By Maj Kimber Nettis, USAF / Published March 16, 2020
Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --
The Air Force, in conjunction with fellow joint warfighters, must adapt our thinking and culture to be able to seamlessly shift between domains, components and regions to create high velocity, precision warfighting effects to satisfy the Joint Force Commander's mission needs.
—AF Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) Implementation Plan 2018
In recent years, the Department of Defense (DOD) has turned its attention to the growing need for MDO. The National Defense Strategy states that to “compete in this complex and contested security environment, the US must be prepared to operate across a full spectrum of conflict, across multiple domains at once.”1 The various branches of the military have taken this guidance and have started to implement various forms of MDO integration into their services. As Lt Gen Norman Seip, retired, the Air Force senior mentor for Multi-Domain Command and Control, stated, “the goal of MDO operations is to create complex, simultaneous dilemmas at once for the enemy.”2 To do this, we must realize how our current operational environment has changed with the rise of space and cyber technologies and how that has changed our access to information and the participants we face. We also must realize that the battlefield has extended back to the home front, and this presents new challenges that must be faced with new solutions.
Some have argued that the DOD has been doing MDO all along and that this is just a new Pentagon buzzword meant to elicit additional funding. What makes MDO different than fighting as a Joint force? This article will take a quick look at how warfare has evolved and why we have headed toward the MDO doctrine. Additionally, the article provides a framework as a rudimentary way to understand basic MDO concepts that can be utilized to create offensive and defensive MDO objectives at the tactical and operational levels of war.
Evolution of Warfare
The main impetus for change in how a military conducts warfare is based largely on changes in technology and the scheme of maneuver. When new technology is introduced to the battlefield, one must adopt the scheme of maneuver and update the tactics, techniques, and procedures and associated plans and orders. This brief evolution of warfare will cover the main doctrines used throughout time and the technological developments that sparked changes in how we fight.
The first battles were linear in nature. One army would line up against another army and draw swords, spears, or muskets and fight until one army had won. When one side was decidedly smaller or less capable of fighting in this traditional manner, guerrilla warfare was a balancing maneuver with tactics that included ambushes, sabotage, and raids. Then a change in technology, namely machine guns, sent armies into the trenches.
According to Nicholas Murray, author of The Rocky Road to the Great War, “trench warfare proliferated when a revolution in firepower was not matched by similar advances in mobility, resulting in a grueling form of warfare in which the defender held the advantage.”3 Trench warfare became known as the symbol of the futility of war.4 This type of warfare was often a stalemate that had high casualty rates. Then, there was a change in technology and doctrine. During World War I, the Germans focused on the scheme of maneuver by implementing infiltration tactics while the British and French focused on the development of tanks to achieve victory.
Coming out of Vietnam, AirLand Battle was the US Army’s main fighting doctrine in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1973, the United States Training and Doctrine Command was established under Gen William E. DePuy. Gen Donn A. Starry was sent to Israel to understand the Yom Kippur War. The tempo, speed, and proliferation of new weapons were different than anything that had previously been seen on a battlefield. He saw the importance of air and land battle together and how antitank guided missiles changed the battlefield. He is quoted as saying, “the army we have today coming out of Vietnam is not the army we need going into the future.”5
A change in doctrine turned into a “DOTMLPF revolution,” referring to the acquisition process of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy. General Starry took the lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War and started what is known as the Army’s Big Five Modernization Program and inspired the Air Force’s investment in stealth and precision standoff weapons.6 The change in doctrine inspired new weapon systems that changed how the Army trained with the rollout of new training centers and leadership schools. The evaluation of this radical training and doctrine approach came in the form of Operation Desert Storm. The world got to see the US defeat the world’s fourth-largest army in a matter of 100 hours with low casualties. It was like the Yom Kippur War but even faster and more lethal.
Doctrine changed once again as we faced new threats such as violent extremist organizations (VEO). Irregular warfare became the normal way to fight wars from 2003 onward. Irregular warfare has been described as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.”7 The US has been fighting this type of war for the last couple of decades in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the US was steeped in VEO threats, a new form of warfare began to emerge as the threats changed. Near-peer and peer competitors brought about the need to focus on MDO as the adversary would look and fight much differently than the VEOs we had been facing in recent wars. We would be contested in every domain, and the speed of warfare only increased as new technologies such as artificial intelligence and hypersonics compressed the time in which we would be able to act and make decisions.
