Small Wars Journal

Should There Be a Human Warfighting Domain?

Thu, 12/03/2015 - 11:31am

Should There Be a Human Warfighting Domain?

Thomas Doherty

Until recently, Warfighting Domains were based on elements such as the Air, Land, and Maritime Domains.  Recently, the military has added the Cyber Domain to join the other Domains.  The Cyber Domain, unlike its elemental based brethren, is a domain whose key terrain crosses elemental barriers.  In doing so the military has created a whole command devoted to this Warfighting Domain with the basic understanding that the conventional military units within the Navy, Army, or Air Force should not be expected to dominate this domain.  The addition of the cyber domain begs the question: What about when the human terrain is the Key Terrain and control of it represents the decisive point?  Should there be a Human Warfighting Domain?  Who would be the proponent of the Human Warfighting domain?

In the process of analyzing force capabilities the U.S. military recognized the growing importance of cyberspace and as a result in 2005[i], the military made it a domain on an equal footing with the elemental based domains: Land, Sea and Air.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also shown us the importance of the human domain.  In these campaigns the control of elemental based terrain features meant little to nothing above the tactical level.  The Human Warfighting Domain would be in effect when human factors are the decisive point in winning a war.  The JP 2-0 defines human factors as "The physical, cultural, psychological, and behavioral attributes of an individual or group that influence perceptions, understanding, and interactions."  A slight modification to this already accepted definition can give us a definition for the human domain.  I propose that the definition for the Human Warfighting Domain be "A global domain where the influencing perceptions, understanding, and interactions of physical, cultural, psychological, and behavioral attributes of individuals or groups determines victory or defeat."

Some analysts surmised that in Afghanistan "We failed to deny the enemy the most important factor in any insurgency: human terrain."[ii]  Key Terrain is sometimes non-doctrinally referred to as the 'Decisive Terrain'.  For example, Gen Petraeus referred to the human terrain as the "Decisive Terrain" when talking to congress.[iii]  The elemental warfighting domains are based on the key terrain that needs to be dominated within the domain in order to achieve success.  According to JP 2-01.3 Key Terrain is "Any locality, or area, the seizure or retention of which affords a marked advantage to either combatant." (For the rest of this article the doctrinal term key terrain will be used instead of Decisive Terrain.) This is more easily defined and understood by all conventional forces whose responsibility it is to dominate those domains; for example seize Hill XXX or Control the Straight of X.  There are certain abstract forms of key terrain that transcend basic elemental functions.  Some of these are in the Cyber Domain, where the transmission and receipt of electronic signals can drastically effect outcomes and even cause physical damage.  Some of these are in the Human Domain.  In COIN, controlling Hill XXX means nothing if your enemy controls the Human terrain surrounding the hill.

A Human Warfighting domain (HWD) does not mean a reinstatement of the Human Terrain System (HTS).  The similarities end with the names.  HTS was supposed to be an intelligence gathering function a HWD references the decisive point of an operational or strategic level campaign.  Gathering of intelligence on the human terrain will always have a place in all phases of Unified Land Operations (formerly Full Spectrum Operations).  The purpose of HWD is to focus on where the fight will happen.

When deciding on a supported supporting command relationship the Key Terrain that forms the Decisive Point should be the deciding factor. That Key Terrain will fall into a Warfighting Domain, the command responsible for that Warfighting Domain should be the supported command.  For example, during the Battle of Brittan, the Royal Air Force was the supported command and the entire battle was fought in the air.[iv]  Another example of this is when we are conducting either an Insurgency or Counter Insurgency (COIN) campaign.  The military already has a purpose built command with expertise and command structure in place in the1st Special Forces Command (1st SFC). 1st SFC commands the only units in the Department of Defense specifically trained to conduct both COIN and insurgency campaigns commonly referred to as Unconventional Warfare (UW).

Over the last decade and a half our COIN operations were predominantly run by conventional military commanders.  That is to say that the subject matter experts (SME) were the supporting command, and not the supported command.  This is roughly the equivalent of putting the Air Force in charge of formulating ground campaign plans.  I propose we make the part of the military most capable of achieving the theater campaign plan's decisive point be the Decisive Operation and therefore by doctrine the supported or weighted command.  By establishing the Human Domain as a warfighting Domain there will be a clearly delineated command with responsibilities within that domain.  Just as no one questions the Air Force's lead in planning air campaigns, there should not be a question on who is in the lead for Human terrain based campaigns.

