The Department of Defense’s Multidomain Operations Challenge
The Russians and the Chinese are developing capabilities to thwart American capabilities, complicating the success of multidomain operations.
In response to the shift towards Indo-Pacific regional concerns, the US Army and the Department of Defense began developing multidomain operations as a broad warfighting concept in 2016. Relying on a “third offset” that acknowledges the Army will “operate on congested, and potentially contaminated battlefields while under persistent surveillance, and will encounter advanced capabilities such as cyber, counter-space, electronic warfare, robotics, and artificial intelligence,” the goal is to develop information advantage that allows American forces to operate with greater speed and efficiency.
The problem with this information-dependent future is that adversaries are already working on asymmetric ways to disrupt and defeat this approach. Thus, we see five problems for the Army specifically, and also the overall joint force’s plans for a future where multidomain operations is the warfighting concept around which land forces and the joint force deter or defeat China and Russia: (1) understanding that the US is already at war with Russia and China; (2) multidomain operations rely on artificial intelligence; (3) the US is falling behind Russia and China in the development of robotic and autonomous systems; (4) China and Russia are leveraging Americans’ social media information presence to manipulate truth; and (5) adversaries are seeking to deny the US access to the electromagnetic spectrum.
The State of Play
Starting with background information is instructive. First, the shift to multidomain operations comes in response to the Asia-Pacific pivot, which the Obama administration and subsequent administrations began. To meet the needs of the pivot, the DoD authored the Air-Sea Battle concept (2013), which largely excluded the Army and incentivized the service to rethink its role in future conflicts.
The United States' first challenge is understanding that the country is already at war with Russia and China.
Thus, when the 2017 National Security Strategy refocused on peer competition, the Army was already in the midst of developing a new warfighting concept designed to defeat Russia or China in a large-scale conventional operation. Multidomain battle (2016) became multidomain operations (2018) and eventually became joint all domain command and control within the joint community. The Army, however, continues to discuss multidomain operations, which it sees as distinct from joint all domain command and control.
The US Army’s Field Manual 3-0, Operations (FM 3-0), currently in coordination, introduces multi-domain operations as the warfighting concept under which land forces will defeat Russia, China, or any adversary in large-scale conventional operations. The draft version describes multidomain operations as “how army forces enable and operate as part of the joint force against threats able to contest it in all domains” with a focus on creating and exploiting advantage across the continuum of conflict—integrating capabilities across multiple domains.1 This definition is similar to the Joint Staff’s definition of joint all domain command and control, which seeks to connect all military services’ sensors into a single network.
As Chris Dougherty has recently observed, the idea that all sensors can be connected to all shooters and that information advantage can be achieved once and for all are both unrealistic. Enough sensors connected to enough shooters during a period of enough advantage is the Army and the Department of Defense’s goal. Or, as General Glen Vanherck termed it, we need to focus on continually building the bike even as we ride it, and roads continue to change.
It Is More than Great-Power Competition
The United States’ first challenge is understanding that the country is already at war with Russia and China. Some within the military and foreign policy establishment attempt to coopt the joint-phasing construct, which includes six “phases” of conflict—laid out in Joint Publication 3-0 —as a way to easily distinguish between peace and war. However, this model was designed to arrange operations, not serve as a model for when war begins and ends.
The Joint Staff has since reduced the focus on this phased approach to operational planning with its 2017 and 2020 revisions because too many planners and warfighters viewed the phases like a step-by-step process that, once completed, returns the United States to a state of peace. The perception that the military would seamlessly progress from Phase 0 to Phase V and back to Phase 0 was an easy mental model to follow but is contrary to the approaches of China and Russia.
Despite the Joint Staff’s effort to reshape thinking within the Department of Defense by recasting conflict as phase-less in recent revisions, this tidy conception of warfare persists. Jake Bebber is correct when he writes, “Yet it is here, in Phase 0, that adversaries are conducting military operations designed to deter and ultimately defeat the United States, whether in cyberspace or the broader ‘informationization’ of warfare. It is an era of persistent conflict.” Whether it is Russian hybrid warfare or Chinese informationized warfare, neither adversary sees a clear distinction between war and peace. We are already at war.
Contrary to the American view, the current era is not competition but war between the United States and China/Russia. This war is primarily in the information environment and cyber domain that it is all too frequently dismissed as competition when it is not.
Failing to Lead in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Second, multidomain operations rely on artificial intelligence as an enabling technology to speed the process of collection, sense-making, and sharing of information—transforming Army information processing. According to Nicholas Chaillan, the United States has already lost the race with Russia and China in artificial intelligence.
