Outlining the Multi-Domain Operational Concept Part III: Moving Toward Practical Application

This is the third in a series of three articles by Jonathan “Vapor” Bott on the multi-domain operational concept. Part I can be found here and Part II here.

By Jonathan Bott

Multi-domain theory improves upon the joint model by emphasizing full integration of actions in and across domains, developing problem-focused solutions, and creating more options for the commander. Current discussions on the multi-domain concept push warfighters beyond a Service-centric mindset, leading them to ask, “Who has the ability to solve this problem and which method best works here?” instead of, “How can I solve this?” In contrast, joint warfare, an American strength since the Gulf War, is limited to the deconfliction and synchronization of Service-specific capabilities. Multi-domain operations integrate “across domains without regard for which Service provides the action or capability.” They envision a greater degree of interconnected action across domains to include space and cyberspace operations. It aims for seamless application of combat power between domains with greater integration at dramatically lower echelons than joint forces currently achieve.

Similar to the Marine Corps single-battle concept, which envisions a single indivisible combat environment, the joint concept requires a shift from Service-centric approaches to a holistic view of problems. Employing a multi-domain perspective creates cross-domain synergy by leveraging a comprehensive view of adversaries and the environment across a singular multi-domain effort. As such, multi-domain theory contains the potential for problem-based—rather than Service-based—solutions, leading to increased options for warfighters and decision-makers while presenting adversaries with increasing dilemmas.

Moving Toward Practical Application

In his essay Seeking Strategy, Dr. Everett Dolman used chess as a metaphor to explain strategy. Extending his metaphor is useful for demonstrating the possibilities of multi-domain operations on tactical maneuver and operational art. He describes how “savvy chess players never seek to take the king; instead they force the king to move to a vulnerable square. Great players gain control or dominate a space next to the king, not the king’s space, and then force the king to move into it.” Multi-domain operations can dominate or temporarily control the domain adjacent to the desired end-point domain, eventually acting on vulnerabilities forced to the surface through asymmetric, cross-domain action. This concept requires a large shift in operational thinking and planning: not only how to dominate in a domain, but how to open vulnerabilities in other domains.

Reciprocal to learning how to force exposure of vulnerabilities in adjacent domains, warfighters must think about how action in outside domains may be leveraged to open vulnerabilities in one’s own primary domain. Accordingly, Services could benefit from practice against each other rather than solely with each other for integration. These sorts of exercises could expose new ways domain-specific capabilities can be leveraged to defeat a capable foe in another domain while also identifying one’s own vulnerabilities to multi-domain action. Further, exposing the advantages and limits of operating across domains should promote mutual improvement and trust. As Simon Sinek discusses, trust is not a checklist; rather, it is built with an increased sense of another organization, and understanding shared values, beliefs, and capabilities. For example, J.F.C. Fuller initially advocated a single use for armor upon its early twentieth-century development. Only after describing armor’s diverse uses rather than advocating it as a panacea, did it become more commonly accepted. Incorporating armor with infantry in small exercises was an important early first step to armor’s larger acceptance on the battlefield, just as incorporating multi-domain training events in joint exercises is a necessity now.

This is not to say that the military should scrap the current approach. Individual Services should continue developing and practicing the techniques that have made them arguably the most effective military forces in history. However, the idea of multi-domain operations requires an expansion of perspective. As Hew Strachan noted, “All war is potentially asymmetric, and an intelligent opponent should try to maximize the enemy’s vulnerability rather than play to their strength.” Further, as Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke highlighted, in selecting an option, “commanders should always keep an eye on the most effective mutual support possible between the different arms.” This idea is central to multi-domain theory and Services should begin to implement this in practice in a number of ways.


Any multi-Service exercise should include specific multi-domain objectives and operations. Asking Services to combat each other tactically shifts exercise objectives to a multi-domain mindset. In conjunction, capstone events for traditional joint exercises provide opportunities to practice multi-domain coordination and planning. The Services must also re-think and expand the use of multiple domains in traditional tactics. Examples include expanding the use of the electromagnetic spectrum in shaping operations or inserting large forces via subsurface vessels similar to the insertion of airborne units via aircraft. In Power and Influence, John Kotter noted that fostering original ideas requires diversity and interdependence. These suggestions enable emergent properties from tactical operators who can experiment and share results. Practicing across domains on the tactical level spawns the necessary innovation for improvement across operations.

