Multi-Domain Operations

By Dr

By Dr

 Jeffrey M.


 June 2019
Warfare Domains: Multi-Domain Operations

Courtesy of Air University Press. This essay is an abridged version of the article ‘Multi-Domain Operations – A Subtle but Significant Transition in Military Thought,’ published in The Air and Space Power Journal, Spring 2016.

A Subtle but Significant Transition in Military Thought

On 17 November 2011, Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked the Military Education Coordination Council the prophetic question, ‘What’s after joint?’ After more than four years, that question remains ostensibly unanswered. The answer, however, may reside in the notion of Multi-Domain Operations. General Dempsey’s inquiry was spurred by the fact that historical approaches to achieving superiority in the air, land, and sea domains may no longer be valid. The principal factor driving this phenomenon is a global proliferation of advanced information technology. Although the United States has undergone dramatic changes in technology in the past, we are in only the nascent stages of understanding this era’s monumental impact on future military operations. The worldwide flood of powerful, inexpensive, and readily available commercial technology is mandating a much more sophisticated approach to military affairs. The exponential growth associated with Moore’s Law (states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years ( has created a security environment where the pace of cyber, directed energy, nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology advancements is far beyond the normal capacity to predict their effects. Advanced information technology is also changing our perspectives of Multi-Domain interdependence. America’s ability to project conventional power abroad is eroding swiftly as state and non-state actors acquire advanced capabilities to offset the US military’s strengths across all operating domains – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.1 Additionally, the requirement to think across domains is occurring at increasingly lower levels and will be essential in the future to generating the tempo critical to exploiting fleeting local opportunities for disrupting an enemy system.2 These changes in the operational environment, combined with ‘new’ fiscal realities, are rapidly transforming how we need to think about threats, the battlespace, and the conceptual underpinnings of Air Power.

Multi-Domain Operations Are an Enduring Characteristic of Warfare

The concept of cross-domain operations is not new. It has been an inherent part of military thought since antiquity. The disastrous Athenian campaign to conquer Sicily during the Peloponnesian War provides just one example. In 415 BC, Athens launched an ill-advised expedition to subdue Sicily’s strongest state, Syracuse. The Athenian force led by Nicias consisted of approximately 6,400 men and 134 ships. The Athenians enjoyed early successes; however, in 414 BC during the siege of Syracuse, the Spartan strategist Gylippus intervened and turned the tide of battle in favour of the Syracusan forces. Gylippus focused initially on the human domain, inspiring the Syracusan forces and galvanizing the support of their allies. He then embarked upon simultaneous attacks of the Athenian troops on the land and at sea. By 413 BC, the Athenians had been defeated.3

This defeat signalled the beginning of the end for the Athenian empire. However, the lesson of this historical example goes far beyond the collapse of Athens. It highlights the importance of understanding multiple domains and the necessity of shifting local superiority between domains. Gylippus concentrated on what is now becoming a crucial idea embedded in the Joint Operational Access Concept – specifically, that superiority in any domain may not be widespread or permanent but more often local and temporary.4 The lesson from Gylippus is that establishing superiority in a combination of domains offers the freedom of action necessary to attain mission success.

Challenges of Future Technological Threats

Unable to compete with US forces directly, adversaries are leveraging technological advances to create their own asymmetric advantages in countering US military superiority.5 Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China have invested in a number of ballistic and supersonic cruise missiles designed to challenge the United States’ conventional superiority. At least nine countries are involved in the development and production of land attack cruise missiles, and many of these weapons will be available for export within the next decade.6 Innovations in cruise missile technology have created supersonic threats that can engage targets 300 km away and be delivered by a variety of systems such as aircraft, submarines, ships, or even trucks.7 Furthermore, modern cruise missiles can be programmed to approach and attack a target in the most efficient manner. Newer missiles are incorporating stealth features to make them even less visible to radars and infrared detectors. In addition to threats from advanced missile technology, between 2004 and 2012, the number of countries having acquired remotely piloted vehicles increased from 41 to at least 76.8 Many of them are seeking to enhance not only their intelligence acquisition but also armed strike capabilities. Furthermore, numerous countries are working on high-powered microwave (HPM), directed-energy, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. A 2005 declassified intelligence report on the bio-effects of Chinese EMP and HPM weapons indicated that China could detonate a low-yield, low-altitude strategic nuclear warhead to destroy electronic systems while minimizing the effects to the Chinese mainland.9 The significance of this intelligence is that it sheds light on using weapons systems to deny multiple domains simultaneously. EMP damages unhardened electrical circuits and electronics by generating a surge in the current and voltage beyond normal functioning capacity. A 1-megaton nuclear blast detonated 400 km above the centre of the United States can have continental-wide terrestrial effects in seconds, as well as a significant impact on space capabilities.10 One should also note that adversaries can deliver effects from EMP through a multitude of nonnuclear modes that produce a wide array of outcomes ranging from temporary interference to system destruction. These modes include ballistic missiles, submarines, aircraft, and satellites as well as man-packed systems.11 Advances in technology are also affecting an adversary’s ability to defend itself. Integrated air defence systems are becoming increasingly resistant to electronic suppression through the use of passive sensor technologies. Potential adversaries are also investing in inexpensive low-power jammers to inhibit the positioning, navigation, and timing necessary for effective strike operations.12