The newest doctrine to emerge from the US DOD is multi-domain operations. MDO is “a concept that the Joint force can achieve competitive advantage over a near-peer adversary by presenting multiple complementary threats that each requires a response, thereby exposing adversary vulnerabilities to other threats. It is the artful combination of these multiple dilemmas, rather than a clear overmatch in terms of any particular capability, that produces the desired advantage.”8 In other words, MDO is a way to provide effects with timing and tempo that the enemy cannot compete with. The chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen David L. Goldfein, has focused on multi-domain command and control as a means of achieving MDO in the Joint Force.
One may ask, how is MDO any different than fighting together as a Joint Force? After all, the Goldwater-Nichols act was the fix action to the interservice rivalry during Vietnam and the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt. In the past, MDO were single-domain focused, with coordinated effects, and archaic command and control (C2) processes. Operations today are layered or synchronized but not fully integrated. The authorities for space/cyber forces are retained largely at the strategic or national level while authorities for air operations remain at the operational level. Situational awareness capabilities are not designed to provide an integrated understanding of the battlespace that spans all domains, and C2 constructs do not provide the necessary agility to synchronize effects.9
Organizations such as Air Force Warfighting Integrating Capability are looking at how we make decisions at pace and scale needed with a peer competitor, how to create a common operating picture that will connect the right sensor to the right processor, and ultimately to the right shooter. They are also working to ensure that the right systems and people are in place for multi-domain C2 and distributed C2.
The Army has created its first unit to combine long-range targeting, hacking, jamming, and space to support the move to MDO. The unit is called I2CEWS, which stands for all the capabilities it brings: intelligence, information, cyber, electronic warfare, and space. This unit was stood up at JB Lewis-McChord, Washington to counter the Chinese threat.10
Before moving into domain considerations, it is worth noting the current doctrine held by one of our top competitors. The Russians utilize what has been termed hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare is simply the combination of previously defined types of warfare: conventional, irregular, political, or information. A hybrid threat is any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism, and criminal behavior at the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives, according to Dr. Francis Hoffman, a distinguished research fellow at National Defense University.11 Russia uses new information warfare tactics such as meme warfare to create chaos among populations such as the US. Russia has also been identified in several elections meddling campaigns around the world, including Ukraine, France, and the US.12
Russia also includes the use of tactical nuclear weapons in its overall view called new generation warfare. Its whole of government approach seeks to “manipulate the adversaries’ perception, maneuver its decision making process, and influence its strategic behavior while minimizing (compared to the industrial war era) the scale of kinetic force use.”13
Now that we have briefly covered the evolution of warfare and how we have arrived at the need for MDO, we need to look at the domains to set a foundation for where operations are taking place. The traditional domains are air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace. Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) professors Jared Donnelly and Jon Farley state that a definition of domain is in order as we are beginning to see how these nonphysical domains are starting to have real effects on our missions.14 They proposed the definition of a domain given by Jeffrey Reilly, the director of the ACSC Multi-Domain Operations Strategists concentration, as a “critical macro maneuver space whose access or control is vital to the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission.”15 It is simply an area that one must have access into and an area in which one can make effects, and this arena does not have to be physical.
A sixth domain has been under consideration lately due to the rise in information operations, and that is the cognitive domain. Gen Robert Brown, commander of US Army Pacific, stated that the cognitive domain should not only be considered a domain, but, in his opinion, it is the most important domain.16
The cognitive domain is becoming increasingly more important with the introduction of space and cyber technologies. The domain has opened up the populace to more information, making the traditional gatekeepers inadequate, and making it easier for any actor, state or nonstate, to make effects in any domain. The traditional gatekeepers are being outpaced at sharing information by entities such as Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
A good example of how the cognitive domain is increasingly becoming a more critical domain can be seen in the book, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. The author, David Patrikarakos, describes how Twitter is now the main source of vital, timely information in the Russia-Ukrainian conflict. He is a reporter on the frontlines of the conflict and consistently gets his most up-to-date information from users via Twitter. There are pros and cons when it comes to this kind of speed of information. Patrikarakos writes about seeing the vastly different reports from the pro-Russian and pro-Ukranian sides. As a journalist, he is concerned about writing the facts of the situation, yet he sees false information “re-tweeted thousands of times.”17 He stated, “it wasn’t propaganda I was witnessing, it was the re-invention of reality. And social media was at its heart.”18 Patrikarakos also stated that he saw a “mass enlistment” that included noncombatants and civilians.19 These new participants in the operational environment can have very real effects on the battlefield.
