Editor’s note: “Multi-Domain Battle” made its first appearance in Army doctrine with the release this month of the updated Field Manual 3-0: Operations and as a draft operational concept, documents that provide insight into how the army sees itself fighting tonight, tomorrow, and in the future. This is the first in a series of articles examining the concept and how it will change the way the US military fights.


These days you can’t get through the #NatSec blogosphere without running into Multi-Domain Battle. And just about everyone has a perspective. Some say it is old wine in a new bottle. Others categorize it as the perfect bumper sticker for a car that has yet to be designed—little alone built. And a few others classify it as something new and needed. So where did this idea come from? Is it new? Why should you care?

This is the first in a series of articles on Multi-Domain Battle, and any good series starts with a genesis story. There is a clear evolutionary link to previous concepts like AirLand Battle, Army After Next, Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, and the Army Operating Concept. These concepts make up the strategic roots for how the Multi-Domain Battle concept developers think about problems. Without these previous concepts and their collective gains, Multi-Domain Battle (or the ideas behind it) would have more than likely arrived anyway, though most likely only after encountering catastrophic failure. The genesis of Multi-Domain Battle came as direct result of civilian leadership providing the services a clear visualization, description, and understanding of what was needed to win in the future fight.

The origins of Multi-Domain Battle can be traced back to April 8, 2015 at the US Army War College, where then Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work charged the US Army to get after AirLand Battle 2.0. In this speech, Mr. Work outlined the problems twenty-first-century warfare will create and the solutions it will require. Despite being over two years old this speech remains an important keystone for understanding the challenges facing the US military today and in the foreseeable future.

Specific to his call for AirLand Battle 2.0, Mr. Work envisioned the concept’s role as the means by which the US military would fight and win, after breaking into the theater and through Anti-Access/Area Denial defenses. In Mr. Work’s words:

We are going to have to think about fighting against enemies which have lots of guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles, and are using informationalized warfare to completely disrupt our heavily netted force. So what does AirLand Battle 2.0 look like? I don’t know. The Army needs to figure this out.

While he expected the Army to “figure it out,” Mr. Work gave important direction. He highlighted Tyler Cowen’s book, Average is Over, as an indicator of where AirLand Battle 2.0 needed to focus. Cowen argued that in chess, machines consistently beat grandmasters, yet when playing three-play chess, in which a man and machine combine against another machine, the man-machine team wins. Applied to warfighting, Mr. Work expected manned-unmanned teaming to be critical to the US military’s success in the future fight.

The Roots of an Idea

As with any endeavor, you never truly start from scratch. Mr. Work’s highlighting of AirLand Battle provided a point of departure, but the US military has evolved. The start point for what would become AirLand Battle 2.0 would need to account for this. Enter the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, the Army Operating Concept, and the US Marine Corps Operating Concept.

In 2012, the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) coined and defined the idea of cross-domain synergy as “the complementary vice merely additive employment of capabilities in different domains such that each enhances the effectiveness and compensates for the vulnerabilities of others.” In its ideal implementation, it is the joint force working together optimally, as one.

Following the CCJO, the Army Operating Concept (AOC) was published in 2014. It describes how future Army forces will prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win wars while operating as part of the joint force and working with multiple partners. The AOC specifies that the US Army must see itself as a contributor to the joint force—providing the joint force multiple options, presenting the enemy with multiple dilemmas, and operating across multiple domains and with multiple partners. It also articulates that the core planning assumption for the future fight is that it will be uncertain, unknowable, and constantly changing. How the Army trains its leaders, soldiers, and units must reflect this ambiguity and ensure adaptability.

Finally there is the US Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC). Published in September 2016, the MOC is an important representation of the Marine Corps’ perspective that was brought into the Multi-Domain Battle discussion. The MOC identified a central problem: the Marine Corps was not “organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation, information warfare, the need to shield and exploit signatures, and an increasingly non-permissive maritime domain.” Specifically to challenges in the maritime domain, the MOC predicts that future adversaries will “pursue military objectives without crossing the threshold of open conflict, applying pressure across multiple domains of competition to produce a fait accompli contrary to our interests.”

Given the collective understanding across the Army and joint force, each of these sources influenced the development of Multi-Domain Battle from White Paper to Concept Version 1.0. Where the white paper and concept diverge from these sources, however, is a direct result of learning and increased understanding of the problem.

As of 2016, the primary challenge cited against achieving cross-domain synergy was bringing the required blend of expertise to bear on the problem, with secondary challenges being training and education shortfalls, manning, and classification and compartmentalization of capabilities. These challenges combine to suggest a particular conclusion: cross-domain synergy is a people problem. Multi-Domain Battle recognizes these constraints, but argues that not only do we not have the right people, but we also lack the right training, equipment, and doctrine to win the future fight.

The way Multi-Domain Battle tackles cross-domain synergy is best encapsulated by two terms of art. The first is convergence, which is defined as “the integration of capabilities across domains, environments, and functions in time and physical space to achieve a purpose.” Second is the integration of systems, which focuses not just on the people and process but the technological solutions required to achieve cross-domain synergy. Existing work on cross-domain synergy fails to acknowledge that our present systems and programs of record are stove-piped and federated to the point that cross-domain maneuver and fires would require a human solution.

However, our adversaries have already developed integrated systems specifically designed to challenge us. As automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence mature, the same adversaries will seek to employ those capabilities for increased effect. Under Mr. Work’s 2015 charge, it’s our responsibility to not just break down our current stove-piped solutions, but also design new solutions with manned-unmanned teaming behind it.

What’s in a name?

