Multi-Domain Operations and Challenges to Air Power

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col



, SP


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2017-2020)

 June 2019
Warfare Domains: Multi-Domain Operations


New concepts of operation, fuelled by technological advances, have facilitated interconnectivity across different domains of warfare. Consequently, this cross-domain interconnectivity now provides an opportunity to access objectives through non-linear (non-segregated) approaches. Indeed, the Alliance has a burgeoning opportunity to change how it reaches strategic objectives in a future conflict. More to the point, success in the future will very likely be through the realisation and implementation of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).

What is Multi-Domain?

Over the last few decades, Air Power has performed a central role in assuring successful joint operations. The inherent jointness of Air Power could be a major reason for such success. Indeed, the air component (not always wielded solely within an Air Force) routinely influences the domains of air, land, maritime and space. In most spheres of thought, these physical ­domains are routinely complemented by at least two other domains, the cyberspace domain (accepted as a domain at the NATO-Warsaw Summit) and the cognitive or human domain. Also, though currently not widely accepted, some authors also define the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) as a domain. Furthermore, domains are typically grouped within three larger categories: physical (air, space, land, maritime); digital (cyber, EMS, information, new technologies); and cognitive (disinformation, psychological, strategic communications). While intuitive to most operational practitioners, it is important to state that domains are interrelated. For example, the cyber and space domains must be defended to exert control in other domains.

So, with that as a background, one definition of Multi-Domain is ‘an evolution of joint operations’ that results from the necessity to overwhelm an adversary by simultaneously creating multiple problems across multiple domains. An alternative definition of Multi-Domain Operations is ‘simultaneous, cross-domain operations that take into consideration the interdependence of different domains to exploit limited windows of opportunity.’

How are Multi-Domain Operations Challenging Air Power in the Future?

To take advantage of the full capabilities of MDO, the Alliance needs to carefully consider some of MDO’s key enablers. Specifically, Command and Control, connectivity, interoperability and technology and training must be deliberately addressed.

Command and Control

Today’s Allied joint operations are conducted at a de-conflicted or coordinated level, as per the command and control (C2) maturity model.1 ­Currently, the Alliance does not have adequate capabilities to plan and control joint operations at a Collaborative C2 level nor execute truly simultaneous operations in multiple domains. Instead, the battlespace is ­routinely de-conflicted and segregated, and thus, most events are in fact mono-domain operations. Exacerbating this, reach-back capabilities of the future will likely be contested. Not only that, but the EMS will be
heavily contested, and both terrestrial and space-based communications will most probably be disrupted.

Therefore, to fully operate in a highly dynamic environment, especially to gain an advantage in decision cycles, the future design of the C2 structure should be combat-centric instead of command-centric. In this construct, decisions should be delegated to the lowest operationally-competent level and forward commanders will have to be regularly trained to execute mission-type, Multi-Domain orders. However, Multi-Domain commanders must understand the constraints and restraints in all domains and account for impacts across operational seams to effectively plan force packages. Also, while the overall commander’s intent must be preserved, delegation of control to distributed command and control nodes should enable these local mission commanders to exert adequate control over their ­Multi-Domain forces. Consequently, Air Power’s foundational principle of centralized control / decentralized execution will be forced to shift to a distributed-control approach which adapts to operational changes by having pre-planned bandwidth allocations and a vision for manoeuvring between gateways.

In this context, Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) may be ­defined as ‘the coordinated execution of authority and direction to gain, fuse, and exploit information from any source to integrate planning and synchronize execution of Multi-Domain Operations in time, space and purpose to meet the commander’s objectives’.2


Once you have critical, useful MDC2-level information, connectivity will be the key to disseminating it. While much has been said about a potential ‘combat cloud’, it worth noting that such a database could conceptually allow high-speed sharing of information to different entities that, at the same time, generate more data with their own sensors and update the cloud. As a result, this information sharing process could increase targeting speed and reduce the time from sensor to effector.

As an important note, in order to effectively enable MDC2 Allies will have to agree to robustly share real-time intelligence, as limited windows of opportunity will close in the quickly evolving battlespace. Also, despite disruptions in the EW and EMS domains, there will still be a requirement to communicate securely to all force packages, to provide clear guidance and to direct them effectively. Accordingly, the Alliance needs to develop better data sharing mechanisms (i.e. technical connectivity) and these mechanisms will need robust crypto technology and accompanying procedural authorities to share. Indeed, many might say that technical connectivity is not really a significant limitation; it is the political will to share data that often prevents true interoperability.

Interoperability and Technology

In respect to interoperability, NATO Allies must establish MDO concepts and define a roadmap to reach a Multi-Domain strategy. All parties need to be part of the process, including the political decision makers. To implement a change in the culture of operations to conduct MDO, a new legal framework will be needed in most Europeans nations. Additionally, pre-conflict political decisions will be necessary to share all of the intelligence necessary for each operation.

The ‘Need to Know’ concept is viewed as a risk control measure but not sharing information often creates additional risk to mission and security. Sharing data is the heart and soul of interoperability, so security processes need to be revised to avoid excessive protection of data and to find an equilibrium between data availability in a certain place and time and security and integrity. The solution for the ‘Need to Share’ principle should be built into the common data architecture, without limiting rights properties and available to different applications that may use that data. For example, the information used to construct a Common Operating Picture, (COP), should be developed by a mechanism that integrates data from different classification levels and sources to provide the user with an appropriately filtered, but useful, picture.

