Joint + Cyber ≠ Multi-Domain Battle

Joint + Cyber ≠ Multi-Domain Battle
Joint + Cyber ≠ Multi-Domain Battle
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The Association of the United States Army's (AUSA) conference in Washington, D.C. brought together leaders across various disciplines, many of them beating the drum of the latest buzzword:  multi-domain battle. This term is now accepted jargon with articles popping up all over the net here,here, and here. Our friends are doing it, and our mercurial allies are setting their sights on it. The problem is the one-dimensional interpretation of the concept and the limitation to physical domains. You can’t just add cyber to joint operations and call it multi-domain. The military has struggled with how to integrate cyber operations into military doctrine for decades. For instance,information operations entered the military doctrinal lexicon of the mid-1990s as “Fifth Dimension Operations” with the addition of a new, networked computer battlespace. Twenty years later, and despite its importance to modern conflicts, joint + cyber ≠ multi-domain battle. True multi-domain battle will require assessment and influence across a wide variety of domains, many of which are under the purview of the U.S. military. They are not limited to the traditional physical domain construct, however. An exploration of truly multi-domain battle requires expanding the idea of a domain to cognitive domains like human potential, culture, and innovation that affect the fight. Limiting the discussion to a few physical domains, and especially focusing on one, impoverishes the conversation.


Naval Battle in the Harbor of Syracuse. The naval battle in the harbor of Syracuse where Sparta defeated the Athenians during Second Peloponnesian War.

Perhaps the earliest example of multi-domain battle was seen in 414 B.C.E during the Peloponnesian War when the Spartans marshaled attacks in the land, sea, and human domains to defeat the Athenians at Syracuse. Combined sea and land operations had been around as long as the boat, but it was the innovation of inspiration and alliances that won the battle. The human domain is one of the most critical domains that seems to be getting ignored in our zeal for all things cyber. Amusingly, the human domain was all the rage a couple years ago with it’s own cheerleaders,advocates, and prophets.


As the Spartans demonstrated during the Peloponnesian War, the human domain is a critical aspect of multi-domain battle. War is people fighting other people regardless of the most modern tools or weapons. The collapse of more technologically advanced Iraqi Security Forces in the face of the Islamic State’s push into Mosul in 2014 is powerful evidence that tools do not win wars, but that people and their will, win wars. Militaries must focus on the people in the fight, on both sides, if they are to succeed.


By its nature, multi-domain battle is carried out in distributed battlespaces with many fronts. This means decision making must be pushed down to the lowest capable level. Leaders today need to consider how to develop the potential in junior leaders to create capacity for independent action when isolated from command direction. It requires investments in education and talent management that must be staunchly defended in an era of shrinking resources. While it’s not all about a degree, advanced civilian schooling options need to be extended down to our lowest ranks to build a powerful, strategic bench. As an institution, the defense enterprise consistently neglects talent management and places service members in billets based on perceived traditional career “gates” rather than optimal career paths. It is important for today’s leaders to identify and maximize the talent in their ranks. For instance, the lowest soldier in the unit with his or her social media prowess just might be the most powerful strategic communication tool available.

The other side of that coin is that our operations must always consider the human beings on the other side of the field. How do we convince them to abandon the fight or render them ineffective short of kinetic force? For example, military information-support operations and civil affairs are powerful tools to shape the human domain on the other side of the battlefield, yet those efforts arefacing budget cuts. This also requires considerations for the helpless caught in the path of conflict. Managing displaced personnel and humanitarian crises concurrently with combat operations is not something for which we have prepared. Our enemies are getting better at operating from within cities and that presents significant challenges to our ideas about warfare.


There are cognitive domains which have a significant role to play in multi-domain battles. Closely related to the human domain, and yet distinct from it, is an understanding of the cultural environment in which modern battles take place. Without relying solely on Sun Tzu, we must understand the people we operate amongst as much as the people we fight. Education is a powerful tool here as well. Language and history are powerful tools but cannot overcome a lack of interest in the cultural framework within which you are operating. The culture has a significant impact on both the options available to the commander as well as how actions are interpreted by the local populace, friend or otherwise.


