The Multi Domain Operations vision is very different from the way mission tasking works today. “Right now, our commanders are very limited in who they can assign to do certain” things. “More often than not, you have to assign someone because they happen to be in front of a specific place in front of a specific computer.
Navy is making integration of ships, planes, sensors and weapons a priority going forward and is in the requirements-writing stage of development an integrated combat system. Today’s ability to pass information from sensors to operators at sea to fleet commanders ashore is not happening “at the speed of warfare.”
“We should be able to, with this level of technology, to take what we are seeing on the carrier should be available in the operations center in real time so that when a fleet commander is told, ‘these are my intentions and I’m engaging here,, they can look at it and go, absolutely, and I’m moving this or that or whatever the case may be to support you.
“We deserve better information to the decision-maker. The information is there, somewhere; we’re just not getting it in the right hands at the right speed.”
Operators must wholeheartedly adopt the belief that it is OK to fail and learn through mistakes AND design training that allows it to happen. In its current form, however, the services lacks a method to replay mistakes and actively learn from them. This would be made possible by improving our training practices and mind-set, focusing on feedback, mission design, and increasing acceptance of a wide range of views.
By testing some of these suggested changes, units may be able to experiment and train to failure. More reps would enable more creative decision making, and explore more diverse avenues than training currently allows us to do.
Organizational learning remains an important component of mission success. Militaries are unlikely to begin wars optimized for the challenges they will encounter. General-purpose forces often train for general combat operations rather than tailoring their personnel selection, training, and education for a specific threat. There are notable exceptions in areas of longstanding hostility, but even when units do train for specific threats, they are likely to encounter unexpected events or conditions.
Even if a military begins a war optimized, it is unlikely to remain so. Because adversaries attempt to negate strengths and target weaknesses, successful techniques will become less effective, and the most successful sometimes become ineffective the fastest.
Militaries are unlikely to begin wars optimized for the challenges they will encounter…Even if an army begins a war optimized, it is unlikely to remain so.
Multi-Domain Operations permeates areas such as problem solving, decision making, communications, and promotions. It creates insiders and mavericks.
The established insiders of an organization usually like the culture as-is because it led to their success. They do not like change because it puts the mavericks on par, or worse, in charge.
We say that we want Soldiers who can practice disciplined initiative, who can change the task to meet the purpose. We say we want shared understanding and teams built on trust more than rules. We want them to be risk tolerant.
Yet we do things that scream the opposite. Yes, attention to details matters. Yes, there is a balance between free expression and unit cohesion but building a risk-tolerant team does not happen by this sort of narrow conformity. No amount of mission command rhetoric can overcome “ Follow the rules, or else.” It is one example of how our culture typically eats mission command for breakfast.
This model is compelling because it is balanced and defies easy prescriptive answers. It is at once friendly to the tenets of mission command yet helps us remain grounded in and responsive to our need to steward a large and complex system. It offers a way for you and your unit to develop simple and concrete action steps toward prudent change without sacrificing what makes the unit work.
Diagnosing the Command Structure
One command model describes initiative, innovation, and risk. Opposite them are the people who like structure, predictability, and rules.
Without rules initiative innovation and risk can devolve into destructive opportunism. On the other hand, without innovation, structure often calcifies. It is a competing values framework because organizations need the best of both values; they pull each other toward the center and toward a positive zone.
On the other side is culture focused on trust, commitment, and teamwork against a high-achieving, mission-focused “market” culture. On this axis the drive to compete can produce toxic leaders bent on winning at all costs, whereas a team too focused on keeping everyone happy can lose sight of the job that needs to be done.
Soldiers—even after disaggregating for rank, unit type —are saying that they would prefer a Mission Command skew to the current command and control skew. It therefore begs the question: if we all want the same change, what is holding us back?
We could easily blame “the system” and in many cases we would be right, but that is often a blanket copout. We have plenty of influence with our people in the smallest of every day events. To find out where and how requires that we move past diagnosis and into the next phase, namely discussing what change means and what it does not mean.
