Small Wars Journal

Human Domain Mapping in 21st Century Warfare

Sat, 08/22/2015 - 12:46pm

Human Domain Mapping in 21st Century Warfare

Derek Raymond

Terrain maps are vital to the United States military in planning, coordinating, navigating, and executing operations. These “graphic representation[s] … of the earth’s surface drawn to scale, as seen from above,”[i] provide a common operating picture for the most senior commander down to the lowest ranking soldier. Combat in the 21st century, however, involves not only geographical terrain but also the human domain to a larger and arguably more important extent. Therefore, human domain maps are just as critical to 21st century warfare as terrestrial maps. This article demonstrates the importance of these human domain maps. First, it overviews the new Army Operating Concept (AOC) followed by a discussion on the future of Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) as outlined in ARSOF 2022. Next, it outlines how human domain mapping supports the new AOC and ARSOF 2022 in relation to developing foreign policy strategies. The article concludes by discussing two contemporary uses of human domain mapping regarding the Syrian resistance in 2011 and Daesh in 2015.

The New Army Operating Concept

The Department of Defense (DOD) recently charged the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) with overhauling the AOC to reflect 21st century warfare. TRADOC’s transition from “Air Land Battle,” the current AOC, to “Winning in a Complex World,” is more than just a doctrinal change; it is a mindset change that begins with pre-war, or in contemporary joint parlance, Phase 0 activities. This section discusses these activities and how the AOC intends to accomplish this task. First, the section discusses the four continuities of war, followed by the AOC improving on the current operational preparation of the environment (OPE) to intellectual and operational preparation of the environment (IOPE). The section concludes by examining how special operations forces can accomplish IOPE and how human domain mapping can facilitate its mission.

The new AOC is predicated on four continuities of war:  war is an extension of politics, a contest of wills between adversaries, a human endeavor, and war is uncertain.[ii] These Clausewitzian continuities highlight the need to master an operational environment’s (OE) human dynamics pre-hostilities, so they can then be shaped and manipulated during the conflict in order to set conditions that best support US strategic objectives post hostilities. To fight a 21st century war in an environment that is dynamic and uncertain,[iii] the side that can more accurately anticipate the unknowable will have a marked advantage. Much like fighting a terrain-based war in which map reconnaissance can provide crucial information regarding future battles, war fought within the human and political domain requires its own ‘map’ reconnaissance. Unfortunately, human domain maps do not exist in intelligence shops. Like cartographers of old, modern day human domain cartographers are needed to develop human domain maps for 21st century warfare. Human domain maps will provide the initial human dynamic understanding and help maintain that understanding throughout the conflict and beyond.

The new AOC relies on IOPE, the process to preset a theater of operations and provide future operational forces maximum understanding of the OE prior to committing forces.[iv] To accomplish this, the AOC can rely on regionally aligned special operations forces (SOF) to ensure maximum situational understanding across land, air, sea, space, and cyber domains by fusing and disseminating information within the combined and joint arena. Humans are the focal point of this fusion construct, requiring an intimate understanding of the people driving the operating environment.

The Future of Army Special Operations Force

In early 2013, the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) commander Lieutenant General (LTG) Charles T. Cleveland released his vision for the future of Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) in ARSOF 2022. It highlights the ambiguity of 21st century warfare and lays out the blueprint to “enable ARSOF to thrive in a future operating environment that is characterized by uncertainty.”[v] Nesting his vision with the new AOC, LTG Cleveland laid the groundwork to combat this uncertainty through two critical capabilities – surgical strike and special warfare. This section will outline those two critical capabilities, briefly discuss their integral components, and demonstrate how they fit into the new AOC.

ARSOF 2022 divides the future of ARSOF into two critical capabilities to address uncertainties, surgical strike and special warfare. They are defined as:

Surgical Strike:  The execution of activities in a precise manner that employ SOF in hostile, denied or politically sensitive environments to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover or damage designated targets, or influence threats.

Special Warfare: The execution of activities that involve a combination of lethal and non-lethal actions taken by specially trained and educated forces that have a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, subversion, sabotage and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain or hostile environment. [vi]

By their definitions alone, it is clear each capability represents a very different approach in prosecuting uncertainty; surgical strike takes a direct, kinetic approach while special warfare takes a more indirect approach through partnerships. The intent is to produce mutually supporting SOF elements capable of executing a multitude of operations across the SOF Core Operations spectrum at the operational and tactical levels, all focused on common strategic goals.[vii]

