An Approachable Look at the Human Domain and Why We Should Care

By: M. Kell
Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

Abstract: Within the context of multi-domain operations, the human domain is arguably the most important domain, but it is often the most overlooked. This article proposes implementation of the domain through the use of planning for desired behaviors prior to conflict. It also discusses how Russia views information warfare, their practices, and a case study of its importance in the Crimean Annexation.

Influence is the crux of warfare and peacetime operations. Until the United States (US) gets serious about creating a desired behavior in target audiences, it will continue to struggle in gaining a strategic advantage with influence. Whether a conflict involves territory, religion, or resources, it is ultimately about the clash of human wills and the ability to compel a desired behavior from a selected audience. The audience may be a group or person, and the operation’s end state will almost always call for a change in behavior such as deterrence or withdrawal. Actions taken in the five domains — air, land, sea, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) are executed in order to have an effect on the human domain. United States Special Operations Command and Over the Horizon have defined the human domain as a domain that “consists of the leadership, organizations, and populations in the environment, including decision-making, support, perceptions, and behavior.” Even though all actions in the five domains ultimately impact the critical human domain, the human domain is the most ignored.

The Department of Defense (DoD) must take desired behavior in the human domain more seriously across the continuum of domains. Operations in each of the five domains influence human domain targets, which decide the outcome of cooperation, competition, or conflict. Military education echoes this sentiment with studies of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. Leaders and planners often endorse the concepts, but only verbally. In practice, operational planning tends to dictate objectives that focus on friendly capabilities and Joint Force Commander accessible targets rather than a deliberate strategy of compelling adversary behaviors. Information operations (IO) endeavors to support human domain operations by influencing, disrupting, corrupting, or usurping adversary decision making. Working from a desired behavior as the end state and understanding the target’s goals, strengths, and vulnerabilities is paramount to an operation for enduring strategic outcomes. To achieve strategic advancement, the DoD must aim for decisive long-term strategies that execute and assess behavior change. Concentrating on desired behaviors as a focal point to operations, the DoD must prioritize IO and human domain targeting against leaders, organizations, and even populations. Our competitors already understand this. The Russian information warfare (IW) framework and their annexation of Crimea highlight the necessity of the human domain and its crucial role in achieving victory before physical battle begins.

OTH, emerging security environment, multi-domain
Figure 2

Russian Information Warfare Practices
Russia’s approach to IW is rooted in Soviet practices that emphasize the importance of influence during conflict and peacetime operations. It is not limited to influence mission areas, but encompasses cyber, electronic warfare, and intelligence capabilities. Russians do not use the terms cyber or cyber warfare. Instead, they conceptualize cyber operations within the broader framework of information warfare. Rather than cyberspace, they refer to the information space as the electronic transfer of information. The Putin regime has five primary lines of operation (LOO) for IW. Russia is using these IW LOOs to actively target America and its allies’ leadership, organizations, and populations while creating and guarding their native information space.

  • Russia’s first LOO is strategic victory, which targets adversary leadership, armed forces, and populations in order to destabilize and ultimately force regime change.
  • Second, reflexive control (also referred to as perception management) is an integrated operation that compels an adversary decision maker to act in favor of Russia by altering their perception of the world. This goes beyond “pure deception” because it uses multiple inputs to the decision maker using both true and false information, ultimately aiming to make the target feel that the decision to change their behavior was their own.
  • Third, Russia seeks to develop a permissive public opinion environment where Russian narratives, both false and true, are accepted as fact. Influential actors, such as major news agencies taking part in creating a permissive environment, are often unwitting and provide redundancy of Russia’s message, thereby making it more credible.
  • Fourth, subversion and destabilization are general IW practices that enable larger operations and support Russia’s narratives and use of the information environment. These actions may include influencing governmental policies, undermining leadership, disrupting relationships and discrediting organizations.
  • Fifth, due to Russia’s paranoia and own use of IW against adversaries, its defensive measures are the final line of IW operations. Control over Russian audience information has increased since President’s Putin’s entrance in 2000. They claim to “protect” local populations against “breaches” through ownership of media, marginalization of independent sources, a Kremlin-friendly narrative, and the censoring of textbooks.

