Multi-Domain Thinking and the Human Domain

By Tom Flounders

Discussions on the concept of multi-domain operations too often default to a traditional understanding of combined arms warfare, leading to the assumption that multi-domain is just “joint with cyber.” Joint operations are the means by which the United States military intends to integrate effects from the independent services. But Multi-Domain thinking requires an understanding of the nature of domains and how they interact with each other, while ultimately focusing on affecting participants in order to achieve a lasting outcome understood in the human domain.

War is a human endeavor—a fundamentally human clash of wills often fought among populations… Fundamentally, all war is about changing human behavior. It is both a contest of wills and a contest of intellect between two or more sides in a conflict, with each trying to alter the behavior of the other side.

Army Doctrinal Publication 3-0 Operations

Ultimately, victory is only achieved if an adversary accedes to a new reality of relative power, and this decision is affected by placing them in a position where the only acceptable decision available is defeat. This decision, made by leaders, happens in the human domain and is subject to the forces that can be brought to bear across all domains. Military forces can attempt to coerce an adversary with a simple dual domain approach – à la NATO’s efforts in Yugoslavia with air and EMS dominance – but it ultimately will fall short in the near and long terms.

In order to make permanent the temporary effects of tactical victories, it is critical to understand the relationship between tactical actions, operational art, and strategic effects. Each tactical task and outcome must be nested within the operational approach’s acceptable outcomes in order to achieve desired results and/or messages. War is not a targeting exercise and what is destroyed matters just as much as how it is destroyed to ensure the right strategic message is conveyed to an adversary. Operational objectives must nest within the desired strategic outcomes and effects. Therefore, how an operational commander arrays tactical actions across time and space matters, in order to demonstrate military superiority across as many domains as is necessary for the ultimate purpose of achieving dominance in the human domain. An excellent example of this is the criteria that informed the Japanese’ decision to surrender to the Americans in the Second World War

In the Second World War, the Japanese fought on despite an immense amount of destruction being wrecked upon the Japanese home islands. The US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in the Pacific theater had destroyed approximately 60 percent of all Japanese cities and nearly obliterated all significant concentrations of industrial capacity. Despite the accepted theories of the application of air power at this time, the Japanese continued to make preparations for the defense of the amphibious invasion of their home islands. In the Southwest Pacific, MacArthur had masterfully moved north from Australia, through several island chains, and liberated the Philippines. In the South Pacific, the United States Marine Corps had island hopped and was close enough to allow for massive numbers of USAAF bombers to attack Japan. The USAAF escalated the bombings to include incendiary bombs that killed tens of thousands of Japanese in attacks on Tokyo and other cities. Furthermore, the Soviets prepared for an attack into Manchuria against the Kwangtung Army. Yet, the Japanese continued the war.

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The destruction of Hiroshima on August 6th did not immediately trigger a surrender. However, the combination of the atomic bombs, US occupation of Okinawa with the intent to continue the offensive, and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on the 9th of August finally pushed the Japanese to the brink. Even then, the Japanese Imperial cabinet did not unanimously believe the war was lost. Japanese leadership finally made the decision to surrender when decision criteria were met on 14-15 August, 1945. External pressures and mass destruction did not independently force this decision, but a combination of these factors did. The Japanese leadership made a decision that was driven by circumstances not as simple as the seizure of a specific island in the land domain, destruction of naval assets in the maritime domain, or achieving air superiority in the air domain. Instead, a multi-domain, multi-national approach to affecting the Japanese Cabinet and Emperor’s decision criteria was necessary to end the War in the Pacific.

As demonstrated in Japan during 1945, overwhelming application of firepower and military force within domains is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Today, American military capacity continues to focus heavily on the overwhelming application of said firepower and force. Tactically, this is invaluable and is a major contributing factor to the United States military’s high performance on battlefields in the post-Korean War era. But operationally and strategically, firepower alone does not guarantee success, as an adversary must be outmaneuvered in the human domain to achieve a true victory. This is the essence of multi-domain operations.

First, as we think about multi-domain operations, we must continually assess all operations and their relative effects on the human domain. The concept of multi-domain operations and the Army and Marine Corps’ Multi-Domain Battle exist to win a military conflict; and victory can only be achieved in the human domain. Multiple dilemmas across multiple domains are the primary means to achieve dominance in the human domain and to ultimately win. Victory and defeat are all subjective concepts in current and future conflicts, and subjectivity exists only within the human domain.

Lasting strategic success is not a function of enemy units eliminated or targets destroyed. A successful strategic outcome rests, as it has since time immemorial, on winning the contest of wills.

