Multi-Domain Operations at the Strategic Level

Estimated time to read: 11 minutes

Excerpt: The recent NSS and NDS elevate multi-domain ops to the forefront of US national strategy. The upcoming NMS must capitalize on this framework, working towards the seamless integration of the land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace domains.

By Brian Willis

The December 2017 US National Security Strategy (NSS) and recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (unclassified summary) (NDS) elevate multi-domain operations to the forefront of US national strategy. The central tenets of multi-domain operations are interwoven throughout both documents and are identified as playing a critical role in the advancement of US national interests. In particular, both the NSS and NDS recognize that US domain superiority can no longer be taken for granted, a trend that the 2015 NSS failed to capture. Both documents lay the groundwork for the advancement of multi-domain operational concepts and capabilities within the Joint Force, and the upcoming US National Military Strategy (NMS), scheduled to be released later this year, must capitalize on this framework to secure US national interests in an increasingly complex and contested security environment.

December 2017 US National Security Strategy
The December 2017 NSS articulates the current administration’s commitment to an “America first” national security strategy that prioritizes the security, prosperity, and interests of the US.  The NSS aligns vital US national interests under four pillars, namely: 1) Protect the homeland, the American people, and the American way of life; 2) Promote American prosperity; 3) Preserve peace through strength; and 4) Advance American influence. Underlying this strategy is the concept of “principled realism,” that is guided by outcomes, rather than ideology, and centered on promoting a balance of power favorable to the US and its allies. Competition is a consistent theme throughout the document, which emphasizes the challenges that state and non-state actors, such as China and Russia, pose to American power, influence, and interests. The NSS also views America’s dominant position in the world as neither “inevitable nor accidental,” and acknowledges shrinking US military advantages as rival states modernize their conventional and nuclear forces and field advanced capabilities that threaten US dominance in the land, maritime, air, space, and cyberspace domains. Additionally, the NSS calls special attention to the security challenges posed by the rapid pace of technological progress and expanding cyberspace capabilities. To compete in this complex and contested security environment, the NSS states the US military “must be prepared to operate across a full spectrum of conflict, across multiple domains at once.”

January 2018 National Defense Strategy
Taking its lead from the NSS, the 2018 NDS (unclassified summary) continues the theme of great power competition and eroding US military advantages. The NDS describes “inter-state strategic competition,” and not terrorism, as the primary concern to US national security and identifies the “reemergence of long-term strategic competition,” particularly with China and Russia, as the central challenge to US prosperity and security. Like the NSS, the NDS describes a volatile security environment characterized by decreasing US military competitive advantages, where the proliferation of commercially developed technologies will erode the “conventional overmatch to which our Nation has grown accustomed to.” To meet these challenges, the NDS prescribes “the seamless integration of multiple elements of national power—diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military.”

Yet the unclassified NDS summary stops here. Beyond the seamless integration of US instruments of national power and more poignant to the military instrument is the seamless integration of the land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace domains. For the US military to effectively compete in the volatile, complex, and contested security environment described by the NSS and NDS, the Department of Defense (DoD) must address these seams where the domains, and the Services, interact. It is at these seams where the domains interact that adversaries will target remaining US advantages. It is here, at the seams where the domains interact, that the full classified version of the NDS hopefully continues, and where the upcoming NMS must expound.

Recognition of the Evolving Character of War
To achieve the seamless integration of the domains, we must first appreciate the fundamental changes to the character of warfare spurred by technological advances and ever increasing domain interdependencies. It is in this recognition of the evolving character of warfare that the current NSS and NDS make their most significant advances from the 2015 NSS. Both the December 2017 NSS and January 2018 NDS reference how advances in space and cyberspace capabilities have led security competition and conflict to be characterized by complex domain interdependencies that increasingly overlap with the commercial and economic spheres. While recognizing the changing character of war, the NSS acknowledges that America’s “diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic agencies have not kept pace with the changes in the character of competition.”  To adapt, the NSS directs the military to be prepared to operate “across multiple domains at once” and in domains that will be increasingly contested. Accounting for the proliferation of cyber tools and accurate, inexpensive weapons, the NSS asserts that state and non-state actors are able to harm the US across various domains and “contest what was until recently US dominance across the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains.” The NDS furthers illustrates this point, stating that although for decades the US “enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain…Today every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.”  The need for multi-domain capabilities and the requirement to operate in contested domains are both areas that the previous NSS failed to recognize. The upcoming NMS must account for both these points, and outline a path forward for the Joint Force to adapt to the evolving character of warfare.

Multi-Domain Concepts and Operations
One way forward to confront the security challenges posed by increased competition and contested environments is the expanded development of multi-domain operational concepts. To this end, the NSS directs the DoD to “develop new operational concepts and capabilities to win without assured dominance in air, maritime, land, space, and cyberspace domains.” As described by Dr. Jeffrey Reilly, the concept of cross-domain operations is not new and has been “an inherent part of military thought since antiquity.” Yet in practice, operating across multiple domains, where superiority is increasingly temporary and local, becomes increasingly complex as the pace of technological advance quickens and threats evolve. To stay competitive, the Joint Force must focus its efforts on adapting to rapid changes in the battlefield and improving its ability to operate across domains. Expanding the development of multi-domain operational concepts is precisely what the NSS calls for, and will ensure the US military stays at the leading edge of the evolving character of war.

