Outlining the Multi-Domain Operational Concept Part II: Evolution of an Idea

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Editor’s Note: This week we will be republishing a 3-part series focused on the idea of Multi-Domain Operations as an operating concept and moving towards practical application. This is the second article in the series, part one can be found here.

By Jonathan Bott

Roots of the Multi-Domain Operational Concept

In 2011, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff surprised a meeting of the Military Education Coordination Council when he asked “What’s after Joint?” Though the joint operational concept had become the touchstone of modern militaries, senior military leaders recognized that the US needed to look beyond current thinking to ensure continued relevance.

A number of documents that appeared in 2012 began to meaningfully engage this question with increasing attention on the synergistic potential of “jointness” from a multi-domain perspective. The Capstone Concept for Joint Operations called for achieving “joint synergy,” highlighting the importance of thinking in terms of joint functions independent of Service and calling for cross-domain synergy to become “a core operating concept in all joint operations.” The Joint Operational Access Concept changed emphasis from Service capabilities to domain-based capabilities. Its central concept is “cross-domain synergy,” a seamless application of combat power between domains, with greater integration at dramatically lower echelons than joint forces currently achieve. Underlying each of these documents is the recognition of an increasingly complex security environment, the need to embrace technological advancement, and the necessity to combine capabilities within and across domains. They emphasize a multi-domain perspective regardless of problem domain or Service asset ownership.

While previous documents such as the Cross-Domain Synergy in Joint Operations Planner’s Guide highlight combining capabilities across all domains as an imperative, a shift from “cross-domain” to “multi-domain” is necessary and provides three major benefits. First, “multi-domain” is distinguishable as a concept whose scope is beyond just cyberspace. The term ‘cross-domain’ has historically been an information technology term, often referring to information assurance techniques across multiple systems or classification levels. Second, the Department of Defense must think in terms of multiple domains working in concert simultaneously to achieve goals rather than solely operating in or between two domains. Finally, “multi-domain” is about effects. The multi-domain operational concept is about movement or effect in or through one or a combination of domains to produce end-point effects in others.

An example that highlights this distinction is found in Joint Publication 3-18, Joint Forcible Entry Operations. The 2012 edition expanded the principles for success in operations to include control of all five domains. It specifically discusses the importance of control in the air, space, and maritime domains, while managing the electromagnetic spectrum and concludes by emphasizing the need to integrate support operations in all domains. However, it primarily centers on interoperability of command, control, and communications efforts, directly reflecting the goals of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Further, current doctrine typically focuses on interoperability at the Joint Forces Commander level, which often becomes a conversation on deconfliction and phasing rather than fully integrated capabilities at the tactical level. In contrast, the multi-domain concept evolves these ideas further, placing a high degree of focus on integrating operations at the tactical unit level to achieve advantageous maneuver across domains.

According to Joint Publication 1, joint implies synergistic capability across Services rather than overlapping capabilities and responsibilities. Current joint effective action requires interoperability and interdependence, the purposeful reliance on another Service’s capabilities. The next evolution retains interoperability, while turning attention to creating options in multiple domains regardless of Service. The most effective manner of dominating airspace may be to use air forces, but in some environments using land forces may be opportunistically expedient for a time. Threats, distance, available forces, relative priorities, or emergent opportunities may drive the decision to use a non-traditional capability to achieve effects in a separate domain. In continuing to evolve joint operational concepts, the military must advance how it utilizes multiple domains to achieve an objective rather than just linking actions by Services.

Continuing the Evolution

The changing environment necessitates continuing conceptual advancement. Since World War II, American military operations have sought to gain sea and air superiority to enable land combat while maintaining access to space and the electromagnetic spectrum. Area denial strategies contest air and sea support, disrupt communications with hacking and jamming, impede space-based surveillance, degrade supply lines, and easily target large bases from afar. While, as Admiral John Richardson noted, these threats are not necessarily a fait accompli, they will become one if the US and its partners do not continue to evolve their warfighting approach.

Multi-domain operations create useful options for decision-makers facing increasing complexity and ‘non-traditional’ military methods. Robert Axelrod and Michael Cohen describe the increasing dissatisfaction with industrial models of thinking, highlighting their rigidity, slowness, and inability to adjust to changing circumstances and local conditions. Emergent opportunities are a characteristic of complex systems and, for organizations like modern militaries, they emphasize preparing to take advantage of them rather than attempting to force or predict them.

