Multi-domain operations, at the core, recognise the six domains the military operates in – the electromagnetic spectrum, space, air, land, maritime, and the human domain – and the vulnerabilities and opportunities that exist in each.
They call for a more inclusive understanding of these domains and networking of effects in two or more domains towards mission objectives. Because of advances in technology in every domain, war has become even more complex. As a result, the established paradigms of combined arms and joint warfare alone are not enough to deal with this complexity.
An exercise offered a glimpse of what the multi-domain operations concept will look in practice like when applied on the battlefield. The 1st Infantry Division, for example, achieved some success in its ability to rapidly erode enemy defenses through the integrated use of fires, aviation attacks, tactical deceptions, vertical envelopment by light infantry, and armored penetration.
These complementary tools, when applied rapidly and in close network link, exchanged mass for tempo and forced the enemy into multiple dilemmas across multiple domains. What follows is an explanation of how the division accomplished this, what we learned, and how we got better along the way.
In our initial command post exercise, the division commander challenged us to reframe how we defined risk to the force. Received experience from previous Warfighter exercises suggested that the most dangerous of all courses of action in the face of this peer enemy would be to do nothing, or worse, to halt and await favorable conditions to be set while our very limited armor capability sat within range of the enemy’s long-range artillery.
In this fight, audacity—when properly seasoned with a prudent understanding of the risk—is a critical combat multiplier. Must decide up front “how we would enter the digital battlespace”; how we would identify its forward edge; and once in it, how we would proceed audaciously with the simultaneous commitment of all forms of contact that the division could generate. Once in the digital battlespace we realized that the most dangerous and risky thing we could do was to stop attacking.
Our goal was to ensure we were prepared to exploit this window of opportunity either with the timely application of attack aviation or through the insertion of light infantry forces who would then move, often many kilometers, to block the exits to these underground facilities at the opportune moment.
Operational frameworks are difficult to but in concept, yet they are fundamental to a logical plan. Divisions utilized operational frameworks as a digital tool to clearly visualize and describe the application of combat power in time, space, and purpose. It provided a logical digital architecture and foundation on which the subsequent detail, resource, permission, responsibility, effort, operation, concept, and task were built. Through a clearly articulated concept of operations, the division ensured that actions that it and the brigade combat teams executed were in pursuit of the commander’s end state.
During planning, dividing an area of operations into parts categorized as deep, close, support, and consolidation only explains the plan by time and space. Meanwhile, assigning operations as either decisive, shaping, or sustaining and units as the main or supporting efforts explains actions by purpose. Combining all three frameworks achieved what the division and brigade commanders needed: to explain actions and responsibilities in time, space, and purpose.
This is also where a strategic perspective is essential, but remember good tactics cannot overcome bad strategy. And one of the most compelling elements of this concept may be the least appreciated and understood. Multi-domain operations forces planners and commanders to think higher in the levels of war because it requires the networking of effects far outside their component, service, and domain.
This requires a strategic perspective that is challenging to acquire. Strategic design’s focus goes far beyond a region or joint operations area. The primary reason for this geographical spread is that the problem and/or solution may exist far outside the confines of a distinct region or area of operations.
Strategists must be able to recognise global system linkages, understand the effective use of instruments of power, and evaluate actions that impact the long-term attainment and preservation of force objectives.
For example, a multi-domain operation where the objective is to disrupt an adversary’s command-and-control network could combine networked actions in the electromagnetic, air, land, sea, space, and human domains, which would require a host of entities to work together at a very high level.
“Pentagon’s AI Center is Developing Tech that Could Revolutionize Disaster Response”
In the several years since the Pentagon started bringing artificial intelligence to the battlefield, the algorithms still need human help.
The technology is getting better at identifying people, cars, and other objects in drone video. There is also promise in other AI applications, like predicting when parts on planes will break.
“We’re still in the process of teaching the algorithms to be able to predict what’s there from the data and be as reliable as we would like it to be or as reliable as our teams of people doing that.”
“Those tools are there. We’re starting to use them and experiment with them. “ In general, they’re at the point yet where we’re confident in them operating without having a person following through on it, but that’s where we’re going.”
