Outlining the Multi-Domain Operating Concept

By Jonathan Bott

Hew Strachan wrote that “getting the questions right is the first step to finding the correct answers.” In considering the challenges of his time, Field Marshall von Moltke similarly asked, “What is the great conundrum of our era?” The poignant question for the American and partner militaries in the modern era is how to succeed in a contested, degraded, anti-access environment against capable adversaries who challenge traditional American strengths.

The US military can no longer assume that the Air Force will gain air superiority the Navy maritime superiority, the Army land superiority, or that space and cyber will remain uncontested. Traditional battlespace conceptualization must shift since lack of access to one domain affects all domains. Whether specific doctrine states it or not, contested battlespace now includes land, sea, air, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum, to include cyberspace. Competitors operate in, through, and between these mediums. Examples include Russian cyber intrusions, China’s anti-satellite testing, and Daesh’s social media recruitment. China’s assessments of conflicts note that campaigns will be conducted in all domains simultaneously and an emphasis on the electromagnetic spectrum drives a comprehensive approach. This stresses that the electromagnetic spectrum is an increasingly vital dimension equally as important as traditional domains.

According to doctrine, the electromagnetic spectrum is a physics-based maneuver space essential for control during all military operations. It is crucial for communication, command and control, modern equipment operations, surveillance, and a bevy of common joint functions. The military has invested billions of dollars in war-fighting capabilities that rely on the spectrum. It requires prioritization and deconfliction between units, which obliges joint force staffs to understand access and maneuver of spectrum-dependent systems. The spectrum is like a class of supply. It transcends all physical and international boundaries with the potential for unintentional collateral effects necessitating extensive multinational coordination. Jeff Reilly further notes that it “mandates an innovative level of operational planning that facilitates prioritized allocation of bandwidth, efficient data exchange, flexible security requirements, and the organizational processes necessary to support the operation.”

The electromagnetic spectrum is vital to space operations, another future contested operating environment. Increasingly reliant on space-based capabilities, the military utilizes space for communications, precision weapons; and enhanced intelligence. Competitors recognize space as a US force multiplier and as a vulnerability. Options to interfere with these capabilities include striking land-based controls, jamming links, and using directed energy to blind satellites. Russia demonstrated a more direct approach when it designed a satellite to maneuver to and destroy another satellite. China similarly tested equipment that kidnaps and moves other satellites. As competitors test options in this expanded battlespace, the US must leverage its strengths to maintain relative advantage.

Increasingly powerful and inexpensive technology is decreasing America’s relative technological advantage while making the security context more complex. Both state and non-state actors are acquiring capabilities to challenge American strengths across all domains. Proliferation of technology drives interconnectivity and access between domains, increasing battlespace complexity. This challenges traditional perspectives of multi-domain interdependence that much of the way we fight is based on. This creates the requirement to think across domains at increasingly lower levels to generate tempo and seize fleeting opportunities.

In Anti-Access Warfare, Sam Tangredi found the problem behind the current joint ideology is “that it drives planning to the lowest common denominator of strategy.” Although joint interoperability has continuously improved since the signing of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, the mindset of equal contributions of all Services must change. Conceptually, contemporary joint warfare is still essentially coordinating action between Services. For success in future fights, the military needs multi-domain operations to integrate effects across and through domains regardless of Service.

Not a New Concept

Multi-domain operations have existed throughout history. In 1178 B.C., Ramses III of Egypt faced a serious threat from the Sea Peoples and their capable naval forces. Instead of the traditional naval battle, executed by his predecessors, Ramses III combated the Sea Peoples’ naval strength with the power of his archers and achieved envelopment in multiple domains, permanently annihilating this threat. Hiding the majority of his fleet, Ramses III baited the Sea Peoples’ invasion force to enter the Nile Delta by presenting only a weak naval defense. He secretly positioned his archers along the shoreline. As the invasion force entered the Nile, the Egyptian fleet denied the Sea People retreat to the Mediterranean Sea. This was limited to the weapons at their disposal however, as naval warfare of the age consisted mostly of ramming or hand-to-hand combat between ships. The Egyptian fleet drew the enemy boats toward the shore and the archers on both sides of the Nile sent flaming arrows to ignite them. Using the archers to kill most of the crew, the Egyptian fleet completed the rout by overturning the Sea Peoples’ ships. As a multi-domain example, the Egyptian fleet created targeting opportunities for the archers and reciprocally the archer’s actions prevented the Egyptian fleet from needing to defeat the Sea Peoples’ naval strength directly.

