Multi-Domain Strategic Thinking: What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

By Wilford L. Garvin

Multi-domain thinking seeks to address the unfortunate tendency in military decision making to focus on tangible things instead of affecting human thought. Western military thinking remains heavily influenced by enlightenment era theory, especially Carl von Clausewitz’s masterpiece On War. Though Clausewitz addresses war as “a chameleon” that defies removing it from its context to understand in its purity, there remains a vampire-like fallacy in western thought that war can be formulaically “solved.” The fallacy sings like the Sirens of the Odyssey that one need only orient lines of operation against the decisive point, one need only strike the five rings, and one need only develop the next technological offset to ensure victory in war. There will remain those who pursue their doctrinal and technological panaceas. However, the challenges of future warfare require patterns of strategic thought that force adversaries to accept defeat who do not envision war within the constraints of our rulebooks. Multi-domain strategy therefore requires patterns of thought characterized by focus on affecting human cognition, distilling clarity from complex environments, and planning and executing operations within the uncertainty of future conflict.

The concept of “multi-domain” warfare is not new. From the days primitive belligerents threw the first javelins and lashed together the first primitive rafts of reeds, they sought increased advantage in life and in warfare by exploiting multiple domains. Likewise, effective military commanders from the beginning of recorded history have sought to exploit all possible asymmetries within their operational art to present their adversaries with multiple dilemmas. Again, this is not new; however, there remains a tendency to understand this concept as simply the employment of technological advantage or tactical excellence from one arm or system over an adversary to maximize target destruction and killing. However, deterrence of and victory in war occurs not from violence alone. Rather, victory comes from the admission of defeat by adversaries; it arises from the shattering of their strategic vision and the imposition of a new understanding of reality not of their making. Thus, the multi-domain argument has emerged in a deliberate attempt to address the unfortunate tendency of some leaders and institutions to weigh decisions based on the good of the organization rather than the good of the nation. Simply put, multi-domain thinking seeks to correct the tendency to think in terms of single solutions to complex problems, to see “de-confliction” or “supported versus supporting relationships” as sufficient. Rather, it seeks to ensure military operational art “goes beyond joint” to ensure unified action.

domainscaptionFirst and foremost, multi-domain thinking focuses military strategy against the human domain by informed action within the physical domains. War is a conflict of ideas that has devolved to violence and death over words to seek resolution for irreconcilable differences. As such, military action in war seeks to alter the decision calculus of other actors within the political context between the combatants. As such, military strategy must nest within that political context. Failure to do so will not deliver nations to a future state of increased advantage; you cannot kill your way out of bad strategy. Rather how military leaders employ killing matters as within violence there lays an intent to communicate meaning. The mere act of killing or otherwise “delivering effects on targets” alone does not achieve this. Western military study tends to elevate the idea of “decisive battle” without examining what makes battles decisive. For instance, histories are rapid to praise Napoleon for his masterful victory at Austerlitz against a numerically superior force, but his destruction of the General Mack’s army at Ulm without major engagement receives less attention. Multi-domain thinking must seek cognitive dominance over adversaries by means of physical action; balancing Clausewitz with Sun Tzu’s assertion that “the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans.”

Critics may argue that there is no “human domain;” that this concept is merely a niche concept within special operations forces communities. Of course, war is a human endeavor; the subject needs no confusion with non-doctrinal musings. This represents a very common tendency in western military thought to relegate the very essence of warfare to consideration of what Clausewitz referred to as “genius.” However, many non-western adversaries do not hold quasi-religious faith in the intuitive skills of their commanders; rather, they deliberately attack the decision calculus of their opponents, seeking to exploit their intuitive tendencies. They exploit their adversary’s doctrine instead of comply with it.