Strategic Landpower: Winning the Clash of Wills (Odierno, Amos, and McRaven)

Second, not all domains are equal. Each domain has a specific set of governing dynamics with unique advantages and constraints in how they can be used to achieve operational impact. Space, for example, is difficult to operationalize due to orbital mechanics and physical distance. And while space does allow for much greater use of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), it cannot yet provide the same effects in other domains as can the air domain. The air domain, in turn, can affect large areas of air, land, and sea, but with largely temporary effects. The EMS links humans that reside, permanently or temporarily, in different domains or locations. As a tool that augments the human domain, it is primarily a domain concerned with the passage of information. Navies extend a nation’s reach and can control major economic arteries, but float at the periphery of an adversary’s territory. Operations on land may have the most lasting effects, but are slow to develop and execute, and are accompanied by huge costs in human capital. In the end, however, the human domain is where leaders make decisions, society gains or loses resolve, and where victory is acceded or denied. In short, it is where the will to continue the fight resides, making it where a contest of wills is ultimately decided. As such, the human domain is the decisive domain on which all multi-domain operations must focus.

Third, there is no formulaic structure of the relationships among domains when planning multi-domain operations. The only rule is to remain focused on affecting the adversary’s human domain. Which domain receives the weight of effort is dictated by the context of the situation within an overall operational approach. Throughout the operation, these relationships will change in order to exploit windows of opportunity that are either anticipated by commanders or are emergent. Similar to how main and supporting efforts may change for each phase of an operation, the supported and supporting relationships between domains will change as an operation progresses. The purposes of operations within each domain must be tailored to support the overall end state of the joint task force commander and maximize overall effects, not just achieve the tasks that most severely impact operations within their domain. Examples of these relationships include land operations supporting air and sea operations in a South China Sea conflict scenario or the air component focusing on interdiction of Iraqi forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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Fourth, domains are operationally different, particularly from a temporal perspective, often making seamless integration along short-term tactical or operational timelines a challenge. Frequently, when the effects of certain operations with domains are either unfamiliar or difficult to define, we default to an estimation of the capabilities of different assets. For example, when it comes to cyber operations, the timelines on which effects occur may not be compatible with the timeline within which a commander must achieve his mission and purpose. Each physical effect produced via a cyber operation must be preceded by an unknown amount of time and effort in order to gain, preserve, and exploit access. The following factors compound this time uncertainty: not knowing if the exact effect required can be accomplished based on the accesses available, a near-mandatory assessment of intelligence gains versus losses with the exposure of the accesses, and the relatively high levels at which cyber operations approval is held. Consequently, a commander cannot leverage cyber actions within EMS and cyber domains in the same way as land, sea, and air forces can be used. This hinders multi-domain operations. If multi-domain thinking is the understanding that commanders must use all tools at his/her disposal, then the goal is to find the appropriate combinations of actions within different domains that decisively communicate a clear meaning to all other actors involved in the conflict. Each domain brings an individual means to affect the human domain to the table and commanders must specifically utilize them to the greatest extent.

Fifth, multi-domain operations require a trans-domain understanding of key terrain. Points at which the domains directly interact and/or meaningfully connect must be deliberately planned to be seized, secured, utilized, neutralized, and/or protected, depending on the commander’s intent. These points provide multi-domain force projection capacity and therefore must be controlled and/or affected in a way that furthers the operation in support of operational and strategic objectives. While multi-domain key terrain (MDKT) is difficult to visualize in the same way as a hill or port, MDKT provides a marked advantage to a combatant over an adversary in the human domain. In traditional 19th century European warfare, the capital city was this MDKT. Once seized, the war ended soon after due in part to most of a state’s command and control capacity being located there. An excellent example is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to 1871 where the Prussians seized Paris in January of 1871 and the war was over a few short months later. However, in today’s environment, there tends to be no single, monumental MDKT that ensures strategic and/or operational victory. Instead, there must be a concerted, coordinated, collaborative effort by all commanders operating across domains to ensure the right effects are being achieved in the human domain.

Tactical and operational victories can be achieved with pure military might across domains, as objectives are normally relatively well defined at these levels. But strategically, winning is paramount. Today, as throughout history, that victory will be achieved in the mind of an adversary. Multi-domain operations are not solely Joint Operations plus cyber, but instead a new evolution to achieving lasting effects within the human domain, as has always been and continues to be necessary. The human domain is the decisive domain, and the essence of multi-domain operations is the effect commanders achieve on the human domain of the adversary.