Russia Annexes Crimea
In 2013, protestors of the Maidan movement and political protesters took control of Kyiv, ousting the Ukrainian President, who was aligned with a Russian agenda and failed to sign in to the European Union. After his expulsion, President Putin recognized the loss of influence in the neighboring country and in February 2014 he sought to regain his foothold through the annexation of Crimea. Russian forces began fomenting protests and mobilizing insurgencies against the new pro-west government. Russian IW was paramount to the success of their campaign. Weaponization of social media, shutting down independent media outlets while consolidating state-run Russian television and radio outlets, and visual messaging such as billboards, posters, and painted storefronts reiterated Moscow’s primary narratives. They discredited the Maidan movement and the Ukrainian government, while promising the safety of ethnic Russians abroad (primarily in Ukraine). At the tactical level, the Crimean population believed the disguised Russian forces to be Ukrainian self-defense or police forces. At the operational level, the Russian military capitalized on the inexperienced, newly transitioned government and messaged that they were not invading or annexing. The Ukrainian government knew of the Russian movement into the country but feared provoking a conventional conflict if they met it with resistance and Putin’s messaging aided in this confusion. Russia’s strategic IW targeted the West with misinformation providing the narrative that they would not invade and were currently seeking a political settlement and off-ramp opportunities.

OTH, emerging security environment, multi-domain
Figure 3

Russia utilized IW as a force multiplier and pre-cursor to the conflict in their seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014. As a force multiplier or enabler, Russia sowed discontent and attacked the credibility of the Ukrainian government through the weaponization of social media in the information space (cyberspace) during initial hostilities. Spending more than $19 million to fund social media operators, they swayed local and global opinions with redundant, resonant messaging and suppressed dissident narratives. This incapacitated Ukraine before it was aware the conflict had begun. Additionally, offensive cyber-attacks targeted critical military infrastructure, degrading command and control infrastructure of Ukrainian forces. Lastly, a Ukraine developed targeting application for the D-30 Howitzers was hacked and supplied Russia with malware that allowed access to text messages, location, and Internet data of Ukrainian soldiers who had downloaded it. 80% of D-30s were lost due to the security violation. These combined directed actions enabled Russia’s land seizure of Crimea and the ability to hold ground with population support.

Russia utilized IW as a precursor to conflict and gained a strategic advantage before the physical seizure of the peninsula. Russia surged their forces to the border for a “routine” exercise while claiming they would not invade Ukraine. This veiled threat was caveated with the mention of an intervention if ethnic Russians in the country were threatened, meanwhile sowing discontent to create a hostile environment. These measures put in place prior to physical seizure ensured a confused and unorganized country, permissible to attack.

In order to gain and maintain a strategic advantage, Putin’s regime engages in pre-emptive and preventative actions that target behavior prior to conflict. A state’s sovereignty can be violated without a physical seizure through the targeting of citizens and destabilizing the country’s governmental structures with false claims, amplification of distracting current problems, and instigating internal rifts among resonant groups. Russia seeks to incapacitate a state as much as possible before that state is aware a conflict has begun. They maintain an active presence on television, social media and other electronic sources with fabricated, redundant news that celebrates the Kremlin and discredits local governments in the Baltic States. Russian leadership has verbalized that effects in the information environment that target mass consciousness can replace armed conflict altogether. These combined measures may preclude conflict, but will guarantee a marked advantage if hostilities are initiated.

The Human Domain in the DoD – Information Operations
Unlike Russia, the DoD is not comfortable with information operations (IO) as a means to prevent conflict. However, the DoD is comfortable with IO as a force multiplier primarily using it to support military activities through actions such as amplification of capabilities in the information environment, obfuscation of operational indicators, shows of force, and civilian casualty mitigation. IO is integrated throughout the Joint Planning Process to ensure that all capabilities are supporting objectives and end states. Recent integration of IO in the counterinsurgency mission has been implemented primarily through leaflets, communication with locals to influence compliance, amplification on social media operations, monitoring of cyber networks, and electronic degradation of communications. These tactical, yet critical capabilities in the mission, have demonstrated IO’s ability to be a worthy force multiplier. However, these tactical activities often require approval at the strategic level (Secretary of Defense or Geographic Combatant Commander), thereby making IO as a force multiplier extremely difficult to accomplish.

Utilizing IO during the competition stage to gain a strategic advantage in preparation of conflict is still foreign within DoD culture. Two examples of modern efforts to influence the human domain are the efforts to prevent Russian election meddling and the use of bomber task forces in Europe and Guam. First, USCYBERCOM has been charged with the prevention of Russian meddling in upcoming elections. They have gone so far as to contact Russian operatives to deter participation in the subversive efforts and increase their offensive cyber operations against potential intruders. However, the effort is limited to offensive cyberspace actions, are not integrated with other domains and do not directly target the leader providing the orders, or the population that “elected” him. The desired behavior to cease meddling is not targeting two of three audiences in their operation.

