USAF Strategic Development of a Domain

By Peter Garretson

Are Airmen doing a good job with strategy? How much of our strategy starts “right of bang” with the efficient movement of our pieces? The success of our past and future battles depends on a lot more than what we do with our platforms — it depends on what platforms we have developed, where we have based them, and our partner building capacity. This is true not just in the Air Domain but in every domain in which we maneuver to create effects. Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini said, “Strategy is the art of making war upon the map.” So where do we read how to set up the map in the first place?

When Airmen want to understand the “fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their actions in support of national objectives,” they need to turn to doctrine. JP 1-02 tells us that doctrine is authoritative but requires commanders to exercise judgment in application. Air Force Basic Doctrine Volume 1 reminds us, “doctrine is a body of carefully developed, sanctioned ideas which has been officially approved or ratified corporately, and not dictated by any one individual. Doctrine establishes a common frame of reference including intellectual tools that commanders use to solve military problems. It is what we believe to be true about the best way to do things based on the evidence to date.

Today’s airpower doctrine largely starts with how air forces are employed. But don’t we have—and shouldn’t we record—best practices for setting conditions? Shouldn’t our Airmen start their strategic considerations with thoughts about posture, partnership, and technology? Instead of merely fighting our nation’s wars with whatever technology and processes we happen to have at the time, Airmen should start building the future force and shaping the operational environment now to ensure victory and the security of our national interests in the future.

Airmen needn’t accept a poor position or tools: rather, they have the ability to use time as a lever to “change the game” by developing and planning for their domain.

Below I offer what I think represents the school of thinking that drove Gen Arnold, Gen Schriever, Dr. Karman, and many other Airmen who sought to set the conditions so that we could be successful in battle.

Doctrine for Strategic Development of a Domain

“Airpower is anything a nation can do in the air” – Brig Gen Billy Mitchell

Airmen have historically taken—and are expected to take—an attitude of deliberately developing the domain and operational environment to enhance US freedom of action and economic / industrial might.

“[Our] responsibility is to seek it under the most advantageous circumstance in order to produce the most profitable result. Hence his true aim [of strategy] is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this.”B.H. Liddell Hart

Using a chess analogy, Airmen need not, and should not confine their strategy only to the procurement of pieces and the effective movement of pieces. They should not accept the board as given. Both the layout of board itself and the arrangement of pieces are within the realm of strategy. Just as a chess player can adapt the layout of the board to their advantage, strategically thinking Airmen can shape effective operations in the air domain through effective procurement, arrangement, and movement of operational platforms.

In peace, [strategy]…may gain its most decisive victories by occupying…excellent positions which would perhaps hardly be got by war.” —Alfred Thayer Mahan

Airmen should use peacetime or “Phase 0” operations to actively shape their operational environment. Such shaping is necessarily a whole-of-nation affair requiring a long-term vision and coordination with many agencies. The burden to provide advice and strategy, and to architect the system falls to those who are the stewards of their domain—who have a global view and can see it holistically. In conjunction with the other domain practitioners, Airmen are the stewards of their nation’s long-term security. Usually it is the military that likely possess larger, more capable staffs, with longer term vision than our interagency partners. Therefore, Airmen must realize that although strategic planning efforts should be initiated and led by other agencies or higher authorities, Airmen must take initiative and provide best-military advice on how to coordinate the elements of national power.

Considering Domains

What is a domain? Since the term is yet to be defined in doctrine, I’ll offer a definition. A domain is a space in which forces can maneuver to create effects. Domains are typically delineated by the unique considerations that condition movement, communications, and persistent operations.

These unique considerations condition the type of equipment that will be viable in each domain. The high density of salt water makes it possible to have extremely large vessels, but also slows their movement and exposes them to harsh weather and corrosion. The low density of air and its ability to be burned enables fast movement, but requires aircraft to be lightweight and unarmored. Vehicles transiting the air, land, or sea all encounter friction and will slow and stop unless energy is expended, whereas the extreme low density of space places no practical limit to speed, and requires energy only to change direction. While electro-magnetic waves propagate in all domains, only space is without obstacles. Terrain on land, the curvature of the Earth, and the density and composition of water and air limit which frequencies will propagate, and drive specific communications equipment. While physical properties of density and friction are absent in cyberspace, nevertheless there are still realities that constrain free “movement,” communication, and persistence.

