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Is the Internet a flaw in Multi Domain Operations?

The concept of Multi Domain Operations (MDO) has been widely discussed in Western military circles.  It has been endorsed by senior military leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.  Originally a US concept, MDO looks at operations in the 2025-2050 timeframe and recognises five domains: air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace.  It focuses on full scale conflict with a ‘near-peer’ adversary able to operate against the US in all five domains.

The debate continues as to whether MDO represents a genuinely new concept or the logical continuation of an existing trend towards ever greater integration.  Some argue it is stifled by strategic roots whilst others see it as buzz word.1   But in one regard, MDO does include a significant change from earlier military concepts. Namely the acknowledgement of both the desire and ability of opponents to influence populations as a key element of present and future conflict.  For all the debate, however, one flaw in MDO thinking is the internet.  MDO thinkers have not considered how internet saturation will change the character of conflict or how a military force can exploit it.  Nor how to really exploit it.

Multi Domain Concept

To describe MDO the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has issued a doctrine pamphlet, “The US Army in Multi Domain Operations in 2028”.2  The document describes how the U.S. Army, as part of a joint force, can defeat a near-peer adversary and states:

“China and Russia exploit the conditions of the operational environment to achieve their objectives without resorting to armed conflict by fracturing the U.S.’s alliances, partnerships, and resolve.  They attempt to create stand-off through the integration of diplomatic and economic actions, unconventional and information warfare (social media, false narratives, cyber-attacks), and the actual or threatened employment of conventional forces”

Despite this recognition, the concept focus is on the integration of conventional military equipment with increased emphasis on space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities.  While recognising that populations have become ‘information-enabled’ this appears to be primarily in the context of their reaction to influence and narrative related activities.  It does not consider how they may actively be part of the multi domain environment.

UK concepts

Conceptually the UK seems to have taken the same approach with discussions on MDO.  The UK broadly accepts the key assumption that an important element of future conflict is that populations will be subject to hostile attempts to influence them.  However, the UK view is similarly focused primarily on the information dynamics within defence and military structures.

UK concepts have loosely followed the US. For example the 2017 ‘Future Force Concept’.3  A Joint Concept Note (JCN), it closely resembles MDO in that it identifies the same five domains and emphasises the need for increased integration.  A high-level concept document rather than a doctrinal one, it considers the operating environment out to 2035 and, like MDO, highlights the importance of information enabled populations and the threat from adversaries influencing audiences.  Another UK concept note, on Information Advantage4, focuses more narrowly on information and highlights the importance of social media and smartphones but again only in the context of influencing populations:

“Today, thanks to smartphones, the Internet and social media, our perception of the world is being manipulated at an extraordinary pace and on a previously unimaginable scale…Experts are out, opinion is in; it matters not how verifiable the assertion, it only matters that it attracts attention – true believers, sceptics, conspiracy theorists and artificial intelligence can do the rest. Information is no longer just an enabler, it is a fully-fledged national lever of power and a strategic, operational and tactical weapon.” 5

Acknowledgment of the desire and ability of adversaries to influence populations, and its increasing importance in conflict, represents a step change from previous, purely military focused, operational concepts.  Yet many of the other aspects of social media and smartphone technology are not otherwise considered.  Crucially, the JCN’s don’t highlight the fundamental change in the nature of the civilian population in any future conflict scenario.  Academically, War in 140 Characters, and other texts, recognise this trend already.  In contrast to previous conflicts rather than being passive recipients of information the population itself will be actively generating tactically relevant information on the battlefield.  This can then be exploited by those who choose to do so. This has been demonstrated from Afghanistan to Ukraine.

Conflict trends

A number of different trends have combined to increase the information local populations can generate and these trends are only set to increase.  However, the significance of their tactical value does not yet appear to have generated much discussion.  These trends are already likely to change the character of any future conflict in Europe, and, given the rate of increase in Internet use, within a few more years will do so in most other areas of the world.  In combination they have the potential to dramatically change the character of conflict environments.

The first significant trend, rarely mentioned in discussions of operational concepts, is size. In many countries around the world, including most of Europe, the ratio between the number of civilians and the number of troops available has been steadily increasing as populations increase and armies shrink.  In the future these ratios will be fundamentally different to those of many of the conflicts which have shaped the perception of modern warfare since World War II.

To take one example, in 1944 the Allies had over two million men in France, which at the time had a population of 40 million, a 20 to one civilian to military ratio.6  In comparison, in any possible future European conflict the civilian to military ratio would be very different.  The present regular strength of the German Army (60,431)7 in modern Germany (population 84 million) gives a ratio of approximately 1400 to one.  Even with the addition of allies and reserves it’s clear that the ratio in any such conflict would be orders of magnitude greater.  Such a conflict would be likely to be fought by small numbers of troops in ‘sea’ of a much larger civilian population.  The recent announcement of further reductions to British Army strength would produce similar figures and a similar situation for the UK.

Secondly, the growth of the information environment.  Internet and smartphone penetration has increased rapidly across the world.  For example, in Europe Internet penetration exceeds 90%. While in many countries smart phone usage is actually in excess of 100% with a European average 1.3 phones per head of population.8  With millions ‘informationally enabled’ by the Internet the civilian digital ‘footprint’ will vastly exceed the military one and the tactical value of the information it will generate.

In generating that information, smartphone use in particular has the potential to give rise to a whole new capability. Users are both geographically mobile and have the ability to record and report on activity they are witnessing by posting materiel on social media.  As an earlier analysis of social media concluded:

“This has effectively enabled these users to act as ‘sensors’ in a ‘sensor network’ of potentially very large numbers of people across a wide geographical area either passively, with social media data collected from unaware individuals or actively, using techniques such as crowdsourcing.”9

So what?