USASOC further identifies ARSOF as the fighting force within the AOC’s newly coined human domain. As a component of the Army, USASOC is inherently postured to conduct operations throughout the land domain. The new AOC has identified, however, that the human domain is where future of warfare will be decided. Therefore, the Army must have a component capable of operating and succeeding within this newly defined domain. USASOC has taken the lead in developing a force capable of operating in this new domain (see Figure 1) and LTG Cleveland has set his priorities to support such an endeavor.[viii]

Figure 1: USASOC is the leading proponent for operations within the Human Domain[ix]

LTG Cleveland’s top priority in ARSOF 2022 is investing in human capital, a reflection of 21st century warfare. When warfare transitioned from trench warfare to maneuver warfare, the U.S. Army invested in weaponry and modified tactics in support of the evolution. The concept here is the same. The focus of warfare shifting from the land domain to the human domain requires an upgrade of the U.S. arsenal; LTG Cleveland’s top priority represents this upgrade – specifically to special warfare. USASOC intends to improve upon its human capital development by taking advantage of the wide range of ethnicities found in America. The intent is to recruit those who already possess native language capabilities and inherent cultural knowledge, train them in the arts of special warfare, and build a capacity to access regions previously thought untenable. This diverse force will have the capability to operate across the broad human domain spectrum, providing special warfare an advantage on a scale far beyond the Army’s current capabilities.[x]

Human Domain Mapping in the New Army Operating Concept

TRADOC’s new AOC transformation is a monumental task with bold aspirations. The concept is sound, yet its practical application remains vague. The new AOC assumes political and human dynamics ensures 21st century warfare will continue be complex and uncertain.[xi] This suggests a shift in intelligence requirements, from terrain analysis and studying the enemy’s composition and disposition to analyzing society’s human dynamics. The two natural assumptions that follow are the need to retool our intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) prior to hostilities, and the need to develop a force capable of accomplishing this preparation. This begs the question, how is this done? The simple answer can be deduced from a rudimentary comparison of an infantry company attacking an enemy encampment in the land domain and a 21st century warfare operation within the human domain using a traditional IPB practice.

To plan a raid on an enemy camp within the land domain, an infantry company’s first step is to consult a map using OACOK as an analyzing framework – observation and fields of fire, avenues of approach, cover and concealment, obstacles, and key terrain. Commanders will first identify the enemy’s observation and fields of fire within its defenses to help identify which avenues of approach the company should take to advance on the enemy encampment. Along those avenues of approach, they will then assess the level of cover and concealment based on terrain to help determine what formations to use and where to emplace his attacking force and support by fire positions. Next, they will then determine potential obstacles that are likely integrated in the enemy’s defense, such as mines or concertina wire, and adjust his plan accordingly. Finally, attacking commanders will locate any key terrain that will provide his unit a marked advantage over the enemy, such as a hilltop overlooking the objective or the only bridge crossing a non-fordable river. Only once this process is complete are the commanders able to formulate a plan to effectively raid the enemy position while minimizing the risk to his unit. This same concept can be applied to conducting operations within the human domain.This simple comparison using traditional IPB techniques reinforces the importance of maps in the land domain and demonstrates the need for similar maps in the human domain. Planning operations within the human domain, in which human dynamics often outweigh geographical terrain, requires maps that afford operators the same level of situational awareness as if they were planning a traditional infantry operation. Human domain maps can offer this situational awareness to 21st century warriors.

Human Domain Mapping and ARSOF 2022

Unconventional Warfare:  Activities to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.

- Joint Pub 1-02[xii]

The new AOC acknowledges that 21st century warfare requires the full integration of conventional forces (CF) and special operations forces (SOF) to “conduct operations of significant scale and duration to accomplish the mission across the range of military operations.”[xiii] Unconventional Warfare (UW) is significant to the range of military operations with respect to SOF. Retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell points out that U.S. policy makers, unfortunately, lack an intellectual foundation of UW, preventing them from effectively implementing a UW strategy into national policy.[xiv] This observation makes the aforementioned CF/SOF integration difficult, as the SOF Truths correctly surmise that most SOF operations, especially UW, require non-SOF support.[xv] UW cannot be accomplished overnight but rather through persistent engagement with regional partners focused on assessing, developing, and understanding relationships of influential actors and groups, both friend and foe. This requirement is a leading factor in ARSOF 2022’s move to enhance ARSOF’s ability in this arena, specifically in special warfare. This enhanced capability, supported by human domain mapping, can provide a clearer picture of the human dynamics in strategically important regions where UW could be the only viable foreign policy option. To exemplify this concept, a brief discussion of UW operations is most appropriate.

