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When Joint is Not Enough, Is Multi-Domain the Answer
Joint has been the orthodoxy for military operations since the Second World War. It has proven an effective means to coordinate the assets of different services operating under a single commander. Yet, despite its centrality to the contemporary way of war, the days of joint operations are numbered. Technological advances now occurring will mandate the crafting of a new principle around which to organise for and conduct war. This is taking shape under the idea of multi-domain operations.
Transformative weapons and systems are behind the need for commanders to change the way they think about and prepare for war. These technologies include long-range precision strike platforms, swarming and intelligent robots, advanced sensors, offensive cyber, electro-magnetic manoeuvre systems and weaponised social media. In combination, they are likely to have two significant and far-reaching effects on how war is conducted. First, the reach of these weapons and systems will eliminate the already porous boundaries between the domains through their ability to compress both time and space. Second the expansion of the number of domains of war from the traditional three of land, sea and air to six, with the inclusion of space, cyber and social media, will require greater command integration in what promises to be a more chaotic environment.
It must be admitted that many weapons currently in use already have multiple domain capabilities. For example, long-range bombers can take off from a base on land, fly through the air above a maritime space and bomb a target on a different continent, thereby operating in one domain but traversing three. The epic flights of B-52 bombers during Operation Desert Storm are a case in point. Consequently, it would be reasonable to ask whether what is being argued here represents anything new or whether it is just an exercise in rebadging. No doubt some readers are doing so.
It needs to be recognised, however, that while there is a degree of continuity between joint and multi-domain operations, there is much that will be different. The idea of multi-domain operations is not actually revolutionary. Rather, it can be seen as the next evolution of joint operations, building on it to create a way of thinking and the necessary supporting structures that promise to yield a more useful way to wage the wars to come. Joint operations replaced single service operations. Multi-domain operations will be the next iteration of how military forces best leverage the opportunities offered by the integration of technologies. As technology evolves, it is only natural that military organisations embrace the opportunities offered by its advance.
The technologies that have been deployed in recent years have begun to compress the domains of war, as well as reducing the operating constraints imposed by time and distance. There has always been a degree of overlap between domains. After all, soon after the opening of the air domain, aircraft were able to strike targets on the land, and land forces quickly responded by repurposing existing weapons to shoot down planes. What is now happening is much more than simply some blurring along the edges where domains traditionally meet, however. Rather, the zones of overlap between domains are widening to the point that the boundaries between them effectively cease to exist. As effective ranges continue to grow, theatre-wide killing zones will become the norm not the exception. Significantly, too, such capabilities will not remain the remit only of the major states. As these weapons and systems proliferate, even minor states (and perhaps sub-states) will possess some ability to project power over vast distances.
What this means is that commanders will no longer be able to separate, in any useful sense, the land from the sea and the air, or even from cyber. On the Western Front of the First World War, the killing zone was measured in mere metres or at most kilometres. Today’s weapons offer killing zones thousands of kilometres in depth, and the point will soon be reached where weapons positioned in one domain will be able to strike anywhere in another domain.
Frankly, war without domain boundaries is not a situation for which jointness was designed. Military thinkers, therefore, need to consider whether a concept designed to coordinate actions within the domains of the land, sea and air is the most effective method to coordinate the use of force within and across six unbounded domains. I suspect it is not.
The implication of the elimination of domain boundaries warrants further exploration. As a consequence of their range, accuracy and speed, land based precision missiles can now reach far out over water and hit targets at ranges of thousands of kilometres. This leap forward in effective range has obvious consequences for the survival of friendly vessels but it is the second and third order effects that are of true importance and that will necessitate a rethinking of the basic principles around which military force is organised. For example, one second order consequence is that the control of the sea will no longer belong to the side that possesses the superior fleet and the superior knowledge of how to use it. Instead, it may be more effective to control the sea from one or both sides of the adjoining land, with mobile precision missile batteries. It is not yet clear what this will mean for navies, or even armies and air forces, but a change in the relationship between the land and the sea (and the land and the other domains) is imminent.
As the domains compress, military planners will need to ask basic questions on how military power is to be organised and employed to greatest effect. To continue the above example, one critical area of enquiry will be to identify the type of ships required in a future in which sea control is no longer the sole responsibility of navies. Another necessary area of thought might be the evolution of navy strategy to take advantage of the opportunities and guard against the threats that war without domain boundaries offers. The other traditional domain keepers, the land and air forces, will have similar challenges to consider.
The reach of cyber and social media capabilities is even more extraordinary than that of missiles; their targeting is effectively global and their effect can be virtually immediate. In cyber attacks, time and distance from an adversary are also irrelevant. The ability of such technologies to compress time and space suggests that the existing limiting factor of the distance between point of origin and point of effect will soon no longer matter when planning an attack or organising a defence. Wars in which distance and time are no longer relevant have never been fought. But they are coming and what it means for the future conduct of war will need to be thought through.
The cognitive challenge required for a military organisation to adopt a multi-domain way of thinking is even more challenging, in what will already be a daunting adjustment to force structure and organisation requirements. It will be difficult for some to move from thinking about joint task forces and joint commanders, to multi-domain task forces and multi-domain commanders. Future commanders will require different skills than those needed today. They will need to be able to view war through the lens of integrated seamless domains rather than interdependent ones confined by known borders. They must be able to thrive in the chaos of multi-domains where traditional delimitations no longer matter. They must also understand how to impose chaos on an enemy by presenting multiple dilemmas across multiple domains and overwhelm an opponent’s ability to understand, react and survive.
The adoption of a multi-domain perspective requires more than just a title change. Commanders will need to be found who are able to remove the cultural blinders that set limits on what is currently possible and who are able to envision a non-linear and non-bound battlespace. It is likely that few commanders with the requisite skills presently exist, meaning that candidates with suitable cognition will have to be identified and trained. In fact, the necessary attributes for such commanders still need to be identified.
Leadership evolution is only half the challenge, however. In addition, the traditional distinctions between the service-orientated domains must be replaced by a vision that views war as a cohesive whole. The present identification of a domain with a particular service should become a relic of historical convenience not a requirement for effective future operations. The way forward embraces both cultural and cognitive change as well as organisation and force structure modifications.
Multi-domain operations offer the means to address the challenge of operating simultaneously within and across the six current domains, whose distinct boundaries have already begun to break down. Such operations promise not just to coordinate multi-service effects, as is currently possible, but to integrate operations to the extent that assets operate freely within and across any domain. Future commanders will need to manage effects and achieve objectives across far more extensive geographic and cognitive space than has ever before been attempted.
In fact, multi-domain operations offer the opportunity to remove domains in their entirety. All that will remain is a single, multi-faceted domain, one that could be termed the human domain. This is where war began. In the first phases of our evolution, humanity was only able to wage war in the land domain due to the limitations of the available technology. Mastery of technology has allowed our species to exploit alien environments, moving operations into other domains. Now, technology offers the opportunity to return war to where it began a pure struggle of will, unimpeded by institutional constraints, cultural biases and environmental boundaries that often hinder rather than advancing effectiveness. But perhaps this major step is best left for the next evolution.
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Army or the Australian Department of Defence.