Second, Long-range bomber task forces are deployed quarterly to the European Command Area of Responsibility and aim to deter Russia from provocative activity while assuring allies in the region of US resolve. Although effective in reinforcing the international message, the lack of a more direct approach decreases the credibility of the threat and slows US access and partnership to the Baltics. The DoD is comfortable utilizing air, land, maritime, space, and EMS to achieve its objectives, but stronger consideration of target audience analysis to provide a more credible message is warranted. Bomber task forces accompanied with a Putin-directed narrative, cooperation agreements with Baltic organizations, strong public buy-in from Allied Commanders, and covert messaging to Russian military presents a more credible deterrence message than public statements and the aircraft themselves.

OTH, emerging security environment, multi-domain
Figure 4

Utilizing a “desired behavior” model in the planning processes facilitates more knowledge of human targets and prescribes the tailored actions that support the military objectives. Oftentimes, the argument is that current deterrent operations are effective simply because we are not in major combat operations (MCO). But if MCO were initiated, what groundwork has been laid to achieve the desired end state? The conditions for conflict must be set in cooperation and competition. Setting conditions requires endorsement by leadership and operator culture to approve monitoring, social engineering, and the acquirement of foreign permissive environments that preclude or enable conflict.

To quickly compare, Russia and the United States have both used IW and IO as a force multiplier in order to enhance their military operations, but Russia has prioritized IW as a precursor to the physical phase of campaigns. The IW delivery capabilities such as cyber, space, and electronic warfare assets integrate to compel their targets’ desired behaviors. By utilizing IW as a pre-cursor to conflict, Russia frames the conflict to their advantage. Russia’s view of cyber and space as a subset of IW is opposite of US perspective where space and cyber remain distinct domains. In the DoD, the human domain is not considered, prioritized, or defined in joint doctrine. The Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations attempts to reconcile the lack of influence planning by establishing a basis for Commanders and their staffs to understand the range of relevant actors in the environment and the elements that influence their behavior. While the concept is moving in the right direction, without the label of a “human domain” and understanding the importance of striving for specific behaviors, the DoD underestimates the importance of influence in operations. The US utilizes IO to support operations but we are less inclined to invest in the influence of a target audience to change behavior that would ultimately prevent or heavily influence a conflict. Russia’s ability to conduct IW through competition and conflict gives them a strategic advantage over the US by softening their targeted audience to accept Russian narratives, objectives, and actions.

“Information” is in a revolution of changes and the attention within the DoD is unprecedented. The term invokes passion in some audiences and nausea in others. However, both tend to agree that more consideration is due to the human domain. An overhauling concept of operations in the human domain or IO across the force is required to garner legitimacy and execute with maximum lethality. Competitors such as Russia are already employing IW and if the DoD continues to stagnate, we are susceptible to undue influence. The moral compasses of our adversaries allow for less restrictive, targeted operations against our leadership, organizations and populations. However, the DoD’s integration of desired behaviors into planning processes provide opportunities for IO as a force multiplier and a preventative measure to conflict. Fewer restrictions and more intellectual rigor in defining and targeting foreign audiences are the first steps to developing these concepts with our adversaries, competitors, and even our allies.

Megan is an Information Operations Officer in the Air Force and attends the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration. She has over twelve years of experience in information operations and planning at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. If you would like to contact the author, please e-mail

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.

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One thought on “An Approachable Look at the Human Domain and Why We Should Care

  • June 19, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    As this article points out, the Defense Department and other government agencies struggle with the concepts of the human domain and influence (information is a subset of influence) operations within that domain. In part, this struggle is based on an ambiguous chain of responsibility for the development of influence plans and the time frame covered by those plans. Who particularly in the force structure is identified as the human influence analyst and influence plan designer who leadership can trust? What education, training and resources are they provided to bolster their expertise? Plans that support combat operations are easiest to justify but they are a small part of the human influence landscape. While the rationale for peacetime influence operations can be made on the basis of precluding potential future hostilities, and otherwise informing our preparations for such hostilities if they cannot be forestalled, responsibility of engaging foreign populations rests with the Department of State, which is not usually a fan of allowing military access to the foreign cognitive maneuver space. In spite of the inherent problems with human domain influence planning, I remain a fan of a process that could identify to foreign audiences potential choices and courses of action they might have, promotes those choices that support positive movement, and deters adoption of the negative choices promoted by others.

    The example of Russian activities is timely. You have only to look at the current political environment in the United States to see the Russian information warfare model playing out.


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