The result of Mr. Work’s charge resulted in Multi-Domain Battle, a purposeful name change. AirLand Battle was a bivariate solution designed to engage and destroy uncommitted enemy echelons deep in enemy-controlled territory. It was a specific solution for a specific problem that the US Army and US Air Force were able to optimize for additional challenges—like Iraq in 1991 and 2003. In shifting towards Mr. Work’s vision, what the US Army and US Marine Corps quickly realized was that changes in the operating environment required a far different approach than just building cyber and space on top of AirLand Battle. Given our present way of fighting, adversarial modernization, and the simultaneous compression and expansion of the battlefield, you simply can’t just throw these two additional domains into the mix and call AirLand Battle 2.0 good to go.

Today, the US military arrives to fight as a behemoth of lethality. First we mass in a forward support area. As forces move into theater they are postured forward, with training and exercises designed to deter and prepare for the eventual fight to come. If and when deterrence fails the behemoth is unleashed. This method is a natural result of fighting as a large expeditionary force. We are designed for and play away games, which is a weakness our adversaries have picked apart.

From Desert Storm to Iraq 2003, the behemoth of lethality was on display with unmatched capabilities. However, displaying your great strengths also means displaying your weaknesses. Gen. David Perkins, commanding general of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, puts it the best. He argues that our adversaries “have gone to school on us,” and after almost three decades of study and development they now have the capability to prevent US forces from gaining access into the theater, fix US forces by limited US maneuver capabilities, and fracture our interdependent joint force. So while we have fought for the last fifteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan, adapting the US military to meet the threats encountered there, our adversaries have modernized their capabilities to maximize their ability to prevent US military access into the theater, fix US forces in place, and fracture the expeditionary joint force.

Finally, the battlefield has also changed. The original AirLand Battle was designed specifically to defeat a massive Soviet military on the plains of Europe. The concept produced a framework that conceives of “deep,” “close,” and “rear” areas of the battlefield and visualizes how NATO forces would fight. The big idea behind AirLand Battle was to attack and destroy the uncommitted echelons of the Soviet military. While our front line would take a beating in the close area, we would strike deep and deplete their combat power before it could fully cross the departure line. Today, however, the notion of time and space, deep and rear, has changed; AirLand Battle is the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, and what we need is an iPhone X.

Where the battlefield in 1982 was relatively precise, today’s battlefield is simultaneously expanding and compressing, increasing the complexity by which war can be fought. Consider the ground commander’s view in the late 1800s: from the right vantage point he could see it with the naked eye. In World War I, it spread across all of Europe. In World War II, it grew into two theaters encompassing East Asia, Europe, and Africa. Today, the potential exists for ground commanders to be engaged with lethal and non-lethal fires from anywhere around the globe. At the same time, distance is becoming less of a limiting factor. Growth in space and cyber-based capabilities means lethal and non-lethal fires can not only originate anywhere around the globe, but have near-instantaneous impacts with little concern for geographic space and political boundaries.

The impact of compression and expansion of the battlefield are best related back to the genesis speech by Mr. Work. He identified and described the combination of guided munitions and informationalized warfare—being able to kill by signature alone—as a critical variable for military success in twenty-first-century warfare. “Informationalized warfare” is the combination of cyber, electronic warfare, information operations, deception, and denial to disrupt our command and control and thereby give the enemy an advantage in the decision cycle. By combining informationalized warfare with the accuracy and relative low cost of guided munitions, the victors on the next battlefield will fix and fracture their adversary with quick, decisive, and lethal effects across the entirety of the battlespace and immediately consolidate gains to make any military response politically unpalatable.

Russia’s current activities in Ukraine, including the use of social media and Trojan Horse applications, make clear the lethality of informationalized warfare. Even the United States has done it. Every blog, Tweet, Facebook post, and Instagram picture has the potential to link back to a physical target. Every electric emission, signature, and connection made can facilitate targeting. The mix of lethal and non-lethal fires will result in shooters coming at you from one hundred feet or ten thousand miles away—or both.

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000x was an (expensive) marvel in 1984. It brought a revolution into the communications field. But as technology progressed forward the 8000x became obsolete. To say the iPhone X is a DynaTAC 16000x would be a gross misrepresentation of the capabilities packed into the iPhone. Similarly, the inadequacy in how the US military fights, the growth in our adversaries’ modernization efforts, and the simultaneous compression and expansion of the battlefield combine to make AirLand Battle obsolete.

What we require today are truly integrated, resilient, and rapidly deployable military capabilities designed to achieve cross-domain maneuver and fires, capable of working together in a convergence that goes beyond synchronization. This is the idea behind Multi-Domain Battle. To say that this is old wine in a new bottle—that it is AirLand Battle with space and cyber sprinkled on—is to say the iPhone X is just a DynaTAC 8000x with a Walkman and a the first digital camera taped together. It misses the critical point that the character of war is changing and we must change with it. To do this, the debate must shift from what is new versus what is old to what core capabilities are required to win the future fight.

Moving Forward

Concept Version 1.0 for Multi-Domain Battle is a dense document, but within it are four critical ideas that shape the core capabilities required to win the future fight: competition, convergence, resilience, and force posture. Subsequent articles in this series will dive down into each of these to better articulate what I believe the concept is proposing and challenging readers to respond with their own thoughts on whether or not the idea is essential, or more importantly, how it could be more effective.


Kelly McCoy is a US Army strategist officer, Director of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum Advisory Cloud, and a member of the Military Leadership Circle. A blessed husband and proud father, when he has time he is either brewing beer or maintaining his blog, Drink Beer; Kill War. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not represent the Department of Defense. If you have suggestions or questions for future posts, let me know!

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Sgt. Meghan Berry, US Army (adapted by MWI)