Looking Beyond Your Service for Multi-Domain Success

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.

f35formationcaptionAs 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).

dempsey-mc-captionIn 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.




  1. I believe you’re absolutely right about the need to unify efforts, but I have trouble getting past the problematic use of the term “multi-domain” itself. As you correctly point out, “it inherently implies fragmented domains that have to be brought together.” (By the way, I’d argue the term “joint” really does the same thing.). Ultimately, there is only one domain — Dr. Reilly’s human domain. The others, while mostly defined by natural/physical characteristics, are really bounded by human/social constructs. As long as we keep using terms that invite and perpetuate stovepipes, we’ll never achieve the real synergy we need to find true success in war or its aim, a better peace.

    1. Stephen, I think I already mentioned this book before, but I highly recommend looking at “Airpower for Strategic Effect” by Colin Gray. The very issues you raise are addressed, at least tangentially, in his exploration of airpower theory.

  2. Stephen, I think you say it well. The main point of using instruments of power and all capabilities of the military is to influence people to do what aligns with US national interests. I think your mindset drives home the importance of focusing on the mission, and developing and using the right tools at the right time to accomplish that mission. Air Force doctrinaires feel the same way as you do: “domain” itself creates divisions that must be mended together. At this point, the “horse is out of the barn.” The term can’t be undone. The next step is to educate folks on the proper understanding and implementation of the term “multi-domain.” As you alluded to with the term “joint,” human beings seek terms to organize and frame a problem set. From that standpoint, “domain” gives language to generate discussion on how to integrate already disparate factions. Another upside to terms like “domain” or “multi-domain” is that they help organize expertise and integrate diversity of thought into the fight. Thank you for the post!

  3. Jedi, “domain” itself has a bit of baggage. I understand there is a commissioned study from DOD to quantify and codify what a tagging something a “domain” entails–this is why the electromagnetic spectrum domain speak from senior leadership paused a year or so ago (who said 1980’s service rivalry is dead?)

    Once this report comes out, I think it will lead to some valuable strides—and yet another domain. That itself spurns the question (related to another recent article): Can the DOD simply agree on how many domains of warfare there are before launching a “multi-domain” concept?

  4. Pako- great observation! Each of the five joint domains are defined in Joint Pubs (air, space, cyberspace, land, and maritime), but “domain” itself is not directly defined. That being said, one of the closest thing to a description is found in JP 3-30:
    “While domains are useful constructs for visualizing and characterizing the physical environment in which operations are conducted (the operational area), the use of the term “domain” is not meant to imply or mandate exclusivity, primacy, or C2 of any domain. Specific authorities and responsibilities within an operational area are as specified by the appropriate JFC.

    There have been lots of doctrinal discussions about the relationship between the term “domain” and the physical environment, especially with respect to cyberspace. I think the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) has less trouble being classified as a domain according the current description in JP, since EMS has definite physical properties. Doctrinally, the current verbiage does not readily lend itself to describing a human, cognitive, or information domain, even though there are excellent arguments for recognizing these areas as viable domains. The study you mentioned is intriguing, because it sounds like the perfect avenue to revamp how “domain” is characterized.

    I would be interested to hear the results of the DOD study. How the DOD decides to define or describe domain definitely impacts what it will label as a “domain.” As you alluded to, this has huge service and domain rivalry (and budgetary) implications. As for the number of domains, I don’t know that it is necessary to limit the number, per se, up front. I think the bigger issue is viewing each domain as another tool in the toolkit – the DOD must develop and utilize whatever domains available as a seamless fighting force to solve multi-domain challenges in a complex environment. (This feeds right into your article…)

  5. Jedi, you mentioned that doctrine does not readily lend itself to describing novel domains. Should not theory precede doctrine? Given theory’s role of giving “the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and of their relationships,” it would follow that if categorizing “new” domains helped the student and practitioner of strategy make sense of the changing strategic context, that doctrine should change to follow the path laid out by theory. In other words, maybe we should be less hidebound to doctrine if it only serves to further complicate an already complicated problem.

    I agree with your assessment that domain-unique specialities should always serve the greater political aim. Air, maritime, land, cyber, and space power may operate in distinct domains (or as Colin Gray states, geographies) with different grammars, but they do not possess their own logic of war and strategy. The many domain-specific powers must serve the one policy master.