This idea fits within current joint military doctrine.  According to JP 3-24 the "Counterinsurgency Mindset" is "Warfare that has the population as its focus of operations requires a different mindset and different capabilities than warfare that focuses on defeating an adversary militarily.  In COIN operations this means an adaptive and flexible mindset to understand the population, anticipate insurgent actions, be comfortable among the population, and appreciate the comprehensive approach of unified action."  1st SFC has the soldiers trained for and a task organized specifically for all the aspects of the COIN and insurgency mindset.

The Human domain is not a malleable medium, it is a mobile medium that may occupy and abandon the other elemental domains at will.  This makes the elemental Warfighting Domains epiphenomenons of the human domain and should be treated as such at the strategic level.  Only at the tactical level will terrain such as hill tops still retain a greater value as Key Terrain than the Human domain and the physical terrain is only important for a limited time.  As the level of planning rises control of the Human Domain will be of greater value regardless of the other warfighting domains occupied. 

The HWD is different than the other Warfighting Domains.  To treat it as a separate warfighting domain would open additional avenues to approach the problem.  Also, the creation of an primary proponent for this Warfighting Domain would set the conditions for the force most likely to capture or defend this domains to be the supported command for any operations that exist primary in the HWD. This assumes that a set of doctrinal principles and a force designed to operate using those principles may need to be developed.  However, as previously stated the need for this has not only been recognized, but already exists.  What has not been accomplished is the application of this force and its doctrinal principles correctly; that is to say as the over arching command during a conflict to achieve desired end states within the HWD.

In contrast to other domains, the Human Domain is a mobile medium. This mobility can be used to the advantage by those that achieve control over it.  To a degree the Human Domain can be used as camouflage for other portions of the Human Domain.  As JP 3-24 puts it, "This allows the insurgent to exploit the terrain and population as cover and concealment for their operations."[v]  The mobility achieved by this camouflage within the Human Domain allows either side to move forces, exerting influence, within other parts of this global domain.  A current example of this is ISIS's ability to spread across the globe via mass migration of its forces disguised as refugees into Europe and other parts of the world.[vi]  This allows ISIS to spread spore throughout the previously secured Human Domain using it to mask an ‘Ink Spot’ strategy.

What about the human domain is worth trying to dominate?  The cliché answer is the "Hearts and Minds".  However, this only alludes to a deeper focus that must be achieved; the dominating influence of the habits, beliefs and most importantly, the will of the enemy within the HWD must be friendly forces.  This is what opponents are trying to dominate or preventing others from dominating.  This requires not only the ability to shoot, move, communicate and medicate; but also the ability to move freely within the human domain to be dominated.  It is from the long-term exposure of a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas that the local populations can be influenced and the objective laid out by the Combatant Commander achieved.

The adoption of a Human Warfighting Domain would allow a change in command structure and therefore strategy.  It will overcome institutional inertia and political pressures shifting the onus of victory to units trained specifically for the war of the soul.  A type of war where the winning of the 'Hearts and minds' of the populace will determine victory or defeat.  The doctrine and force structure is already in place and therefore require no additional costs.  All that is required is a change in supported supporting relationships and the application of existing doctrine.  Creating a Human Warfighting Domain will better focus our military efforts, giving us a greater chance of achieving victory.


(2013). Joint Publication 2-0 Joint Intelligence. N.p.: Joint Chiefs of Staff

(2013). Joint Publication 2-0 Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment. N.p.: Joint Chiefs of Staff

(2008). Headquarters, Department of the Army, comp. FM3-105.130 Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare Washington DC: Department of the Army.

(2013). Joint Publication 3-24 Counterinsurgency. N.p.: Joint Chiefs of Staff

Petraeus, General. General Petraeus Confirmation Hearing. C-Span. National Cable Satellite, 29 June 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <>.

D.C. Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. Hearings on the Cyberspace as a Warfighting Domain: Policy, Management and Technical Challenges to Mission Assurance. 111th Leg., First. Washington D.C.: GPO, 2010. Print.

Ricks, Thomas E., and Drew Shepler. "The Foriegn Policy Group." N.p., 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <>.

Geoffrey Wellum. "92 Squadron." Battle of Britain Memorial Flight via Retrieved: 17 November 2010, archived 2 March 2009.

Burman, Jake. "400 ISIS Killers with hatred of West Among 20,000 Refugees Heading for Britain." Exspress 15 Sept. 2015: n. pag. Northern and Shell Media Publications. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. <>.

End Notes

[i] D.C. Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. Hearings on the Cyberspace as a Warfighting Domain: Policy, Management and Technical Challenges to Mission Assurance. 111th Leg., First. Washington D.C.: GPO, 2010. Print.