Experimentation and intelligent risk-taking, especially in a training context, lead to breakthroughs in a learning organization. As Moltke wrote, “Great successes in war are not to be obtained without great danger.” In the short-term, an emphasis on multi-domain operations should reward innovative thinkers and help identify decision-makers that adapt and thrive in this new approach. Rather than waiting for doctrinal definitions of specific tactics or techniques, an immediate focus on experimental training and regular multi-domain exercises provide a canvas for innovation and improve problem-solving capabilities at multiple levels. When there is no book answer, creativity and resiliency become stand-out traits. Purposeful multi-domain experimentation in conjunction with traditional training is a low-risk, high-reward strategy. As Francis Bacon recognized, “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” In developing the multi-domain concept in practice, forcing innovation through failures in training is far more desirable than in the fog of war.


Services must also include multi-domain discussions at the onset of professional education and reinforce the concepts throughout military careers. Commissioning sources and subsequent developmental education are important for improving multi-domain use and understanding. Current education focuses primarily on the importance of the individual Service working in the domain that they control. Domain expertise is certainly critical to develop early on, but developing multi-domain capable thinkers requires broadening student aperture and including the basic philosophy of the concept.

Interagency and Industry Integration

Multi-domain operations must include interagency and increased connectivity to broader industry, particularly when it comes to cyberspace. The Roles and Missions Commission of 1995 highlighted the need for better government agency coordination in national security strategy, intelligence sharing, and “operations other than war.” Linking the whole-of-government and interagency action provides a necessary foundation for multi-domain operations. In Strategy, Lawrence Freedman wrote, “The two spheres [civilian and military] need to be in constant dialog.” Integrating through domains increases the importance of linking military strategy to political and interagency strategies. Although multi-domain operations promise to increase understanding of maneuver in other domains, the complexity of modern warfare means that understanding and interaction must stretch even beyond the battlespace.

A Broader Shared Understanding

In Start With Why, Simon Sinek discusses a golden circle with three concentric rings; why is in the center, how in the middle, and what forms the outer layer. The innermost circle is the core belief and why the organization exists. The middle circle is how the organization fulfills that core belief. The outer ring is what the organization does to fulfill that core belief. The current Service’s descriptions of why focuses primarily on dominating a particular domain. With a multi-domain mindset, the golden circle must become more about achieving unified military objectives by leveraging domain power to create integrated cross-domain effects, enabling the entire multi-Service force to dominate the adversary. This necessarily subordinates Service-centric ideology to the broader military purpose.


Moltke wrote, “In all battles and under all circumstances, one must use everything that is available.” Multi-domain theory suggests that one use any assets available to cause desired effects in other domains, potentially in ways not originally intended for that asset. The range of options for the commander opens when a desired effect in one domain does not require use of that same domain. As enemies use anti-access strategies, the American military can use alternative means to gain access and present multiple, simultaneous dilemmas to overwhelm the adversary.

Referring back to Dr. Dolman’s chess metaphor, he further imagined a situation where the rules were not fixed, where half way through a game, pawns move as queens. Similarly, multi-domain operations allow changes to the rules of the current battle. Instead of combating strength versus strength, the military must be able to continually shift the traditional rules of the game to create asymmetric advantage. Multi-domain operations force an operational artist to think creatively, “outside the circumstances of his or her current condition.” Patterns of mind developed by multi-domain operations enable master tacticians to create options and operational artists to consider things outside of established traditional criteria for victory. It has the short-term potential to link expert tacticians and master strategists while creating relative advantages over America’s potential competitors. Relative advantage will always decrease over time as enemies adjust; however, the mindset created by multi-domain operations allows continued ingenuity in combining available forces to achieve military ends through inventive new ways.

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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