 Tom Flounders is an armor officer in the United States Army. He is a graduate of the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Force Command and Staff College and a Senior Editor of Over the Horizon. 

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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3 thoughts on “Multi-Domain Thinking and the Human Domain

  • July 12, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Mr. Flounders, you have raised several cogent points, but I don’t think you understand how difficult it will be to achieve the outcomes you want against the main adversaries US multi-domain thoughts are clearly directed against directed against, Russia and China.

    “Ultimately, victory is only achieved if an adversary accedes to a new reality of relative power, and this decision is affected by placing them in a position where the only acceptable decision available is defeat.”

    It is in the practical application of multi-domain thinking against Russia and China that the difficulties will arise. For instance, how do we get Russian leaders to accept defeat with the aftermath of Soviet leaders accepting defeat in 1991 clearly in their minds? Those leaders then undertook free market reforms under a leader visibly friendly to the United States, Boris Yeltsin. Russians found those reforms so catastrophic that after eight years of them deaths in Russia were exceeding births by a million a year, with no end in sight. After this experience of the consequences of accepting defeat by the United States, will Russians ever tolerate a leader that capitulates to the United States, or will they support leaders who in the face of military defeats renew conventional military efforts or take their resistance into unconventional forms?

    Likewise, how do we use multi-domain concepts to defeat a Chinese leadership who watched for a decade the near-destruction of Russia in the 1990s and took it as an object lesson in the consequences of accepting defeat by the United States?

    “In order to make permanent the temporary effects of tactical victories, it is critical to understand the relationship between tactical actions, operational art, and strategic effects. Each tactical task and outcome must be nested within the operational approach’s acceptable outcomes in order to achieve desired results and/or messages.”

    Very true, but in the cases above, it is even more critical to enunciate war aims that are at least tolerable to the peoples of the country in question, and in the case of the post-Cold War world, US aims were not only not tolerable to Russians, they were hardly survivable, and there is no indication that US thinking about Russia has wrestled with this point.

    “War is not a targeting exercise and what is destroyed matters just as much as how it is destroyed to ensure the right streategic message is conveyed to the adversary.”

    Very true, and the message Russians got from the United States in the 1990s was ‘We care not how, or even whether, you live, only that your government submit to us, no matter the consequences to you.’ And that message has been reinforced by almost 15 years of US vituperation of the leader whose reversal of key ‘reforms’ led to significant improvements in how Russians live compared to the 1990s. The Chinese leadership has been watching that part of the story too. It is therefore politically irrelevant which targets in Russia or China we destroy, and how. Dominance of the ‘human domain’ in Russia and China is already out of reach, due to the Russian experience in the aftermath of her government’s leaders accepting defeat by the US.

    “Operational objectives must nest within the desired strategic outcomes and effects. Therefore how an operational commander arrays tactical actions across time and space matters, in order to demonstrate military superiority across as many domains as necessary for the ultimate purpose of achieving dominance in the human domain.”

    Russians have already had the experience of US dominance in the human domain under a compliant Russian leader in the 1990s, when the US was a key supporter of a Yeltsin government that had an 8% approval rating as it began Yeltsin’s reelection campaign in January 1996, due to the catastrophic effects of US-supported ‘reforms’. Millions of Russians did not survive the experience, but those that did remember. And the Chinese had a ringside seat to watch it all.

    I hope I have illustrated how difficult it will be for the US to achieve dominance in the ‘human domain’ in the cases of Russia and China.

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  • December 29, 2017 at 1:30 pm


    I have two main objections to the Human Domain as a concept. Also, I believe the elevation of MDB to a high strategic concept before the Army, or even the Joint Force, can demonstrate a basic operational competency is a grave error.

    First, as you rightly point out, all of war occurs in the human domain – “war is a human endeavor.” Every operational domain that we use is a subcomponent of that truth. Humans operate in the air. Humans operate in the sea. Humans operate on land. etc. Therefore, it is illogical to make a thing a subcomponent of itself. Domains are OPERATIONAL, as they relate to time, space, and force rather than strategic outcomes. If there were such things as strategic domains, then the human domain would be the only one.

    Second, every time you talk about the human domain in this article, and every time I hear anyone else in the Army talk about it, it sounds like the information domain to me. Information and perception are interlinked and critical to decision making. Notice that I did not say the Knowledge domain, as information does not have to be true. Acknowledging an Information domain, however, seems perilously close to being the same circular logic as having a human domain because they are the same. But let’s hold on to that thought.

