Leaving “America’s Pastime” of Joint Operations for Multidomain: A Sports Analogy

The evolution of executing military operations from a joint to a multidomain approach can be analogous to a transition from playing a game of baseball to a game of basketball, necessitating a shift to foster a more team oriented culture among peer officers.

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Caitlin Thorn

Over the past five years, multidomain operations has emerged as the imminent method for conducting US military operations. As the successor to joint operations, multidomain operations simultaneously employ capabilities through the six domains rather than military branches of air, space, land, maritime, electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) which includes cyber, and human to achieve synergistic effects. Joint operations were formally inculcated into military lexicon in 1986 with The Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reorganized the military chain of command and eliminated cross-service redundancies. This reorganization proved successful in facilitating effective land, maritime, and air operations across the services.

Now, over 30 years later, three more domains have evolved to significantly affect operations across all branches of service. The preponderance of the internet and social media has dramatically increased the significance of the human domain in warfighting. Space assets have increased exponentially along with a substantial dependency on cyber operations across all services. As each branch of the US military now utilizes most of the six domains to execute their respective operations, it is thought that a multidomain approach (rather than a joint approach) to conducting operations will be more effective in employing capabilities across the branches of the military. Although the conduct of multidomain operations is readily accepted across the joint force, the US military is still struggling with how to most effectively execute this type of construct. In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made remarks on plans to review the Goldwater-Nichols Act for possible revision to meet the needs of the present day force, to include effective execution of multidomain operations. As the lines of domain operations are blurring, the military organization and culture must allow for a seamless integration of operations. This will allow for an agile execution of multidomain operations across all services. To better understand this transition of the US military from joint to multidomain operations, it can be thought of as analogous to the military transitioning from executing operations as a slow-moving baseball team to an integrated basketball team.

Current execution of joint operations are akin to the way a baseball team operates. The service components are represented by the players on the field. Each player has a distinct role that when performed effectively individually, help to achieve the team’s collective goal. For example, consider a hard grounder to the 3rd baseman. The 3rd baseman, having trained extensively to field grounders, makes a clean scoop and perfect throw to 1st base. The 1st baseman, having trained at his position, makes a skillful catch to complete the “out” at first base. The 3rd and 1st basemen are analogous to two service components. They both have distinct tasks that intersect at some point during the play. Both players must perform their respective tasks to complete the objective, and contribute to winning the game. Like the players, both services must be aware of what the other is doing in order to time the transition from one task to the other. Clear roles in the operation negate any confusion over who is fielding and who is catching. At times, when the lines may blur as far as who is conducting the operation (for instance a pop-fly is hit between left and center field), clear communication can negate confusion between the services and prevent redundancy in completing the task at hand. This type of construct, or “play,” has been adequate in executing operations in the past. However, with the rise of the EMS, space, and human domains playing a significant role in operations across all service components, the “players” have expanded their area of expertise beyond just a single position on the field. To effectively utilize this expanded role, the military must transition to executing operations more akin to the way a basketball team operates, in which the most effective teams utilize a variety of skillsets across all players to increase chances of winning.

Unlike baseball, where players are specialized to play a single position and train to interact with those playing other positions, playing on a basketball team necessitates more versatility in players’ capabilities and skillsets. For example, a baseball catcher does not have to be proficient at fielding grounders and a pitcher is not expected to hit very well, but all players on a basketball team must be proficient in all fundamental skills–shooting, dribbling, and passing–for the team to be effective. Service component performance in multidomain operations demands well rounded “players.” Each component still has a traditional domain in which they are proficient – land, air, and maritime–just as a shooting guard must be brilliant at making outside shots. However, they must also be proficient in the space, EMS, and human domains to interact effectively with other components. The space, EMS, and human domains enable the traditional domains–much like core skills such as passing, shooting, and dribbling enable point guards to interact with the shooting guard and forwards. This transition is necessitated by the ever changing fast-paced present day operational environment which more closely resembles a basketball game. In the 20th century, the environment was relatively slow paced and predictable. The adversaries’ position and capabilities were relatively static and known–we had the luxury of waiting in the “outfield” for a “flyball” conflict to pop-up. However, as in a basketball game, today’s environment is much more dynamic, unpredictable and chaotic, with offensive and defensive positions changing hands constantly. This type of environment requires more agility, flexibility of players’ skills, and increased versatility of players (components) to move between positions. A small forward may shoot the occasional 3 pointer or dribble down the court, yet an outfielder would rarely be expected to play infield. This dynamic and unpredictable environment will require subtle changes to foster a more team oriented military culture. These changes will have significant effects in executing multidomain operations to its highest potential.

