Multidomain Observing and Orienting: ISR to Meet the Emerging Battlespace

Editor’s Note: The following article is the first of a two-part series. This article describes the emerging requirements of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) enterprise on multidomain operations in the future. The first part of the article describes the context and continuum of domains.  The second part frameworks future effects on the ISR enterprise. This article was originally published in the Air and Space Power Journal in Fall of 2018 in its entirety.

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By: Sean A. Atkins
The complexity and speed of future multidomain operations (MDO) hold deep implications for how military forces conduct John R. Boyd’s famous observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loop.  Increased domain interconnectivity and growing cross-domain interdependence underpin an emerging vision of future warfare that is beginning to take shape. Publications that include the DOD’s Joint Operational Access Concept family of documents and the Army’s multidomain battle operating concept describe the contextual drivers and outline the idea’s central elements. At its core, the MDO concept is a response to a changing competition-space characterized by complex problems that defy current approaches and anti-access/ area-denial (A2/AD) challenges that require more fluidly integrated capabilities across all domains to overcome. As Dr. Jeff Reilly, the Air Command and Staff College director of Future Warfare Studies, warns: “historical approaches to achieving superiority in the air, land, and sea domains may no longer be valid”. To address this, the nascent multidomain idea aims to make an expansion of jointness within and across domains. To better understand what this means for how militaries observe and orient (OO), this article first explores the context, defining a domain, a continuum of domains, and their relevant features.  Second, given this context, it aims to outline future OO requirements and determine the likely implications for the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) enterprise.

Defining an Operational Domain
Defining and designating operational domains remains a much-debated topic within the defense community. Since the addition of cyberspace in 2011, the DOD officially recognizes five operational domains: land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace. Still more are under consideration, including the electromagnetic spectrum and the human or cognitive domain. The doctrinal debate on what does or does not make the cut as an operational domain is beyond the purpose of this article. It is, however, important to progress with a common conception, and since this article is concerned with examining the practical implications of MDO, a more flexible definition will serve to enable a fuller conversation on its application. In this article, a domain is simply defined as a characteristically distinct maneuver-space within or through which advantage can be achieved over an adversary.

Operations within a Continuum of Domains
Technological developments have long driven evolutions in the way wars are fought. One of the more profound impacts of these developments is found in the way in which they connect domains. By enabling a projection of power and influence beyond where armies could previously travel, early sea power capabilities provided new ways to gain an advantage on land. Similarly, with the advent of airpower came new ways to connect, maneuver, and gain an advantage over both land and sea forces. More recent advances, particularly but not exclusively in information

technology, have created new maneuver spaces, as well as new ways to connect other operational domains, further altering how we perceive domain interdependence.  Central to these changes is the emergence of cyberspace and space as increasingly important and contested domains. As recently described in the Air & Space Power Journal, “advances in technology have subtly nudged the entire globe into a realm where all previous notions of the battlespace have been radically altered by domain interdependence”.

Increasing domain connectivity and interdependence are pushing the battlespace toward a more fluid continuum of domains. Within this context of increasing crossdomain opportunity, the MDO concept involves the exploitation of asymmetric advantage across multiple domains to achieve the freedom of action and effects required for mission success. It is more than simply conducting operations in multiple domains—it is about synchronized maneuver between domains to create asymmetric effects at speeds that ultimately complicate and outpace adversaries’ OODA processes. The core thesis is the complementary, vice merely additive, use of capabilities across domains to create moments of superiority that can be leveraged to achieve mission objectives. Future war fighters will need to be able to gain superiority at the right time, place, and combination of domains to succeed.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

Not New in Concept but New in Character
Although the idea of conducting operations across domains is as old as antiquity, today’s MDO concept has increasing relevance and distinctive features. One of the first recorded examples of an MDO occurred in 1187 BC when a coalition of tribes collectively known as the Sea Peoples threatened Ramses III’s Egypt with superior naval forces. Instead of conducting a traditional naval battle as his predecessors had done, Ramses III secretly maneuvered his land-based archers to the Nile shoreline while presenting a weak naval element to draw the enemy within bow range.

As his archers began annihilating the Sea People’s fleet, the bulk of Ramses’ naval forces blocked their retreat, permanently eliminating this threat. Airpower, 3,100 years later, further advanced the concept of MDO, altering the character of war with its ability to conduct a quick strategic attack from afar, as well as meaningfully influence operations on the land and sea domains. So, if the multidomain idea is a long-standing part of the evolving character of war, what is new about the current MDO concept that requires attention? Beyond the recognition of technological advances and A2/AD challenges, which have been well covered elsewhere, there are distinctive characteristics these produce that demand a more sophisticated MDO approach. Exploring these salient emerging features that define the new MDO provides the foundation necessary to begin to understand how to approach effective multidomain OO.

