The JAPCC Conference 2019

Conference Proceedings

Theme 1 | Defining Multi-Domain Operations

Three Little Words

The Conference spent some time – particularly in the first morning’s keynote address and panel one – examining the words tied up in MDO and proposing definitions. The first two words are often shown hyphenated – ‘Multi-Domain’, although this is not always the case. Little problem is encountered with the word ‘multi’, taken to mean ‘many’ and to (usually) imply a lot more than one. Military and military-associated people are also familiar with the use of the word ‘operations’. It means a level of military activity beyond training and exercising. It does not necessarily imply kinetic warfare (see, for example, Peace Support Operations) but it will include that. In other words, it implies serious stuff – yellow bands on munitions and blank ammunition and drill rounds left at home.

So, perhaps the word ‘domain’ is the only one that some might struggle with. For many years, NATO has been happy with the traditional idea of components – Land, Maritime and Air – and the way in which they are used to refer to the Army, Navy and Air Force. Additionally, it is generally acknowledged that there are organizations that operate across more than one component – the Marines would be one example. The edges begin to blur more when we consider aircraft operating from the land and the sea and that navies and armies also operate aircraft. In the traditional understanding of the three main components, space and cyberspace were seen as ‘key enablers’. However, as components realized the vital (rather than key) nature of these two enablers, space and cyberspace attained their true position as domains, alongside the domains in which the components operate. In summary, at least five domains are now acknowledged – Land, Maritime, Air, Space and Cyberspace.

This is all discussed in greater depth in the Read Ahead article by Dr Donnelly and LCDR Farley – ‘Defining the “Domain” in Multi-Domain’ (page 7). They explain that ‘the notion of an operating environment (OE) is not the same as a domain’ because an OE can cover and include some or all of the domains set out above. Additionally, and as the Conference rightly acknowledged, this is even before we acknowledge the three components of fighting power – moral, physical and (of particular importance when discussing new ideas) the conceptual component. These three components of fighting power form the keystone of the military doctrine of many NATO nations.

There are those who are keen to argue that MDO has been around for years, before it was given a neat three-letter abbreviation – the old wine in new bottles argument. General Townsend’s article in the read ahead suggests a logical counter to this argument and conference discussions served to take this further and asked:

If we remain convinced that we cannot quite formulate what MDO exactly is, how will we know when an adversary is using MDO against us?


By deciding on an agreed definition of MDO, NATO can take positive steps towards adjusting its posture so that it can more easily engage in MDO and, just as importantly, defend against an adversary determined to use MDO against NATO.

Until quite recently, NATO did not have a definition of air power – relying instead on some amalgam of doctrinal definitions from the individual member nations. Whilst this has been remedied recently, the same state of affairs cannot be allowed to long endure for such an important concept as MDO.

An early attempt at an MDO definition, by combining ideas from several sources, might look something like:

‘MDO are operations where activities are conducted and effects generated simultaneously across more than one domain in an integrated manner.’

However, this can be improved upon (perhaps considerably) by some simple analysis and by considering what effects MDO should achieve. One of the simplest tools for analysis is ‘Five Ws and H’ or ‘Who, What, Why, When, Where and How?’

One of the outcomes from day one of the conference was an answer to many of these Ws and these are set out in the bullet points below:

  • Who – NATO or the NATO Command Structure.
  • What – What MDO means is the ability to present multiple simultaneous dilemmas to an adversary, with the aim of overwhelming his decision cycle and getting inside his OODA loop.
  • Why – Why MDO is important is that waiting to see what happens (or what an adversary does) is unlikely to be a viable option – reacting to multiple dilemmas presented by an adversary will sap NATO’s capacity to cause them for the adversary. This represents a dilemma in itself – adopting a purely defensive posture tends to mean that NATO will have to take, absorb and respond to the first ‘shot’. In MDO, there is no such thing as a first shot – it is a wave of simultaneous first shots distributed unevenly across multiple domains. There is, therefore, an imperative for NATO to be more proactive and agile.
  • When – Simultaneously and unpredictably.
  • Where – Across multiple domains.
  • How – By using speed, agility and integration – without limits. This tends to imply the use of a certain level of autonomy, and this was characterized (variously) as the difference between human-in-the-loop (HITL) and human-on-the-loop (HOTL). Levels of autonomy are discussed as one of the key elements facilitated by artificial intelligence (AI). AI and Big Data form the basis of one of the themes discussed later.

The results of this analysis can now be combined into an initial draft definition of MDO:

MDO is the ability to use information-enabled command structures and combat capabilities, across an array of domains, to present multiple, simultaneous dilemmas to an adversary with the aim of overwhelming him.


This definition, derived after the conference but informed by conference discussions, is one of the key takeaways and implies a follow-on task:

ACTION: The JAPCC Directorate should act as champion for the rapid adoption, by NATO, of an agreed definition of MDO. This definition should be incorporated into NATO doctrine at AAP or AJP level.

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