The first of these changes is increased lateral communication among leadership and peers. The military chain of command stresses communication up and down the chain, but offers little value on the importance of lateral communication among peers. A military leader is rated by their boss on how well they lead their subordinates to accomplish the mission—negating the need to communicate with peer leaders. Although minimal lateral communication is required to accomplish stovepiped tactical tasks, when it comes to executing multidomain operations, effective lateral communications and coordination across the joint force will be a necessity for effective execution. If officers are not encouraged to laterally communicate early in their careers, it will be difficult to adjust to it later on when necessary. In baseball, plays are very predictable and linear—if there is a player on first, the second baseman knows he is throwing the ball to the shortstop for the “out” at second. The play is automatic and anticipated, with only two of the nine players participating in that particular play. Baseball players’ communication methods are predictable and intermittent, necessitating limited interactions with each other to be proficient at throwing and catching the baseball, closely resembling joint operations of the past. Basketball plays are much more involved and fluid, with most of the players dribbling and/or passing the ball multiple times at various positions on the court before a shot on goal is attempted. All of the players are involved in the play, and the most effective teams are highly in tune to the various communication methods of their teammates to facilitate effective offensive operations.

The second change to enable multidomain operations is a paradigm shift from an individual mindset to a team ideology. Although the military emphasizes the team concept, this is not readily reflected in the military promotion system—which may heavily influence officer behavior. Currently, military officers are rated based on individual performance. Military officers are heavily evaluated based on their performance as compared to their peers, and as promotion potential is based on an officer’s individual performance, this may inadvertently create competition among peer officers. Additionally, an officer’s flight or squadron performance has virtually no bearing on an officer’s own promotion potential, but is heavily indicative of a commander’s perfomance potential at higher grades. The officer is then incentivized to achieve for the sake of their own career, and not to necessarily increase the performance of their unit. This individualistic mentality may hinder execution of multidomain operations. Leaders will be forced to shift their focus from their own personal achievement to that of the entire joint force. It is important that officers are rated on individual leadership potential, but these leaders will be forced to interact with peer leaders to improve multidomain operations. To be successful, the outcome of the team must be the priority, not the individual. In baseball, the entire team is hoping the batter will hit a homerun—more runs equal a win. Every player on the team has an equal chance to hit a homerun so there is no intra-team competition. However, in basketball, there is ambiguity as to which player takes the offensive shots. Inevitably some players will be better at shooting the ball. The most successful teams know the strengths and weaknesses of their respective teammates and capitalize on them. Success in executing multidomain operations requires inter-service rivalries and individual mentalities take a backseat to the “one team, one fight” mantra. This is especially important as we recognize that the next generation of military field grade officers are Millennials—often viewed as more entitled, individualistic, and less likely to sacrifice individual glory for the good of the team than previous generations. With this in mind, leaders must be willing to pass the ball to the higher percentage 3-point shooter, and realize that sometimes having more assists per game will contribute more to the team than points. Sometimes not everyone gets a chance to play in the star role to build the most successful team.

A third change to effectively execute multidomain operations is to foster decentralized decision making. In a military where one mistake can cost an officer his/her career, officers are reticent to make decisions without prior approval from their boss. This risk averse culture has been cultivated over the past few decades, and while we may have been able to “get away with it” in executing joint operations, this mindset will be extremely detrimental to effective execution of multidomain operations. As in a basketball game, the today’s environment in fast-paced and chaotic. The coach is on the sideline calling plays, but if the play doesn’t work, there may not be time to reset and look to the coach for a different play. The shot clock is ticking, and the players must resort to innovative methods and techniques to find a different way to score. If the players see an opportunity that may result in a basket, but wasn’t the play the coach called, it is essential that the players have the authority to capitalize on this moment of weakness by their opponent. In baseball, players are much more reliant on the coaching staff to dictate their offensive moves. Base coaches are at first and third, instructing players to hit away, take a pitch, or steal. From batting to running the bases, players are expected to look to the coaching staff for instructions—the individual player typically has little discretion in deciding what to do. The slow paced operational environment of the past may have allowed this centralized decision making, but success in navigating the fast-paced environment of today will depend on leaders’ ability to take some risk to make the necessary rapid decisions without seeking prior approval.

To conclude, the shift from executing joint to multidomain operations requires a mentality and paradigm shift. The operational environment no longer affords the joint force the luxury of playing a slow paced game with limited and intermittent interactions among the players. The US military must commit to a more dynamic and versatile way of play that matches an unpredictable and chaotic global environment. The players must be interactive and immersed among each other, with the flexibility and versatility to utilize a variety of capabilities across the positions and playing field. This type of play demands a team oriented military culture—one that fosters lateral communication among leaders, a focus on the team success, and decentralized decision making. Successful military officers often rise in rank based on their own personal achievements—to enable a truly successful multidomain concept, humility among top brass will be in high demand when planning major combat operations. In the words of basketball great Michael Jordan, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” The US military has the most superior technology and capabilities in the world, but the way we employ these technologies and capabilities is what is going to make the difference in the future. So let’s “be like Mike,” and realize that after a foray into baseball, basketball is where we win championships.

Caitlin Thorn is an engineer in the United States Air Force. She is currently a student at Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and enjoys playing “basketball” in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration.

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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