As Paul Scharre observes, technological advances often lead to economic and military advantages. Europe’s lead in the Industrial Revolution made it possible for European nations to control over 80 percent of the world’s landmass by 1914. If the United States falls further behind in the development of artificial intelligence, it may lose a military conflict with China.
The lack of moral and legal norms that challenge American efforts to weaponize artificial intelligence also creates an advantage for China and Russia that bleeds over into their ability to collect superior adversary data used to train artificial intelligence and machine learning systems.
Another area where American perceptions differ greatly from those of the Chinese and Russians involves the “human in/on the loop” question. The hand-wringing Americans engage in over the need for human control of military artificial intelligence does not occur in China or Russia, where there is a greater willingness to rely on autonomous systems in virtual and physical environments.
When it comes to measuring the success of multidomain operations, improving the speed and accuracy of decision-making is critical. More than any other service, the Army needs its lower echelon forces to operate independently, especially when communications and connectivity are highly contested.
The Chinese and Russians are well aware of the Department of Defense’s information dependency with the development of multidomain operations and joint all domain command and control. As a result, peer adversaries prioritize their OODA loops and the prevention of American effects/influence on their decision-making.
Neither China nor Russia has the same conception of war and peace as the United States—leaving the Army, and the joint force, at a distinct disadvantage.
To deter or defeat American action, both adversaries actively develop artificial intelligence capabilities to penetrate our systems. For the offense, attacks must only work once, where the defense must work repeatedly. When the challenges discussed in this section are taken in aggregate, they present a serious challenge to American success in successfully incorporating artificial intelligence into the systems that will ensure multidomain operations are successful.
Robotic and Autonomous Systems
Third, the United States is falling behind China and Russia in the development of robotic and autonomous systems, which are also critical to the success of multidomain operations. Adversaries field systems range from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms to various types of battlefield drones.
For the United States, similar systems are not fully autonomous, requiring human control and data analysis. This limits the ability of such systems to serve as force multipliers. For adversaries, robotic and autonomous systems are indispensable as artificial intelligence develops to the point where turning over deadly force to robots is feasible. Whether the United States fields “killer robots” is yet to be seen.
The Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy (2017) outlines five major objectives: increase situational awareness, lighten soldiers’ physical and cognitive workloads, sustain the force with increased distribution throughput and efficiency, facilitate movement and maneuver, and protect the force. The service is developing systems that can support all of the five objectives as a single unit or well-coordinated group but not serve as autonomous killer robots.
These robotic and autonomous systems need to be enabled by numerous data capture and tracking systems such as smart storage media, wearables, real-time visibility, and conditions monitoring. Additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, data science, and predictive analysis play a central role in enabling such systems.
What is often under-examined is the data storage, management, and manipulation requirements for these systems, which is staggering and a critical target for adversaries. Undoubtedly, Chinese and Russian offensive operations are and will seek to penetrate American systems before an attack.
Joint all domain command and control and multidomain operations depend on rapidly collecting, sharing, evaluating, and applying vast quantities of data. The technologies under development by the United States are highly dependent on data to function, leaving them susceptible to the “5 Ds” of offensive cyber operations: deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, or deceive.
Overcoming the moral/legal, data management, and cyber challenges will make or break the utility of robotic systems for the Army and the joint force—and it all occurs before the first shot is ever fired.
Fourth, China and Russia are effectively using the openness of American social information systems to create expansive disinformation and misinformation capabilities that are specifically targeted at not only the American people but soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and guardians. These capabilities enable adversaries to obfuscate, hide, and create information, making it difficult or impossible for Americans—and service members—to separate truth from fiction.
As Guy Schleffer and Benjamin Miller highlight, adversaries can also attack the United States by achieving political effects through social media platforms, where they achieve a fait accompli by exploiting “vast amounts of data about people.” Russian misinformation in the 2016 election is but one example of the successes such efforts yield. Moreover, campaigns targeting service members are also an adversary tool that will grow in use in years to come as adversaries map the social networks of service members and develop individual profiles for exploitation.
Adversaries engage in a wide variety of experimentation to better shape the views of service members. But just as the platforms’ internal tools for refining results are increasingly driven by machine learning, we expect infiltration of information ecosystems by texts which are being dynamically generated and refined by sophisticated algorithms.
