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The Answer is Multi Domain Operations – Now What’s the Question?

Tap your heels together three times and think to yourself: ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home’

Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, Wizard of Oz 1939.

For Dorothy, the process for making her wish come true was quite simple; a few heel taps whilst repeating the same phrase over and over again. During his capstone address to the 2019 RAF Air and Space Power Conference, Air Chief Marshal Hillier uttered the words ‘Multi-Domain Operations’ seven times. Dorothy got home; quite where Defence is with Multi-Domain Operations is less clear. Supporters and proponents of Multi-Domain Operations, devoid of sparkly red shoes, are engaged in a fight to make their case. The question is, are they winning?

Multi-Domain Operations are certainly generating their own bandwagon effect. Numerous papers have been written, blogs published, and conferences held in their honour. They represent the latest in a series of visionary leaps that have tried to address the question of how the West should fight its wars. To some, Multi-Domain Operations represent the future, to others they are very much new wine in old bottles and a mechanism for attracting funding. They do represent the here and now and therefore deserve our attention.

Our first problem with Multi-Domain arises when we try to define what a warfighting domain actually is. Heftye’s 2017 article is a thorough dissection of the problem and three years after it was written his statement that ‘the exact meaning of domain remains largely undefined’ remains perfectly valid1. There is also a good old Clausewitzian debate to be had as to whether the ‘new kids on the block’ (cyber and space) are more than enablers to where the ‘real fighting’ takes place. That debate is beyond the scope of this paper but Barnes’ argument over presentism is well made and needs to be heard2. Equally as critical is Spirtas’ ‘words move money’ argument which all but accuses the US defence community of adopting new terminology as a vehicle to attract funding. Cynicism for Multi-Domain Operations runs deep3.

If Defence can’t define what a domain is, how do we know how many there are? The majority of protagonists, including the United States, NATO, and the United Kingdom, will say five. This may prove to be the thin end of the wedge. Dr Jeffrey Reilly, who heads the Multi Domain Operational Strategist (MDOS) programme at the US Air Force’s Command and Staff College, goes further. As well as including the electro-magnetic spectrum, his second (and in his view most important) addition is that which allows an opponent to be influenced, compelled or coerced; the Human Domain. The military’s inability to define the term, let alone codify it in doctrine, has opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of domains in-waiting.

If definitions and numbers are proving a challenge, could the traditional approach to cementing concepts into the military psyche by using historical vignettes or campaigns, provide an answer? This is a proven and popular approach that blends the worlds of academia and the military to good effect. For Multi-Domain Operations, these vignettes range from Ramesses’ annihilation of the Sea Peoples in the Nile Delta to the Battle of Britain. This approach certainly brings a degree of colour to the debate and allows proponents of Multi-Domain Operations to say that a). they are nothing new and b). if we did it back then, it must mean we’re doing it now.

As useful as these historical analogies are, they may simply be evidence of confirmation bias with available facts used to confirm a pre-existing belief. If the appropriate doctrine and definitions surrounding Multi-Domain Operations were in place, agreed and codified, the need for historical case studies should not be so pressing. One further historical point of note is that as part of his 1962 ‘We choose to go to the moon’ speech, US President Kennedy also asked whether space would be a ‘sea of peace or a new terrifying theatre of war?’4. If only Kennedy had used the term domain rather than theatre, we could have started the ball rolling 50 years earlier.

Many of the historical case studies used to support Multi-Domain Operations #appear  joint by nature. This poses another question: ‘why multi-domain and not joint?’ In many instances, the force elements involved are the same so why the difference?

It is O’Reilly’s view that when General Dempsey asked the US Military Education Coordination Council in 2011, ‘What’s after joint?’ he was emphasising that at some point in the future, joint operations will not be adequate to address the challenges of our emerging operational environment5. Reilly uses the rather effective analogy of joint operations being similar to Chess, where a player can choose from 20 possible opening moves. Multi-Domain Operations, however, are far more akin to Chinese game of Go, which has 361 possible opening moves6. Similar comparisons have been made between the pre-planned plays used in American football and the reactive and nature of rugby. The US Army’s Warfighter series of exercises are already seeing the benefits of being ‘able to achieve tempo not just through the sustained geographical advance of the forward line of troops, but by persistently presenting complementary dilemmas to the enemy in unexpected ways’7. The Warfighter model could be bringing Go to the battlefield.