With that comes a warning: you your team are probably defining change in unexpectedly different ways. From my experience it is common that a infantry platoon leader and a executive officer will have different understandings of trust, boldness, winning, and what structures are necessary.
Not sure? Ask people to define these simple words. It is quite revealing. Both might answer the survey in way that would suggest the same current and preferred culture. It is also possible that identical survey answers are not signs of agreement. Two respondents can have scores and graphs that look the same, but the values underlying their choices are quite different.
You do not want a unit culture where Platoon Leaders are free to write their own doctrine or Squad Leaders each developing their own counsel processes. To create a culture that works on trust, accepts risk, and encourages initiative, you need to clarify meaning and calibrate actions by setting clear left and right limits. You need to define the positive zone. The way to do this is to hold workshops where teams brainstorm exactly what they intend to change.
As the unit’s commander, you should moderate the discussion. As with the above example, you need to play the honest broker, but you should also be prepared to provoke the team. Use the session to ask questions and propose ideas that clarify meaning as well as offer approaches.
For instance, if your team is at a loss for ideas and are offering only non-specific issues i.e., “training is not my business,” then provoke them. Ask, “Does this mean officers should stop attending training meetings?” or better yet, “What if officers did stop going to training meetings?”
Lastly, do not allow them to “assume away the problem” by suggesting “it will never happen” or perhaps worse, the unexamined “we already do that!” Your job is to stir the pot enough to generate different points of view or new ideas; ask “what if” or “why not” and see where the conversation goes. Foster shared understanding and ideas will emerge.
Developing an organizational culture that is at once amenable to the entrepreneurial spirit of mission command but responsive to the needs of the institution and its rules is not easy. The deliberative work around agreeing to what change means and does not mean as you review the data from your own organization will provide your team with the confidence necessary to “innovate” successfully.
Learning to Disrupt Ourselves: Creating an Experimental Mode of Operation and How to Create It
The After Action Review. Like morning PT and issuing salutes, the AAR has become just something we do. And for good reason. It has served its purpose remarkably well. But is it optimized for the future battlefield?
While AARs use event-based feedback for evolutionary performance improvement, they are not designed for the discovery learning and experimentation central to multi-domain operations. Overcoming this limitation and harnessing tactical innovation requires creating new tools that complement the incremental performance benefits of AARs with practices from data science and a framework called behaviour-centered design.
Employing the right learning strategy requires first mapping problems along a continuum—something that reflects the concept of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.
While AARs are ideally suited to the “known known” domain of established challenges and solutions, they are fundamentally unable to address the ambiguity of the “unknown unknown” domain surrounding emerging warfare concepts. This transition from addressing the “known known” quadrant to effectively engaging with the “unknown unknown” domain moves from the “predictable path”—with its consistent outcomes, “right” answers, and linear chains of causation—to the “bold path” and the unprecedented frontiers of innovation.
AARs cannot make this transition in their current format because they ask the wrong people the wrong questions, in pursuit of the wrong outcomes, to handle ambiguity. The wrong question: “What should have happened?”
When AARs were introduced, their use of ground-level feedback was transformational. They enhanced training quality and led to objective evaluation benchmarks like the “task, conditions, and standard” format. This success led to widespread adoption, starting with combat training centers and then across the services as a primary driver of organizational learning.
The mass adoption, however, led to overreliance on a tool designed for the “false realities” of training environments instead of the operational complexity of the real world. This reality gap keeps expanding as the pace and technological complexity of modern battlefields increase.
The military has continually acknowledged changing operational environments—like volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity to the more recent idea of wicked problems with “no definable problem statement, no objectively correct answer, and layers of uncertainty and unpredictability.” Yet, our learning tools lag decades behind.
The jump from learning in training environments to complex operational challenges requires identifying and examining a system’s underlying assumptions. This shift can be understood as moving from single-loop assessing if an outcome is achieved and double-loop learning evaluating the validity of the metric to triple-loop learning evaluating the cognitive processes that develop our systems and ask if we have the right targets.
Central to triple-loop learning is challenging fundamental assumptions and unveiling cognitive biases, which requires the use of open-ended questions like “how might we” execute a task or conduct an operation. This line of inquiry prizes divergent thought, stimulates experimentation, and identifies blind spots by focusing on first principles. This is not feasible with current AARs.