The enemy realized a long time ago that they could not compete with the US in a battle of military versus military; therefore, other means of competition became the way to win the battle of resources and power. Patrikarakos said, “I began to understand that I was caught up in two wars: one fought on the ground with tanks and artillery, and an information war fought largely, though not exclusively, through social media. And perhaps counterintuitively, it mattered more who won the war of words and narrative than who had the most potent weaponry.”20
An example of how social media can change a battlefield can be found in a recent article entitled, “With Just $60 and Internet Access, Researchers Found and Tracked NATO Troops and Even Tricked Them into Disobeying Orders.” The article illustrates the importance of a commander realizing the entirety of the operating picture. “Researchers with NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence used open-source data—primarily social media—to identify 150 soldiers, locate multiple battalions, track troop movements, and even persuade service members to leave their posts and engage in other ‘undesirable behavior’ during a military exercise.”21 It is worth stating that the researchers were red team members, but the adversary can be anyone with internet access and a cause.
In response to this ever-changing environment, the US Air Force has recently established the 16th Air Force, as its Information Warfare numbered air force. The new command will “integrate multisource intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyberwarfare, electronic warfare, and information operations capabilities across the conflict continuum to ensure that our Air Force is fast, lethal, and fully integrated in both competition and war.22
An expansion of the cyber domain has also been discussed in many venues and publications to be changed to the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) Domain. Gen James M. Holmes, Air Combat Command (ACC) commander, stated at the 2019 Air Force Information Technology and Cyberspace (AFITC) Conference that it is under consideration to change the word cyberspace to EMS when talking about the domains in which ACC dominates. This change is due to cyber being a subset of the larger arena in which to make effects.23
The next concept to discuss is the expanding battlefield. Due to the new technologies that our nation has today, both state and nonstate actors can have tremendous impacts on our technology and military operations from anywhere in the world. The technology available is low-cost and available to anyone. Not only can the enemy impact operations within the area of operations, but now the enemy can hit us at our home stations and have a tremendous impact on the area of responsibility (AOR). Patrikarakos explains the extended battlefield:
Unconventional forces may strike in grey zone operations long before conventional troops officially go to war if they ever do. The first blow may be struck by proxies like the Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels, deniable forces like the Little Green Men in Crimea or Chinese state-owned fishing vessels in the South China Sea, non-military government agencies like the Chinese Coast Guard, or ‘lone wolves’ inspired to act by social media but with no connection to the enemy. It may come from cyber-attacks, whose origin is notoriously hard to figure out, and which may involve months or years of careful preparation but then take effect in seconds.24
The video “Evolving Threats to Army Installations in a Complex World,” produced by the Army, explains in great detail how the enemy can affect operations even before leaving the home stations. If the enemy can stop the troops or demoralize them even before the military leaves the US or home installation, they will never make it to the battle across the world, or when they do, it will be at a huge disadvantage.25
Figure 1 was taken from the Army’s “Operational Framework Six Physical Spaces.”26 It shows the traditional concept of the understood battlespace from the blue forces side labeled from “Strategic Support Area” to “Tactical Support Area,” while areas from “Close Area” to “Deep Fires Area” are the red forces side. What the military must realize is that through new technologies, the “safe havens” of home base or just being in the US is not “safe” any longer. Whether it is a state or nonstate actor, both have the means to accomplish effects that will cripple us. Some examples would be:
Figure 1. Army’s Operational Framework Six Physical Spaces. Source: David G. Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle: Driving Change to Win in the Future,” Military Review (July–August 2017), 10.
The military must begin to see the installations as not only the “Strategic Support Areas” but as the “Close Areas” that must be closely guarded. Even more so, they must also see the communities as important to protect and exercise with because strikes from the enemy on those targets can impact military operations as well.