Focus on Cross-Domain Synergy and Maneuver
At the heart of new multidomain thinking is the idea of cross-domain synergy based on deeper interdomain connectivity. Cross-domain synergy is the synchronization of individual domain activities to establish superiority in or through a combination of domains to achieve mission success. Commanders, staffs, and operators should be able to think beyond their organization’s home domain, equipping and training forces to conduct cross-domain maneuver, pivoting between domains for access and advantage. Just as the Joint Concept for Entry Operations (JCEO) highlights, “maneuver capabilities in multiple domains present many potential threats to the adversary, overloading his decision cycle and allowing the joint force to seize and retain the initiative”.

Windows of Superiority or Access
Recognizing increasing A2/AD challenges, today’s MDO concept is focused on establishing windows of localized superiority, often opportunistically derived, and fleeting in duration. The aim is to penetrate enemy defenses with defined areas of domain superiority where joint and partner forces can achieve operational objectives and prevent adversaries from disrupting friendly operations. As the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center highlights, the military needs to be able to “create and exploit temporary points of advantage”.

This concept differs significantly from traditional concepts of domain superiority that focus on gaining and maintaining superiority over broad swaths of battlespace for longer periods of time. Just as the Air-Sea Battle team noted, this shift in thinking “acknowledges that a joint or combined force may not be able to achieve either theater-wide domain superiority or an enduring and constant superiority, but that it can achieve operational objectives with control that is limited in time or space”. Success in future operations will likely reside in a force’s ability to create precision access in one or multiple domains to enable effects and achievement of objectives in others.

Increased Emphasis on Speed
The fleeting and often opportunistic nature of this new environment places increased emphasis on the speed of MDO. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force underscored this point at a recent panel on multidomain battle, stating that speed and multidomain maneuver at a pace the enemy cannot keep up with “is a defining concept for multi-domain operations”. Success will likely be found by the force with the ability to create and act on fleeting opportunities the quickest, making the OODA competition between opposing forces even more intense.

Emphasis on Lower-Echelon OODA
The likelihood of disrupted communications in a contested battlespace combined with the focus on creating opportunistic advantage increases emphasis on the OODA cycle at lower echelons of action. MDO expertise, authority, and capability must exist at the component-level and below to enable cross-domain actions that support commanders’ intent and schemes of maneuver. Jeffrey Reilly again highlights that, “the requirement to think across domains is occurring at increasingly lower levels and will be essential in the future to generating the tempo critical to exploiting fleeting local opportunities for disrupting an enemy system.”

More Possibilities in More Domains Means Increased Complexity
The emerging battlespace has three key characteristics that create a far more complex operating environment. First, the addition of cyberspace as a new human-constructed and changeable domain offers new possibilities to impact operations within cyberspace as well as in all other cyber-connected domains. Second, advances in technology have created new possibilities for maneuver and action in space as well as throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. Finally, advances in technology are also increasing physical and virtual connection within and between traditional maneuver domains, creating more cross-domain options. Combined, these three characteristics lead to an increasingly complex battlespace with exponentially more combinations of opportunities and risks for war fighters to identify and consider.

Observing and Orienting for MDO
If the multidomain context is, as described above, characterized by increased complexity and speed then, to out-maneuver adversaries, there will be far greater emphasis on warfighters’ ability to first out-observe and out-orient them. Further, this calls for a corresponding change in the way war fighters observe and orient themselves to the battlespace. As William Dries, an Air Staff strategist working on MDO, notes, “the ability to understand an enemy’s activities. . . in multiple domains with speed and agility is the key to all of this”. The following sections outline the enduring foundations of observing and orienting, as well as the new requirements and implications placed on both to create an advantage in a fast and complex context.

Foundations of Observing and Orienting
Observation is the ability to perceive things and activities that have potential significance. According to Boyd, observation is fed and influenced by unfolding circumstances, outside information, interaction with the environment, and iterative interaction with the orient-decide-act components of the OODA Loop. Observation, in turn, feeds the war fighter the information necessary to orient: the interactive process of cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the understanding of the battlespace. Orienting is, as Boyd describes, the most important part of the OODA Loop, the Schwerpunkt that “shapes the way we interact with the environment,” as well as “the way we observe, the way we decide, and the way we act”. Without it, “there is no command and control worthy of the name.”

Enduring ISR principles further build this foundation. While many experts and organizations have developed exhaustive lists of important principles that apply to ISR, a set of core and enduring principles can be distilled for utility in the MDO discussion.

Primary among these are:
1. Perspective—the ability to see and understand the competition and battlespace from others’ perspectives, including partners, nonplayers, and the adversary,
2. Objectivity—recognizing and counteracting biases to remain intellectually transparent and honest,
3. Integration—information where and when it is needed,
4. Context—aggressive collection and sourcing of information to provide multiple vantage points, enabling the analysis and cross-referencing required to increase breadth and depth of understanding.