    1. Hulk – you are right that theory comes before doctrine – the AF calls this sort of theory “concepts.” As I learned during a quick year-long stint at the AF Doctrine Center, the amount of conceptual material that is written into doctrine depends on the Service. The AF defines doctrine as proven best practices (i.e. not simply theory or concepts), while the Army sees doctrine as a blend of best practice and up-and-coming concepts. There are pros and cons to both views.

      Either way, it’s easy to view doctrine as limiting…as dogma. In reality, doctrine is a springboard, a framework, and a common language so we can all get on the same page (especially with respect to command and control) when fighting a war or exploring new ideas. Doctrine is not directive (whereas policy is), but rather authoritative. In some situations, it might be the 90% solution; in others, only the 60% solution. As a Marine once commented, it’s the “box we’re trying to think outside of.” Thinking outside of the box is not bad (it’s encouraged), but it’s not the starting point.

      So, in terms of domains, it would behoove joint leadership to come up with a solid definition of domain and flesh out some domain concepts while keeping doctrinaires in the loop, so the visionaries are working with the folks who possess the background knowledge (this also helps provides a sanity check on renaming current doctrinal terms after a fleeting buzzword and quells change for the sake of budgetary battles). It is important that joint leaders are strategically thinking about theory and concepts – if they decide to make a concept into a policy, then doctrine is obligated to change: AF and Army doctrine must line up with policy (as you aptly stated above).

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Thanks for the response! Perchance the following is merely semantics but theory, not doctrine, should be “a springboard, a framework, and a common language.” If doctrine is unmoored from sound thinking (read theory), one’s best practices will quite often miss the aim of policy. One merely has to look at early airpower doctrine regarding “strategic” bombing to see where such a disconnect can create issues. Of course, and I think you agree, that reality (or the results of the “best” practices) must inform doctrine and correct theory where both have proven inadequate or invalid.

        Ultimately, I agree that doctrine serves a purpose, but we must be careful not to give it pride of place without investigating its basis in theory.

        Good discussion!

  6. Jedi, I was thrilled to see your article and learn that I’m not the only one concerned about the lack of clarity or consensus regarding domains. I agree that domains aren’t going away and a common joint definition is needed. I propose that we further categorize domains into three basic categories: physical, virtual, or social. See my article published on Strategy Bridge:

    1. Erik – thanks for the post! Your article does a great job of breaking down the dangers of using the word “domain” itself. The Doctrine folks at Maxwell would agree with your assessment that if folks try to “own” a domain (as opposed to simply operating in a domain, as joint doctrine states), then you have to overcome ownership fed by the term. This gets back to the point that we both make: operations in domains must focus on mission and effects.

      I appreciate your definition of domain and think it adds a lot of value to the conversation, as well as your idea of reframing domains into three dimensions. As you describe, one doctrinally sticky topic is that domains were generally physical entities. Hopefully, your discussion of the evolution of domains will be taken into consideration as joint folks press on a toward an official definition.

      Within the dimension context, the military will still have to ensure leaders and subordinates are trained to be mission-focused, so we don’t stovepipe the dimensions, but integrate all tools toward mission accomplishment.

      Great thoughts!

  7. Jedi, great to see you are writing well. I tend to agree with Erik that less is more in this instance. Viewing the three dimensions (call them domains if we feel we must) as he offers, merges service stovepipes into the physical. This itself could potentially eliminate single service-based solutions.
    I think the bigger problem with the multi-domain concept, as you allude, is integration of capabilities currently aligned with echelons above reality, specifically, those with effects in tactical areas of operation. That Infantry commander or squadron leader probably doesn’t care from which domain effects originate, merely that they are on time and effective. And the desired effects could absolutely be non-military (Sun Tzu, reprise).
    I’m not so sure this is a doctrine vs. concepts cage fight as much as a programming issue. Bottom line: We’d all do well to contribute to the development of multi-domain thought, because right now, it’s mostly joint with cyber and space sprinkled about the edges creating some sort of multi-domain magic. The folks who figure out how to integrate non-military, cyber and space capabilities into operations (or better yet, security cooperation plans) will win the day.

  8. Doc Fischer, great to hear from you! Thanks for your thoughts. I think you say it well – if the effect is taken care of, then it doesn’t matter which domain or domains it comes from. This flows easily into your comments on space and cyber – they can’t be sprinkled in, but integrated as viable tools from the beginning of the process (and these tools will only become more important as they develop).

Leave a Reply