiness. Currently, the newest effort to create a more synergistic military centers around a term called “multi-domain.” Especially with the increasing importance of the electromagnetic spectrum, anti-access/area-denial weapons, and the use (and misuse) of information in military operations, the military recognizes the necessity of being able to respond rapidly and overwhelmingly along many lines of effort to defeat an enemy through multi-domain operations (MDO). For “multi-domain” to be an effective concept, the military and civilian government must have a common understanding of the term, its implications on operations, command and control (C2), acquisitions, and the necessity of military multi-domain operations to be tied into the whole-of-government’s strategic framework.
By definition, “multi-domain” denotes more than one domain. In the introductory article for OTH, Dr. Reilly “defines a domain as a critical sphere of influence whose control or access provides the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission.” Joint doctrine includes the cyberspace, space, air, land, and maritime domains. The ultimate purpose of operations in these domains is to influence humans beings. Accordingly, Dr. Reilly adds an additional domain to the current construct: the human domain. “Multi-domain,” by extension, means seamlessly integrating the best combination of these domains to create the desired effect(s) to achieve the Joint Force Commander’s objective(s). The bottom line intent of the term is to bring the domains together for unity of effort in mission accomplishment. However, if taken out of this mission-driven context, the term “multi-domain” can fracture jointness, because it inherently implies fragmented domains that have to be brought together. This first potential breakdown of the term occurs when Services and domains focus on the parochial importance of their domain, rather than on how they fit into the larger multi-domain force to accomplish the mission. The use of the term “multi-domain” is not going away any time soon, but the current joint force must embrace the unifying vision of the term, and not let it drive a wedge in the integration process. Future victory hinges on multi-domain success, and this success hinges on the Services to look beyond themselves.
As discussed, “multi-domain” means all domains, not simply domains that apply to one Service. This does not mean that all domains will take part in every operation (more on that in the next section), but a Service cannot claim the term “multi-domain” and define it as relating only to certain domains. Currently, all the Services and the joint community adhere to this understanding, except for the Air Force (AF). When the AF refers to “multi-domain,” they apply it only to air, space, and cyberspace. Unfortunately, this adds confusion to the term, degrades AF credibility in the joint community, and sets up its own personnel for failure in understanding how the AF fits into the multi-domain fight. This does not mean that the AF is not well-intended or moving toward more robust multi-domain thinking and capability (it is), but it must speak in the same vernacular as the rest of the joint force if it wants to have the multi-domain impact it desires.
As alluded to above, while “multi-domain” encompasses all five domains (six, including the human domain), it does not mean that all domains will be used in every operation. On the contrary, it means that commanders use whatever domain or domains are required to accomplish that particular mission. Not every domain or Service may be needed. This does not mean the unused domain or Service is not relevant in the grand scheme of warfighting, it means they have a lesser or no role in a particular conflict or portion of a conflict. The Army’s Multi-Domain Battle initiative is an excellent step forward in exploring the Army’s perspective of multi-domain operations. The Marines are also on board with Multi-Domain Battle. This makes sense, since the MAGTF is already a lethal, multi-domain fighting force. This is the type of thinking that must be developed across the joint force to propel the US into a multi-domain capable force. That being said, these ground-centric units must also recognize that the land domain will not be the primary fighting focus in some conflicts, or some phases of a conflict. A multi-domain force must be led by joint leaders who recognize the type of fight at hand and apply the appropriate domains to accomplish the objectives, even if it means leaving their own Service or domain out of the fight. This means various domains may be left out of portions or all of a fight (an air example is how the US does not currently use F-15Cs against ISIS, because the adversary does not have an air-to-air threat).
In addition, this also means that the multi-domain force commander should be able to come from any of the domains or Services. Future conflicts could require any one of the domains to be the main line of effort. For example, if the conflict is primarily a maritime fight in the Pacific, it may make sense to have an Admiral lead the charge. If the fight is primarily an air war in the Middle East, an Airman is probably the person who should be in charge.
This, however, only covers one aspect of the C2 requirements for a multi-domain fight: the current supported and supporting command structure must also be agile enough to switch roles (and switch again) as the fight evolves. Due to the pervasiveness of the electromagnetic spectrum, longer weapons ranges, and increasingly complicated political and economic connections, the same agility must also be applied across geographic regions. Geographic and global command leadership must be able to share resources across combatant commands and not allow the adversary to exploit regional seams. Moreover, a multi-domain force requires leaders who are less concerned with which domain gets the glory (and the money), and more concerned with ensuring the appropriate domains are fighting to best defeat the adversary.
Likewise, even before the fight, such leaders must be able to think outside the lens of their Service and domain to make appropriate judgments concerning acquisitions that are best for the overall force, and not wasteful through unnecessary duplicative efforts. This is critical due to ever-present resource constraints, the cost of state-of-the-art technology, and the need for that technology to maintain overmatch against high- and low-end adversaries. Minimizing duplicate programs and consolidating efforts reduces cost and increases compatibility and interoperability, key characteristics of multi-domain operations.
Finally, “multi-domain” ultimately goes beyond military action. Nations who understand that they must integrate all instruments of national power with agility, precision, and along multiple axes will influence other nations and outcomes in the world. This isn’t revolutionary. This is Sun Tzu – win the fight without fighting. China is doing this through geoeconomics in the South China Sea, the Pacific region, and on the global stage. Russia did this through hybrid warfare in Crimea. The US must adapt a multi-domain mindset to its whole-of-government use of instruments of national power to shape the world toward US interests. Only with the US engaging in a multi-axis, multi-instrument of power approach to strategy via multiple domains will it be able to maximize its effectiveness across the spectrum of competition.
As the world enters a more complex future operating environment, the US must be able to effectively execute a multi-domain mentality to achieve US interests. This includes a whole-of-government approach within the civilian government, and a continued reshaping of the military. All Services and domains must understand the meaning of the term “multi-domain,” and shape their cultures and leaders to operate with mission-mindedness, not a parochial domain-mindedness. The multi-domain force of the future must execute effectively within the context of an effective national strategy to defeat US adversaries, keep the peace, and secure US interests.
Major Aaron Sick has over 1000 flying hours in the F-16, including 400 combat hours during two tours in Iraq. He holds a BS in Aeronautical Engineering from the US Air Force Academy and a Master’s in Theology from Liberty University. He is currently enrolled in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at Air Command and Staff College, and contributes as a Senior Editor to Over The Horizon. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and son, Calvin, in Montgomery, AL.
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.