In turning this toward practical application, the Core ISR Tenets described in ISR 2023 provide an additional useful piece of this foundation.
1. ISR is indivisible—effects depend on ISR synchronization and integration.
2. ISR is domain-neutral—focused on capabilities and effects, not platforms.
3. ISR is operations—not solely support to operations.

Requirements for Multidomain Observing and Orienting
Examining the emerging multidomain context through the lens of the foundation provided above, requirements for future observe and orient activities start to become discernible. Aggressively sourced information that provides perspective and objectivity, integrated at the right time and place must now flex to: feed opportunistic cross-domain maneuver via pockets of domain superiority created and exploited at all echelons, at speeds that outpace adversaries’ ability to build awareness and respond. To meet these demands, ISR forces must be able to identify cross-domain opportunities and vulnerabilities, leverage increasingly vast amounts of data to provide clarity in complexity, and provide broader awareness to a more diverse set of actors.

Identify Cross-Domain Opportunities and Vulnerabilities
To feed multidomain maneuver, ISR must be able to identify cross-domain opportunities and vulnerabilities, recognizing and correlating capabilities, connections, and patterns in a more complex and interconnected operational environment. This means observing the battlespace in greater depth and breadth to have enough puzzle pieces to configure and reconfigure to create opportunity or discover vulnerability. If, as the JCEO describes, future forces will need to “employ opportunistic, unpredictable maneuver, in and across multiple domains,” then their OO functions must be able to identify these fleeting cross-domain gaps and opportunities faster than the adversary can discover and close them.

Sense-making in Complexity and Among Voluminous Data
Observing and orienting for success in MDO will require the ability to make sense of a more complex battlespace with vastly growing volume and variety of data. This places an even greater emphasis on orienting in particular and the ability to fully translate increasingly vast data into insight relevant to commanders’ vision, intent, and objectives. The JOAC’s call for the joint force to be able to “collect, fuse, and share accurate, timely, and detailed intelligence across all domains,” barely scratches the surface on the depth of what this requirement really means. It is a demand for a far more sophisticated ability to, as Boyd described, analyze and synthesize “across a variety of domains” to “evolve new repertoires to deal with unfamiliar phenomena or unforeseen change”. This means that to create the “mental. . . patterns that match with activity of the world” in this new multidomain context, OO functions must be able to make sense of increased complexity and data volume.

Broaden Awareness at All Decision Levels
To create cross-domain synergy at increased speed and at lower echelons, broader awareness of activities, risks, and opportunities in and between domains becomes a necessity from the joint force commander (JFC) down through components and tactical forces. To maneuver in multiple domains, war fighters must be more fully aware of the interconnected domain space their forces operate in and the opportunities that present themselves or can be created. This awareness needs to be available at the same speeds and fidelity as higher echelons to afford forces the ability to disperse to avoid A2/AD threats and then re-concentrate rapidly to exploit opportunity. With this sort of breadth and depth of access to facilitate multidomain OO, actors at all levels will be able to, as Boyd describes, “exploit lower-level initiative yet realize higher-level intent.”

Sean A. Atkins is a doctoral student in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Previously, he was the deputy director of future warfare concepts and an instructor in the Air Command and Staff College’s multidomain operations and strategy program. Sean has served in a range of assignments from forward operating bases in Iraq to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is also the founding 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 the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

3 thoughts on “Multidomain Observing and Orienting: ISR to Meet the Emerging Battlespace

  • September 12, 2018 at 12:29 pm
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    Sean A. Atkins: Thank you for this thoughtful challenge to action. I agree this is a critical time with complex problems that elude current approaches. For that reason, I am prompted to write a cautionary comment about your use of Ramses and the Sea People as an exemplary anchor in MDO history. In no way did Ramses permanently eliminate the threat of the Sea People – a coalition who contributed in still debated ways to the end of the Bronze Age and the destruction of past-peak Empires during one of the most calamitous times in human history.

    I appreciate your referencing the current debate around the Sea People because I agree the transition from the Bronze to Iron Age has lessons for today’s epic-defining new tech capabilities. But how to leverage this analogy is open to debate. Yale professor James Scott has a highly original and unexpected take on this in his recent book, Against the Grain. I look at the chariot to infantry tech evolution in the still relevant End of the Bronze Age by Robert Drews. The Scott book is a hard read in his argument against cities and nation-state sovereignty, but the position he presents needs to inform some part of our understanding of the current challenge. Especially, as you point out, when lower level initiatives are being exploited so successfully. What moment, exactly, are we at?

    Thank you again for presenting relevant thought leadership. I agree that we need to integrate strategy across domains – including spectrum and human (both men and women, located and subjective). I look forward to futher thoughtful conversation on what relevant to today can be learned from the catastrophic transition from the Bronze to Iron Age. How best to understand the problems we face now in our own remarkable century of transition?

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