Approximate Reading Time: 7 Minutes
By: Thomas S. Griesemer
Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) is becoming the new method by which the US military will execute operations. Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein has, on several occasions, highlighted MDO as the way to fight future wars. In his 18 September 2018 address to the Air Force Association, he stated, “The next phase of work is preparing the Air Force we need for multi-domain operations—the convergence of military capabilities in any or all domains to achieve military objectives on a global scale.” While a formal definition of MDO is not yet agreed upon, it is clear the US focus is unifying domains to work in an integrated fashion to accomplish a specific objective. While the US is advancing this concept, the nation’s adversaries are also working toward MDO.
Russia’s recent military reorganization, beginning in 2008, not only restructured its aging Soviet-era force to eliminate redundancies and increase lethality and efficiency, but it also focused on creating organizations, equipment, and tactics to synchronize operations across domains. Russia’s Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces, Army General Valeriy Gerasimov, at a speech on 1 March 2018 identified the need for Russia to prepare for complex warfare by leveraging multiple domains by stating, “It goes without saying that each military conflict has its own distinctive features . . . Besides traditional spheres of armed struggle, the information sphere and space will be actively involved.” General Gerasimov’s comments focus Russia on preparing for future war, including a whole of government approach and multi-domain concepts critical in high-intensity conflict. His theories and concepts became widely known outside of Russia as the Gerasimov doctrine and his influence in shaping the future Russian force is significant. Taking into consideration both Russia’s military reorganization and General Gerasimov’s vision, Russia is intentionally moving towards MDO.
Russia’s Military Reorganization Inherently Multi-Domain
Using Dr. Jeffrey Reilly’s definition for a domain as a “critical macro maneuver space whose access or control is vital to the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission,” the air, land, sea, space, the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), and human domains become relevant to the discussion of Russian military reorganization. The reorganization itself administratively centered on the Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) the primary fighting unit. Russia’s new approach to warfare attempts to enable commanders at the BTG-level to execute operations in a multi-domain fashion and provide those commanders’ capabilities across the domains.
In the new Russian construct, the BTG commander selects the key enablers to incorporate into the unit for a specific operational effect, rather than rely solely on capabilities organic to an inflexible force structure. As evidenced by the use of Motorized Rifle BTG in the 2014 Ukraine conflict, the key enablers tasked under a BTG included advanced radar-guided surface to air missile systems (SAMs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. These capabilities, typically reserved at higher echelons, along with traditional mechanized infantry and armor maneuver elements and organic artillery, provide a single maneuver unit with embedded multi-domain capabilities. The integration of SAMs and UAVs into the BTG show a clear interdependency between the conventional land domain and the air domain. Furthermore, the EW capabilities of ground-based jammers in addition to EW capabilities onboard the newly embedded UAVs shows interdependencies between the land and EMS in addition to the EMS and air domains respectively.
Many of these key enablers, traditionally held at echelons much higher than the Battalion, allow the BTG commander to leverage capabilities that span the multi-domain environment. Unlike the historic Soviet Army unit’s doctrinal configuration with very specific equipment and numbers of personnel, the BTG is inherently flexible, with the ability to incorporate a variety of diverse assets necessary to accomplish the mission. The organization of this multi-domain force under a single fielded BTG commander shows that the focus is on unifying these capabilities for a singular military objective, and thus becoming an intentional multi-domain force and not merely forces incidentally operating in multiple domains in the same geographic area. Not only does the organizational structure and equipment exist for multi-domain operations in the BTG, the BTG tactics also support multi-domain operations.
Russian Multi-Domain Operations in Ukraine
In addition to the development of equipment and its organization into forces supporting MDO, such as the BTG, Russia’s newly minted doctrine reveals a commitment to MDO employment that exhibits a paradigm shift towards an emerging multi-domain force. In Ukraine, Russia employed a multi-domain equipped BTG with much success. On 11 July 2014, Russian forces conducted a multi-domain operation at Zelenopillya against Ukrainian mechanized forces. The Russian forces executed cyber attacks in the EMS to disrupt Ukrainian communications, delaying decision-making, while simultaneously deploying the Orlan 10 UAV to conduct detailed target acquisition of the Ukrainian position, then used long range rocket and artillery strikes to destroy the Ukrainian forces. What made the attack unique was Russia’s use of organic UAV assets, cyber elements, and ground forces under a single battalion commander in concert to accomplish a combined affect. Furthermore, the Russian BTG conceived, planned, and executed the mission in a way to leverage the interdependencies between each of the domains to synchronize capabilities. The Russian attack resulted in over 30 Ukrainian soldiers killed and two battalions of combat vehicles destroyed, and successfully demonstrated a well-integrated multi-domain unit.
The operation at Zelenopillya was not an isolated occurrence. The Russians used similar tactics at the Battle of Ilovaisk. In August 2014, Ukrainian forces sent eight battalions into the city in order to remove a contingent of Russian forces. The Ukrainian forces were succeeding in their mission, which prompted the Russians to send multiple BTGs from their southern district to prevent a Ukrainian victory. Using the same cyber, UAV, and artillery tactics as in Zelenopillya, the Russian BTG killed over 500 Ukrainian forces and decimated the Ukrainian combat vehicles. The tactics would again be utilized in the September 2014 to January 2015 Battle of Donetsk Airport and once again in January 2015 at the Battle of Debal’tseve. The recurrent use of these multi-domain tactics in Ukraine across multiple BTGs operating in separate areas shows this is a developed tactic the Russian forces will continue to use.
Countering Russian Multi-Domain Operations
To counter Russia’s deliberate advances in MDO, the US and its allies must develop multi-domain counter-tactics. As stated in the introduction, the success of MDO hinges upon integration of domains and, specifically, areas of interdependence. Evaluating the Russian tactics above, the Russian success in MDO in Ukraine relied on several key interdependencies. Firstly, cyber attacks in the EMS preceded nearly all of Russia’s kinetic attacks, which disrupted Ukrainian decision-making in the human domain. Without effective communications, Ukrainian forces could not organize an effective offense or defense to counter the Russian attack. Secondly, the Russian forces leveraged the air domain through UAVs to conduct target acquisition. These UAVs relied on the EMS for command and control in addition to providing targeting data to artillery units. In both efforts, the EMS domain provided the Russian BTG a maneuver space to gain an advantage over the Ukrainian forces, and the interdependency between the EMS and ground forces firing the artillery is a critical component. Denying the use of the EMS to launch the cyber attack or operate UAVs would cause the Russian tactic to fail.
While these examples represent only one type of multi-domain tactic currently employed by the Russian military, the same process could counter other multi-domain efforts. For example, finding the interdependencies an adversary is leveraging in a multi-domain fight, and using, as Gen Goldfein stated, the “convergence of military capabilities” to attack that interdependency. It is clear through Russia’s military reorganization and its operations in Ukraine that it is intentionally developing a multi-domain force. The US must continue to work to develop its multi-domain capabilities to counter this growing threat.
Thomas “Hans” Griesemer is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at the USAF’s Air Command and Staff College. He is an Intelligence Officer and former Instructor at the US Air Force Weapons School with assignments in US European Command, US Pacific Command, and multiple deployments to US Central Command.
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.