Strategy which recognises ‘an increasingly disrupted and lethal battlefield that operates at an increased speed and crosses all five domains’8. A brief examination of how America’s armed forces are approaching Multi-Domain Operations offers a useful insight as to how a concept can be pursued with zest and vigour on one hand and in a disparate and potentially confusing manner on the other.

The US Air Force Chief of Staff, General Goldfein, is unequivocal, if not evangelical, in his belief that Multi-Domain Operations will ‘change the character of modern warfare’. The USAFhave put themselves at the forefront of Multi-Domain command and control with their Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a development of their original ‘Air’ Battle Management System. Recent trials, however, would suggest that the US Army see ABMS as struggling to cope with the scale of their requirement. Whether this is a valid point or if it stems from inter-service rivalry remains to be seen9.

Notwithstanding what may be a temporary glitch over ABMS, the USAF have opened up another front. They have conceptually established the Multi-Domain Operational Strategists programme at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. The programme is designed to develop future leaders who understand how to employ multi domain operational manoeuvre to counter emerging threats10.

Goldfein’s advocacy for Multi-Domain Operations is impressive. But he is not alone amongst air commanders in his belief that air forces that are uniquely positioned to integrate a range of capabilities across the warfighting domains. His relationship with General Raymond, the newly appointed Commander of Space Force will be interesting to observe. Both are airmen and both of their commands sit within the Air Force Department. Yet within days of his appointment Raymond said ‘I am not in the Air Force anymore, I’m in the Space Force11.

Despite their reservations over ABMS, the US Army is also not against Multi-Domain Operations. In 2018, the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) put forward three key tenets of Multi-Domain Operations when operating as a joint force: the need for a calibrated force posture, multi-domain formations capable of accessing and exploiting capabilities across all domains and convergence that brings everything together at speed in order to defeat the enemy. TRADOC is taking a 10-year approach out to 2028 which focuses the US Army’s path towards Multi-Domain Operations on great power competition, where the pacing threat is Russia, and multi-layered standoff defences12.

From a business perspective, Lockheed Martin talk of a ‘new warfighting concept that synchronises systems and data where personnel are empowered to make decisions and that drive actions’13. The Lockheed Martin (LM) and US Air Force views certainly align and the accompanying LM graphic depicts a pair of F35s with various inter-connecting beams and cones of bright lights emerging from their flying surfaces.

Smith sets out a strong case for the US approach to Multi-Domain Operations as being stove piped and lacking coherence. The US Marines, he points out, do not appear too far removed from their Army counterparts. The US Navy’s approach, that they conduct Multi-Domain on a daily basis, would appear to isolate them and put them in last place. If the Army’s premise that Multi-Domain Operations is about defeating anti area access denial (A2AD) networks, surely the US Navy with its eye on China, would be running ahead of the pack?14.

Developing Multi-Domain Operations purely as a concept for the US Military is all well and good until, of course, they want to operate alongside allies and partners and NATO in particular. Watling and Roper make a good case for two issues the United States is likely to encounter (or perhaps are already encountering) when it comes to integrating Multi-Domain Operations with their European allies: capability gaps and policy hurdles. If these two areas are not addressed then a twin-track two-speed approach to is likely to be the result15.

The potential benefits of Multi-Domain Operations and its genesis in defeating A2AD Anti-Access Area Denial are no doubt attractive to many NATO members.  But the challenges of sharing data and intelligence across its 29 member states is likely to be significant. As NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre pointed out ahead of their October 2019 Multi Domain Conference ‘neither NATO nor any of its member nations, specifically the US, has published a single unifying definition for Multi Domain Operations’16.

