Small Wars Journal

Changing the Strategic Dialogue: New Definitions for Landpower and Land Control

Thu, 08/29/2013 - 6:22am

Changing the Strategic Dialogue: New Definitions for Landpower and Land Control

Jeremy Sauer and Michael Kaiser


As U.S. Armed Forces exit from more than a decade of war, the services must respond to new strategic guidance, changes in the operational environment, and emerging technologies and refine, or even redefine, their contributions to the Nation.  Like the other services, the U.S. Army maintains a wide array of responsibilities which go well beyond winning the nation’s wars.1  While the maritime and air components account for their range of contributions through their description of sea and air power and control, the Army has yet to communicate its full utility due to limited definitions of landpower and land control.  These definitions foster misunderstanding by artificially limiting options decisionmakers and military planners have available to achieve national, theater strategic, and operational objectives.  Until the Army correctly defines and communicates what landpower and land control provide, the development of strategy and policy and the application of ways and means towards solving future problems will suffer.  This paper proposes new definitions for landpower and land control to change the strategic dialogue.

Domain Power and Domain Control

The Army, as the Nation’s preeminent land force, is the largest provider of landpower.  While the U.S. Marine Corps and special operations forces also provide landpower, the Army is the proponent for defining the term.  Currently, the Army defines landpower as “the ability – by threat, force, or occupation – to gain, sustain, and exploit control over land, resources, and people.”2  This definition contains combat-oriented words with negative connotations, but which also effectively communicates the Army’s ability to assure friends, deter aggression, and defeat adversaries.  However, this definition does not address the Army’s contribution to the joint force or the broader role it plays in advancing America’s interests.  Although not explicit in the definition, landpower does include the ability to establish and maintain stable environments, set conditions for political and economic development, and secure bases from which joint forces can influence and dominate the air, land, and maritime domains.3  Acknowledging this linkage to elements of national power and other domains is essential to broadening decisionmakers’ understanding of the value of ground forces.

The Army has a unique capacity to apply landpower to control the land domain.4  Joint doctrine currently defines land control operations as “the employment of land forces, supported by maritime and air forces (as appropriate), to control vital areas of the land domain.  Such operations are conducted to establish local military superiority in land operational areas.”5  This definition fails to portray the true inter relationship between land, air, and maritime forces.  Land forces are not only supported by air and maritime forces, but support other domain forces and create effects in other domains, including the newly-recognized cyberspace domain.  For example, Army forces can seize and retain key areas impacting the other domains, such as airfields, terrain proximate to sea lines of communication, and cyberspace infrastructure.  Additionally, the scope of land control is not limited to local superiority within an operational area.  Land control exists on a spectrum.  Recognizing the relationship between land control and operations in the other domains and the different levels at which it is achieved is crucial to understanding its application towards operational and strategic objectives.

Consider how other services define power and control.  The Department of the Navy recognizes that sea power is applied by multiple entities to achieve more than just military objectives.  “Sea power is the sum of a nation’s capabilities to implement its interests in the ocean, by using the ocean areas for political, economic, and military activities in peace or war to attain national objectives – with principal components of sea power being naval power, ocean science, ocean industry, and ocean commerce.”6  Sea power provides a holistic approach to advancing the nation’s interests.  The Army must note the Navy’s catholic description of sea power as it redefines landpower. 

Although sea power is exerted by more than the military arm of national power, the Navy’s qualities make it the only force capable of controlling the seas. Historically, sea control was described as “the condition in which one has freedom of action to use the sea for one’s own purposes in specified areas and for specified periods of time and, where necessary, to deny or limit its use to the enemy....  Sea control comprises control of the surface and sub-surface environments and of the airspace above the area of control.”7  Although dated, this view recognizes the maritime domain’s three-dimensional aspects.8   Most recently, the Navy recognizes that “…sea control requires capabilities in all aspects of the maritime domain, including space and cyberspace.”9  With the advent of new technologies, sea control extends beyond the third dimension, something land control has yet to address.

The Department of the Air Force also views air power as multi-dimensional.  “Air power is the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.”10  This definition spans across all levels of war and recognizes the importance of taking advantage of all atmospheric dimensions.11  This definition also implies that any service or agency is capable of employing its capabilities to dominate the air domain.12  Compared to landpower’s seemingly limited scope, the description of air power highlights its broad applicability, which aids decision-makers when deciding which capabilities best achieve desired outcomes.

