Multi-Domain Operations: Everyone’s Doing It, Just Not Together

By: Grant J. Smith
Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Over the past few years the United States (US) military shifted its focus from counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East to concentrate efforts on understanding what is required to defeat a peer or near-peer adversary. This new focus sparked the realization that the next fight will not allow the same military freedom of maneuver that the US is used to having. The US military branches know this; however, they have each taken their own approach rather than working on a joint strategy together. Fighting in contested environments requires a different strategy than US forces have previously employed, one specifically that exploits vulnerabilities throughout all warfighting domains with contributions from all services. In order to accomplish this, the services must work towards a consensus on how to jointly conduct Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) together and effectively.

Conducting warfare in multiple domains is not a new concept. Throughout the course of history, militaries combined the use of land and maritime forces to exploit weaknesses and gain advantages over their adversaries. As technology advanced, the air domain and space domain became maneuverable domains from which to gain strategic advantage and domination over an adversary. Today, “Multi-Domain Operations” has become the new buzz phrase within the Department of Defense. Each service branch is taking its own approach to defining what it considers a domain and how to conduct maneuver within one. Unfortunately, this stovepipe approach prevents a joint consensus as to how maneuver will be conducted across all domains, which further delays the achievement of joint proficiency in multi-domain warfare. This article will explore what steps have been taken by each military branch in preparation for a multi-domain fight against a peer or near-peer adversary to give a comparison of where each service currently stands.

In 2017 the US Army proposed the formation of a Multi-Domain Task Force in preparation for future conflict within the domains of land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. This task force is meant to be roughly the size of a battalion with the capability to share information across all domains. The Army’s Capabilities Integration Center Director, Lt Gen Eric Wesley recognizes that the preponderance of capability in several domains are held by other services. Along those same lines, the commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, General Stephen Townsend, feels that MDO needs to be a collaborative effort with all of the joint services. The Army has since incorporated an MDO section into its Field Manual 3-0. Additionally, a strong emphasis has been placed on carrying out these new practices within the INDOPACOM geographic combatant command through multiple joint exercises.

The US Air Force is placing its focus on Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) within the domains of air, space, and cyberspace. In late 2018, the Air Force held its first multi-domain exercise, known as the Doolittle Series war game. Participants were primarily from within the Air Force and separated into teams to develop the best C2 structure to use in conflict with a peer adversary. However, the exercise’s primary agenda seemed to be narrowly focused on one thing: the transformation of the Air Operations Center (AOC) into a Multi-Domain Operations Center (MDOC). Shifting focus from how the Air Force currently conducts operations to preparing for tomorrow’s fight will take more than just a title change of the Air Force’s primary command and control facility. The fact that joint partners were largely excluded from this exercise is rather disappointing when considering the multi-domain and C2 capabilities the other services can offer.

Based on the 2016 Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC), the USMC recognized that it was a service unprepared to face a peer adversary. While not openly calling it MDO, the USMC knows that it needs to integrate with the other services in multiple domains. Its first focus area is to reintegrate with the Navy to refamiliarize itself with maritime operations rather than the shore-based operations it is used to conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service now focuses on accessing littorals in contested environments through exercises while integrating the traditional air, land, and maritime domains along with the inclusion of space, information, and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). These exercises also introduce new technologies for experimentation in an attempt to further develop new approaches to combat peer adversaries.

The US Navy still refuses to commit to the concept of a formalized joint MDO effort. The Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, believes that the Navy conducts MDO every day, so why should the Navy buy-in to a concept that isn’t new to them? MDO may not be a new concept, but there is currently a greater emphasis placed on the practice of MDO by the services in response to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which specifically focuses on peer-competition. For the Department of the Navy to not put forth a new initiative to collaborate with the other services seems rather myopic and ultimately slows down much needed progress on the joint effort. If the Navy already conducts expert MDO, why not share the best practices and lessons learned with the other services?

At the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College, Dr. Jeffrey Reilly is head of the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist (MDOS) concentration, which prepares students from all services to observe global systems from a strategic level and dial down to the operational and tactical level to identify and exploit vulnerabilities across all domains. There are a few unique differences between how the different services define domains and how Dr. Reilly instructs his students. Dr. Reilly is in agreement when it comes to maneuver in the land, maritime, air, and space domains, but he also introduces the fact that the EMS is also a domain. While cyberspace is certainly an area in which military forces can maneuver, it is only a fraction of maneuverable space within the entirety of the EMS. Controlling maneuver within all areas of the EMS is where the US will gain a significant advantage over an adversary. Furthermore, Dr. Reilly argues that maneuver within all of these domains aims to affect our adversary within the final and most important domain: the human domain. It is only through influencing humans, whether it be the population, military leadership, or political leadership, that the US can deter adversaries or compel them to capitulate in a conflict.

If the services cannot find common ground on how to conduct MDO, how are they supposed to achieve efficiency together in a joint operational environment to compel an adversary to capitulate? The Army and Marine Corps are paving the way for researching and conducting MDO, while the Navy refuses to believe MDO is anything different from what it does on a day-to-day basis. The Air Force is focusing on a small portion of MDO, but it needs to commit more effort towards exercising actual MDO and not just how to C2 it. Standardized military education and training programs, like MDOS, bring strategic thought to joint staffs and leadership throughout all of the services. This way of thinking is years ahead of where many senior leaders are currently focusing and can be part of the solution to a truly joint MDO effort. Unfortunately, this valuable education is only provided to approximately 30 joint officers a year. No matter the position or the rank within the military, the education and ability to adapt should never cease. If an MDOS-like education can be integrated into command courses and briefed to senior leaders regularly, the services will not have to waste precious time developing service-centric, stovepipe MDO concepts. Senior leaders need to standardize the direction for all services to align their MDO efforts, so we can actually be as prepared as possible for conflict with a peer adversary.

Major Grant Smith is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program and holds a Master of Arts degree in Intelligence Studies. He is a remotely-piloted aircraft pilot with more than 2,000 flight hours in the MQ-1B. The author may be reached at

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.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

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