For example, the enemy could target our water systems within our communities, target our families, or take out our power grid. There have already been great strides made with securing our critical infrastructure and key resources through the Department of Homeland Security; however, the concept of seeing our home installations as part of the battleground is new, especially for the Air Force.
Defensive Multi-Domain Operations
There is a base leading that charge in realizing the installation’s role in MDO, and that is Wright Patterson AFB (WPAFB), Ohio. Whereas most of the Air Force is focused on MDO at the operational level focusing on MDO command and control (MDC2) offensively, WPAFB is focusing on MDC2 defensively.
The 88th Air Base Wing, under its commander, Col Thomas P. Sherman, is reshaping what the wing structure might look like to support defensive MDC2 at the installation level. Just as an air operations center relies on the C2 structure to support the operations of the air war, an installation’s security relies on a well-established C2 system with unity of command under one commander. Colonel Winn, the 88th Mission Operations Group (Provisional) commander, stated that “the Air Force must see the installations as warfighting platforms like an aircraft carrier that capabilities are launched from. Our nation is hemorrhaging intellectual information and certain installations are critical when it comes to deploying passengers and cargo to the AOR.”27
The effort at WPAFB is twofold: it involves a new organizational structure called the Mission Operations Group, as well as a new fusion function for C2 called the Installation Command and Control Cell.
Currently, WPAFB is conducting a 90-day “sprint.” The existing Communications Group has been rebranded the Mission Operations Group (Provisional) with two assigned squadrons (88th Operations Support Squadron and 88th Communications Squadron), two attached squadrons (88th Security Forces Squadron and 788th Civil Engineer Squadron), and one attached staff agency (Wing Information Protection). This organizational alignment creates a single multi-domain group (air, land, and cyber) focused on installation protection and defense, ensuring a safe, secure, and resilient installation protecting and defending people, critical infrastructure, and information. After this sprint, the wing will assess the results and determine courses of action.
The second experimental element at WPAFB is fusing all the base’s operations centers, such as the Base Defense Operations Center, Airfield Management Operations, Fire Dispatch, and the Cyber Intelligence Operations Center, to create whole-of-installation situational awareness. The wing commander needs timely and accurate information as to what is happening on the base. As it turns out, WPAFB is the perfect place to exercise how this new C2 structure as they host high-level events such as the Air Force Marathon and Corona each year, requiring integrated security and coordination. This C2 element derives from the Air Force Installation Management and Support Center’s Installation Weapons and Tactics Conference 2019. WPAFB is also one of five bases AF-wide that is piloting this Installation Command and Control Cell concept that was briefed to the chief of staff of the Air Force.
These initiatives at WPAFB are pushing the envelope on defensive MDC2 for the Air Force. In a complex world with evolving multi-domain threats, the outcome of these experiments will help shape the future of installation defense.
Multi-Domain Operations Framework
The following framework was created to help identify what cross-cutting sectors affected all the domains. Since its creation, it has been used in various applications that have proven beneficial to understanding MDO concepts that could be useful to commanders and planners at various levels of command. It has also been adapted into a chart that is being utilized to help educate students going through a deterrence course, which falls in line with the thoughts of General Goldfein when he stated that MDO was the new deterrence.28
Figure 2. MDO Framework depicting the war-fighting domains and the cross-cutting sectors that affect them
In figure 2, the domains are the horizontal bars, and they include the cognitive domain, while the cyber domain is represented as the larger electromagnetic spectrum. The cross-cutting sectors are a combination of military, government, and commercial entities at the local, state, and federal level. These sectors exceed the traditional confines of purely military endeavors or domains. These cross-sectors include the commercial sector, civilian sector, military personnel, space technologies, cyber, nuclear, intelligence, information operations, and electronic warfare. Where each of the domains intersects with a cross-cutting sector is considered a touchpoint.
A commander or planner could look at this framework with an offensive posture in mind and ask how we can make effects in the various touchpoints. In this manner, we could throw multiple dilemmas at the enemy in various domains, slowing their decision-making process. Using a simple framework such as figure 2 can help planners get out of their stovepipes and consider all the potential targets through various means of attack. Growing up in a certain career field or service tends to put one in a certain frame of mind, but going through this framework will open up the options to commanders and planners.