To the joint force, air control occurs in varying degrees.  Air control may be total air supremacy or the lesser degrees of air superiority and air parity.  Respectively, these conditions range from achieving complete control of the air, to a state that allows the conduct of operations by land, maritime, and air forces in time and space without intrusion, to a state where a force only has control of the air above friendly positions.13  Depending on mission requirements and the operational environment, air control provides land, maritime, and air forces many benefits, such as increased protection and mobility.  Further, a spectrum of air control acknowledges that domain superiority is never guaranteed due to variables such as weather, basing, logistical constraints, proliferation, and utilization of sophisticated capabilities by many actors – a valid point for which land control must account.

Figure 1.

Definitions of domain power and control must inform decisionmakers of available options.  The maritime and air components clearly articulate how their capabilities are applied in a unified action partner environment through multiple domains to achieve strategic, operational, and tactical success.14  The land component’s description of what landpower provides the nation and how land control affects operations in other domains is inadequate given its actual contributions.  The inadequacies of current definitions of landpower and land control compared to air and sea power and control are included in figure 1.   The Army must challenge and change the strategic dialogue to ensure that an accurate understanding of landpower and land control is realized to appropriately shape strategy and policy. 

Adapting Landpower and Land Control for the Future

Much like air and sea power, landpower encompasses many capabilities in multiple domains to achieve a range of objectives.  To illustrate its full utility, landpower is redefined as the ability to contribute to diplomatic, information, military, and economic efforts to create opportunities on land towards the achievement of national objectives.  Landpower is applied to shape and influence people, militaries, and governments, and to gain and maintain control over land and resources through the exploitation of all domains.  Viewed this way, landpower takes on a universal context which better supports the development and application of ways and means aimed at achieving political ends.

Landpower is applied by all elements of national power as a concerted effort to achieve objectives that extend beyond fighting and winning the nation’s wars.  Although many organizations can exert landpower, other services and interagency partners rely heavily on military ground forces to enable and support their operations on land.  The depth and range of capabilities of the Army makes this support possible.  Additionally, the Army’s scalability allows it to apply landpower to support strategic, operational, and tactical, objectives.  One unique contribution military ground forces provide through the application of landpower is their ability to conduct land control.

Like air control, land control exists at different levels and provides many advantages.  To recognize domain interdependencies and the uncertainty of full domain control, land control is redefined as the degree to which freedom of action is achieved within and surrounding the land domain to include the air and space above, the cyberspace throughout, the adjacent littorals, and the subterranean environment.15 Land control enables and is enabled by operations in other domains to command vital areas of the land domain in time and space.  Land control ranges from land supremacy, to land superiority, to land parity.  With this new definition, land control aligns with the joint force’s construct of full-spectrum superiority.16

Any combination of the land control conditions can exist simultaneously within a given joint operations area (that is, a joint task force may have land supremacy within part of its joint operations area while simultaneously only having land parity in another part).  Land supremacy is that degree of dominance wherein the opposing force is incapable of effective interference of friendly action at any location within a given area at any time.  Land superiority is that degree of dominance of one force over another that permits the conduct of land operations at a given area and time without prohibitive interference.  Land parity is that degree of dominance where none of any opposing forces can assume freedom of action within a given area and time regardless of resources committed.  This scale of land control compliments those in the air and maritime domains.

Like sea and air control, land control involves an interdependent, multi-dimensional approach while recognizing the temporal and physical aspects of domain dominance.  The overlapping of multiple domains within an operational area creates interdependencies among land and other domain forces.  For example, air and sea ports, computer networks, and satellite launch stations all exist on land; a requirement to control these assets and operate from them necessitates ground forces.  Just as ground forces support maritime and air operations, other services produce reinforcing impacts on land by providing mutual support and essential capabilities such as intelligence, fires, and protection.


The Army must change the definitions of landpower and land control to establish a firm conceptual baseline from which national and military strategies are developed.  Failure to redefine these terms risks applying inappropriate ways and means towards strategic ends.  Properly defined, landpower and land control enable the services and interagency partners to provide multi-domain solutions to security concerns.

Redefining landpower and land control will not change ground forces’ ability to achieve decisive outcomes on behalf of the nation.  However, appropriately defining these terms will aid decisionmakers as they attempt to meet the strategic ends.  Landpower is a vital tool to furthering U.S. interests.  It extends beyond controlling land, resources, and people.  Land control has both physical and temporal aspects and affords multi-domain solutions to solving complex problems.  It is more than controlling land areas with the support from other services.  Redefining landpower and land control is necessary to accurately reflect ground forces contributions and to ensure decisionmakers and military planners apply the best solution possible, in full consideration of all options available.