Unconventional Warfare and Human Domain Mapping

Human domain mapping can be most effect supporting UW campaigns. FM 3-18, Special Forces Operations, defines the UW operational framework by detailing the seven phases of UW – preparation, initial contact, infiltration, organization, buildup, employment, and transition.[xvi] An implied task, and critical throughout the UW campaign, is an understanding the human dynamics within the UW operational area (UWOA). This understanding allows UW practitioners to target the appropriate forces, establish rapport with the most influential individuals, and maintain those relationships to secure long-term partnerships focused on mutual strategic goals. To simplify these difficult tasks, planners and intelligence officials can utilize human domain mapping to provide UW practitioners with more insightful intelligence assessments, better prepared plans, and a greater situational awareness of the UWOA.

To exemplify how human domain mapping can support UW campaigns, a brief synopsis of a sensitive but unclassified thesis chapter by Kemokai and Ludwig is offered[xvii]. This chapter discusses the selection of special operations forces (SOF) partners in the Syrian resistance circa 2011 by utilizing human domain mapping and SNA analytics. In it, they hypothesize that resistance networks are better suited to support a UW campaign if the connective tissues between leaders from varying resistance movements consist of both strong and weak ties. In the case of the Syrian resistance, after mapping the competing factions and running the associated SNA analytics, it was determined there was a disjointedness throughout the various leadership clusters within the resistance, thus making coordination problematic. This disjointedness caused the Syrian resistance to squander numerous political opportunities, generated from regime defectors, to build a sufficient brokerage network to spur a cohesive movement. As a result, a combination of the resistance’s disconnectedness and its inability to coalesce into a unified front suggested that the propensity of the Syrian resistance to support a UW campaign was grim.

Given this conclusion, the authors were then able to determine two significant sets of information. First, they determined the most appropriate Syrian resistance actors with whom to engage to best lash up the varying factions. Secondly, the analytics highlighted the network’s vulnerabilities, both in actors and relationships, allowing strategists to develop contingency plans should those vulnerabilities be exploited. In other words, SNA analytics highlighted individuals and relationships UW strategist should target in order to mold the UW-inept Syrian resistance into one that would support a UW campaign while simultaneously predict weaknesses that could undermine the UW campaign. With the knowledge gleaned from this research and the supporting SNA analytics, what was once thought of as a poor situation for a UW campaign now has promise and potential.

Human Domain Mapping and Daesh[xviii]

I recently completed my master’s thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School on countering the Islamic State, commonly referred to as Daesh. I used SNA to map out Daesh’s operational and strategic level leadership, and then applied principles of social movement theory, the study of collective action, to develop alternative strategies to combat Daesh. In January 2015, I began scraping unclassified, open sources to map the network, at which point I was able to identify more than 200 Daesh members. The results of the network are visualized in the sociogram of Figure 2. Each node, or Daesh member, is color-coded based on his reported country of residence and black denotes a reported deceased member. This sociogram clearly demonstrates Daesh’s hierarchical nature, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his cabinet in the middle, the Syrian regional command structure in cyan on the left and the Iraqi regional command structure in green on the right. Various duty positions, relationships, and subordinate commands make up the rest of the sociogram.

Figure 2: Daesh’s operational and strategic leadership

The interesting piece of the research is the amount, and at which level, former Baath Party members influence Daesh’s network. Figure 3 is a close up of the small cluster just to the right of al-Baghdadi’s cabinet and denotes those that have previous ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. These individuals either hold senior leadership positions, such as the regional emir or provincial governors, or are directly tied to al-Baghdadi himself, suggesting the importance Daesh has placed on those with leadership experience resulting from time served in Saddam’s regime.

Figure 3: Structural location of former Iraqi Baath Party members

Recently, there has been an outpouring of information detailing the level of influence the Baath Party had in Daesh’s formation following its near destruction in 2007.[xix] Daesh required individuals experienced in leading large governmental and military organizations, and the Baath Party filled those requirements. Human domain mapping accurately demonstrated this notion well before the mainstream media, further highlighting the possibilities of human domain mapping. Analyzing this conflict in the 21st century warfare construct in light of this new information, we can see how this has the potential to change U.S. strategy. Instead of viewing Daesh as a religiously extremist organization as it portrays, it may in fact be merely a platform for old Baathist to return to power masked by religious fanaticism.


As warfare continues down its evolutionary path, so too must the ways and methods in which we prepare for it. Victory favors those most prepared; therefore it is imperative that the United States finds itself as the most prepared for 21st century warfare. One way we can do that is by operationalizing social network analysis through human domain mapping to provide a richer and more in depth understanding of the societies in which we will inevitably operate. This new level of insight can offer a number of advantages that would help planners develop more appropriate strategies and allow operators to execute more effectively. Some examples include identifying key influencers or brokers, providing early intelligence on the fundamental composition of insurgent networks, or detecting marginalized elites or disenfranchised social groups sympathetic to U.S. strategies. The U.S. military has little, if any, peer in maneuver warfare. Maneuver warfare operations, however, are soon to find themselves as supporting efforts in 21st century warfare, where understanding societal functions and how to influence them are the main efforts. SNA and human domain mapping can provide that understanding.