Likewise, one could put a defensive hat on and consider how we may be vulnerable at each touchpoint. For example, at WPAFB is working on defensive MDO exercise objectives to move past the traditional active shooter exercises and create something that prepares an installation for all the changes seen in the operating environment to include grey-zone warfare options. One of the common themes that has emerged while going through this process is that many involved do not understand MDO or all the changes in the operational environment. Education has to be the first step and break through the stovepipes that we have established.
This framework can be utilized at the tactical or installation level as mentioned above, and it can also be utilized at the operational level. Planners can utilize the framework to consider exercise objectives in all domains and across all cross-cutting sectors.
The next example shows how this model was adapted for the new 13O Initial Skills Training at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The examples given are for a planner to consider offensive and defensive options. The touchpoints are labeled in red.
Figure 3. MDO Framework with example touchpoints labeled in red
Finally, one could look at an example of how the commercial sector affects the other domains and our military readiness by examining the events of the NotPetya cyberattack on the “world’s largest shipping conglomerate, A.P. Moller-Maersk.”29 The giant company employs 80,000 people around the world. In 2017, the company was hit with the ransomware that is “responsible for 76 ports all over the earth and almost 800 seafaring vessels, including container ships carrying tens of millions of tons of cargo, representing close to a fifth of the entire world’s shipping capacity, and it was dead in the water.”30 The DOD should be very concerned about this attack as we frequently utilize civilian companies such as Maersk both in peacetime and wartime to deliver our supplies around the world. There are many lessons to be learned from this attack to prepare not only our military systems but to prepare those vital companies that are utilized when a war starts.
Figure 4. Discussing MDO. Maj Gen Chance Saltzman, USAF, second from left, deputy commander of US Air Forces Central Command, discusses multi-domain operations and space capabilities integration at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, in Orlando, Florida, 27 February 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)
The US military uses the language of “winning hearts and minds” but tends to lean toward the “warheads on foreheads” method of war. The reason for this lies within the processes by which war is conducted. It is easier to put a munition on a target than a well-coordinated information operations campaign. Layering those effects is also a huge win; however, commanders need to realize the full potential of their nonkinetics options as well as their kinetic options. The problem is that there is not a sufficient process in place or technology available for this type of integration. The Joint Targeting Cycle and kill chain needs to be revisited and updated to include a seamless integration of the new domains for future MDO conflicts. We need another “DOTMLPFP revolution” to fully realize General Goldfein’s MDC2 initiatives to support MDO.
Understanding the current environment and how it has expanded the domains will help us to make better-informed decisions and lead us toward the right technologies to fuse together all these disparate pieces. Each domain can have a tremendous effect on the superiority of other domains, but the first step is recognizing the additional domains that are in play. Looking at a new framework to see how the domains and cross-cutting sectors interact will help identify MDO objectives to exercise for the next war. MDO requires an understanding of one’s domain and a desire to bridge the gaps to other domains to achieve dominance over the enemy’s ability to do the same. There is not a need for a substantial reorganization but instead a considerable re-education of the forces. Each military member, especially the planners, need to expand their perspective beyond their domain. Furthermore, better tactical and operational linkages across the sectors need to exist to aid in a rapid, dynamic response to events.
The past paradigm of Joint education focused on integrating land, sea, air, and space. The new paradigm must reconsider the sector approach, utilizing capabilities that provide cross-domain effects and/or provide effects across multiple domains simultaneously. The military must create complex problems for the enemy while defending against the new tactics that are being demonstrated in hot spots around the world today.
We must continue to explore how vulnerable and valuable the home stations are and how the battlefield has enlarged to encompass our communities and units supporting the AOR. MDO requires an understanding of one’s domain and a desire to bridge the gaps to other domains to achieve dominance over the enemy’s ability to do the same. The US can maintain superiority in the battlefield by also extending the enemy’s battle space and affecting them in each of their domains; however, the military must also keep a defensive posture that encompasses defensive MDC2 and protects our home stations and communities. This may require restructuring or rethinking operations, but in the end, the one who adapts is the one who wins the war.
Major Kimber Nettis, USAF (MA, American Military University; MA, Liberty University) is the deputy director for the Cyber Professional Continuing Education Program in the Air Force Institute of Technology's School of Strategic Force Studies at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. She holds a master of arts in homeland security and a master of arts in Christian ministry.