For NATO, the problems with Multi-Domain Operations go well beyond definitions. NATO’s thirst for rapid decision-making means data has to move around a network at the speed of relevance. The sharing of intelligence will have to be enacted across all its member states. This will be challenging from both technical and cultural perspectives. NATO’s Joint Intelligence and Security Division was only established in 2017 and the organisation still acknowledges there are cultural challenges with the ‘need to share’ versus the ‘need to know’17. National caveats for decision-making, particularly around targeting and intelligence sharing, are existential threats to NATO’s aspirations for Multi-Domain Operations. Let us not forget, NATO only declared space an operational domain in December 201918.

Much closer to home, the UK appears to be addressing Multi-Domain Operations in a typically understated and rather circuitous manner. Perhaps it is wary of throwing its doctrinal weight behind another new product, fearful perhaps that this concept will go the way of its Air-Sea Battle and 3rd Offset predecessors. For now at least, Joint Action is the preferred method of delivering a force capable of ‘integrating information and physical activity across me, all domains – cyber, space, maritime, land and air’19. As Donnelly and Fairly point out, doctrine is of no real help when it comes to defining a domain, particularly when it comes to the ethereal realm of cyber which does not have the physical presence of land, sea, air and space20.

The UK’s Multi-Domain Operations historiography is rather thin. The 2015 SDSR called for continued investment, via Joint Forces Command (JFC), in the areas of space and cyber21. Three years later, the 2018 Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) failed to land what could be termed a scoring punch but did call for a joint force consisting of ‘five domains, air, land, sea, cyber and space, rather than the traditional three.’ The MDP also recognised the need for an ‘improved’ JFC to enhance cyber operations across the armed forces22. That ‘improved’ JFC referred to by the MDP statement appears to have arrived.

In December 2019, JFC was renamed UK Strategic Command (UK StratCom) and became responsible for generating and developing capabilities across the land, sea, air, cyber and space domains23. It is also charged with ‘driving the essential integration across the modernised force to achieve multi-Domain effect’24.

General Sanders, Commander of UK StratCom expanded on some of his Command’s responsibilities which were ‘domain leadership in cyberspace’ and a slightly more vague ‘considerable responsibilities in space’ which will be shared with Air Command under the MOD’s Space Directorate. UK StratCom will also take the lead for multi-domain integration across the five warfighting domains25. UK Strat Com’s signalling its role as a ‘domain integrator’ sitting alongside and not above the Front-Line Commands questions whether it will be able to grab Multi-Domain Operations by the scruff of the neck. It is also difficult to understand how the UK’s recent move to componency will assist with the delivery of Multi-Domain Operations. 

Mirroring their American counterparts, the RAF is making the greatest inroads in Multi-Domain. At the 2018 Air Power Conference, the Chief of the Air Staff recognised that his own Service had not yet ‘fully embraced’ the multidomain command and control challenge and announced that Headquarters 11 Group would re-form to ‘work across air, space and cyber’ and give Multi-Domain Operations the ‘leadership, operational focus and prominence’ that it deserves26. The 2019 Air Power Conference upped the ante by adopting Multi-Domain Operations as its theme. However, an overall lack of focus across UK defence, including an absence of a definition or doctrinal baseline, has not helped the concept gain the traction required for it develop and thrive

Sharp calls for the RAF to go one better by configuring the National Air and Space Operations Centre, based at High Wycombe, to become the UK’s first Multi-Domain Operations HQ. Sharp acknowledges this will require support from the Royal Navy and the Army but argues it would be a catalyst for advances, and presumably investment, in command and control27.

If Multi-Domain Operations are to become an enduring part of UK Defence, then they will need to be formally established or at least referenced in the snappily-titled 2020 Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review 2020. Multi-Domain Operations may not be the answer, but the concept of dynamic and rapid decision making to outfight an opponent seems perfectly viable, one capable of providing a focus for the disparate efforts currently attempting to modernise defence. The arrival of UK StratCom and the 2020 Review should be a carpe diem moment for UK Multi-Domain Operations; space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum need to be prioritised over the long lists of conventional equipment that the military know and love and that can be flown, driven and sailed in front of the tax paying public.

If UK StratCom is to be a Command with a capital ‘C’ and not just an in holding pen for a collection of high value strategic capabilities, then the UK would appear to have an organisation capable of leading Multi-Domain Operations at an appropriate level.