Doctrine is a guideline to facilitate shared understanding; it is not static scripture to govern military thought. Though Joint Publication 1-02 defines the physical domains, it does not define the idea of “domain” itself. The concept of a “human” domain as discussed by influential military leaders such as LTG HR McMaster and GEN Perkins is a cognitive maneuver space. Just as the air, land, and maritime domains have physical traits that characterize the nature of maneuver within them, so too does the human mind. As mountains, rivers, and cities characterize the land domain, so is the human mind characterized by culture, history, biology, incentives, and emotion. Likewise, there are universal forms of maneuver across domains. A frontal attack can be envisioned easily in the land, air, and maritime domains, but can also expressed in the electromagnetic spectrum as mass jamming or a cyber denial of service attack. These universal forms of physical maneuver serve as useful analogies to cognitive maneuver within the human mind. Within the human domain, coercion is cognitively akin to a physical turning movement, reflexive control akin to an infiltration, propaganda to the frontal attack, and so forth. Maneuver is a movement to place force in a position of relative advantage. The characteristics of the forms of maneuver are comparable be they physical, virtual, or cognitive, regardless of whether or not joint doctrine defines maneuver beyond planes, ships, and tanks. The benefit of orienting multi-domain thinking around the “human” domain is that it balances faith in the assumed genius of a commander and encourages patterns of conscious thought aimed at employing the military instrument of national power not merely to coerce and kill, but to do so in a manner that employs violence for effective communication.

As such, multi-domain thinking is next characterized by envisioning systemic linkages across the domains to the human domain. Effective strategic communication focused at human cognition, often discussed as a “strategic center of gravity” oriented on the ideas of will and leadership, requires contextual understanding of operational environments. The military cannot kill its way to victory from bad strategy any more than other branches of government can spend their way to stability and peace. In a world characterized by instant global interconnectivity, operational environments are too complex to trust mere tactical instinct to govern crafting and executing effective plans. Military leaders are expected by their nations to employ operational art to achieve strategic effect by arranging tactical actions in time, space, and purpose. The logic demanded to achieve this goes beyond “ends-ways-means” framing.

abramsTo employ the military instrument effectively, leaders require a holistic understanding of their environment. Leaders must be careful not to confuse strategy with targeting. Achieving a future state of increased advantage requires employing capabilities to achieve effects that communicate a desired meaning to an adversary. Long gone are the days when warfare’s simple language only communicated “quit, or else we will kill or enslave every single one of you.” War is political, and such blunt ideas are no longer politically viable. Multi-domain thinking does not see “levels of war,” (though this doctrinal construct is useful to frame levels of responsibility.) Rather, multi-domain thinking requires seeking adequate (but not perfect) understanding of the totality of the environment from the tactical actions to the strategic vision. It is the logical extension past “combined arms” thinking, seeking to exploit all possible avenues to achieve systematic change within the operational environment. Multi-domain thinking attempts to see the environment and the commander’s operational approach as a whole made up of its parts; to see the forest and the trees as one, as best as one can within the fog and friction of war. The execution of conceptual and detailed planning simultaneously and iteratively allows commanders and leaders to better achieve and communicate this shared understanding. Multi-domain thinking seeks to create unity of effort unconstrained by organizational culture to better craft, evolve, and execute plans that might work rather than ones that will fail when faced with the complexity and uncertainty of war.

As such, a final characteristic of multi-domain thinking is embracing this uncertainty inherent within complex environments. Leaders in future conflict cannot afford to be surprised and paralyzed when an adversary exploits critical vulnerabilities and denies perfect knowledge of the environment or otherwise negates traditional advantage. Leaders who advocate for the superiority of their specific organizations, for “the next offset,” or for some exquisite technological advantage risk mistaking acquisition strategy for national and military strategy. While nations carry a moral imperative to send their sons and daughters to war with the finest training and tools possible, it is far more important to understand that military strategy requires effectively employing those tools within the context of the problem-set.