[ii] Ricks, Thomas E., and Drew Shepler. "The Foriegn Policy Group." N.p., 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <>.

[iii] Petraeus, General. General Petraeus Confirmation Hearing. C-Span. National Cable Satellite, 29 June 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <>.

[iv] Geoffrey Wellum. "92 Squadron." Battle of Britain Memorial Flight via Retrieved: 17 November 2010, archived 2 March 2009.

[v] (2013). Joint Publication 3-24 Counterinsurgency. N.p.: Joint Chiefs of Staff P. II-2

[vi] Burman, Jake. "400 ISIS Killers with hatred of West Among 20,000 Refugees Heading for Britain." Exspress 15 Sept. 2015: n. pag. Northern and Shell Media Publications. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. <>.


About the Author(s)

Thomas Doherty has a Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University and Strategic Security Studies from the National Defense University. He has served in both the enlisted and officer ranks in both the National Guard and active duty Army. Originally commissioned through the Arkansas National Guard OCS program he was re-commissioned via a direct commission. He has served in multiple military occupational specialties. He has served in 3rd Ranger Battalion, 7th and 3rd Special Forces Groups, 51st LRS, JRTC, and other staff and instructor positions. He has deployed to Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tajikistan, Botswana, and Germany. Currently he is serving as a Special Forces officer. Follow him on Twitter at, @warfarebytom



Sun, 10/02/2016 - 10:39am

In reply to by Bill C.

I believe you are correct.

Bill C.

Fri, 09/30/2016 - 12:25pm

As a potential evidentiary addendum to my "Bill C.|September 30, 2016-9:36am" comment below, consider the following from the introductory paragraph of our very own Appendix B (Internal Development and Defense Strategy), to ATP 3.05.2 (Foreign Internal Defense), the 2015 edition:


The IDAD strategy is the full range of measures taken by a nation to promote its growth and to protect itself from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency. Every nation’s strategy is specific, but the end state is universal—a responsible and accountable local, state or provincial, and national government that ensures the personal safety of its citizens by providing a climate and institutions that demonstrate the ability to improve their material well-being. In addition, those governments must ensure the basic freedoms that the world community has come to regard as fundamental. For the Army planner who has been born in or naturalized into a nation founded on those principles, one of the fundamental truths he must remember is that the above end state is frequently contradictory to the government the HN has experienced in the past or even from its inception. In some cases, one of the objectives may be to help formulate an appropriate IDAD strategy. This may mean instilling values that heretofore have not been present.


In this introductory paragraph one finds, I believe, all the critical elements of my argument below, these being:

a. The acknowledgement that the ultimate mission of our Combatant Commanders is to facilitate the transformation of the outlying states, societies and civilizations of the world more along our (often alien and profane to others) modern western political, economic, social and value lines.

b. The acknowledgement that this will be difficult task; this, given our very unusual and unique way of life, our very unusual and unique way of governance and our very unusual and unique values, attitudes and beliefs. Herein this publication acknowledging that (or at least alluding to), accordingly,

c. That a unique characteristic/talent must be found -- or developed -- within our special forces teams, and re: our contemporary "expansionist" designs for the other states, societies and civilizations of the world.

d. This such unique characteristic/talent (and much as was the case with the Soviets/the communists and re: their similar "expansionist" designs of the Old Cold War -- see COL Bjelajac below) being that of one's special forces teams must display an extraordinary knowledge of, and an extraordinary "ideological conviction" re:, the way of life, the way of governance and the values, attitudes and beliefs that they seek to impart in others.

Q: Does the above (similar to the Old Cold War) "convert the heathen" (the task of the Soviets/the communists back then; the task of the U.S./the West today) conflict environment represent a "human war-fighting domain?"

A: If it does not, then I do not know what does/what would.

Bill C.

Fri, 09/30/2016 - 10:36am

From the second to last paragraph above:


It is from the long-term exposure of a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas that the local populations can be influenced and the objective laid out by the Combatant Commander achieved.


Let me suggest, accordingly, that this "long-term exposure to Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas" will only be successful if such exposure -- in some manner -- helps to:

a. Achieve the transformation of the outlying states, societies and civilizations of the world; this,

b. More along our -- often alien and profane -- political, economic, social and value lines.

This, given that "a" and "b" above is, indeed, the political objective of our "expansionist" nation today and, accordingly, the mission of our Combatant Commanders.