Department of Defense Dictionary of Military And Associated Terms, Joint Pub 1-02, as amended 15 August 2014, p. 263.

Johnson, Glenn W., and Doowan Lee. “Revisiting the Social Movement Approach to Unconventional Warfare.” Small Wars Journal. December 1, 2014. Accessed on February 3, 2015.,d.cGU.

Kemokai, Nguanyade S. and Thomas Ludwig. “UW Conceptualization of Resistance: Illuminating 21st Century Uncertainty.” Master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2013.

Maxwell, David S. “Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare?” Small Wars Journal. October 23, 2014. Accessed on February 2, 2015.,d.cGU.

Natali, Denise. “The Islamic State’s Baathist Roots - Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East.” Al-Monitor, April 24, 2015.

Raymond, Derek. “Combating Daesh: A Socially Unconventional Strategy.” Master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2015.

Reuter, Christoph. “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State.” Spiegel Online, April 18, 2015, sec. International.

SOF Truths.

U.S. Army. Map Reading and Land Navigation. Department of the Army. FM 3-25.26. Washington D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2001.

U.S. Army. Special Forces Operations. Department of the Army. FM 3-18. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2012.

U.S. Army. The U.S. Army Operating Concept. Department of the Army. TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1. Washington D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2014.

U.S. Army. U.S. Army Functional Concept for Engagement. Department of the Army. TRADOC Pamphlet 525-8-5. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2014.

U.S. Army. ARSOF 2022. United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Fort Bragg, NC. 2013.

End Notes

[i] U.S. Army, Map Reading and Land Navigation, Department of the Army, FM 3-25.26, Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2001.

[ii] U.S. Army, The U.S. Army Operating Concept, Department of the Army, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1. Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2014.

[iii] Ibid., iii.

[iv] Ibid., iv.

[v] U.S. Army, ARSOF 2022, United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, NC, 2013, 3.

[vi] Ibid., 10.

[vii] Ibid., 10-11.

[viii] Ibid., 16.

[ix] Ibid., 16.

[x] Ibid., 18-19.

[xi] Ibid., 8.

[xii] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military And Associated Terms, Joint Pub 1-02, as amended 15 August 2014, p. 263.

[xiii] TRADOC PAM 525-3-1, 25.

[xiv] Maxwell, “Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare?”

[xvi] U.S. Army, Special Forces Operations, Department of the Army, FM 3-18, Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2012, 2-5.

[xvii] Nguanyade S. Kemokai and Thomas Ludwig, “UW Conceptualization of Resistance: Illuminating 21st Century Uncertainty” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2013). This thesis is sensitive but unclassified as it involved the Syrian resistance in 2011; therefore it was not published to public. The synopsis here does not include any of the sensitive information, rather the general observations from their research.

[xviii] Derek Raymond, “Combating Daesh: A Socially Unconventional Strategy” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2015).

[xix] Denise Natali, “The Islamic State’s Baathist Roots - Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East,” Al-Monitor, April 24, 2015.; Christoph Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Spiegel Online, April 18, 2015, sec. International.


About the Author(s)

Major Derek Raymond is with the 5th Special Forces Group and holds a Master's of Science from the Naval Postgraduate School.



Mon, 08/24/2015 - 9:43am

A very interesting article, and one that I intend to stew on over the next few days. Many thanks to the author for presenting it for the community's consideration.

One note of caution. "Social network analysis" and its use as IPB for UW or any other type of operation is uncomfortably familiar from the recent past, when it was called "PMESII" as an adjunct to Effects-Based Operations and a variety of related "Revolution in Military Affairs" concepts. Elinor Sloan's book, <A HREF="… Military Strategy</A>, discusses these concepts, their history, how they were largely discredited when tested in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how USJFCOM (which had been their primary advocate to the joint force) largely abandoned them during General Mattis' tenure there. Robert Farley's book, <A HREF="…;, discusses the history of these concepts, advocated in large part by the Air Force, as an outgrowth of that branch's hunger for vast amounts of data to drive bombing and later precision strike targeting. I personally attended a lecture by General Mattis in which he discussed the faith that was put into this concept of collecting and analyzing social data and metrics to make operations more efficient and effective, only to have it fall apart when tested in theater. All of this is to say that while the prospect of analyzing social networks to enable SOF or CF operations may be tempting, history suggests caution and expectation management.