Clausewitz observed that battles from antiquity lack the detail required for examining conditions in modern warfare. However, the critical factor in the preceding vignette is that warfare has always contained multi-domain elements. When used in a coordinated, mutually beneficial manner, multi-domain operations can decisively defeat an enemy’s clear strength. This short example also shows the importance of creating opportunity in one domain through actions in another: a consistent objective of multi-domain operations.

New Thinking

Thinking widely and broadly about possibilities develops what Clausewitz called “presence of mind” to deal with the unexpected, which is more important than specific solutions. In turn, this enables effective exploitation of emergent opportunities, especially in unpredictable conflict situations. In considering the importance of creative theorizing, James Rosenau concluded that, “To think theoretically one must be tolerant of ambiguity, concerned about probabilities, and distrustful of absolutes.” The central idea of acting in and through one domain to achieve effects in another, supports a vast increase in options and an upsurge in flexibility to achieve objectives.

Linking Service actions on the tactical level requires a mentality shift at the enterprise level. America’s contemporary enemies implement strategies to neutralize US superiority based on their study of American warfare over the last 30 years. The hallmarks have been superiority through numbers, technology, and tempo. The foundation of the American warfare must pivot to flexibility; creating options, enabling freedom of action, increasing synchronization, and placing the enemy on the horns of a dilemma. Defending against a particular strength is possible with appropriate strategy and resources; defending against a flexible enemy with numerous options becomes cost-prohibitive, even if one could identify each possible method of attack.

Studies about future warfare are speculative and short-lived by nature. Since future war cannot be determined with extreme certainty, associated theories must speculate based on trends and context. As Colin Gray described, “Future warfare poses a severe challenge to the scholar. It cannot be researched, documented, illustrated with exciting maps, [nor] have its mysteries revealed conclusively.” Since war seems intractably linked to the human condition, fresh conflicts will provide new information on the trends of war thus necessitating an iterative approach to the study of future warfare and associated theories. Gray, borrowing from Clausewitz, concludes that war has an unchanging nature, but a highly variable character. These changes necessitate a continually evolving approach to achieving victory: the revision of doctrine, improvement of technology, and avoiding stasis because of past successes. As the maxim states, past performance does not indicate future success. Smart adversaries always challenge areas of known strength by asymmetrically exploiting perceived weaknesses, as exemplified by contemporary anti-access, area-denial strategies.

The roles and interaction of domain specific forces have evolved over time. Historically, military services focused on defeating enemies operating in their domain. For instance, Helmuth von Moltke designed the Prussian Army of 1870 to defeat the French Army, not the French Navy. Compare this to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 that mandated more inter-service integration. Current Air Force doctrine states that, “the Air Force employs airpower to achieve the joint force commander’s objectives and to complement the other components of the joint force.”

A step beyond complementary action occurs when the priority becomes finding how to provide action from one domain for effects in or through others. The mentality behind multi-domain operations sets the conceptual bar higher. Leaders and planners must place more attention on acting on or through other domains to achieve specified freedom of action rather than solely domination of one’s own domain. The multi-domain approach contains numerous asymmetric possibilities for gaining and maintaining future advantage.


Waiting for a crisis to spurn change is unacceptable and a lengthy process that may not achieve the required change independently. Whether the multi-domain operating concept constitutes a paradigm shift or, more likely, an evolution of military affairs, it solves the recognized necessity of continued progression. Historian David Chandler cautioned, “Military doctrine must be a growing science, ceaselessly developing and improving, for once it degenerates into mere dogma…disaster invariably looms close ahead.

Jonathan “Vapor” Bott is a Weapons System Officer with over 1900 hours in the F-15E and 566 combat hours during five deployments. He is a recent graduate of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies.

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


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