Multi-Domain Battle: Tactical Implications

By Jon Bott, John Gallagher, Jake Huber, and Josh Powers

The cultural challenge for military organizations will be to maintain a warrior spirit and intuitive understanding of war that goes with it.

Elliot Cohen State Department Counselor, Dec 2000

“Multi-Domain:” Rhetoric or Revolution?

Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) is the latest concept buzzword across the military. Optimistic leaders view the initiative as an opportunity to synergize the joint force, improving how the military organizes, trains, equips, and ultimately fights. Critics view MDB as more of the same, a reinvention of what has always existed in warfare. The defense industry sees MDB as a demand signal for new technology and increased defense spending during a period of fiscal uncertainty. Facets of each perspective are true.

Multi-Domain Battle is dependent on today’s military leaders to drive effective change through the joint force. The success of MDB demands creativity, experimentation, and feedback from today’s tactical and operational leaders to improve integration, consequently improving long-term strategic deterrence from the whole force. MDB is about making the joint force more effective to enable people to solve challenging problems in novel ways. Tactical leaders have a foundation of recent combat experience built from leading at the squadron or company-sized element or smaller. As a result, they are in a unique position to influence the evolution of MDB as an operational concept.

Before continuing, it is pertinent to define MDB and address some key criticisms. The United States military has gained significant experience over the past three decades in the brushfire wars of democracy. Wars in the Middle East and other global operations contributed to a myopically well-trained force in the context of counter-insurgency and stability operations, but this experience came at a price. The United States’ adversaries observed these operations and evolved their operational concepts accordingly. To counter a force built around decisive action, bold offensive operations, and maneuver, adversaries implemented doctrine to deny access and exploit gaps in the American way of war. Examples include Chinese anti-ship technology and Russian integrated cyber and fires doctrine. The US cannot assume that each Service will be able to gain and maintain superiority in their respective domain(s). To retain relevance and advantage as a military force, the United States must change the way it thinks about warfare. MDB represents that change by developing an integrated approach to create and exploit windows of opportunity across heavily contested domains.


Legacy of the Lexicon

Multi-Domain Battle is not new. The term is new language to describe a concept that has always existed. The ancient Athenians used their navy to maneuver their force and achieve an advantage over enemies on the land. The United States combined efforts in the land, air, and sea at Guadalcanal in World War II to achieve victory over the Japanese. Current doctrine focuses on interoperability at the Joint Forces Commander level. This often becomes a conversation of deconfliction and phasing, rather than fully integrated capabilities. In contrast, the MDB concept evolves these ideas further, integrating operations at the tactical level to achieve operationally advantageous maneuver across domains. Threats, distance, available forces, relative priorities, or emergent opportunities may drive the decision to use a non-traditional capability. This may entail simply using a separate domain to enable action in another domain to accomplish your objective. In this context, creativity means using existing tools or technology innovatively. This concept is not a clarion call for next technological options. The military must develop creative approaches to achieve multi-domain effects rather than just linking actions by military Services or developing misaligned technological solutions. Though the multi-domain concept may require some new technology, the most striking implication will be in how warriors evolve organizations and use existing technology in new ways to win the future fight.


Existing Guidance

The most recent Joint Operational Access Concept emphasized domain-based capabilities over Service capabilities. Its central concept is “cross-domain synergy,” which is defined as a seamless application of combat power between domains, with greater integration pushed to lower echelons. While previous documents highlight combining capabilities across all domains as an imperative, a shift from “cross-domain” to “multi-domain” is necessary because:

  • “Multi-domain” is distinguishable beyond cyberspace, whereas “cross-domain” is a legacy term with its origins in information assurance techniques.
  • Domains work in concert simultaneously to achieve goals, instead of only operating in or between two domains.
  • Multi-domain means creating an effect in one domain that produces an effect in other.

Multi-domain battle is more than new words to describe joint warfare. MDB takes joint warfare beyond the vision of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Instead of being wedded to the academic and experiential baggage surrounding “joint,” this new language also enables leaders to think about future conflict in different ways. However, changing a label is only rhetoric unless each Service develops solutions to provide mutual support across the domains of their expertise.


A View of the Multi-Domain Force

Establishing a shared understanding of MDB allows tactical leaders to experiment. It allows Service members to create new and innovative ways to counter threats across domains. To avoid losses in a future high-end conflict akin to those seen in Vietnam, experimentation must occur during training, with multi-domain objectives in every available exercise. In addition to learning how to force exposure of vulnerabilities in adjacent domains, warfighters must think about how actions in other domains can be leveraged to open vulnerabilities in their primary domain. Services would also benefit from practice against each other rather than solely with each other for integration. These “force-on-force” exercises would highlight creative ways domain-specific capabilities can be leveraged to defeat a capable foe in another domain. Additionally, this would identify vulnerabilities to each Service’s multi-domain action. Exposing the advantages and limits of operating across domains should promote mutual improvement and trust. MDB, as a way of thinking, is an attempt to codify iteration and adaptation prior to crisis in war.

