America is rapidly losing its military advantage to other nations. Russia and China exist in a gray zone between near-peer and peer competitor. While neither possesses the full power-projection capabilities of the United States, both countries’ militaries have harnessed the ability to nullify American advantage in key aspects of warfighting. This advantage is seen most notably in the modernization and procurement of new weapons systems to establish anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) zones that prevent the United States from operating without acquiescence.

America’s Answer to Growing Threats

To fight back against the shrinking capability gaps, the US Army, in cooperation with the US Marine Corps, unveiled the warfighting concept known as multi-domain battle (MDB). This concept identifies five domains in which warfare occurs: land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace. In MDB, powers seek to achieve temporary windows of advantage in a given domain of battle by effectively harnessing the strength of joint integration and cross-domain fires. This means providing small units with capabilities previously reserved for echelons above brigade. Most readers will have heard of MDB rumblings in the depths of the Pentagon or from the mouths of top Army brass at AUSA symposiums or similar events.

For well over a year Gen. David Perkins, commander of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), has been campaigning for the adoption of MDB. In many public appearances he has promoted MDB as the best way to check the growing military power of Russia and China. Not joint coordination but joint integration, from initial planning through execution, is the best method to overcome the technological threats posed by these nations, he argues.

Since Gen. Perkins began advocating for this new warfighting concept, Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, has signed on. In 2016 he designated US Army Pacific (USARPAC) as the operational lead for MDB. Furthermore, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, and Gen. Robert Brown, commander of USARPAC, are apostles of MDB, both pushing to advance MDB in the Pacific theater. In sum, MDB has the support of key leaders both inside and outside the US Army.

So what does this mean? Whether MDB becomes the new warfighting concept for future wars or it simply goes the way of effects-based operations, it remains an unavoidable planning reality within the ranks of the US Army.

The Implications of Effective Multi-Domain Battle

In the spring 2016 issue of Air & Space Power Journal, Dr. Jeffrey Reilly wisely acknowledges “the importance of understanding multiple domains and the necessity of shifting local superiority between domains.” The speed with which a commander masses cross-domain fires is of paramount importance. Winning with an MDB methodology requires an immensely high level of joint integration. Real-time joint common operating pictures are required to enable an expedient and efficient decision-making process on the part of the joint forces commander (JFC). Empowering lower-level units with the ability to affect other domains of battle controlled by separate services is a dangerous yet alluring prospect. It will likely require significant shifts of authority from higher echelons of command down to ranks as low as lieutenant colonel. It is clear that if this warfighting concept were to be implemented, it would require significant changes to the structure and operating procedures of the world’s largest employer.

Prior Attempts at Reform: Goldwater-Nichols

The last time the Department of Defense undertook such changes was thirty years ago, with President Ronald Reagan and the 99th Congress pushing for reform. The result was the influential law known as the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. This law overhauled the department in sweeping ways. Most significantly, it shifted focus from potential global war to the containment and management of regional conflicts. It accomplished this objective by removing the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) from the operational chain of command and instead made the combatant commanders directly responsible to the president and the secretary of defense. With each combatant commander possessing autonomy over their assigned geographic or functional area, they became empowered to exercise their authority independent of each other.

The act also removed the requirement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) to acquire the consensus of the JCS before making recommendations to the secretary of defense. The CJCS became the principal military advisor not only to the secretary of defense but also to the president, and was no longer beholden to vain attempts at achieving consensus. In sum, effects of Goldwater-Nichols were an increase in candor and advice on the part of the CJCS and an increase in the independence and autonomy of the geographic and functional combatant commanders.

However, the act had unforeseen consequences as well. The combined actions of removing the JCS from the operational chain of command and elevating the autonomy of the combatant commanders meant that each command planned and executed operations independent of one another with no strong institutional coordinating mechanism. While the Joint Staff attempts to coordinate various contingency plans in the event of a crisis, it lacks the regulatory authority to do so with much effect.

Multi-Domain Battle and Institutional Reform

This poses a significant problem for the military in an MDB warfighting construct. Joint integration is imperative to achieve synergy on the modern battlefield. Rapid coordination, planning, de-confliction, and execution are simply not possible with this current structure. A major overhaul of the Department of Defense is necessary for the nation’s armed forces to prosecute lethal operations in an MDB environment.

First, DoD reorganization must institute a mechanism to force joint integration and execution across the warfighting functions. Assigning the Joint Staff with coordinating authority absent such a mechanism wouldn’t amount to much power. Combatant command staffs would retain the authority to refuse to cooperate. Instead, effective reform would likely entail empowering the Joint Staff with a new planning authority and charging it with the task of ensuring the nation’s combatant commands remain integrated and ready to execute operations as one team. To cement this authority, it may be necessary to include the CJCS in the operational chain of command, just under the secretary of defense.

Many would decry this action as a shift towards a Prussian-style General Staff and give the military far too much central authority. However, central authority is necessary to ensure an integrated effort across the services from initial planning to execution. Joint integration may even mean the dissolution of the service component commands. The move towards joint integration has the potential to blur authorities and service parochialisms so much as to render the concept of these single-service commands useless. In a joint fight, the idea of a service-specific commander seems archaic and antithetical. Instead, geographic or functional JFCs would be more effective in the prosecution of war.

Second, authorities for action must be pushed to lower levels. The MDB fight is about achieving temporary windows of advantage by massing fires from across different domains. This is not possible in today’s joint environment. Simply put, the services don’t procure communications systems that are able to link easily with one another. This inhibits the rapid joint integration necessary on today’s battlefield. Naval, air, and land communications architectures are largely incompatible with one another, further hindering any sort of real-time joint execution at the small-unit level.

Effective Multi-Domain Battle Requires Significant, Yet Unlikely Change

In order to execute MDB in its purest form, commanders must possess offensive capabilities from all domains. This includes space and cyberspace resources, but current conditions constrain the extent to which these can be pushed to commanders. There are simply not enough space assets or analysts to rapidly relay real-time information in a tactical environment, and authority to execute offensive cyberspace operations is retained by the president. These conditions must change. To truly employ the MDB construct and gain an advantage in a conflict with peer competitors, leaders must be willing to accept the political risk that comes with the necessary act of pushing these authorities and resources down to the lowest levels. Taken together, these changes amount to a significant overhaul of the department of defense. But they are unlikely to occur.

Even in the calmest political climates, major institutional reform is a tricky process to undertake. Competing parochial interests, intra- and inter-party tensions, as well as the bureaucratic lethargy that comes with trying to reform the largest employer in the world, all pose significant road blocks to achieving the type of reform necessary to enable rapid, decisive action in twenty-first–century warfare. The current battle to repeal the Affordable Care Act showcases the difficulties inherent in passing significant legislation, even when a party controls the White House and both Houses of Congress. The military can’t undertake unilateral action, but we can undertake a long-term approach to bridge the institutional gaps. Most importantly, we can inform and educate senior policymakers about the struggles to come and the immediate reforms necessary to mitigate the hardships. It’s only a first step, but it’s a significant one. To win in future wars, we must have the structure to succeed.


Captain A. J. Shattuck is a strategist in the US Army. He received a B.S. in American Politics from the United States Military Academy and an M.P.P. with Honors from the University of Chicago.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher McCullough, US Army Pacific