Future major combat operations will be characterized by electro-magnetic and cyber attacks degrading C4ISR capabilities. Proliferation of unmanned aircraft and precision munitions threatens to have a similar disruptive effect on the air and land domains, as did the HMS Dreadnaught and the submarine in the early 20th century maritime domain. Adversarial nations will seek to mass fires to achieve lethal effects with or without air superiority. These fires will seek to preclude massing force in theater often in conjunction with an overarching Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) national strategy. Leaders of the future cannot afford to assume that air and space based capabilities will permit theater-level decision making to occur as it has in the past. Seeking to fight an idealized war of the past, characterized by “perfect” information, uncontested “dominance” within one or more domains, and immaculate sensor-shooter pairing will likely find itself unequal to the challenge.

a-10-thunderbolt-ii_011-ts600Multi-domain thinking therefore understands the role of the mission command philosophy in operational art to balance the desire for high levels of control to reduce risk with the realities of the environment. In attempts to reduce risk, leaders must be careful not to increase their vulnerability. Centralized air tasking orders set in stone 72 hours from execution cannot be the cause of operational paralysis, and no amount of faith in technological redundancies relieves leaders of the requirement for contingency plans. A future multi-domain conflict in the Pacific by necessity would look much like the partnership of Generals MacArthur and Kenney in the Second World War and bear little resemblance to Iraq in 2003. Multi-domain thinking seeks to find ways to maneuver to positions of advantage despite adversary attempts to disrupt plan-decide-execute cycles. By presenting adversaries with multiple dilemmas across all domains rather than merely arranging force into “supported” versus “supporting” relationships, leaders may still seek to defeat the adversary’s observe-orient-decide-act loop despite their own uncertainty. Multi-domain warfare is a true team sport fought by organizations that share trust and confidence, understand the commander’s intent, and accept prudent risk governed by mission orders.

The critic of this argument will rightly observe that these discussed patterns of strategic thought are not profound or new; they are merely time proven truisms of the nature of war. They are recognizable despite technology’s impact on the conduct of warfare. Indeed, one should hope nothing discussed here fundamentally shatters any foundation of national defense. However, to address this counterargument and completely answer the question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” it is useful to consider what multi-domain thinking is not. Multi-domain thinking is not branch/service oriented. It does not ask “why does this sister service want a capability to achieve affects in a domain in which my branch claims ownership.” Multi-domain thinking does not begrudge services their unique mindsets and argue to disband them, but rather embraces the diversity of thought to better understand complex environments. Multi-domain thinking does not mistake the lessons of history to conclude that future wars will look like those of the past, dominated by superiority in a capability or a single domain around which military services need but support a “supported” service. Multi-domain thinking does not view exchange of officers in professional military education, as required by US federal law, as treason to one’s own branch of service. Multi-domain thinking seeks to achieve combined arms unity of effort to ultimate strategic affect and serve the national interest. Ultimately, multi-domain thinking at its core means assessing one’s own strengths and weaknesses and selflessly seeking to deliver what is best for the nation, not a particular service.

“Multi-domain thinking” is not new. Rather, it is a reframed way of thinking about what we are inclined to forget. Military professionals, like any human, are products of their experience and environment and are expected to perform the jobs in which they are trained in times of war. It is not unexpected that people will gravitate to the familiar, to the comfortable, and attempt to create futures characterized by “what everyone would understand if they shared my view.” The problem multi-domain thinking seeks to solve is reducing cognitive barriers that service parochialism naturally creates. Multi-domain thinking is not trying merely to get anti-ship missiles for the Army, propel cyber forces to evolve into their own branch, or otherwise re-brand strategy and combined arms warfare. Instead, it is a philosophy under which military leaders might govern operational art to achieve a future state not based on the needs of a branch of service, but rather on a future that is best for the nation. Achieving this requires distilling clarity from uncertainty in complex operational environments, nesting military strategy with national interests, and employing this strategy with the means available in a manner that resonates within the human domain of our adversaries. The military, in unity of effort with the other instruments of national power, must employ force or threat of force to convince an adversary of the inferiority of their governing logic. Multi-domain thinking therefore is not about things. Rather, it is about the quality of thought.

Major Wilford L. Garvin is a US Army armor officer with two combat deployments in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. MAJ Garvin is currently a student at the Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College’s Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program.

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. Terrific article for the Pentagon, the Joint Force and future SAMS students. Your point is well noted on branch specificity and parochialism.

  2. Great article. To the point about being a mindset versus a widget-based society of thought, simply look at the domain figure in the article. When you consider that space existed before cyber, how did we interact with the space domain? Yep, analog signals via the EM spectrum. Hopefully this will be recognized as a domain sooner rather than later.

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