With data theft and sales widespread, there is an ability to micro-target anyone, anywhere, at any time, as Cambridge Analytica demonstrated. Contrary to popular belief, avoiding social media does not provide immunity from these efforts because friends, family, acquaintances provide sufficient data and associates that levers of influence are available to those interested in and committed to using them.
Admittedly, many soldiers do not realize how information operations are maturing in the era of ubiquitous information technologies. In short, information is always-on, ubiquitous, porous, and presents dangers for soldiers.
The Ether Is Everywhere
Fifth, the success of multidomain operations is also under threat because of American dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum, which adversaries are actively seeking to deny the United States. Whether it is situational awareness, deception, denial, or destruction, freedom of action in the spectrum is foundational.
American victory in future conflicts depends on information advantage by collecting and processing an overwhelming amount of data. Equipping every vehicle and soldier with sensors that can feed data into artificial intelligence-enabled networks that organize, filter, and share the “right” information with decision-makers is a central aspect of multidomain operations—with its dependence on fidelity electromagnetic spectrum sensors on platforms. This all occurs in an era where “every asset is a sensor” is central to our new warfighting concept.
As the network of sensors required for joint all domain command and control and multidomain operations is developed, the United States can use different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to see targets from different aspects and signatures. For example, a vehicle or artillery park may be camouflaged in one part of the spectrum (infrared), but radiofrequency or visual sensors may detect them. This ability to analyze a target in multiple parts of the spectrum reduces the effectiveness of deception.
Beyond preventing adversary electromagnetic spectrum jamming and spoofing, distilling, correlating, and presenting data in a useful format is the biggest challenge. Again, all of this depends on high-fidelity artificial intelligence to break down the data for decision-makers in a tactically relevant time. Failing to meet this time requirement surrenders the initiative to an adversary who can perform this feat.
Succeeding allows the United States military to think in terms of kill webs, which allows multiple sensors, shooters, and command and control nodes to prosecute an engagement. This capability creates resilience and allows commanders the flexibility to engage with various shooters, ensuring the most effective weapon system engages the target.
Fundamentally rethinking when and how war is fought is necessary. Anything less will leave the United States defeated before it ever recognizes war has begun.
Multidomain operations require sensor systems of the future with capabilities that include multi-spectral sensing on a single platform or as part of a system of systems. There is a need to pick out a signal of interest from the background clutter and identify the emitter. The Russians, masters of electronic warfare, and the Chinese are all developing capabilities to thwart American success in this area, which makes the success of multidomain operations challenging.
The challenge for the Army and the joint force is overcoming Russian and Chinese electromagnetic spectrum jamming and spoofing efforts. The Russian Army, for example, is the best in the world at both and will certainly further develop those capabilities as the Department of Defense fields capabilities designed to enable multidomain operations.
The move away from irregular warfare and toward large-scale conventional operations and multidomain operations is certainly the right move for the Department of Defense and the US Army. Field Manual 3-0, Operations, the Army’s new multidomain operations-focused doctrine, is a forward-looking attempt to meet the challenges of an operational environment that is at an inflection point. Developing a warfighting approach that gets inside China and Russia’s OODA loop is certainly understandable.
However, neither China nor Russia has the same conception of war and peace as the United States—leaving the Army, and the joint force, at a distinct disadvantage. Overcoming these shortcomings requires the following changes.
First, senior leaders must understand the United States is already at war with China and Russia in the cyber domain and information environment. Incorrectly describing war as “competition” leaves American forces to operate below the level of conflict, which signals a lack of resolve. Adversaries are specifically watching for the level of force employed in response to their attacks so they can evaluate the importance of interests at stake.
Second, the Army needs to shift from a focus on cyber security to a focus on mission assurance. Cyber security is neither necessary nor sufficient for the success of multidomain operations. Yet, as shown above, it serves as a pillar for success across a range of multidomain operations capabilities. This is a mistake that China and Russia are exploiting.
Third, the Army (and other services) must train soldiers in adversaries’ information operations methods and tactics to influence service members. With China and Russia developing more effective ways to use information against American service members, failure in the information environment is certain to have implications in the cognitive and physical domains.
For the United States to succeed in multidomain operations, merely developing and fielding new technologies is insufficient for American success. Fundamentally rethinking when and how war is fought is necessary. Anything less will leave the United States defeated before it ever recognizes war has begun.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not represent the views or policies of the United States government, the United States Department of Defense, the United States military, the United States Department of the Army, or the United States Army.
1 FM 3-0, Operations is planned for public release in the summer of 2022. The document may change before release.