Given the similarity of our such "human domain" missions today -- and those of the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- then might the leadership of our special forces teams today benefit from considering the following from COL Slavko N. Bjelajac and re: his 1962 paper entitled "Unconventional Warfare: American and Soviet Approaches:


The success of the revolutionaries can primarily be assigned to two extraordinarily powerful factors, namely, their closeness to the population -- that is their ability to win over the population -- and their ideological conviction. ... Communists, although champions of materialism, have succeeded in perfecting a method of exploiting human factors, which they regard as being of primary importance.

END QUOTE (See page 79)

This such advice suggesting that:

a. Not only is one's special forces teams' "closeness to the population" of exceptional importance and value -- to achieving one's mission of transforming the outlying states, societies and civilizations of the world more along one's alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines -- but also:

b. One's special forces teams' "ideological understanding and conviction" -- and their ability to impart this to the native populations -- and thus be able to "convert" same, as is their Combatant Commanders' ultimate mission objective.

Thus, time to test, measure, etc., the exact degree of our special forces teams' knowledge and understanding of -- and evangelistic conviction and "preaching"/"converting" ability re: -- the ideological tenants/foundations of our very unusual and unique way of life, our very unusual and unique way of governance and our very unusual and unique values, attitudes and beliefs?

This, given that imparting same -- within the "human warfighting domain" of the outlying states, societies and civilizations of the world today -- will be a critical aspect of our special forces missions; today and going forward?

(This, much as this such "evangelistic"/"preaching"/"converting" talent, ability and requirement was considered a critical part of their Soviet/communist counter-parts similar "expansionist" missions -- in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- and as COL Bjelajac suggests above?)

Thomas Doherty

Wed, 02/10/2016 - 9:46pm

With the recent change in status of Afghanistan I am sure that the Infantry Battalion going to Helmond will have at least the same overwhelming success that its predecessors had. As someone who has fought in Helmond on 2 deployments under an over arching conventional command, I believe a change in supported supporting commands if not the other theories presented here will have a greater impact than repeating previously attempted techniques.

Bill M.

Mon, 12/07/2015 - 10:09am

It is badly needed. We dominate the physical domains and still manage to lose.The human domain connects the purpose of military force to the political objective.


Mon, 12/07/2015 - 9:24am

When I was a young 2LT at the Infantry Officers' Basic Course at Ft. Benning, the then commander of the Infantry School was pushing to have the roads taken off the maps used for the land navigation course. This has stuck with me over the years as an example of the Army's leaderships innate belief that we can divorce the fact that wars tend to be fought were the people are (oh, and people build roads and buildings). Sadly, the Army needs to reinforce this simple fact every few years, in spite of its history. Conducting the fight away from people has been the exception, not the norm. No one service needs to have primacy over the "human domain", we all just need to remember that it is our shared responsibility in doing our missions.


Mon, 12/07/2015 - 11:39am

In reply to by SWEB68

Agreed with you on your last paragraph. The SF angle is front and center here, and to be frank, it is front and center of this entire discussion. The Human Domain and IW are SOCOM's babies, with SF/USASOC being the Army flavored mouthpiece on the issue. I don't necessarily have a problem with SOF taking a position. I just have a problem with THIS position.

However, I do think that a "Human Domain" or a "Human Warfighting Domain" or whatever, are philosophically indefensible positions. Even though many in the conventional forces (mostly NCOs, joes, and a few hard-charging officers who wish they were NCOs) would like to stop dealing with people, as you say, doesn't mean that it is a universal opinion, nor does it mean that it is the correct opinion. Admittedly, for whatever historical reason, this opinion has been influential on the US Army et al for a few decades. But that still doesn't make it correct.

There has never been a time when the civilian/non-combatant population has been "largely irrelevant" when it comes to warfare. Don't get me wrong, there have been plenty of battles where it was true, but never a war of any consequence, especially one where populated territory was crossed, seized, or (most critically) occupied. Taking down Berlin in 1945, the Soviet Army would have dealt with both intense maneuver combat and a hostile civilian population, in the same space, at the same time, interacting with the same troops that were doing the maneuvering and sending rounds. That's the crux of the problem, the "Human Thingy" is always there, always present, always in effect.

If SOCOM wants proponency as a matter of administrivia for a doctrine on interactions with non-combatants that's one thing. But the audience for whatever that doctrine is has to be the conventional forces and it is not and cannot be a domain, which is for specialization. And that's the crux of the issue...the advocates of this entire enterprise want specialization in "Human Thingy", which means the following:

1. specialized training
2. specialized equipping
3. specialized force design
4. primacy in that type of operations

All of these are a pseudo-service hit list, which does not serve strategic purpose. The compromise position has been the still-in-development Human Aspects of Military Operations Joint Concept. That type of effort should have been the first step in this discussion, not the follow-on once the original Human Domain got an unpopular reception.