On a practical level, NATO should utilize joint exercises that specifically experiment with interoperability and data sharing as vehicles to minimize or eliminate technical and procedural hurdles to MDO. As such, it is urgent to improve the cohesiveness of both Alliance members’ software and hardware and continue to address international and inter-service confidence building. In conjunction with these exercises, the Allies should leverage breakthroughs in AI, machine learning and automation to research, reach and maintain a MDC2 advantage. For this reason there should be deliberate engagement with industry to gain an advantage of emerging technologies and to reduce acquisition cycles. These technological advances will eventually permit delegation of authority to the lowest echelons, further enabling MDC2. Even in limited operations, it will be still desirable to conduct distributed control and decentralised execution to avoid a long chain of C2.

As a recurring theme, technology will be key to the future of MDC2. Emerging threats and opportunities will have to be identified and the ­status of forces, plus their enabling and supporting elements, updated in real time. Consequently, dynamic targeting will be ruled by machine to machine communication. AI will be used to calculate such things as GO – NO GO criteria, collateral damage, caveats, best weapon available, and to assign assets to the correct targets. Additionally, it will be necessary to be able to discern decision-quality information in operationally-relevant context and integrate open source and publicly available information.

Some examples of emerging technology in the cognitive domain are the techniques used to read the human brain and to apply readings in
a hybrid form of bionic machine that can execute integrated algorithms coming out of, or through, the helmet of a pilot. In this way a single human can control a group of machines through his or her mind. In this way, virtual reality and AI supporting cognitive activity can integrate air assets in Multi-Domain Operations.


When discussing the implementation of MDO, one of the most important facets is the human strand. A bottom-up cultural change is needed in the education process. Structures and processes related to personnel need to be addressed by the Joint Forces to begin training with, and to define new requirements for, MDO personnel. Airmen must become attuned to various forms of cross-domain manoeuvre until they develop an appreciation and understanding of true Multi-Domain Operations.

In the long term, a formal cadre of dedicated MDC2 experts is critical for the success of MDO. Allies should focus on developing a specific career branch that has the purpose of understanding how to employ Joint capabilities across a Multi-Domain environment. These professionals should be dedicated to operational level activities from the early stages of their career and will form the cornerstone of future operational, Multi-Domain planning and execution.

In addition to dedicated personnel, another requirement might be to ­create Multi-Domain Operational Training Infrastructures to experiment, implement and improve MDC2 at all levels. These infrastructures would be separate, but complimentary to joint exercise enablers previously ­described. An integrated training system, taking advantage of the Live, Virtual and Constructive, (LVC) training paradigm, should be the first step in developing MDO training. LVC provides integration of virtual, (machine driven), man in the simulator and real entities in a common scenario to replicate all types of threats and Multi-Domain entities. This type system can provide improvements in MDO decision making through complex and personalised training environments and by simulating rare space and cyber entities.

In addition to specifically trained personnel and a robust LVC environment, future MDO training iterations, especially those tailored for highly contested environments, requires an integrated opposition force (OPFOR) with standardised doctrine, capable support and dissimilar assets, including so-called hybrid capabilities, all in a cost-effective solution. When developed, OPFOR will execute enemy hybrid / MDO operations in which Red, (the forces replicating OPFOR), cyber and space actions affect Blue, (the training audiences), training in realistic ways.


The different domains; physical, digital and human are interconnected. ­Actions in a single domain will increasingly influence the others, creating windows of opportunity to achieve favourable results, even in contested domains.

Multi-Domain Operations are not just an evolution of joint operations. MDO requires mission commanders to simultaneously conduct parallel actions in multiple domains of the battlespace according to dynamic situations. Given that, an effective MDC2 structure will be required to recognise windows of opportunity, through real-time situational awareness in all domains, and execute faster decision cycles. Additionally, in a contested and degraded environment it will be extremely important to conduct ­operations using a decentralised execution model. Consequently, redundant connectivity and data sharing will be required to enable commanders to effectively provide guidance and receive feedback on the status of their forces.

Next, Nations need to be engaged with industry to gain an advantage from emerging technologies and to reduce acquisition cycles, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence and cyber defence.

Lastly, a training effort is needed to adapt operational level staff to MDO and to create a cadre of MDC2 experts. These professionals will be expert in combining all domains in operational level planning, and execution, from the earliest stages of their career.

Air Warfare Communication in a Networked Environment. Conclusions reviewed from Joint US DoD Command and Control Research Program and the NATO System Analysis Studies (SAS-065) about Alberts et al, C2 Maturity model. JAPCC, Jul. 2017.
Doolittle Series 18: Multidomain Operations. Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. Feb 2019.
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Lieutenant Colonel
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2017-2020)

Lieutenant Colonel Juan Cánovas joined the Spanish Air Force in 1988 and is a qualified F-18 and F-5M Instructor Pilot. He completed Basic Pilot Training in Spain in 1992, Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance AFB, United States, and Fighter Weapons course at the 23rd Wing in Spain. He has been assigned as Instructor Pilot in the Fighter Weapons School, 23rd Wing, in Talavera Air Force Base. He also served in the 122 Squadron, 12th Wing at Torrejón AFB, where he flew the EF-18. He has worked in NATO ACC Izmir HQ, TACEVAL Division, as a GBAD and Flying Forces project officer and evaluator. Following the Armed Forces Joint Staff course he was assigned as a Materiel Group commander and Academics and Flying Group commander in the Fighter Weapons School, 23rd Wing, prior to his assignment to the Joint Air Power Competence Centre where he is in the Combat Air Branch as a Manned Air Expert. He has experience in several NATO operations as a pilot and as a battle Staff member.

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?

Training Joint Forces for Multi-Domain Operations

Doolittle Series 18 – Multi-Domain Operations

Multi-Domain Operations and Counter-Space

Cyberspace and Multi-Domain Operations

Tracing Opinio Juris in National Cyber Security Strategy Documents

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