Jointness is a good starting point for future warfare in complex environments. The next step is harnessing joint operating experience to produce integrated solutions through multiple domains rather than ignoring the difficulty of overcoming Service heuristics. Organizations are typically confined to the methods they have practiced to solve challenges. Services must leverage the experiences and capabilities of other organizations to create new and more options. Complexity is about numbers of relationships rather than numbers of things. Complexity research grounds analysis of “leverage points” and suggests that small changes can have large effects. As such, the multi-domain operational concept is a cognitive shift aimed at expanding decision maker’s aperture for viewing both problems and potential solutions. Ideally, this adjusts patterns of response to become problem-focused rather than Service-based.

As a relatively new discussion, the delineation between multi-domain and the current joint operations constructs may seem like semantics. However, joint and multi-domain differ in ends, ways, and means. Ends evolve from coordinated separate Service objectives to complementary enabling objectives with a mutual and singular goal. Ways, or the actions achieving conditions for victory, transform from dominating one’s own domain to achieving windows of temporary advantage and projecting power across domains to enable freedom of action for actors in another domain. Available means of massed forces with large forward bases, constant communication, and regular supply change to dispersed flexible forces operating with commander’s intent in a rapid, self-sufficient manner. The current environment implies that failure in one domain has cascading effects in one or more of the others. At the campaign level, and often tactically, domains are now integrated and interdependent; the way Services operate must reflect that.

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Service Challenges to Continued Evolution

While joint doctrine does not specifically define the term “domain,” it does outline land, maritime, air, space, and cyberspace:

  • The land domain is “the area of the Earth’s surface ending at the high water mark and overlapping with the maritime domain in the landward segment of the littorals.”
  • The maritime domain is the “oceans, seas, bays, estuaries, islands, coastal areas, and the airspace above these, including the littorals.”
  • The air domain is “the atmosphere, beginning at the Earth’s surface, extending to the altitude where its effects upon operations become negligible.”
  • Space consists of the environment where electromagnetic radiation, charged particles, and electric and magnetic fields are the dominant physical influences, and that encompasses the earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere, and beyond.
  • Cyberspace is “a global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent network of information technology infrastructures, including the internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers.”

However, Services disagree on what constitutes multi-domain. For instance, the Air Force Future Operating Concept suggests that multi-domain refers to air, space, and cyberspace. It does not include land, maritime, or fully account for the electromagnetic spectrum. This approach is like discussing blue-water oceans without covering littoral or riverine operations in the maritime environment. Conversely, William Odom and Christopher Hayes view military multi-domain operations as the use of two or more domains to achieve a relative advantage, frequently involving capabilities from one domain to another. Further, multi-domain operations involve the simultaneous exploitation of asymmetric advantages across domains to achieve the freedom of action required by the mission.

For this approach to succeed, Services must further adjust their outlook. Historian Roger Beaumont found “many of the structures and attitudes in [joint] organizations are products of historical momentum rather than deliberate design.” He posited that “jointness” improves during conflict from the need to blend Service elements to improve function. For instance, General Pedro del Valle described the successful joint operations during the World War II Pacific campaign as stemming from the subordination of unit glory to the task at hand. The “bureaucratic tribes with celebrated rivalries” present deep barriers to where the joint force needs to advance to remain effective in the future.

Another critical barrier for leading in a multi-domain environment is a weak understanding of maneuver in other domains. For example, speed differences in operating environment alone change a basic understanding of time. The land component may measure pace in meters or miles per hour, whereas the maritime uses tens of miles per hour, air forces use hundreds, or tens of thousands of miles per hour in space, and the electromagnetic spectrum moves at the speed of light. “Behaviors that…reinforce rather than undercut each other” improve mutual power according to Joseph Nye. Leaving mutual understanding between Services up to fate during crisis management is as risky as mandating specific models.


The way military power is used to achieve strategic ends has and will continue to change. The most impactful changes are generated in new ways of thinking about conflict and how it is fought. With this in mind, it is important to recognize multi-domain operations as an important new operational concept that is more mindset than prescribed method, one that evolves previous thought, and one that itself deserves continued development.

Jonathan “Vapor” Bott is a Weapons System Officer with over 1900 hours in the F-15E and 566 combat hours during five deployments. He is a recent graduate of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies.

Disclaimer: 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 U.S. Government.


OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment
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