Cyberspace and Multi-Domain Operations

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col

 Paul J.


, CA


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2016-2021)

 June 2019
Subject Areas: Cyberspace Operations

It has been two years since NATO recognized Cyberspace as a Domain of Operations1 (8 July 2016) and progress is being made along many lines of effort toward implementation, most of which are outlined in the Roadmap to Implement Cyberspace as a Domain of Operations.2 With respect to some other key efforts underway in parallel, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) approved the Military Vision and Strategy on Cyberspace as a Domain of Operations on 12 June 20183 and the final draft of Allied Joint Publication (AJP) 3.20 Doctrine of Cyberspace Operations was submitted to the NATO Forum for harmonization early this year and should be ratified before the end of 2019.4 While the progress to date on these key elements is promising, having agreement on the message in these documents is only the beginning on the way ahead to realizing the full potential of Cyberspace as a Domain of Operations. Gaining competence in the integration of Cyberspace operations with operations in other domains for conducting Multi-Domain Operations will be a significant advancement in the ongoing military operationalization of the Cyberspace Domain.

Since the introduction of personal computers and web-based services in the early 1990s, militaries have experienced a rapid evolution in their use of Cyberspace capabilities. Information Technology (IT) and Communications and Information Systems (CIS) transformed how operations are planned and conducted. From improving the speed and efficiency of communications, data processing and general administration, the explosive developments (in keeping with the predictions of Moore’s Law5) have seen IT / CIS transform from being a force multiplier, to an enabler of operations in other Domains, to the declaration of a Cyberspace Domain of operations. Despite this declaration, planners struggle to adopt these new capabilities into mainstream military operational planning in parallel with capabilities in the traditional physical domains. Air Power history enthusiasts are aware of the early stages of air capabilities when they were portrayed as merely support to land operations, such as for conducting reconnaissance. General Keith Alexander (former head of US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency) is on record for noting the challenge to integrate Cyberspace as a war-fighting domain is ‘strikingly similar to what our military faced during the Interwar years from 1919 to 1938’ in understanding air-power.6 The development of Air Power in the last century has been astronomical, such that our Joint Doctrine stipulates that we must have air superiority in the area of operations lest we risk significant losses or even mission failure. The development of capabilities in Cyberspace is proceeding exponentially faster than those of the Air Domain for a number of reasons but largely because it is orders of magnitude cheaper to develop capabilities in Cyberspace.

Maritime, Land and Air services are more mature than those operating in the Cyberspace Domain, with entrenched doctrine, and having exercised and executed Joint Operations for decades they are now exploring what it means to conduct Multi-Domain Operations. While military operations in the Cyberspace Domain are in their early phases of formation, they are developing rapidly. Still, it is not unusual, in fact quite common, to hear Commanders refer to Cyberspace as simply an enabler for operations in other domains. Until all levels of command recognize the potential ­benefits of operating in Cyberspace, NATO will be disadvantaged compared to those actors who have grasped this potential and adapted their operational strategies accordingly. As stated in the NATO Vision, ‘To fully establish cyberspace as an operational domain, clear cultural shifts … are a prerequisite.’7 In fact, operational effects may very well be achievable by the Joint Force Commander (JFC) through capabilities delivered primarily through Cyberspace capabilities alone. For example, if the mission is to achieve cognitive change and influence public opinion, this might be achieved via actions through Cyberspace. Attacks on government services and on critical infrastructure coupled with an Information Warfare campaign utilizing Cyberspace capabilities may influence the opinions of the general public such that they adjust their behaviour in the manner required for the mission. The key is understanding the desired impact – what the operations are intended to influence. The decisive conditions in an operational campaign may be achievable by variety of capabilities, not all of which operate in the traditional Domains. Therefore, it is necessary to transition from the view that Cyberspace is simply an enabler for operations in other domains to a paradigm in which all services from all Domains enable each other; being mutually enabling and interdependent. For example, as the Navy enables the Marines in amphibious operations, and the Air Force enables the Army in Land operations, Cyberspace can be an enabler for operations in other domains and can be enabled in return. The JFC must be able to integrate Cyberspace operations into joint and Multi-Domain Operations, as a co-equal participant. Mission success increasingly depends on freedom of manoeuvre in Cyberspace, and opportunities to project power in and through Cyberspace are evolving.8 ‘Commanders cannot continue to run the risk of inappropriately delegating key decisions because they and their staffs lack an understanding of the domain.’9 For NATO, the Cyberspace Operations Centre (CyOC), which stood up in August of 2018 as part of the adapted Command structure, will establish the equivalent of the Cyber Component staff for the theatre commander. The CyOC staff participated in its first exercise (Trident Juncture) in November 2018, and is anticipated to be fully operational with a staff of 70 persons, by 2023.10 Some may argue how NATO can consider Cyberspace a Domain when NATO will not develop offensive capabilities in ­Cyberspace. To partially mitigate this shortfall, several nations have voluntarily offered to provide sovereign Cyberspace capabilities in support of NATO operations, though the mechanics for this process have not yet been determined.11

[Note: Whether and / or how Cyberspace, Electronic Warfare and Space will evolve, transform, or evenly potentially merge, is a subject a number of experts in each of these fields think are topics worth exploring in the near future.]