Knowledge of how to operate and acquire systems that operate effectively in a given domain often requires extensive expertise that must be maintained over time. Consider three important truths that affect cross- or multi-domain operations: First, one can only make use of the advantages of a domain from within a domain. For example, you must be resident in Air or Space to utilize their advantage of altitude. Second, exploitation of one domain allows you to express effects in adjacent domains. For example, if you are in the Air, you can surveil or attack the ground or sea. Third, you can deny a domain from an adjacent domain. An opponent doesn’t need to be resident in a domain to deny it. For example, while a belligerent may have no ability to exploit the Air or Space domain with aircraft or satellites, they could own surface based systems missile systems that could deny those domains to their opponent.

 “. . . the intensely sharp competitive preparation for war by the nation is the real war, permanent, unceasing, and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of mastery gained during the peace intervals.”William James, Memoirs and Studies, 1911

The United States has significant historical experience with the linked industrial-military development of new domains. First, the US expanded westward and developed an entire continent in the land domain, including roads, canals, the transcontinental railroad, and the Eisenhower Highway system. Second, it expanded in the maritime domain, including shipyards, coaling stations, and the Panama Canal. Third, the US expanded in the air domain, developing the first successful manned aircraft and architecting global norms for aviation, as well as the national and international runway system and standards. Fourth, it initially developed the space domain from Mercury through Apollo and then expanded this domain with the fielding of Cold War space systems. Lastly, the US developed the internet, and the cyber domain was born.

Twenty Maxims

There are no battles in this strategy; each side is merely trying to outdo in performance the equipment of the other. . . . Its tactics are industrial, technical, and financial. . . . A silent and apparently peaceful war is therefore in progress, but it could well be a war which of itself could be decisive.”—General d’Armee Andre Beaufre

Airmen now continue to develop the air domain, as well as the space and cyber domains. From these experiences, we can divine certain truths expressed in twenty maxims:

#1 Be an Activist Steward of Your Domain: Domain development works best as an activist strategy, NOT as passive laissez faire watching of industry. The US developed flight first, only to see itself eclipsed by a more activist France. Likewise, the US initially had the largest share of the space launch market, only to lose it. Economic sectors that convey military advantage require nurturance.

#2 Offer Best Military Advice to Create Whole-Of-Nation Plans: Airmen must not be absent from the national conversation on domain development. They should lead it. Airmen are in the unique position of understanding the totality of their domain and its linkage to national power. Airmen should be aware of where civil and commercial sectors wish to expand, and incorporate the most exciting ideas and visions of these sectors into a larger strategic narrative to enable policy makers to understand what future operations could look like.

“What is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors and adversaries.” – Col John Boyd

#3 Craft a Compelling Vision for Your Domain: It was the vision of military-industrial thinkers that fueled the westward expansion, the naval expansion, and the development of airpower. Vision is an essential component in attracting talent and capital to develop a domain. A failure to provide an exciting vision is a failure of leadership.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” — Saint-Exupéry

#4 Enlist the Media in Creating National Will to be Domain-Faring: Once a technical-industrial-geographic vision exists, Airmen should enlist the capabilities of the arts (storytellers, artists, movie producers) to publicize such a vision and make it tangible in the minds of their countrymen. An excellent example is Walt Disney’s World War II film “Victory through Airpower.”

#5 Try to Leverage the Resources of Others (“By-With-and-Through”): It is foolhardy to waste resources to do what others may be willing and able to do. The goal is not to do things, but to get things done. Airmen should seek to multiply their efforts through partnerships with other actors: sister Services, other agencies, other nations, and other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. It is not necessary to get the credit or leave one’s fingerprints. To create something is good, to cause something to be created is better.

#6 Seek the Domain’s Ultimate Independent Expression: Don’t allow your domain to be sidelined as merely a support function to another domain, but instead explore its expression as an independent space for maneuver, power projection, and national economic advantage.