Changes in Adversarial Concepts and Strategies

Although the military modernization of possible enemies is disconcerting, it is only part of the future threat equation. Prospective foes are combining advances in technology with operational concepts and strategies designed to deny the US military asymmetric manoeuvre in multiple domains. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is aggressively pursuing this path, combining what it refers to as shashoujian (trump card or assassin’s mace) technology with the concept of unrestricted warfare and an information warfare strategy. Shashoujian refers to a set of military capabilities that enables the technologically inferior to defeat the technologically superior. These capabilities include advanced integrated air defence systems, ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced strike aircraft, attack submarines, and counter-space capabilities.13 The PRC’s well publicized cyber capabilities go far beyond collecting and exploiting intelligence data. The difference between cyber exploitation and attack is as simple as a keystroke. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) is actively creating the strategic guidance, tools, and trained personnel necessary to employ computer network operations in support of traditional war-fighting disciplines.14 Cyberspace offers the PRC and other state and non-state actors the capacity to delay an adversary’s response to a kinetic attack by implanting malicious code in advance on the enemy’s networks.15

In spite of the significant advantages that China enjoys from cyberspace, it is not the focal point of the PRC’s information warfare strategy. The PLA’s assessments of current and future conflicts note that campaigns will be conducted in all domains simultaneously but that its emphasis on the electromagnetic spectrum has driven the PLA to adopt a much more comprehensive approach.16 In 2002 the PLA’s Maj Gen Dai Qingmin characterized electronic warfare as an intangible power necessary for success. He pointed out that whichever side loses in an electronic war will be reduced to blindness and deafness, so its weapons will be disabled, and it will lose its initiative in a battle, campaign, or even an entire strategic situation.17 This type of warfare also stresses that the electromagnetic spectrum is a vital fourth dimension equally as important as traditional ground, sea, and air forces.18 The implications of this phenomenon are numerous and serious enough to mandate another look at how we educate future Air Force leaders to develop, coordinate, and execute air operations.

Implications for the Concept of the Battlespace

Advances in technology have subtly nudged the entire globe into a realm where all previous notions of the battlespace have been radically altered by domain interdependence driven by a combination of factors ranging from advanced technology efficiency to fiscal constraints. These factors are creating an environment where failure in one domain has cascading effects in one or more of the others. Postmodern technology is quickly fusing a continuum of integrated and interdependent domains. Hypothetically, if an opponent attacks or manipulates the use of radio frequencies within the EMS (the electromagnetic spectrum), through cyber or other means, he could deny access to vital satellites that we rely on for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; communications; early warning; and navigation. The consequences would severely affect a joint force air component commander’s planning, decision, and execution cycle and could render operations in the air, on land, and at sea ineffective. Future Airmen must be sufficiently cognizant of this integrated operational environment to ensure that enough local superiority in the right combination of domains fosters the conditions necessary for operational success. It is also important to emphasize that the transformation of the battlespace is much more significant than challenges related to operating in a highly contested EMS within a designated joint operations area. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States faces the threat of a catastrophic attack on the homeland beyond the scale of the terrorist strikes of 11 September 2001. The historical barriers of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are no longer effective means to negate an enemy’s operational reach. The continuing growth of networked systems, devices, and platforms offers prospective state and non-state foes a plethora of vulnerabilities to threaten US national security that go well beyond military targets. Another significant change in battlespace is space. Since 1991 the United States has become more reliant on space-based capabilities to support military operations. Space assets provide the means to communicate globally; conduct the positioning, navigation, and timing necessary for precision strikes; and empower enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Further, space furnishes virtually unimpeded overflight access to conduct the monitoring essential for missile-launch detection, missile tracking, and early warning. A satellite system consists of three basic components: the satellite itself, the ground stations used to command and control it, and the communication links between the components. All of the latter have varying degrees of vulnerabilities. Adversaries can employ a variety of attack options, including kinetically striking the ground stations, jamming or spoofing links, and using directed energy to dazzle or partially blind the satellite.19 Like space, the EMS is exceedingly complex. One of the key constraints of this battlespace is that only one percent of the spectrum accounts for 90 percent of its military and civilian use. The effectiveness of the EMS is also complicated by electromagnetic interference between systems, EMP, competition between military and civilian use, and natural phenomena such as lightning, solar flares, and precipitation. Additionally, it is important to emphasize that our adversaries know and understand the EMS and that they will aggressively contest our access to it. The spectrum transcends all physical domains, has no specific or internationally recognized boundaries, and can create a wide array of unintended collateral effects ranging from the annoyance of a communication disruption to a deadly collision on a civilian railway transit system. Accordingly, approval to use electromagnetic-dependent systems for military operations calls for extensive coordination with multinational allies and host nations.