Expanding the role of multi-domain operations in the Joint Force requires adapting how the individual Services organize, train, and equip. A positive step in this direction is the NDS’s pledge to prioritize investments “in ground, air, sea, and space forces that can deploy, survive, operate, maneuver, and regenerate in all domains while under attack.” While investments and the adaptation of new technologies into the battlespace is much needed, the more impactful, and more difficult, steps will be those that focus on incorporating evolving operational concepts into how the individual Services organize and train. Multi-domain operations go beyond Service interoperability and operational deconfliction. Multi-domain operations start with the recognition that maneuver in one’s domain is dependent upon actions, both friendly and adversarial, that occur within other domains. To successfully achieve effects within one’s domain, one must be aware of how actions in another domain influences their own domain, and how desired effects in one’s domain could be achieved through actions in another domain.

Still further, expanding Service proficiency of multi-domain operations includes understanding that access in one domain, or a lack thereof, can have cascading consequences and effects in other domains. The NSS takes particular note of the physical domains’ growing dependencies on cyberspace, and the potential that these dependencies could cause catastrophic consequences to US critical infrastructure, military command and control, financial markets, and communication systems. The NSS prioritizes increasing cyber defenses and reducing vulnerabilities of these critical systems against cyberattacks, and expanding the ability of the US to conduct cyber operations against adversaries when necessary. Similarly, the NDS directs the “continued integration of cyber capabilities into the full spectrum of military operations.” Likewise, multi-domain concepts and operations must move beyond recognizing one’s own vulnerabilities to anti-access weapons to understanding how to continue operations without superiority or access in a certain domain, as well as how to leverage alternate domains to accomplish the mission. Addressing these issues within how individual Services organize, train, and equip will help minimize the seams where the land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace domains interact.

Minimizing Seams
With advances in space and cyberspace capabilities, the domains are more tightly interwoven and interdependent than ever before. The seams where these domains blend together are most apparent in the dependencies of traditional domains of land, sea, and air with the space and cyberspace domains. To state the obvious examples, positioning, navigation, timing (PNT), intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and command and control are all predominantly enabled by the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and space-based capabilities. It is at these seams where the US is most vulnerable, and where our potential adversaries are currently directing their efforts (see here and here).

Recognizing the vulnerability of these seams, the NDS takes a step forward in designating space and cyberspace as warfighting domains. The NSS also establishes space as a “priority domain” and identifies the “unfettered access to and freedom to operate in space” as a vital US interest. The NSS and NDS alike pledge to strengthen US capabilities in space and cyberspace and to use all instruments of power to ensure the common domains, including space and cyberspace, remain free from domination by a single power. Yet adversarial domination of space and cyberspace need not occur to significantly disrupt US military operations. With the proliferation of inexpensive space and cyberspace technologies, potential adversaries can disrupt US military operations in ways that were previously only available to major powers. Growing access to both kinetic and non-kinetic anti-space capabilities, combined with antiquated US space systems that were not designed to operate in a contested space environment, threatens US military superiority not only in the space domain, but across all other domains as well.

By establishing freedom of operation in space as a vital US interest, the NSS recognizes the critical function space plays for US security and prosperity, and seeks to deter adversaries from attacking this vulnerability. Extending US deterrence to space builds on the growing recognition, as emphasized in the recently released 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, that adversaries are increasingly able to conduct a strategic attack against the US without resorting to nuclear weapons (see the upcoming 10 March article entitled 21st Century Strategic Deterrence: “Beyond Nuclear” by Brendon Herbeck and Aryan Dale for an in-depth analysis on the topic.) The NSS also indicates US willingness to respond to threats against US space assets across a different domain, stating that “any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of [US] space architecture…will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing.” By threatening to respond across domains, the NSS makes it clear that it is imperative that the military strengthen its ability to respond, and escalate, a conflict across domains. This requires military commanders and operators to first understand how interference or attack against space components impacts their ability to operate and respond in the other domains. Moreover, commanders must also understand how cross domain escalation would be viewed by an adversary, as well as an estimate of an adversary’s ability to respond to US actions in another domain. Such understanding is difficult, as the US is still coming to terms with how it views cross-domain escalation, as seen in the complexities of decision making and authorities in conducting cyberspace operations.

The December 2017 NSS and 2018 NDS underline the significant role multi-domain operations must play in protecting vital US national interests in today’s competitive security environment. The NSS and NDS take the significant step in recognizing the impact technological advances and domain integration has on the US military’s ability to achieve any degree of superiority in each of the domains. These documents provide clear strategic guidance to the DoD and Services to prioritize the development of multi-domain operational concepts and capabilities. The upcoming National Military Strategy must continue this emphasis, and provide clear guidance to the Joint Force on the organizational and force employment changes necessary to seamlessly conduct operations across the domains. With consistent and active senior leader emphasis on multi-domain operations, the US military will be best postured to effectively compete in an increasingly complex and contested global security environment.

Brian Willis is a C-17 pilot and China Foreign Affairs Officer in the United States Air Force. He is currently in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at Air Command and Staff College.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.

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