However, without the presence of high-level clarity, well-meaning single Service initiatives are unlikely to further the cause of Multi-Domain Operations for the UK. Steps taken by the RAF to establish HQ 11 Group as a Multi-Domain Organisation may be seen as forward-leaning but may prove premature.

From a UK perspective, it is important that we do not get ahead of ourselves; 2020 should be a pivotal year for Multi-Domain Operations. Simply repeating the words Multi-Domain Operations at a series of conferences and briefings can play to the illusory truth effect that if you repeat something often enough, people will slowly start to believe it’s true. We are not Dorothy and we don’t have the slippers.

Phil Clare

Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.



  1. E. Heftye, Multi-Domain Confusion, not all domains are created equal, The Strategy Bridge, 26 May 2017. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/5/26/multi-domain-confusion-all-domains-are-not-created-equal
  2. P. Barnes, Neophilia, Presentism and their Deleterious Consequences for Western Military Strategy, Modern War Institute, 6 March 2019.https://mwi.usma.edu/neophilia-presentism-deleterious-consequences-western-military-strategy/
  3. M. Spirtas, Toward One Understanding of Multiple Domains, RAND Corporation, 2 May 2018. https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/05/toward-one-understanding-of-multiple-domains.html
  4. President J.F. Kennedy, Rice University, Texas 12 Sep 1962.
  5. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/Hot%20Spots/Documents/MDB/Multi-domainoperations-Reilly.pdf
  6. https://www.dvidshub.net/video/596112/multi-domain-operation-and-strategy
  7. C. Taylor and L. Kay, Putting the Enemy Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Modern War Institute, 27 August 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/putting-enemy-rock-hard-place-multi-domain-operations-practice/
  8. Summary of the United States National Defense Strategy 2018, 3. https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf
  9. S.J. Freedberg Jr, ABMS can’t be the sole solution for Joint C2, Army tells Air Force, Breaking Defence, 22 January 2020. https://breakingdefense.com/2020/01/abms-cant-be-sole-joint-c2-solution-army-tells-air-force-exclusive/
  10. J. Reilly, The Multi-Domain Operations Strategist, Over the Horizon Journal, 8 November 2018. https://othjournal.com/2018/11/08/oth-mdos-reilly/
  11. Sandra Irwin, Space News, 16 January 2020. https://spacenews.com/u-s-space-force-begins-to-organize-pentagon-staff-and-field-operations/
  12. TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The US Army in Multi Domain Operations 2028, 6 December 2018, iii. https://www.tradoc.army.mil/Portals/14/Documents/MDO/TP525-3-1_30Nov2018.pdf
  13. Lockheed Martin, What is a Multi-Domain Operation? https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/capabilities/multi-domain-operations.html
  14. G Smith, Multi-Domain Operations: Everyone’s Doing It, Just Not Together, Over the Horizon, 24 June 2019.
  15. J Watling and D Roper, European Allies in US Multidomain Operations, RUSI, 23 Sep 2019.
  16. H. Grest and H. Heren, What is a Multi Domain Operation? https://www.japcc.org/what-is-a-multi-domain-operation/
  17. A.F. van Loringhofen, A new era for NATO intelligence, 29 October 2019. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2019/10/29/a-new-era-for-nato-intelligence/index.html
  18. NATO London Declaration dated 4 December 2019.
  19. Joint Concept Note 1/17 Future Force Concept, v.
  20. J. Donnelly and J. Farley, Defining ‘Domain’ in Multi Domain, Over the Horizon, 17 September 2018. https://othjournal.com/2018/09/17/defining-the-domain-in-multi-domain/
  21. HM Government, National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, November 2015, 30.
  22. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/modernising-defence-programme-update
  23. https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/strategic-command/about
  24. CDS RUSI speech, 5 December 2019 – https://www.scmagazineuk.com/new-uk-strategic-command-drive-integration-multi-domain-effect/article/1667949
  25. General P.Sanders, The integrating role of UK Strategic Command, 7 Jan 20.
  26. A.C.M. S. Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff’s Airpower Conference, London 11 July 2018.
  27. B. Sharp, Next Generation Command and Control, Freeman Air and Space Institute, July 2019.

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