How Does This Change in Operational Environment Affect Air Power?

The dramatic alterations now occurring across the operational environment will affect Air Power in innumerable ways, including air superiority, strategic attack, counter-land, counter-maritime, and support to special operations forces. However, the two most significant effects will involve planning, decision, and execution cycles and domain superiority. In the future, these cycles will be compressed, reach-back capabilities will be limited, and forward commanders will have to rely on mission type orders because the EMS will be vigorously contested and because both terrestrial and space-based communications will suffer degradation or disruption. Consequently, Air Power’s foundational principle of centralized control/decentralized execution will be forced to shift to a distributed-control approach that adapts to operational changes by having pre-planned bandwidth allocations and a vision for manoeuvring between gateways.

The impending operational environment will also influence the concept of domain superiority. As advanced technology continues to proliferate, domain superiority will be much harder to achieve. In fact, such superiority will most likely remain localized and temporary. Moreover, it is important to point out that success may not depend upon the traditional quest for domain superiority. Instead, success may reside in precision access in a single domain that enables a combination of actions in other domains. Airmen must become much more attuned to forms of manoeuvre in all of these realms, and until they develop an appreciation for and understanding of Multi-Domain manoeuvre, true innovation in Air Power, unfortunately, will be lacking.


When General Dempsey asked, ‘What’s after joint?’ he was emphasizing that at some point in time, the focus on joint operations will not be adequate to address the challenges of our emerging operational environment. During the past two decades, Air Power has given the joint force unrivalled dominance in the air. However, quantum advances in technology and the realities of fiscal constraints are driving a dynamic era of evolutionary adaptation. This evolution must be deliberately shaped to ensure that domain interdependence does not inadvertently risk a single point of failure. More than ever before, Airmen must have a clear and common understanding of simultaneous manoeuvre in multiple domains beyond air, space, and cyberspace.

Mark Gunzinger with Chris Dougherty, Changing the Game: The Promise of Directed-Energy Weapons (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2012), ix.
Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, version 1.0 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2012), 16.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).
Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, 15.
Office of the US Air Force Chief Scientist, Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science and Technology, 2010–2030 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, Air Force Research Institute, 2011), 19.
National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, NASIC-1031-0985-09 (Wright Patterson AFB, OH: National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Apr. 2009), 3.
Victor N. Corpus, ‘America’s Acupuncture Points, Part 2: The Assassin’s Mace,’ Asia Times, 20 Oct. 2006,
US Government Accountability Office, Nonproliferation: Agencies Could Improve Information Sharing and End-Use Monitoring on Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Exports, GAO-12-536 (Washington, DC: US Government Accountability Office, Jul. 2012), 9.
17. National Ground Intelligence Center, China Research on Bio-Effects of Electromagnetic Pulse and High-Power Microwave Radiation (Charlottesville, VA: National Ground Intelligence Center, 17 Aug. 2005). Unclassified.
Headquarters Department of the US Army, Nuclear Environment Survivability (US Army White Sands Missile Range, NM: US Army Test and Evaluation Command, 15 Apr. 1994), appendix D.
See Jim Wilson, ‘E-Bombs and Terrorists,’ Popular Mechanics 178, no. 9 (Sep. 2001): 51; and Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, and John McBrewster, Explosively Pumped Flux Compression Generator (Mauritius: Alphascript Publishing, 24 Nov. 2009).
Department of Defense, Joint Operational Access Concept, 13.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 187.
Deepak Sharma, ‘China’s Cyber Warfare Capability and India’s Concerns,’ Journal of Defence Studies 5, no. 2 (Apr. 2011): 66.
Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2013 (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2013), 36.
Deepak Sharma, ‘Integrated Network Electronic Warfare: China’s New Concept of Information Warfare,’ Journal of Defence Studies 4, no 2 (Apr. 2010): 37–38.
Bruzdzinski, ‘Demystifying Sha Shou Jian,’ 346.
Office of the Secretary of Defense, People’s Republic of China, 2013, 37.
David Wright, Laura Grego, and Lisbeth Gronlund, The Physics of Space Security: A Reference Manual (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005), 109
Content Navigation
 Jeffrey M.

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What is a Multi-Domain Operation?

Defining the ‘Domain’ in Multi-Domain

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

Cyberspace and Multi-Domain Operations

Tracing Opinio Juris in National Cyber Security Strategy Documents

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