To be frank, the Army should be the proponent and the main customer for the business of dealing with civilian issues. The Army has the role, by law, tradition, and necessity of dealing with and administering occupied territory, which is the most intense environment for the population management skills. SOF has plenty of space and need for it too, but they are not the main customer, just the frequent customer. The conventional force Army, and most especially its officer corps, needs the skills to manage human issues. It's not a novelty to state this, but a recognition of an atrophied skill and institutional amnesia.

I support the idea of a Human Warfighting Domain. There are distinct differences between operations in the land environment and operations amongst the population living on the land, and the two are not the same.

Traditional land operations can be characterised as army vs army, in attrition or manoeuvre warfare shaped by the physical terrain, and with the population largely irrelevant and victim to use of what to them is disproportionate force.

Operations in a human environment are very different, the enemy does not exploit the physical terrain, they exploit the human terrain, and as a result "traditional" approaches to use of force do not work. Our collective failures have proved this in the past. Instead the opposition hide amongst, and exploit, the population, and as a consequence our forces have learnt new skillsets to operate in this domain.

Many don't like it and look forward to the time when they can stop dealing with the people, who are complex and difficult, and go back to their "core" skills of manoeuvre, tank battles, aviation assaults, amphibious landings and artillery barrages.

Also human is not just about the land, the human domain also exists at sea on a large scale, just think about fishing, piracy, passenger and cargo shipping, smuggling, resource extraction - the human domain connects the land with the sea.

Just to finish off it is disappointing that this article sings the praises of SF to the exclusion of everyone else. There are many other elements who operate in the human domain along side SF including PSYOPS/MISO and Civil Affairs, and then there are the more conventional elements including Military police, Intelligence, Medics and Vets, linguists and cultural specialists, Foreign Affairs, ...

Misplaced under wrong article.

War and warfare is fought/conducted in the human domain. The idea that we need a function to remind of this suggests that war fighters have forgotten or neglected, perhaps both, how to prosecute war. I am for more and better education on war fighting in small wars which will highlight the complexities of such an endeavor--the majority of issues in conduct of small wars exist b/c of humans.


Sat, 12/05/2015 - 12:52am

I think that it should be a domain, a warfighting function, a principle, a core competency, and an Army value. Otherwise, we'll never be able to properly consider the human aspects of military operations.


Mon, 12/07/2015 - 11:06am

Double Post


Thu, 12/03/2015 - 3:59pm

I have been part of this conversation for a couple of years now and I still can't understand what is to be gained by this "domain". Or rather, what are domains and why do they even exist?! The definition implied in this article is that they are specializations, where the specialized are best equipped to operate in their respective domain, hence the need to specialize in the people business. I don't necessarily take issue with that. In fact, I think that is the heart of the domains, they are quite simply the first and highest order of differentiation for the purposes of equipping, manning, and operating. We have a service aligned to each, with each service dabbling in the other domains are fuzzy intersections. The Army has ships and wings, but it is structured and trained to for optimal land-based operations. So goes for the Navy, even if the Marines give the Navy a big land footprint as a matter of historical legacy. So for the Air Force.

So what is the human domain then specializing in? When we fight on land are we fighting rocks and trees or people? When we fight on the sea are we fighting krakens and megawaves or people? When we fight in the air are we fighting clouds and currents or people? Arguably these aren't equivalent. I do accept that fighting in the air and on the sea is so tied to machines that it is a much simpler, if technically more demanding, enterprise than fighting on land. After all, people don't live on sea and in the air. But land is all about people and nothing but people. To argue that there is a technical focus in the land forces that blinds them to people and is essentially divorced from the people that live on land does not make any sense.

People are the very heart of the land domain. After all, it is our natural environment. The fact that we have sucked at it when land Armies have been doing the people business since on or about dawn of humanity, is not a testament to a need for a specialization but to the overly technocratic tones of our military culture that convinced entire generations of officers GTAO and SDZ overlays were the extent of their technical requirements (hyperbole). We have simply forgotten that the purpose of a land army isn't to hike up hills but to gain and maintain control of people. Without people on terrain, controlling terrain makes no sense.

So no...we don't need a proponent for politics and people management. We need a land army that has a basic land army competency in check against its fetishized obsession over the technical fun bits.

PS The cynical part of me has seen the human domain push to be mainly a SOCOM based justification for creating a separate service...since the implied benefit of being a service is control of a domain.


Thu, 12/03/2015 - 12:42pm

This sounds entirely persuasive, but what about the civilian agencies - notably DOS and USAID? Where would they fit in?