Overview of Comments from the 2018 AFA Conference

By Jamie Meighan

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Mins

The Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference is the annual gathering of Airmen from the United States, its close allies, and industry. This year’s conference, attended by over 12,000 people, was of particular interest to Over the Horizon and the Multi Domain Operations Strategist concentration because its key theme was Multi-Domain Operations: Leveraging the Full Spectrum. With members of the Senior Editorial team at the event, it presented an opportunity to listen to, engage, and discuss some of the most pressing questions and challenges facing the USAF and its on-going grapple with the concepts of Multi Domain Operations. Disappointingly, in this debate over a few days, the lack of clarity and detail persisted throughout. Definitions and an agreed lexicon are vital to long-term success and, as we recently heard from Jared Donnelly and Tike Farley, beginning with a definition of domain presents a logical starting point for this conversation. Hearing from a dozen senior military officers and members of industry and academia without an agreed definition of multi domain operations in many ways undermines the essence of the conversation.

The logical way to frame the conversation, almost like taking commander’s intent or guidance, would be to start at the top. Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein, in his address on day two of the conference, described the historical roots of multi domain operations citing Henry Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s observations on the use of domains on the eve of the Revolutionary War. In describing the evolution from “one by land and two by sea” to “three by cyber and four by space” Gen Goldfein attached importance to solving problems using actions from and into multiple domains; “Using dominance in one domain or many, blending a few capabilities in one domain or many, even for a fixed period of time or location to produce multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.”

Figure 1 – Understanding the building blocks for Multi Domain Operations
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, delivers his Air Force Update speech during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 18, 2018. During his remarks, Goldfein highlighted his vision for the future of multi-domain command and control. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)

The urge to accelerate to multi domain operations execution without fully understanding the conceptual component risks undermining success against a near peer. Gen Timothy Ray, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, described this in his panel discussion as understanding more than just post kinetic action, instead, when facing a near peer, the fight must be conceptualized left of boom. This conceptual anchor seemed to be devoid in some of the other panel conversations. In contrast, some panel members shared a commonly held view; this is nothing new because the USAF is already executing multi domain operations. But in describing the problem, do they really mean we already operate joint and integrated operations or do we already execute service focused domain dominance? General John Hyten, Commander, US Strategic Command, on day three likened multi domain operations to integrated operations, describing the problem as a reflection of adding the cyber and space domains, synchronizing those domains and converging capabilities. This would by default increase the complexities of executing operations. A panel on day one consisting of senior officers from cyber, space, and EW war fighting brought different perspectives; multi domain operations are about common understanding, persistence, mission command, flexibility in cyberspace, and actions within the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as multi domain command and control. While these diverse perspectives are important, they highlight the divergence of conceptual understanding with regard to multi domain operations.

This is not the first time the USAF has faced such a challenge. In 2001, writing in the Aerospace Power Journal, General John Jumper, then Chief of Staff of the USAF, wrote about his vision of introducing a new fighting concept known as the Global Strike Task Force. While the concept has limited overlap with Multi Domain Operations, it is the approach that Gen Jumper advocated for that merits mention. He recognized that technology had brought the USAF into a new era to be able to “maneuver over around and through.” To capitalize on these new emerging trends he advocated for an understanding of the new environment and the creation of innovative Concepts of Operation. In his analysis of successive USAF involved conflicts he profoundly states that access assurance is a key factor in the future, both physical and political. Seventeen years have passed and we face a similar dilemma with the need for similar approach.

While the Electromagnetic enterprise capabilities cooperation team (ECCT) and the Multi-domain Command and Control ECCT seek to provide granularity to complexity, they are sub layers of the broader conceptual discussion. It is vital that before we begin talking about physical networks, systems connectivity, command relationships we understand with sufficient detail the problem we are trying to solve and we set the conceptual foundations for success. This conversation becomes even more important now with the recent announcement of a multi domain career field, which appears to focus on the C2 of Multi Domain Operations versus the entirerity of the problem.

Finally, this problem is not isolated to the USAF, but is incoherrant across services, agencies, allied partners and NATO. It appears that services have their own approaches to try and conceptualise multi domain, but this seems to focus on their specific area of interest, traditionally air, land, maritime and cyber. DARPA has recently launched a conversation on what is calling Mosaic Warfare in which it is seeking conceptual and technological solutions to understand and enable multi domain operations. Yet as Craig Lawrence Program Manager in the Strategic Technology Office stated he is still trying to get his hands around what multi domain or cross domain means, adding “if the U.S. is serious about bringing a greater capability to bear on the adversary, the military needs to figure out how to plan and manage across domains.”

A recent RAND study summarizes the dilemma, “A more nuanced understanding of multidomain could help the Department of Defense improve its ability to defeat high-end adversaries. Allowing conceptual confusion to continue and to grow could jeopardize progress.” It ends by stating, “The U.S. defense community would do well to acknowledge that the effort to harness and integrate more domains will take some time. Senior leaders may want quick “wins,” and they shouldn’t be neglected, but it is advisable to set realistic expectations about how quickly knowledge will advance. The old adage of Crawl-Walk-Run is appropriate when set to the backdrop of an urgency to be able to cope with the emergence of China and Russia. A gathering of multi domain minds from services, allies, industry, and academia is the crawl part of this journey. This would have to be more focused than the AFA conference and maybe begin by logically consider the varying components that make up multi domain from the conceptual to the execution and in between. Some of those are outlined in Figure 1. Without this in the very near term we may not be able to walk or run.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

Figure 1 – Understanding the building blocks for Multi Domain Operations



Wg Cdr Jaimie Meighan, Royal Air Force, is an instructor at the Air Command and Staff College who teaches in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program. He has experience across the spectrum of RPA operations and multiple deployments, including Afghanistan and Falkland Islands.

Images: Featured image courtesy of AFA.org.

Second image: Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, delivers his Air Force Update speech during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 18, 2018. During his remarks, Goldfein highlighted his vision for the future of multi-domain command and control. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)

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, the U.S. Government, or the Royal Air Force.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

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