These challenges aside, AARs have become underleveraged vestiges of innovation in the eyes of most military leaders. They are less a source of inspiration than final scripted box checks in the training model. Making matters worse, their inability to drive discovery learning has triggered ever-decreasing subordinate buy-in, resulting in a culture more likely to accept the status quo than challenge norms.
The wrong people: “What did you learn?” Outside of combat training centers and some regional training institutes with dedicated observer coach/trainers, traditional AAR audience polling and information collection methods are insufficient to identify the areas requiring the most organizational attention and energy. This shortcoming is especially common in AARs at the battalion level and below, which often descend into a shallow, formal procedures lacking engaged dialogue .
When debate occurs, it often prioritizes key-leader inputs and lacks feedback from the most valuable subordinate components—user feedback from the primary training audience. For example, AARs at the division and corps levels often focus on senior-leader dialogue despite much of the work being done by subordinate staffs and command teams who may not be present.
In cases where subordinate staffs do conduct AARs, they are often informal and not shared with the rest of the organization due to knowledge-management challenges. This lack of sharing amplifies gaps in awareness and shortcomings in collective learning.
Although leader-centric AARs offer forums for decision makers to publicly issue guidance, they risk awareness gaps since leaders rarely participate in every part of training given competing requirements. While leaders can partially mitigate this shortcoming through battlefield circulation, these efforts are generally ad hoc, informal, and rarely capture sufficiently diverse feedback to form a representative sample of all stakeholders.
These shortcomings are compounded by time constraints as AARs are often executed amid competing leadership requirements, limiting the context available to inform effective decision making. Strategies to gather further context during AARs, like guiding discussion with subordinate-generated talking points, still encounter time constraints. The outcome is an environment where the people who know what needs to change are not asked, and those that are asked do not know what to change.
The wrong outcomes: “What should we have done differently?” Another AAR shortcoming is associating successful execution with outcomes like definitive guidance from key leaders on how to “fix” issues. The reason expecting key leaders to issue guidance is so dangerous in experimental-learning environments is exactly why it’s so powerful in other contexts—their responses are experience based.
Decision-making challenges aside, our institutional knowledge management practices often conflate organizational learning with filling vast and soon forgotten shared-drive folders with AAR documents. While units may have terabytes of “lessons observed,” the process of turning these challenges into refined solutions is often difficult, preventing them from becoming shared “lessons learned.”
1. A multi-domain architecture, by definition, has numerous nodes and networks, dramatically expanding the potential surface attack area, Information can be safeguarded on “zero-trust” networks , and there likely are other, more innovative ways to evaluate, filter, or even quarantine corrupted nodes and networks.
2. Multi-domain will increase the ability to adapt. While multi-domain is not a mesh-type network, its functional architecture will be quite complex and include many potential pathways
3. Nodes with the capability to automatically discover, connect, and identify the information needs of other elements; the ability to adapt when elements are degraded or denied; and the ability to integrate new capabilities automatically.
4. There will be no single network or standard required to govern the architecture that could constrain the incorporation of emerging technologies and lock it into technological obsolescence.
5. Developing the ability to translate data, transform waveforms or other types of links, and integrate new nodes in real time without major gateway nodes will be essential to creating an adaptive force design.
6. Multi-domain makes use of recent developments in automation and artificial intelligence and enables rapid adaptation and execution of its functions.
7. These tools will be embedded in every platform and optimized for their function. Identifying the many combat functions of elements of a multi-domain force design, developing and training the learning systems will be critical to the success of a force design.
8. New technology provides the means for dealing with more complex architecture. Building a large, diverse force of disaggregated elements will create concerns over their sustainment and lifecycle costs.
9. Diversity in platforms means diversity in spares, equipment, training, and other operational expenses. However, many multi-domain elements will be smaller than large multifunctional platforms, and their physical and functional systems may be less complex, easier to diagnose, and easier to repair.
10. The military logistics directorates will need to assess and develop new ways to sustain a large, heterogeneous force.