Such a network would be capable of generating real-time reporting encompassing imagery and video including live streaming video.  In any conflict in Europe, the troops would effectively be deploying into a 750 million (human) node sensor network.

Nor are human ‘sensors’ the only things capable of providing information.  The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the development of Internet enabled and controlled smart devices such as smart meters, video surveillance, and lighting systems.  The fastest growing category of devices with the numbers growing much faster than mobile phones, it is now estimated that there will be 14.7 billion IoT devices worldwide by 2023.10

In America civil rights concerns have already been raised over the police use of one IoT system, the Amazon ‘Ring’ door video system.  Described by one correspondent as the “largest civilian surveillance network the US has ever seen”11, one in ten US police departments now access videos from Ring devices. Up to April 2021 US law enforcement agencies had placed more than 22,000 individual requests to access content captured and recorded on Ring cameras.12  As it is a cloud-based system, digital access to it is easy and immediate.  Amazon has not revealed how many Ring systems are currently in use, but they sell several hundred thousand a month and therefore there are likely to be tens of millions.

Artificial Intelligence

It is clear that potentially tactically invaluable data already exists in vast quantities. Another trending capability, artificial intelligence (AI) now looks to be capable of providing the technological means to exploit it.

The potential capability of AI has been much talked but in practise, until recently, its capabilities have frequently fallen short of expectations.  However increased processing power, combined with the development of new techniques appears to be heralding a step change in AI capabilities with profound implications for the future.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has described developments in AI as “more profound than fire or electricity”.14  Europe has certainly reached the level of digital saturation where all the necessary data and technology exists.  Other regions of the world are following the same digital trends and are not many years behind.


MDO and the UK concepts are right to conclude that populations across the world have become ‘information enabled’. But the assumption that they are merely recipients of information and targets for influence operations fails to recognise the extent to which they have the growing potential to be active generators of operationally vital information.

The civilian digital space in any future conflict needs to be considered as another critical domain but one in which influence is but one element.  Its potential to generate vital intelligence and real time targeting information, or even to be exploited to generate digital deception, needs to be better understood and taken account of in understanding the character of future conflicts.

Failure to do so risks a situation where friendly forces are deployed into the middle of this ‘sensor system’ without any real understanding of their vulnerability to targeting from it or their opponent’s ability to use it against them.  The consequences of being outfought in this digital space could be just as disastrous as being outfought in any of the other domains identified in MDO.

Generic cartoon selfie
Ian Tunnicliffe

Over the past ten years Ian has worked closely with the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office and Ministry of Defence as well as the US State Department and US Department of Defence (DoD) on a range of communications and media projects.  A visiting lecturer on Social Media to the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany, he has also worked with the UK Development, Concept and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), writing on the implications of advances in social media for future conflicts, and as a subject matter expert for the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) researching future conflict information environments to 2035.

Prior to that he served for 20 years in the British Army, rising to the rank of Colonel, his last few years of service were in the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) where he helped develop United Kingdom cross government strategic communications plans in response to a number of international crises in the Balkans, Africa, Asia and especially the Middle East during the Iraq crisis and conflict.


  1. Steve Maguire, Multi Domain Operations below the division, Wavell Room, 3 September 2021
  2. US Army Training and Doctrine Command, The US Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, 6 December 2018, p. GL-7.
  3. Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre Future Force Concept, DCDC Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643061/concepts_uk_future_force_concept_jcn_1_17.pdf
  4. Information Advantage. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/860494/20181126-JCN_2_18_Information_Advantage_web.pdf.
  5. Information Advantage. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/860494/20181126-JCN_2_18_Information_Advantage_web.pdf.
  6. Tamelander, Michael; Zetterling, Niklas (2003). Determining the Decisive Moments: The Invasion of Normandy] Stockholm: Norstedts.
  7. Die Stärke der Streitkräfte [Personnel strength of German Armed Forces]”. Dated 4th April 2020.
  8. https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/executive-perspectives/annual-internet-report/white-paper-c11-741490.html
  9. Tunnicliffe I. and Tatham S. 2017 ‘Social Media – The vital ground: can we hold it?’ Strategic Studies Institute
  10. https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/executive-perspectives/annual-internet-report/white-paper-c11-741490.html#Trends
  11. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/18/amazon-ring-largest-civilian-surveillance-network-us
  12. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/18/amazon-ring-largest-civilian-surveillance-network-us
  13. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-22/google-ceo-thinks-ai-is-more-profound-than-fire[/note]  Many of the areas where AI is now beginning to make a real impact, such as image recognition or pattern recognition from huge quantities of data, are directly relevant to the ability to exploit the data in the civilian digital space.

    Image recognition is a particular area where there have been significant advances in AI capability.  Automatic recognition of military vehicles from imagery or videos drawn from social media is now technologically feasible.  A significant quantity of social media also already provides geolocation information but where it does not images can be correlated against existing digital databases or commercially available satellite imagery such as Google Earth and Google Street Maps.  For the first time it is not just the tank that can be identified but the actual building that it is in front of and hence its exact location at that moment.

    In essence the technology now exists to not only to identify a military vehicle from civilian imagery but to generate useable targeting information in real time.  All from publicly generated data from a growing multi-million node ‘sensor system’ that is beginning to cover all conceivable battlegrounds.13 Tunnicliffe I. and Tatham S. 2017 ‘Social Media – The vital ground: can we hold it?’ Strategic Studies Institute.

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