#7 Explore the Domain’s Capability to Influence Other Domains: All domains are linked to each other. While you can only exploit the advantages of a domain from within that domain, you can deny or have effects in a domain from an adjacent domain. Airmen should seek synergy and integration of planning and effects between the domains of their stewardship and the domains which they have an ability to affect.

#8 Develop Domain Expertise: It is essential to develop expertise specific to and in the domain. Each domain has a different geography and a different physics that dominates movement, maneuver, communications, and trade. Typically, this requires significant study. Domain expertise does not translate well from one domain to another. In developing their domains, Airmen should seek to ensure they have the best-trained individuals with as much experience in the domain as possible. Creating in-domain expertise is not limited to just the military. Past visionaries like Billy Mitchell sought to create general skill sets in society, and encouraged groups like the AF Auxiliary to develop the skills to operate in the air domain and the capabilities to build and maintain platforms suited to the domain. Likewise, the Navy encouraged the development of merchant marines that could be called upon in times of war.

#9 Attack the Limits to Access and Exploitation: Airmen have achieved freedom of action and maneuver advantage in the air, and our nation has achieved national economic advantage by specifically attacking limits to access and exploitation, especially with power projection capabilities in the maritime domain. But limits to access and exploitation exist in all domains. Often these are technological limits. Often these limits to access and exploitation constitute their own strategic struggle. Within the context of developing a posture to support hegemony, deterrence, dissuasion, and continuing advantage, a Cold War Textbook, The Strategy of Technology, offers the following perspective:

The Technological War is the decisive struggle in the Protracted Conflict. Victory in the Technological War gives supremacy in all other phases of the conflict. . . .The Technological War creates the resources to be employed in all other parts of the Protracted Conflict. It governs the range of strategies that can be adapted in actual or hot war. . . . Military superiority or even supremacy is not permanent, and never ends the conflict unless it is used. The United States considers the Technological War as an infinite game: one which is not played out to a decisive victory. We are committed to a grand strategy of defense, and will never employ a decisive advantage to end the conflict by destroying our enemies. Consequently, we must maintain not only military superiority but [also] technological supremacy. The race is an alternative to destructive war, not the cause of military conflict. . . .The United States is dedicated to a strategy of stability. We are a stabilizing rather than a disturbing power, and our goal is preserving the status quo and the balance of power rather than seeking conquest and the final solution to the problems of international conflict through occupation or extermination of all opponents. In a word, the U.S. sees the Technological War as an infinite game, one played for the sake of continuing to play, rather than for the sake of “victory” in the narrow sense.”—Strategy of Technology

#10 Develop In-Domain Transportation: All domains require in-domain transportation to be able to make use of them. In domains such as Sea, Air, and Space, this is the fundamental capability even to access the domain at all. Critical enabling technologies include engine/propulsion and life support.

#11 Develop Means to Navigate within your Domain: For both trade and military maneuver, it is critical to understand where you are and be able to orient. Airmen must take leadership in designing navigational systems.

#12 Develop In-Domain Communication: To fully exploit a domain, one must have the ability to coordinate and communicate within the domain, and from the domain to adjacent domains. The physics of signal transmission are different in each domain and require specific equipment. Airmen must take leadership in developing communications technology that enable broader commerce and the ability to command and control forces.

#13 Develop In-Domain Sensing: Each domain has unique considerations regarding sensing. A domain is more useful when we understand what is in it, and what is happening in it. A domain may also afford excellent vantage on adjacent domains. Airmen should advocate for developing better domain awareness to facilitate commerce and safety of navigation, to provide advance intelligence (indications and warnings), and to allow targeting.

#14 Develop In-Domain Control: Domains often require coordination and traffic control for either commerce or military movement. Airmen must take leadership in designing traffic control and C2 systems that create safety of navigation to secure commerce and enable national advantage in conflict.

#15 Multiply & Cultivate One’s Sources of Power & Freedom: There is infrastructure in every domain that is necessary to enable freedom of action. These might be ports, airports, roads, rail, ship yards, aircraft factories, or outposts of economic value. Airmen should endeavor to understand the locations which convey strategic advantage, superior vantage, locations of control, locations of value, choke points, and secure such locations in peacetime. Airmen should constantly search for these “launch pads” to broaden their freedom of action.