This discussion warrants a practical example of unit training in a MDB construct. In a traditional Army situational training exercise the theme usually focuses on destroying enemy forces on an objective, thus facilitating a land-centric purpose. In training for MDB, the same event would require a richer context. The scenario would focus on achieving an effect in a domain, such as contesting the maritime domains along a geographically strategic strait. As a component of a multi-domain task force, the land unit would collaborate across Service counterparts in a conversation about capability rather than stove-piped supporting relationships. Ideally, this becomes a fully integrated framework where all capabilities across Services are available for use – regardless of sensor or shooter. The fight would be dynamic with limited scripting. Although training for in-domain mastery must remain prominent, regular force-on-force training is ideal. MDB is fueled by creativity, and creativity can be fueled by competition. Warfighters will innovate to survive. Though simply described here, it will require an overhaul to joint force thought-processes.


Required Mental Shift

Linked tactical actions require an enterprise-level mental shift. America’s contemporary enemies implement strategies to neutralize US superiority based upon their study of American warfare over the last 30 years. Past US hallmarks of battle have been superiority through:

  • Numbers
  • Technology
  • Tempo

The foundation of American warfare must pivot to:

  • Flexibility,
  • Creating options,
  • Enabling freedom of action,
  • Increasing synchronization, and
  • Placing the enemy on the horns of multiple dilemmas.

How do today’s leaders affect the MDB concept as it evolves joint doctrine? Learning from past doctrinal transitions, change was driven either from effective education and training prior to the next conflict (Gulf War I) or the necessity of the force adapting to succeed in an unexpected operational environment. Our National Military Strategy (NMS) has evolved to more effectively focus the joint force on priority challenges. Individual Service evaluation of these objectives revealed risk to future operations in all domains. Examining these priorities from a joint operational perspective highlights that risk in one domain may be offset by capabilities or strength in another domain. Our Services must remove their focus on domain-centric operations.. We must adapt our thinking to operate effectively in the new operational environment. The evolution of the new joint warrior will require a shift in how we educate and train our joint force.


Education and Training in a Multi-domain Environment

Initial Service entry training is designed to instill a Service culture best suited to the domain in which the Service primarily operates. This initial programming should not be changed because it provides a solid foundation for tactical-level execution of domain operations. However, to operate effectively as a joint force, remodeling is required at the Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) level. A standardized syllabus should be used across all military colleges to provide a foundational joint education rather than a Service-flavored learning experience. A common educational experience will develop a better understanding across the Services of how to operate in the MDB construct.

Learning to operate and employ major weapons systems should also be accomplished in a joint learning environment. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is a prime example of an opportunity to reorganize training for MDB. The JSF is intended to be operated by the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Each Service operates different versions more suitable to their domain, but they all retain similar capabilities. Stove-piping JSF training inside each Service misses an opportunity to develop a more effective joint force. Training together prior to specific unit or mission training builds understanding and relationships that improves the ability to integrate people, processes, and technology in new ways to solve future operational problems.


Multi-Domain Deployment Training

The training of our joint force in preparation for deployment must change to accomplish the priorities set forth in the NMS. The US has many outstanding pre-deployment training centers: Nevada Test and Training Range, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, NAS Fallon, Twenty-nine Palms, and the open ocean, to name a few. These training centers are very efficient at providing single domain focused training, with some joint components injected. Realigning Service training centers to joint training centers based on the priorities set forth in the NWS would ensure training is as realistic as possible for the anticipated future operational environment. Service-centric requirements would naturally lead to joint capstone training. Reorganization at this level is daunting. The logistics of bringing all components together for effective training seems almost impossible. However, similar to the standardization of JPME, the joint force can develop common training scenarios that allow the Services to interoperate to achieve joint objectives.

Realistic simulations will be the key to successful multi-domain training. We have the ability to link all components that would operate in a Joint Task Force (JTF) together. Most live training could still be accomplished at the unit level in the training areas appropriate to the operational domain. Simultaneously at the operational level, exercises with live, virtual, and constructed (LVC) actions could be linked to provide a Common Operating Picture (COP) to an organization playing the role of the Joint Force Commander staff. The computer-generated and simulated entities fill in the gaps created by resource limitations. The distances and connectivity issues inherent in this type of training would be very similar to real-world challenges of geographically separated force employment. This will require the development of leaders able to execute Mission Command leadership abilities. The formation of organizations playing the role of the JTF and component commanders requires the augmentation of personnel from subordinate commands. This staff training would also build the relationships between services.


