Multi-Domain Battle: Getting the Name Right
The logic behind the selection of the term multi-domain battle (MDB) is straightforward and is articulated in a paper that is freely available on the US Army’s TRADOC website. Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century [i] states that the US joint force can no longer assume dominance in any domain, the recognised domains being air, land, maritime, space and cyberspace and perhaps the addition of electromagnetic, information and cognitive. As there are multiple domains and as all are expected to be contested, the term multi-domain battle was a reasonable choice to make by those responsible for the concept’s naming.
However, being reasonable and being useful is not necessarily the same thing. Names not only suggest what something is, they also set limits on what it may become, create unhelpful boundaries on thinking and inhibit discussion on the art of the possible. As soon as a concept is named, options on what it means, how it can be used and for what purpose are closed off. Therefore, those charged with naming MDB may have done the concept a disservice in their selection, no matter how reasonable a name it might seem.
TRADOC, the concept’s main proponent, does not appear to be aware that it has imposed boundaries on thinking regarding MDB. Its on-line MDB Frequently Asked Questions page cautions that the White Paper produced for the concept is not final. Rather, it is to be a point of departure to promote thought and discussion.[ii] Yet, any discussion has already been constrained by the very name given to the concept. In the rush to develop the central idea, MDB’s name has been institutionalised far too early in its development and has thereby closed down other interpretations and possibilities. I’d argue that the concept has fallen into the trap of starting with an answer at to what is needed rather than a more general open-ended question, and this has encouraged thinking along lines that support a predetermined destination.
An example of pre-determined thinking is suggested by an otherwise excellent article in Military Review. To illustrate MDB, the article includes a very traditional looking depiction of regiments and brigades sweeping to their objectives, supported by ECM, cyber and the other force elements.[iii] For many this would be a very comforting illustration as it demonstrates that MDB builds on an operational style that all US Army personnel would recognise. But its choosing highlights a particular way of war and emphasises a particular phase of operations, and perhaps misses the potential for other options that MDB might offer.
By emphasising ‘battle’ in its name, those designing MDB have advantaged Phase 3 of operations over the other phases. They have also disadvantaged strategy. The US knows how to wage war but has difficulty in articulating an achievable strategy to underpin it. In fact, some commentators, notably Andrew Bacevich, argue that the US military no longer understands how to even formulate strategy.[iv] Winning battles is a good thing, but without a sound strategy wars are generally lost. If MDB is to be the way forward for the US military it must then aspire to become more than an instrument of combat; it must also aspire to making sense of the strategic level of war. Perhaps MDB is its current form should be seen as version Mark I. If so, version Mark II should hopefully not be too far behind.
If not the name MDB, what are other options? A few years ago I published a short article called ‘Compressing the Dimensions of War’, in which I argued that in the future the only domain that will matter is the land.[v] This is because, as range increases and precision becomes more accurate, land based missiles will come to dominate the sea and air out to thousands of kilometres. For example, one could say that the sea in the future should be treated, effectively, as wet land. I also prefer to consider the land as the sole domain because it reflects a holistic approach to war. Technology allowed humanity to operate in alien dimensions. Now technology is compelling war to return to the only domain that really matters – the one where humans live - the land.
As I thought more on the subject I concluded that a single domain might comfortable define effects that are physical in nature but not those that are of a cognitive kind. The physical domains (land, sea, air and space) were the original ones but the cognitive domains are also not strictly new because the target is the human mind, or as Clausewitz would have recognised, human will. Thus, there is nothing really new in any of the currently identified domains as none have modified the nature of war.
I also suspect that as technology improves, the cognitive domains will grow in importance and those who work in information operations may be the shock troops of the future. This will be at the expense of the physical domains that where the emphasis in on more traditional kinetic effects. I am not advocating in the slightest that future war will not involve violence and destruction, only that the cognitive domains will no longer be an afterthought. Technological advances will also lead to the identification of additional domains as will changes in definition of what constitutes a domain. For example, a strong case can already be made for a social media domain, one that will likely grow in importance as the effective targeting of the individual is realised through the mastery of big data. The potential number of domains is boundless and if too many are identified will differentiations between domains any have useful meaning?
In Australia the Vice Chief of Defence Force (VCDF) has publicly expressed his dislike of the name MDB and spoken instead on his preference to define the needs of the future in terms of an integrated force rather than a multi-domain one.[vi] The VCDF, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, has suggested that multi-domain thinking imposes limitations and that it represents faddism. For Australia, this is more than just a disagreement over word choice. Since the Australian Defence Force is much smaller than the US military it needs to obtain maximum efficiency from limited resources it has. One domain, an integrated one, could possible provide that efficiency.
Lately, I have begun to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter and the name is nothing more than a distraction. What we are talking about here is war, one of humanities earliest forms of social expression. Applying a label does not add much to a debate on what war’s future will look like and how one will fight. But what I do know is that to deliver a tactical or operational solution to how forces fight in the future is not enough. MDB must also inform the strategic level of war if something remarkable and useful is to eventuate. It must also consider the changes to human society that may come about as the 4th Industrial Age[vii] unfolds and it must appreciate the values of the millennial generation whose members will soon move to the fore. The United States needs something that can do more than just fight and win battles; it must create a way of war that achieves desired political outcomes and contributes to the making of a better peace. In sum, it must win wars. MDB is a start but something far more ambitious is needed. It is time to truly open the thinking.
[i] See http://www.tradoc.army.mil/multidomainbattle/docs/MDB_WhitePaper.pdf Another useful document is a list of FAQs found on another TRADOC page at
[ii] See http://www.tradoc.army.mil/MultiDomainBattle/docs/FAQ.pdf (accessed 11 July 2017).
[iii] Robert B Brown, ‘The Indo-Asia Pacific and the Multi-Domain Battle Concept,’ Military Review, March 2017 at http://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/Online-Exclusive/2017-Online-Exclusive-Articles/The-Indo-Asia-Pacific-and-the-Multi-Domain-Battle-Concept/ (accessed 11 May 2017).
[iv] C J Polychroniou, ‘The Anatomy of US Military Policy: An Interview with Andrew Bacevich,’ 6 December 2016, Global Policy at http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/06/12/2016/anatomy-us-military-policy-interview-andrew-bacevich (accessed 13 July 2017).
[v] Albert Palazzo, ‘Compressing the Dimensions of War,’ in Land Power Forum, at http://188.8.131.52/Our-future/Blog/Articles/2014/11/Compressing-the-dimensions-of-war (accessed at 4 November 2016).
[vi] VADM Ray Griggs, ‘Towards One Domain,’ Address to ASPI: Building the Integrated Force, 3 June 2017, at http://www.defence.gov.au/vcdf/Docs/Speeches/170617-Towards_One_Domain.pdf (accessed 8 July 2017).
[vii] On this see, Klaus Schwab, ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ World Economic Forum, at https://www.weforum.org/about/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-by-klaus-schwab (accessed 14 October 2017).