“We’re at the point where we really have to get them out there to start understanding how tough are these things, how robust, and how are they going to integrate with the fleet, what kind of policies are going to surround these systems when you start talking about potentially separating weapons from humans.
“So we’re cautious on that side, but we’re very aggressive in getting it out there, so we’re trying to run these parallel paths and illuminate these challenges and start resolving them in parallel.”
While Air Combat Command is best known for its high-performance fighter jets, there are also drone programs and intelligence centers that process the video and other data collected from high above the battlefield.
Artificial intelligence “a big part of our future and you’ll continue to see that expanded.”
“You have to teach it and it learns and it’s learning, but it hasn’t learned yet to the point where you still don’t have to go back and have supervisors looking over the shoulder of the analyst to say, ‘Yeah, those really are cars.’ Or ‘those signals really are green’.”
“If you’ve ever experienced wildfires or heard about them, you know they move quite fast over the course of several days. And keeping track of where they are and where they are headed is a real challenge for first responders in disaster situations.”
Defense has troves of sensor data, digital video data, digital infrared data and sonar data—all of which are attractive environments for machine-learning algorithms. Through this disaster-relief initiative, the plan is to fly airborne sensors over the disaster area collect full-motion video data of the activity.
At the same time, they are going to be automatically using a computer vision algorithm to detect which frames of the video have active wildfire.
“We believe we will be able to cut significant time distributed over an app. “By switching to this airborne sensor, applying an AI computer vision algorithm and converting that to geolocation data that is useful for a map application we are also developing, we’ll really be able to make an impact for our users in a short time frame.”
One area expected to make an important impact is with sensor digital battlespace that generally collect “an extraordinary amount of data” and usually require humans to follow them around and support the work.
In the case of airborne video imagery, the services have been growing at a rapid pace to try to match the volume of video imagery data they are collecting, but it’s quite challenging to keep up.
“If we did not have access to this automation path, we would never keep up with the data daily that we are doing this with.”
Technology advances will eliminate most, if not all, current operational constraints. The emergence of this new generation of aircraft will satisfy the requirements of persistence, precision and time contraction across the full spectrum of defense missions.
The significant increase in endurance will offer “occupation of the airspace” over a target and its digital battlespace, as time on station will be counted in days and no longer in hours. However, it should be noted that “There is nothing more manned than an unmanned system.” Therefore, the introduction of automation will first affect data analysis, then assistance in flying multiple aircraft.
“Can swarming drones map battles in real time?”
With air and ground robots, DARPA tested autonomous systems built to scout and map an urban environment. The swarm maps the neighborhood below, with buzzing and plotting, sharp angles and short orbits, creating in real time a blanket of surveillance over the selected objective.
Quadcopters are pieces in a greater whole, an incremental step to providing an expansive robot’s-eye view to humans fighting on the ground working with ground robots to identify locations of interest and then create a perimeter around that objective, in a process DARPA likens to “the way a firefighting crew establishes a boundary around a burning building.”
Firefighting looms large in the modern conception of swarm tasks. A project was launched for drone swarms to model wildfires, with lessons applicable to military and battlefield uses. Finding danger and plotting a path for humans through it is an ideal task for robots.
In an exercise, the swarm had to find a mock city center, an objective inside that building, and then provide situational awareness over the area in runs that lasted 30 minutes. The program wants to create in real life as close to the kind of real-time tactical information a person might find in a strategy video game.
The schedule is to have new exercises and new updates with the goal is for swarms of up to 250 drones to operate autonomously, providing real-time information to humans who can then move through the battlefield confident that the area has at least been robotically scouted and monitored.
Building tactics from the new capabilities, and machines specific to swarm-human teaming, will have to come later.
It’s worth looking at the swarms as a possible component of future battlefields, and when designing technologies to meet the needs of the now, keeping an open mind to how swarms might change or hinder those same functions.
The challenge of mapping digital battlespace is further complicated by the presence of underground facilities throughout the exercise’s area of operations. How troops effectively employed underground facilities to deny coalition forces what has traditionally been our greatest asymmetric advantage—the ability to shape and attrite OPFOR prior to the advance of the main body.
We observed a very carefully calibrated set of triggers for the OPFOR decision to uncover its artillery from underground facilities and a period of extreme vulnerability as the OPFOR exited those facilities—often in single file.
1. How is Multi domain operations both a joint and Army-driven concept?
You can’t effectively prosecute a campaign using MDO if it’s not joint. Different domains can be applied to create the window of opportunity. Contrary to the sequencing we may have been used to with Air Land Battle, where Air Force might go in initially to prep an objective followed by a significant campaign of ground maneuver, the opposite may be true in the future with Army effectively securing airspace and waterways by long-range precision fires or air missile defense. It’s turning everything on its head. At different times a certain domain or multiple domains can be leveraged in order to create space for another service or another capability. That validates the joint concept of all of this.
2. What does the work of a battalion- or even company-sized element look like in 2028, when much of this concept should be implemented? And who’s job looks the most different from today?
It’s fair to say in the future MDO is at the tactical level. The company, battalion level maneuver is still about shoot, move, communicate. It’s still about combined arms at the very lowest tactical level. What MDO gives you is the opportunity to maneuver in the way we have trained for decades.
3. How do you rely on the tactical level to assess and employ all domains when necessary?
We need tactical-level commanders to see opportunities for all domains to be integrated or leverage the benefits of other domains in their tactical space. But in the end a battalion will maneuver like a battalion. It’s more dispersed and leaders are calling on support from a much wider area.
4. How does the operational force adopt MDO?
After we get these MDTFs out into theater and then geographic combatant commanders will recognize the virtues that they bring to their capacity and as we learn and as we go through total digital battlefield analysis. So what you’ll see is that we’ll start building out those echelons we’ve talked about. You’ll need to have a theater fires command, you’ll need to have an operational fires command. You’ll need to have network capacity at echelon. You’ll need to have access to space assets at echelon.
5. How does organisational learning validate MDO design?
To the degree resources present themselves validates the concept. We’re already doing that. Theater fires command is one we’re prioritizing. Getting capacity back into the theater that is accessible is all part of the sequencing of decisions we have.
6. Can you expand on the theater fires command concept?
The Air Force and Army are well aligned in that this future design is going to have to be increasingly joint, we’re talking 10 years out. Any sensor, any shooter, through any command and control node in near-real time, with sufficient authorities.
7. How can you source your sensor data into combat network capacity?
Data can be accessed by any shooter, you’re consolidating your sensors. And the right shooter through the right C2 node can be sorted or synthesized through artificial intelligence, as an example. So now you can imagine that’s a more information age approach.
8. Is there a single process by which a commander can call up shooters from land-based missiles, ships, submarines, aircraft?
We can use AI to help decide what’s the most effective weapons system, effective tool given the priorities of targets that might have been previously identified. The benefits of this is it gives you the opportunity if targets present themselves to better quickly respond with a different tool. Imagine a scout on the reverse side of a tactical slope. That soldier knows they need to go across that terrain feature to somewhere else. They have certain organic assets to be able to determine what’s on the other side of that slope.
9. How is the scout going to get access to air fact data without waiting for a direct point-to-point communication with that aircraft?
If that data can reside in a place that you can get common access to you can imagine there are sensors that are ubiquitous. They’re all over the battlefield. So if you synthesize that, you can imagine that you can get a rich set of data that all can access in one manner or another. You won’t necessarily have access to that all the time. Bandwidth may be limited. And as a distributed organization we may have to operate off the net for a period of time, maybe go dark. Not unlike the way submarines operate now. They go off the net for a period of time. When you come back up you may have to do a download adjust your algorithms, adjust your data. You’re going to have to balance both cloud computing and computing at the edge.
10. Where do Army Futures Command and the Cross Functional Teams fit into the MDO work?
It takes this description of how you’re going to fight and make it a reality across the enterprise. Futures Command has the responsibility to choreograph across the enterprise what changes need to be made over time in order to make that a reality by 2028. That’s why you have to have a modernization strategy coordinated with the concept. After you write strategy then you have to have annual modernization guidance to adjust as you go.