How Do We Get There From Here?

Transitioning MDB from concept to doctrine requires timely adjustments. A short-term focus on leader development through exercises, experimentation, and building shared understanding will naturally lead to the mid-term requirement of changing JPME. Long-term changes include realigning training centers and joint procurement processes. By increasing the level of joint participation in JPME schools and training and preparation for war, the joint force will build the relationships and develop the operational understanding required to operate as a tactical, multi-domain team.

The effort to develop a conceptual framework for future leaders is broad and daunting. As with any endeavor to change doctrine, organization, tactics, and Service culture, MDB faces several challenges. The first obstacle lies in the scope, synchronization, and duration of its implementation. MDB requires adoption of a shared warfighting philosophy across the Services. Changing a Service’s warfighting philosophy requires time and shared vision across layers of successive leadership (e.g., consecutive Service chiefs, combatant commanders, and a generation of operational and tactical leaders from each Service). At the strategic level, the political, economic, and security conditions must also continue to allow the Services to develop and inculcate the MDB philosophy. Leaders at each level must embrace the concept to provide the organizational, intellectual, and cultural space for MDB to establish and evolve. Failure to protect and reinforce a MDB philosophy will risk reversion to service-centric warfighting.

Today’s leaders must also commit to open and persistent communication between levels and across formations. If senior joint and Service leaders do not continually refine and articulate the purpose of MDB, leaders at the operational and tactical levels are less likely to link MDB concepts between Services. Similarly, hollow language at the strategic and operational levels will not generate the necessary innovation and Service change. For example, renaming the Air Operations Center to the Multi-Domain Operations Center or using token training aids from other domains without the corresponding operational and functional changes will not solve the Multi-Domain problem. At the tactical level, leaders must ensure an open dialogue with higher, adjacent, and subordinate units. If leaders do not communicate MDB as a creative and adaptive process that requires persistent probing, failure, and resilience to gain advantage over the enemy, the concept will not work.


Multi-Domain Battle Through Mission Orders

Multi-Domain Battle includes several other communications challenges. First, the current physical communications capabilities between Services, agencies, and partner nations do not come close to meeting the flexible, distributed, and redundant capabilities required by MDB. Second, timely and effective collection, optimization, and dissemination of lessons-learned across the joint force will expose units to scrutiny that might naturally undermine transparency and collaboration. This is particularly true of the “failures” during training so crucial to the concept’s development and future refinement. The humility to highlight lessons created from failures should be lauded. Finally, MDB would likely disrupt the current trajectory of command and control information availability. Over the last 15 years, commanders and staff have grown increasingly dependent upon overwhelming amounts of instantaneous information to support decision making and common situational awareness. Small, distributed, ‘resilient’ formations in the future operating environment described by MDB would require a fundamental change in theater and battlefield communication at all levels.

However, the change in communication practices belies perhaps the greatest challenge of MDB – decentralized execution and mission command. The concept demands delegation of authority and execution of commander’s intent to the lowest possible level, often in the absence of direct control or specific guidance, while assuming potentially high risk, and resulting in operational and strategic outcomes. While our current doctrine and warfighting philosophies champion such concepts, our leadership culture and operating procedures have moved steadily in the opposite direction. MDB requires today’s leaders to train for uncertainty and push decision-making authority down.



The military is at a crossroads. Overmatch in firepower and maneuver led to our past successes, but they alone cannot win tomorrow’s wars. The nation’s adversaries have been watching, carefully adapting their technology and doctrine to take advantage of US vulnerabilities. The MDB concept  is a method for today’s tactical leaders to change the playing field of tomorrow’s wars. The road ahead is certainly not easy, but organizational change at the joint level is always difficult. Evolution of MDB from concept to functional doctrine requires the understanding, creativity, and feedback of today’s tactical leaders. This article contributes context and serves as a point of departure for further discussion. The future of the joint force and the military success of our Nation is on the shoulders of today’s military leaders.


Jonathan Bott is a United States Air Force Officer currently serving in Air Combat Command.

John Gallagher is a United States Marine Corps Officer currently serving in the United States Marine Corps Forces Command.

Jake Huber is a United States Naval Officer currently serving at the Joint Forces Staff College.

Josh Powers is a United States Army Officer currently serving in the United States Army Pacific Headquarters.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply