Modernizing ISR C2 Part I: Multi-Domain Maneuver as the Foundation

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This is the first article in a multi-part series focused on modernizing Command and Control (C2) of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). In this article, the author advocates for a broad, unifying theory of combat operations that acts as a foundation to understand future warfare. In subsequent articles, the author will use this foundation to explore a new C2 of ISR framework using the “multi-domain maneuver” concept. He will conclude the series with an examination of the intentional and effective employment of ISR professionals to optimize ISR operations in the future operational context.

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes

By Jerry “Marvin” Gay

“Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”

– Sun Tzu
The Art of War

“Victory in future conflict as I described it to you, will go to that leader who can control his or her forces to create multiple dilemmas from multiple domains and achieve the precision speed, and is able to maneuver forces both kinetic and non-[kinetic].”

– General David Goldfein
Chief of Staff of the Air Force

Despite the undeniable value of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for combatant commands (CCMDs) and warfighters, the theater-level ISR command and control (C2) framework used by the Joint Force is antiquated, inefficient, and wasteful. Furthermore, current ISR collection management processes compel joint ISR professionals to spend more time updating spreadsheets, creating briefings, and struggling with inefficient tools than developing coherent ISR integration strategies, planning optimized ISR schemes, or seeking more effective ways to understand, hunt down, and destroy the enemy. This method of operating ISR is ill-suited for any future fight and will increasingly place the Nation’s interests at risk as the operational context continues to evolve.

The Cold War relic that constitutes the CCMDs’ theater-level ISR C2 construct has outlived its shelf-life and must be replaced by a system more conducive for modern warfare. While it may be appropriate in many instances to make incremental changes to mission-critical processes, the ever-changing character of war, complex nature of multi-domain operations, and pervasiveness of technological hyper-advancements demand a wholesale reimagining of the military’s doctrinal approach to ISR command and control. In its place, an ISR C2 system predicated on multi-domain maneuver and disciplined initiative, as well as an enterprise comprised of a professionalized cadre of ISR specialists, should be implemented. Starting broad with a unifying concept of warfare and overarching framework for ISR, the focus of the first piece in this series will be the theory or concept of multi-domain maneuver as it relates to ISR. Future articles in the series will delve into other facets of a new ISR C2 construct, namely mission command and “man-in-the-loop ISR.” Before we can dive into the ISR C2 weeds, however, there must first be an ecosystem in which ISR can thrive.

“The reason we need fusion warfare is to maintain our tactical edge, meaning the outer boundary of warfighting, not just today but specifically in 2035. By then, our competitors will probably be near-peer technologically, and some will have advanced us.”

– Lt Gen VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson
Dep. Chief of Staff for ISR (HAF/A2)

The Operational Context

Adversaries have learned over nearly two decades of continuous combat operations how the United States prefers and intends to wage war. Further, our nation’s adversaries, after suffering unremitting defeat for decades, have developed and employed methods that allow them to temporarily open windows of tactical advantage. These ever so brief moments of oft unexpected disadvantage open the US and coalition partners to exploitation and attack. Supporting this characterization of adversary capabilities, The Modern War Institute at West Point published an article in May 2017 that stipulated:

“Over the last 25 years, assumptions of air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace domain superiority drove the doctrine, equipment, and posture of US forces. These assumptions are proving to be invalid in light of recent changes to adversary capabilities, capacities, and approaches. Potential adversaries now possess capabilities that allow them to contest both the deployment and employment of US forces in greatly expanded areas of operation, interest, and influence. US forces are not organized, trained, equipped, and postured to properly contest emerging and potential threats. As a result, the freedom of action required to support US policy, by deterring, and if necessary, defeating potential enemies is at risk.”

Unfortunately, with the ubiquity of technology and the rise of domains seemingly impervious to absolute defense, namely cyber, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), the US finds itself more vulnerable to attack than ever before. If warfare was conducted exclusively in the air, land, and maritime domains, US overmatch alone could help deter most enemy aggression. However, the digital revolution brought with it the onset of the Information Age, forever changing the character of war and creating a paradigm whereby US interests are perpetually held at some level of risk. Because of these operational realities, we must evolve.

Looking out over the horizon, the US can wait no longer to aggressively invest in a military force trained, equipped, and prepared to defeat all near-peer adversaries employing advanced technology and modern weaponry. Equally, US and coalition forces should not simply cast off lessons learned since 2001, but must retain the flexibility and agility to decisively mitigate non-state actors characterized by their use of the internet to spread their ideology and employment of common cellular technology to synchronize operations while leveraging crude, dual-use materials to harm innocent civilians. In addition to committing ourselves to a force of the future, the US military must also evolve beyond jointness by embracing interdependency. A combat force intentionally manned, trained, and equipped for interdependent combat operations will increase combat effectiveness and lethality. Additionally, interdependent military elements will enable increased agility to operate simultaneously or sequentially on demand across all domains. Because enemies will seek ever innovative ways to exploit US weaknesses in specific domains, Joint Forces must be poised to disrupt and deny an enemy’s window of opportunity. The approach that will ensure readiness combines the concepts of maneuver warfare and multi-domain operations into a unified theory of modern warfare for Joint Forces called multi-domain maneuver.

“Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.”

Winston S. Churchill

Maneuver Warfare

Maneuver is a principle of war critical to all components. Maneuver entails “a movement to place ships, aircraft, or land forces in a position of advantage over the enemy.” Maneuver enables friendly forces to exploit advantages, decrease potential vulnerabilities to the force, and maintain freedom of action. Executed effectively, maneuver provides protection for friendly forces while keeping the enemy off balance, and has the ability to complicate the enemy’s efforts, “rendering his actions ineffective, eventually leading to defeat.” While the traditional definition of maneuver constitutes an act that is merely spatial in nature (e.g., maneuvering tanks, maritime vessels, or aircraft), a more contemporary understanding includes maneuver across all domains executed to gain an advantage. It is important to note, however, that the advantage achieved “may be psychological, technological, or temporal as well as spatial.” Additionally, timing and tempo are important components for maneuver because they allow friendly forces to “generate a faster operating tempo than the enemy to gain a temporal advantage” and achieve decisive superiority at the necessary time and place.

Maneuver warfare is a universally applicable concept of operation and style of warfare that is both domain and service/component agnostic. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP-1) defines maneuver warfare as “a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions, which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.” Further, the purpose for maneuver warfare is to defeat the enemy by disrupting or preventing the adversary’s ability to effectively respond, rather than conducting attrition warfare to physically destroy all enemy forces. Although favored by the USMC as its primary “warfighting doctrine based on rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver,” the concepts, tactics, and doctrine of maneuver warfare are applicable to all combat forces. This hypothesis is supported by the references to maneuver as a core tenet in each service’s doctrine and concepts of operation. For example, ensconced throughout Navy doctrine is the focus on freedom of movement and maneuver “on and under the sea.” The Navy, our nation’s predominant maritime fighting forces, also recognize the importance of cross-domain support from the sea. Similarly, joint and USAF service doctrine “recognize airpower as a form of maneuver. Rapid, long-range, multidimensional maneuver and fires; kinetic and non-kinetic actions; and lethal and nonlethal effects, are inherent in airpower, as is the ability to inflict both physical and psychological dislocation on an adversary.” It must be noted, however, that maneuver warfare as a theory and codified construct remains somewhat uncharted territory in the cyber, space, and EMS domains. To resolve this knowledge and tactics gap, the Joint Force should work toward an improved and unified understanding of maneuver in cyber, space, and across the EMS.

“We are moving into a new era of multi-domain operations. Space and cyberspace will not only support operations on air, land, and sea, but air, land, and sea will also support operations in space and cyberspace,” said Raymond. “It’s domain on demand — what domain do we want to use to achieve the desired effect?”

– General Jay Raymond
Commander, USAF Space Command

Multi-domain Operations

Similar to maneuver and maneuver warfare, there is little debate that operating across multiple domains sequentially or simultaneously has evolved into an intrinsic factor of modern warfare and must be a priority for the Joint Force. As Dr. Jeff Reilly, Director of Joint Education at Air Command and Staff College, opined, “The concept of cross-domain operations is not new. It has been an inherent part of military thought since antiquity.” The Army and Marine Corps echoed this sentiment in a white paper that concluded multi-domain is an existing construct that has been adapted to focus on employing innovative methodologies and tactics to overcome future challenges. Conceptually, multi-domain operations enable the Joint Force to open “temporary windows of advantage across multiple domains throughout the depth of the battlefield to enable the maneuver and echeloning of forces to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative; defeat enemies; and achieve military objectives.” Because the enemy strives to gain competitive advantages through cheap or improved technology or any other means, the Joint Force must seek novel ways to deny these victories to the enemy. The objective of multi-domain operations is to mitigate or remove the enemy’s advantages altogether.

All services have incorporated multi-domain thinking into their operational concepts of operations. For instance, the Army and Marine Corps have worked jointly to develop Multi Domain Battle. To further refine their concept, the US Army’s Functional Concept for Movement and Maneuver (AFC-MM) introduces “cross-domain maneuver” as a complementary concept to MDB. TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-6 states:

“Cross-domain maneuver is the employment of mutually supporting lethal and nonlethal capabilities in multiple domains to generate overmatch, present multiple dilemmas to the enemy, and enable joint force freedom of movement and action. Integrating capabilities in all domains in such a way to achieve a synergistic effect increases relative combat power and enables Army maneuver forces to destroy or defeat enemy forces. Commanders employ cross-domain maneuver to concentrate effects in decisive spaces across the five domains to achieve physical, temporal, and psychological advantage over enemy forces.”

The Air Force has a similar concept called “cross-domain effects” which are created in one or more domains through operations in another. Air Force doctrine stipulates that to attain operational effects “airpower can… create virtual “flanks” or “rears” in other dimensions, such as time and cyberspace… or assist the joint force in doing so.” To achieve this, Airmen utilize the airspace above the battlefield like an additional flank, which can be exploited to achieve a relative advantage. Furthermore, “by making effective use of a third dimension, (such as) the electromagnetic spectrum and time, airpower can seize the initiative, set the terms of battle, establish a dominant tempo of operations, better anticipate the enemy through superior observation, and take advantage of tactical, operational, and strategic opportunities.” These opportunities lead to other distinctive airpower capabilities such as having the ability to simultaneously strike at the adversary’s centers of gravity, vital centers, and critical vulnerabilities… which “allows airpower to achieve effects well beyond the tactical effects of individual actions, at a tempo that disrupts the adversary’s decision cycle.” The ability to strike rapidly and unexpectedly with unequalled speed and lethality makes the Air Component a formidable Joint Force contributor.

Why Multi-Domain Maneuver?

While each branch of the military is grappling with their own challenges, all services seem to have in recent times coalesced around similar operational and institutional conclusions, albeit via separate paths. The first common realization by the armed forces is that as a Joint Force, the US military is not manned, trained, equipped, or prepared to fight the wars of the future. Next, there is a growing consensus that the technological advantages once enjoyed by US forces has eroded. And finally, there is a recognition that the force currently fighting our nation’s wars is fighting under antiquated concepts of operation that must be transformed.

Moving forward, we must ensure any construct the Joint Force develops and employs capitalizes on the strengths and capabilities of all services. Further, the concept must also allow sufficient flexibility for the full range of military operations, from asymmetric forms of warfare such as counterinsurgency or counterterrorism to major theater war or a major joint campaign. Additionally, while steps taken to develop and adopt a more effective philosophy is generally a positive development, we cannot simply dust off an old theory (e.g., AirLand Battle), add in cyber and space, and believe we have resolved the issues. While the MDB construct provides a ground-centric vision for future conflict, the construct seems to omit considerations during contingencies that demand the maritime or air domains become the main effort and supported command. The TRADOC website, established to answer frequently asked questions about MDB, reads, “Multi-Domain Battle is a coordinated US Army and US Marine Corps approach for ground combat operations against a sophisticated peer enemy threat.” While it does state later that MDB is “inherently joint and requires the full integration of joint force,” the fact that the construct is characterized as an approach to ground combat operations suggests the concept may be limited in its applicability for some contingency maritime or air operations. Ultimately, the land component may very well be the main effort or supported command; however, this should not be presupposed as the default setting for fighting our nation’s wars.

Where the US and coalition can achieve the greatest effects is operating under a construct that intentionally leverages the distinct advantages each service enjoys across all domains. Because our adversaries are often limited in their ability to operate across multiple domains simultaneously, US forces hold a decisive advantage. With flexible, adaptable, agile, and resilient forces and the ability to maneuver interdependently, Joint Forces are able to maintain the initiative, element of surprise, and freedom of maneuver to defeat our enemies. To ensure the Joint Force is postured to execute in this manner, it would be worthwhile to identify and implement a unifying concept that will propel the US military into the future. Multi-Domain Maneuver can serve as that unifying concept for Joint Forces.

“If you think about multi-domain C2 as a place you’re already too limited. If you start thinking about it as a bunch of computer screens in a place you’re already too narrow. It’s a (concept of operations), it’s a way of thinking.”

– General David Goldfein
Chief of Staff of the Air Force


In physics, there is a concept called the “theory of everything.” This theory is a “hypothetical single, all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework of physics that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe. Finding a theory of everything is one of the major unsolved problems in physics.” For military theorists, academics, and practitioners alike, a military theory of everything has never been attempted or discovered. That may change. As advanced technology becomes pervasive, our enemies continue to adapt, and threats to our nation grow, our only recourse is to evolve. The United States Armed Forces stand at a crossroads with many challenges demanding immediate and sustained focus. With the character of war and complexity of modern warfare continually changing at an ever quickening pace, we must take action. If our nation’s military is going to overcome these institutional challenges, senior leaders must challenge their own preconceived notions about organizational structures, warfighting concepts, and force requirements.

Future conflict will be increasingly complicated and distributed, involving simultaneous actions by an interdependent Joint Force working across all domains. The Joint Force has all of the conceptual and operational components to develop a unifying concept of warfare. Now we must set aside parochialisms, agendas, and biases to forge a more lethal and effective military framework based on interdependence and multi-domain maneuver. As Dr. Jeff Reilly warned, we “must become much more attuned to forms of maneuver in all… realms, and until [we] develop an appreciation for and understanding of multi-domain maneuver, true innovation…” will be lacking.

Jerry Gay is an active duty US Air Force officer most recently assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He holds an MBA from George Mason University School of Business, a Master of Arts in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University, and a Bachelor of Arts with dual concentrations in Asian Studies and Judaic Studies from the University of Tennessee. Jerry is a USAF Weapons School graduate with over 25 years of distinguished military service. A former ISR Tactical Controller (ITC), Airborne Cryptologic Linguist, and Airborne Intelligence Officer (AIO) with over 2,700 flight hours and 1,000 combat hours, Jerry has controlled and served as aircrew onboard a variety of Air Force and special operations ISR aircraft.

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

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