A New Joint Doctrine for an Era of Multi-Domain Operations

May 24, 2019
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The U.S. military is in the midst of the most profound reconceptualization of the ways it will fight future conflicts in more than 30 years. To the three traditional domains of warfare – land, sea and air – space and cyber have been added. Some strategists include information as its own domain. Each Armed Service is developing concepts for employing capabilities in all these dimensions simultaneously and continuously to outmaneuver and overcome enemy forces. While a shared vision of future warfare is good to have, the ability of the U.S. military to fully exploit a new approach to warfare and to synchronize capabilities across all domains will depend on the development of joint doctrine. It is time for the Joint Staff to formulate a new doctrine for multi-domain operations (MDO).

Each of the Armed Services has embraced the concept of conducting future operations across five or more dimensions. The Army is perhaps the most advanced with its concept for multi-domain operations which is intended to “defeat multiple layers of standoff in both competition and conflict.” The Air Force is focusing on developing an approach for Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) which is defined as C2 across all domains that protect, permits and enhances the conduct of operations to create desired effects at the time, place and method of choosing. The Navy’s concept of Distributed Maritime Operations and the Marine Corps Operating Concept build on the idea of distributed lethality to connect ships, submarines, aircraft and satellites in networks for sensing, commanding and shooting.

The four Armed Services have a shared vision of future great power conflict based on the new National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS). They agree that they must conduct operations in all domains, land, sea, air, space and cyber. They even are in general agreement on the initial objective for the Joint Force in such a conflict. This is to penetrate and disintegrate an adversary's layered and networked arrays of anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) systems by conducting rapid and coordinated attacks across all domains. According to one of the U.S. Army’s premier strategists, Lieutenant General Eric Wesley, “All the services understand the need to move to Multi-Domain Operations. Second, we all agree that MDC2 is the most important joint problem that we have to solve. After that, the specifics of how you conduct MDO – that’s where the variance is that we’ve got to converge on.”

In the 1980s, the Army and Air Force successfully developed a common approach to the conduct of a conventional war with the Soviet Union in Central Europe, called AirLand Battle. Its purpose was to coordinate operations by the Army and Air Force to disrupt the Soviets' ability to structure its attacks to grind down NATO's defenses. The new concept also reinforced the drive to develop new capabilities. AirLand Battle drove the Army’s so-called Big Five modernization programs. It also was fundamental to the rationale for the Air Force’s investment in stealth and precision standoff weapons.

The Army and Air Force are once again working closely together to develop a concept for cross-domain fires as a solution to the Russian A2/AD challenge. The two Services are looking at ways of employing a mix of space-based sensing, fifth-generation aircraft, and long-range precision fires to find, fix and disintegrate an adversary's layered A2/AD capability. If the capabilities the Navy is pursuing as part of Distributed Maritime Operations were added to the mix, the effects on the Russian military could be nothing short of paralytic.

Each of the Services is migrating towards the twin ideas of fighting simultaneously in all domains and operating in a more disaggregated, fluid manner with every sensor, command node and weapon linked. But the impediments to conducting MDOs in a genuinely joint manner, without hindrances based on which Service owns what capability remain substantial.

The U.S. military needs joint doctrine that drives all the Services towards a coordinated approach to multi-domain operations and ensures that the proper investments are made in command and control, networking and augmented decision-making. As General Robert Brown, commander of U.S. Army Pacific recently observed: “We’ve got to fight through the tendency to have a service solution only, a single-service solution, which is the way we grew up. The good news is, we’re as joint as any force in the world. The bad news is, we’re still not joint enough.”

The last joint doctrine (JP-1) was published in 2013 and amended in 2017. Even with the update, it does not reflect the new strategic challenges posed by emerging great powers such as Russia and China or of empowered regional adversaries like Iran and North Korea. Nor does it address the fundamental tenets of the new National Security or National Defense Strategies. More fundamentally, it is outdated. It does not reflect the character of the current great power competition, the range and complexity of the threats to U.S. and Western security, the changes technology is having on the ways military operations must be conducted or the value of synchronizing operations across the entire Joint Force.

Each of the Services should retain their Title 10 responsibilities to organize, train, and equip forces that are then employed by joint commanders. But the changing nature of modern military operations demands a unified approach to the employment of the joint force. The need to conduct simultaneous and continuous synchronized operations across all domains exceeds the C3 capabilities of any single Service. The only way to fully realize the potential of all the Services to dominate this new way of war is through the establishment of a joint doctrine for multi-domain operations.


Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.



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