Multi-domain battle must be informed by cultural expertise because culture will affect operations. As footprints thin and troop strength draws down, we weaken the already tenuous connections we have throughout the world and leave ourselves impoverished for future operations. Programs like the Army’s Foreign Area Officer functional area are a powerful tool to combat this detachment and should be expanded. In an era of disengagement we need experts who can be brought to bear in an instant with a network of human connections, a deep appreciation for the cultural ramifications of military actions, and ability to speak to the locals and the adversaries in their native tongue. These programs should be made full-time positions and not treated as alternate duties as in some of the services. Additionally the strength of our non-commissioned officer corps (NCOs) must be applied to this crucial realm. The bench for talent is deep and does not stop at the officer ranks; every service should explore the idea of Foreign Area NCOs, for instance.

Cultural knowledge cannot be effectively surged. It requires prepositioned experts distributed throughout the services who can be quickly brought into the picture to help commanders understand the cultural environment in which they are operating. The cultural domain has significant implications and must be addressed in any consideration of multi-domain battle.


Another cognitive domain that affects multi-domain battle is innovation. Innovation is typically associated with the civil sector, but has trouble crossing the obstacle-laden bureaucratic thresholds of the military. Ideas are one of the most powerful weapons we can bring to the fight. The most effective threat on the battlefield is one that the enemy has no frame of reference from which to react. Innovation requires leveraging elements that underpin our instruments of national power, including industry and academia. It also requires fostering a climate where ideas can flourish. If the military wants fresh thinking it must be from minds less constrained by bureaucracy and rank structures. Innovation knows no rank or position.

Reading and writing are two of the most powerful tools in the fight. Joe Byerly and Malcolm Gladwell have both written on how mental models developed through study and experience shape our ability to react under duress. If you click on any of the links in this article you are likely to find a military author that is reading, thinking, and writing. They are building a personal toolbox that will bear future fruits that further professionalize military service. Many of these authors are leveraging cyber capabilities and have started blogs, online journals like The Strategy Bridge), and formed organizations like the Military Writer’s Guild and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. If you are a senior leader and you are not engaging with organization like this, you are overlooking an incredible pool of talent.

Another example is Central Command’s "Strategic Dialogue," an internal weekly newsletter covering a wide range of articles to provoke discussion. Efforts like this, coupled with face-to-face session where alternate viewpoints and ideas are encouraged and explored, cause innovation to rise in an organization. Leaders in the the defense space should encourage innovation and foster a climate where ideas have power, by encouraging people to write and engage with the world of ideas and thinker out there.

Innovation is the domain most likely to set conditions and create imbalances between forces in future fights. Countries capable of leveraging the innovation potential within their formations will invariably approach the fight in ways that will upset the expectations of the enemy by approaching common problems from uncommon angles. Investments on the innovation domain will be produce battlefield effects as devastating and initially unanswerable as the entry of the tank into land warfare previously dominated by horses.


Multi-domain battle is a reality, but requires the consideration of a combination of physical and cognitive domains that will affect the outcome of future battles. Cyber is an extremely important aspect for multi-domain battle; enemies no longer need a traditional weapon system to create losses and challenges on the battlefield. Russia’s ability to synchronize their cyber efforts with traditional military pressure has been incredibly illuminating and raises questions about how we would defend against such attacks. However, we shouldn’t go so far down the cyber rabbit hole that we lose sight of other less concrete, but no less critical dimensions of warfare.

Image from the film I, Robot

The cognitive domains—human, culture, and innovation—are as important as the physical domains on which much of the current discussion centers. Until we develop supercomputers that might look down on us as we do ants, there will humans behind those systems and they are how you will win the fights of the future. They will win because you have made them the best that they can be, prepared them to operate in the culture in which they find themselves, and fostered the innovation that provides the edge in battle.

Chris Townsend is an Army Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer with 19 years of service in the U.S. Army, and he is a proud member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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