#16 Nurture Your Industrial Base: You must actively cultivate your industrial base. Military power is built upon industrial power and economic power. Domains are places of human activity and commerce. Airmen should advocate that their nation take leadership in owning the carrying trade, and in producing the highest value goods. Airmen should advocate to allow other polities to ride upon their nation’s commercial lines and purchase from their industrial base (including foreign military sales). This allows our nation to benefit from economies of scale and amortize our capital investments, while denying such advantages to our competitors. Failure to nurture one’s industrial base can be fatal—it can take decades to create the necessary expertise and manufacturing, when the decisions required in battle may only grant hours.

Observers have noted that whenever a state rises to hegemonic status, it does so in a precise sequence. First, it dominates the production of the most valuable commodities. Second, the hegemonic state dominates trade by becoming the carrier or shipper of choice. Third, the profits made from the transfer of bulk trade in the system (through dominating shipping and movement of goods) allows the hegemonic state to become the financial or banking leader of the world—lending capital and operating as both the lender of last resort and the international counter-cyclical lender. (Immanuel Wallerstein and neo-Realist Robert Gilpin summarized by Dr. Everett Dolman, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies)

#17 Nurture One’s Scientific and Technical Base: The ability to attack limits and develop in-domain capabilities depends greatly on scientific, technological, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. These don’t appear just by market forces. As with the post-Sputnik, and Apollo-era grants, such skills can be created through government incentives, but require activism on the part of defense leadership. Cutting edge skills can be created across the nation through exploration of prototypes, X-planes, and innovation prizes.

#18 Never Stop Developing In-Domain Capabilities: Once you achieve a certain level of transportation, communication, sensing, etc., you must look at your domain anew and assess your current limits. Be explicit, then deliberately attack those limits. The process is never ending. Ask: “What limits my freedom of action today?”

#19 Structure the International Governance Domain to One’s Benefit: Develop one’s domain in such a way that it restrains competitors while providing freedom of action for yourself and your allies. This includes being proactive about “lawfare” (the construction of treaties and international regimes), governance issues, and arms control agreements. The USAF had a central role in the construction of international civil aviation norms and initial space law.

#20 Use Time as a Weapon: Remember that small efforts can deliver compound interest effects over time. Strategy is only required when you want to go somewhere other than where the momentum of the system is taking you. Begin by imagining the conflicts you think you may have to fight in the future, and then imagining the posture and tools you wish to have at your disposal. Use the lever of time to bring about those conditions.

Airmen must be proactive about shaping the conditions of their domains. They must seek victory first through preparation—by creating the partnerships, occupying the positions that enable control and freedom of action in the key terrain, attacking the limits of access and maneuver through R&D, cultivating their industrial base, and supplying national vision. If Airmen succeed in these endeavors, many battles may be avoided by portraying a position of strength, and those conflicts that cannot be avoided will merely confirm conditions were properly set in the first place.


While today’s airpower doctrine largely starts with how air forces are employed, we have the power to change that. We can record historical best practices for setting conditions and removing barriers. Establishing how Airmen actually shape their operating environments sets expectations and enlarges the number of Airmen who are actively shaping our operational environment through technology, posture, partnerships, and technology.

Lt Col Peter Garretson is an Instructor of Joint Warfare at Air University’s Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), and lead for the Air University Space Horizons Research Group, which seeks to “Re-imagine Spacepower in the Age of Asteroid Mining.” He has been a strategy and policy advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on Space and Great Power conflict in Asia. He is the former Chief of USAF Future Technology, and has served at the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) as a Service Chief Fellow, and a Los Alamos National Laboratory as an Academy Research Associate. He was the first serving military officer to be detailed as a visiting fellow to Asia’s #1 think tank, the Ministry of Defense Funded Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi, India. Lt Col Garretson has over 50 publications including on the topics of space governance, space policy, space based solar power, asteroid mining, planetary defense, strategic culture, and US military strategy and security cooperation in Asia.

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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