    Concerning domains in general, I am dissatisfied with the philosophical rigor put in to their definition. What is a domain and why do we need them?

    The concept of domains does (at least) two things. They help us define the battlespace, and they help us manage the deployment of force. How might a domain be defined for these purposes? Same parameters. They define battlespace and force requirements.

    Some domains are discovered, and others are invented.

    Land, Sea, and Space are wholly discovered. Each has particular characteristics that prohibit the crossing over a physical force (in most cases, and in an operational sense). A plane can land, but cannot fight in that condition. Of course a plane can fight a land battle, or a sea battle (and create effects), but it cannot operate IN that domain. It always flies in the air. In this sense, operational crossover is limited by something and has to be managed.

    Some (one?) domain(s) are invented. There was no Cyber domain 100 years ago because we hadn’t built it yet.

    The Electromagnetic Spectrum is a hybrid. While it has always existed, we had to invent a way to sense it and operate in it.

    The Information domain was also discovered, and is as old as the land domain. Sun Tzu’s admonitions to know things and to win without fighting seem sufficient for that point.

    Besides the “physical” characteristics, domains can also be identified by the force operating in it. As I have pointed out, these are closely related. Another way to look at it, though, is to identify the kind of agent that operates in the domain on our behalf.

    Land, Sea, Air, Space – a physical human person or a mechanical object.
    EMS – A wave form.
    Cyber – Code
    Information – Ideas

    Now let’s talk about operational usefulness and time (we’ve talked enough about space and force). Dwell time of a force in a domain dictates the level of difficulty (or trust) required for establishing and maintaining Command and Control. If we cannot maintain C2 of our agent in the domain, then that domain is not militarily useful. We are not in the business of releasing uncontrolled destructive forces. That’s what terrorists, anarchists, and criminals do, and in the information domain, advertisers and politicians.

    Our concepts for controlling humans is well established, starting with recruitment through deployment with mission type orders. Our requirement to communicate with them depends on dwell time capabilities due to time changing the space in which they operate, and their level of training. Ground forces have the biggest challenge because they move slow and can be in a place for the longest period. Space may compete with that soon in duration, but not scale. Ships can be out for long time as well, but they have to get food and fuel. Those are communication opportunities. Planes come back in a day.

    In the EMS, a wave form has a life span defined by 1/r2. Even if it did live longer, there isn’t a way to update its instructions or receive feedback from it. Cyber code can live a long time in the domain, but it is required to operate by its instructions. I am no cyber expert, so I don’t know if it can be adjusted once released, but I do know that kill switches can be built in. So far, in all of these cases, either communication can be established, or appropriate instructions can control behavior.

    The information domain is different because ideas are terrible agents when it comes to C2. They get created for an open complex system constantly being manipulated by an unknown number and magnitude of other like agents from an unknown number of sources. Then they are released into the information environment with no good way of tracking effectiveness, except in those rare cases when the prediction matches outcome (and sometimes that is luck). Some of the sources of ideas are actions in other domains, both intended and unintended (as you mention). The point is that it’s an operational mess. A very good IO officer once told me that IO is a faith-based operation (as opposed to effects based) because of all the unknowns. And then there is always the Strategic Corporal. For all of our efforts, we can’t even possibly track all of the agents we are actually sending into the information domain. never mind C2. We are aware of the information domain, and we participate in it, but we don’t control it, command it, and in many cases, we don’t fully understand it.

    That brings us full circle. The human domain is the space where all war happens, and so by definition, we don’t control it as a military subcomponent. We are the agents in that domain being controlled by someone else. As agents, we identify domains in which we can achieve given objectives by delegating to other agents that WE control.

    As to MDB. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the Army, or any service, fielded an operational cyber unit capability, including authorities, before we started talking about how that imaginary force might “create windows of opportunity” for other maneuver forces? Wouldn’t it be great if the Army could actually talk to a Navy targeting system and hit a moving ship with an existing weapon before we started talking about how it all comes together? Operationally, we are putting the cart before the horse. Extrapolate that to strategic MDB and the human domain, and you have put the cart miles and miles in front.

    Additionally, expanding the reach of MDB has the danger of mission creep of military authorities and actions where they don’t belong. One of the concepts of MDB is to extend the range of time action well into Phase 0 and beyond Phase 5, essentially erasing the line between war and peace. That has implications for civil military control issues that we should be adamant about avoiding, despite the lure of power, budget, and bureaucratic opportunities that MDB provides. Before fully lathering up in an MDB bath, we should define the edges of our profession first, and insist that none shall pass.


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