As stated in the recently published Allied Joint Doctrine for the Planning of Operations,12 ‘although all operations are unique, they can be approached in the same manner’.13 The objective in applying the operational art is to ‘determine how to employ the joint force with best effectiveness.’14 Understanding the Cyberspace Domain and how capabilities operate in and through Cyberspace, particularly when synchronized with Joint functions in a Multi-Domain operation, is fundamental to the planning to meet the Commander’s Intent and critical to support the ways and means for reaching the Decisive Conditions needed to achieve the desired end state in the operational design. Multi-Domain Operations are not dissimilar to Joint operations as they concern ‘fields of activities which are not separated, but are in fact mutually combined and balanced for the desired outcome.’15

Planning for Multi-Domain Operations will be disastrously incomplete without the integration of operations in and through the Cyberspace ­Domain. Each of the military operational Domains are mutually-enabling, therefore mission success in Multi-Domain Operations in the future will be in doubt unless military planners apply to the Cyberspace Domain the operational planning processes that have been so successfully conducted for operations within the traditional Maritime, Land and Air Domains. Achieving the necessary cultural shift to accept this new reality and generating the cadre of professionals to implement the steps necessary to entrench the Cyberspace Domain in military operations are themselves decisive conditions toward the end state of fully integrating Cyberspace operations into Multi-Domain Operations.

NATO, Warsaw Summit Communiqué,, accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Approval of the Roadmap to Impliment Cyberspace as a Domain of Operations PO(2017) 0072 (INV) 10 Feb. 2017 (NR).
NATO, MC 0665 Military Vision and Strategy on Cyberspace as a Domain of Operations, 12 Jun. 2018.
E-mail, Clare Lane CCDCOE (AJP 3.20 Custodian).
Moore’s law simply put means processing power of computers will double every 2 years.
K. B. Alexander, ‘Warfighting in cyberspace,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, vol. 3rd Quarter, 2007, p. 61.
Ibid. 3., p. 4.
Williams, Brett T. The Joint Force Commander’s Guide To Cyberspace Operations, Joint Force Quarterly 73, 2nd Quarter 2014, ­ – 19_Williams.pdf, accessed 29 Apr. 2019, p. 12.
Ibid., p. 13.
Underwood, Kelly, NATO’s Answer to Cyber Warfare, The Cyber Edge, SIGNAL Magazine, 1 Apr. 2019,, accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
Freedberg, Sydney J., NATO To ‘Integrate’ Offensive Cyber By Members, Breaking Defense, 16 Nov. 2018,, accessed 29 Apr. 2019.
NATO AJP 5.0 Allied Joint Publication for the Planning of Operations, Feb. 2019.
Ibid., p. 15.
Ibid., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 83.
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Lieutenant Colonel
 Paul J.
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2016-2021)

A Communications and Electronics Engineering (Air) Officer in the RCAF, he examines Cyberspace as it relates to NATO Joint Air Power and from a defensive perspective through to the potential in exploiting offensive effects. He holds a Master’s of Science degree in Computer and Information Technology, is a graduate of the Canadian Forces Joint Command and Staff Program and has 32 years of experience in the provision of IT/CIS to operations. His senior appointments include Director of Operational Support (CIS), CANOSCOM HQ (Ottawa), Chief A6 Staff, NATO AWACS Airbase, CO CAN Contingent (Technical Element) NATO AWACS and Director, A6 Staff – 1 CAN Air Division. He was Chief OpFor (Cyberspace) for NATO’s largest Joint exercises from 2016 to 2019.

Information provided is current as of December 2019

Other Essays in this Read Ahead

Accelerating Multi-­Domain Operations: Evolution of an Idea

What is a Multi-Domain Operation?

Defining the ‘Domain’ in Multi-Domain

Multi-Domain Operations

The Complexity of Multi-Domain Operations

Is Fluidity the Key to Effective Multi-Domain Operations?

Multi-Domain Operations and Challenges to Air Power

Training Joint Forces for Multi-Domain Operations

Doolittle Series 18 – Multi-Domain Operations

Multi-Domain Operations and Counter-Space

Tracing Opinio Juris in National Cyber Security Strategy Documents

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