By Thomas A. Drohan
Approximate Reading Time: 5 Minutes
A recent YouTube video features Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) General David Goldfein explaining multi domain operations (MDO) via an effective vignette. Beyond executing operations across operational domains, MDO seeks to use dominance in one domain or many to present adversaries with multiple dilemmas. To pull this off, command and control is key, which in turn relies on integrative collaboration among platforms that operate in meshed networks.
The CSAF concludes a masterful presentation with, “maybe, just maybe, our adversaries will pause long enough to question whether they can accomplish their political objectives by taking us on.” At that point I thought, that’s the military part of competing and prevailing which we need to ensure. Then I thought, but it’s not enough.
The strategic question that arises is: how can we broaden Gen Goldfein’s call to arms into a call for superior effects across the government?
An answer to this fundamental question resides in former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Gen Joseph Dunford‘s recent letter concerning professional military education. In a memorandum to all military services, Gen Dunford outlined six special areas of emphasis (SAE). All of them emphasize a common motivator: a more competitive security environment. Each SAE proposes to boost competitiveness in different ways. Let’s briefly interpret and critique each SAE from a reformist perspective of achieving superior combinations of effects.
CJCS Special Areas of Emphasis for Professional Military Education
The first SAE, Return to Great Power Competition, calls for more agile, large-scale, high-end, innovative and lethal capabilities; and thinking about how we study warfare.
Critique: “great power” should mean any actor that has a strategy that achieves superior effects, even if waged with singularly lesser military capabilities. It’s the results that matter.
The second SAE, Globally Integrated Operations in the Information Environment (IE), calls for expanding how we integrate information with physical activities to gain an information advantage over adversaries to operate proactively.
Critique: information needs to be integrated with both physical and psychological (cognitive and informational, p. 2) activities to craft superior combined effects. These effects may be diplomatic, political, informational, military, economic, social, financial, infrastructural, legal, and so forth.
The third SAE, Strategic Deterrence in the 21st Century, refers to a transformed geopolitical and military context for deterrence, and calls for deterring multiple nuclear-armed adversaries.
Critique: if “strategic” is presumed to mean nuclear-armed rather than being defined in terms of effects achieved, then we become blind to innovative operations. Such self-inflicted surprise results from competitors using broad strategies that our narrow concept of deterrence defines away.
The fourth SAE, Modern Electromagnetic Spectrum Battlefield, refers to widespread use of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) to challenge military freedom of maneuver and calls for greater awareness to retain access and deny the same to adversaries.
Critique: EMS is more than an enabler of other capabilities because it can produce effects of its own. When combined with other effects, EMS can contribute to more competitive synergies.
The fifth SAE, Space as a Warfighting Domain, emphasizes space combat objectives and calls for warfighting in space.
Critique: the way we strive to maintain space superiority generates information effects that must be considered to achieve optimal combinations of diverse effects. An example is the impact of militarizing space on economic prosperity, a foundation of military power in every domain.
The sixth SAE, Ability to Provide Clear and Concise Military Advice Recommendations, focuses exclusively on the military instrument of power.
Critique: confining military members’ advice strictly to military considerations of complex problems restricts military judgment. Multifaceted problems include political-military, military-economic, military-social, and other interrelated linkages. These complexities are essential to understanding contexts and conducting effective military operations.
Reflecting on the preceding critiques and relating them to each other, I have four recommendations. Each recommendation could be implemented or raised by senior military leaders acting within existing permissions and authorities:
- To create superior strategies, we need a language of strategy and operations that emphasizes creating superior holistic effects; not just superior capabilities and separate effects.
- “Strategic” needs to be defined in terms of the significance of effects, effects which result from diverse capabilities and which must be at the quality of superior relevance.
- “Deterrence” should be part of a more holistic preventive and causative, psychological and physical strategy that generates the following confrontational and cooperative effects, respectively: deterrence and compellence, defense and coercion; and dissuasion and persuasion, security and inducement.
- Information effects, whether generated kinetically or non-kinetically, are ultimately what influences behavior (human and machine), so they must be a primary consideration in strategy.
Globally integrated operations in a pervasive and uncertain IE can lead to strategies that produce superior effects at the strategic level. We are well into complex, hybrid, gray zone warfare that dynamically blends confrontation with competition. Victory in the form of relative advantages tends to be temporary, requiring a systematic yet supple all-domains all-effects approach. In this sense, greatness is relative. We have to be able to produce all of types of effects and in superior combination to compete against other relatively-great powers.
Healthy civil-military relations are key to developing strategies that optimize all elements of power in accordance with our political-legal frameworks and ethics. The issues are contentious, such as restraining military recommendations to problems that fit traditional mindsets. Tradition needs to adapt to new threats, which raises ponderous policy questions.
Meanwhile, each military service’s combat commands and sub-cultures can be expected to respond to the need for broad effects with different levels of commitment. As a result, the reality of an all-encompassing information environment is variously grasped and exploited. Cultural change is needed, yet tends to be exceedingly slow. Contemporary threats, however, do not afford us that luxury.
Multi domain operations are crucial to realizing an even greater diversity of effects needed to win complex wars before they become massively destructive wars.
Brig Gen (ret) Thomas Drohan is Director of the International Center for Security and Leadership, JMark Services Inc (securityandleadership.com). He formerly headed the Department of Military & Strategic Studies at the United States Air Force (USAF) Academy. He holds a PhD from Princeton University, an MA from the University of Hawaii, and a BS from the USAF Academy. Brig Gen Drohan’s publications include A New Strategy for Complex Warfare: Combined Effects in East Asia, and articles in journals such as Joint Force Quarterly and Defense Studies. His career includes combat rescue, airlift and anti-terrorism in East Asia, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. He is a Council on Foreign Relations Japan fellow and Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies scholar.
Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash
Disclaimer: 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 United States Government.