End Notes

1.  The Army is responsible for:  Preserving the peace and security, and providing for the defense of the U.S.; supporting national policies; implementing national objectives; overcoming any nations that imperil the peace and security of the U.S.; organizing, training, and equipping for prompt and sustained combat incident to operations on land; preparing land forces for prosecution of war to address joint mobilization plans; and expanding peacetime components to meet the needs of war.  10 USC § 3062 - Policy; composition; organized peace establishment, <> (10 May 2013).

2.  U.S. Department of the Army, ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations (Washington D.C.:  Department of the Army, 2012), Glossary-4.

3.  U.S. Department of the Army, ADP 1, The Army (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 2012), 1-4.

4.  Land domain:  Land domain is the land area of the Earth’s surface ending at the high water mark.  U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-31, Command and Control for Joint Land Operations (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 2010), I-4.

5.  Ibid, GL-8.

6.  William L. Brackin, Navy Orientation (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 1.

7.  Ministry of Defence, British Maritime Doctrine (BR1806), 3rd ed. (Norwich, U.K.: by command of the Defence Council, 2004), 41–42.

8.  The maritime domain is defined as the oceans, seas, bays, estuaries, islands, coastal areas and the airspace above these, including the littorals.  U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-32, Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 2010), I-2.

9.  U.S. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington D.C.: Department of the Navy, 2007), 13.

10.  U.S. Department of the Air Force, Air Force Doctrinal Document 1 (Washington D.C.: Department of the Air Force, 2011), 11.

11.  Johnny R. Jones, “Air Power,” Air & Space Power Journal, <> (02 April 2013).

12.  The air domain is described as the atmosphere, beginning at the Earth’s surface, extending to the altitude where its effects upon operations become negligible.  U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-30, Command and Control for Joint Air Operations (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 2010), I-1.

13.  Ibid.

14.  Unified action partners are those military forces, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and elements of the private sector with whom Army forces plan, coordinate, synchronize, and integrate during the conduct of operations.

15.  Freedom of action, a common operating precept in JP 3-0, when placed in the context of land control, is the ability of ground forces to execute operations in time and space without undue influence by others.

16.  Full-spectrum superiority is the cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains and information environment (which includes cyberspace) that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference.  See Joint Publication 1-02, p. 127.

About the Author(s)

Captain Michael J. Kaiser, U.S. Army, is currently a military concept writer at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia.  He holds a B.S. from the United States Military Academy and an M.S. from Missouri University of Science and Technology.  During his career, CPT Kaiser served with the 864th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy), the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), and the 7th Engineer Battalion (Combat).  His experience includes three combat tours in Afghanistan.

Major Jeremy Sauer, U.S. Army, is a strategist at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia.  He holds a B.A. from Boise State University and an M.S. from the Colorado School of Mines.  During his career, MAJ Sauer served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade.  His experience includes three combat tours in Iraq.



Mon, 09/30/2013 - 1:59pm

Not to be overly reductionist, but the very presence of the word "occupation" in the current definition captures quite succinctly the scope of land power. Unless, of course, the meaning of that word has been somehow limited to physical contact below the belt, i.e. "I am occupying my seat on the plane" is identical in degree and kind to "the US is occupying Germany".

If that is the case, then the authors are right, a more nuanced (i.e. spelled out to the point of explicit enumeration of all cases and circumstances) definition may be required to serve as guidance. I need not explore any further the disturbing size of the hole in historical and political education that such a definition is destined to fill; in the end, inadequately.

Sarcasm aside, my impression of this article is that it attempts to update the definition of land power to mirror the Navy definition. I am not sure that the Navy definition is born of a deep philosophical reflection on the scope of sea power, but given that sea power doesn't deal primarily with human populations, I can see a desire to refine it for relevance. The implied growing irrelevance of land power as the wage of a poor definition is not a thesis I can buy into. In other words, redefining to fit modern usage is one thing, that's fashion. Redefining as a guard against operational irrelevance is superficial, as the source of such irrelevance wouldn't start or end with the definition.

Your proposed definition of landpower is better than the existing one, especially the recognition that all domains intersect onto the land domain, so this doesn't come across as Army or Marine centric.

Domains in the military generally refer to physical domains that are, or can be, contested over. The proposal to add human domain as a new domain is still being debated, but I think an argument can be made that the human domain is contested over, but for now I'll stick with the land domain.

Take domains out of the realm of conflict and war, and they are no longer physical (or otherwise) domains that are contested over, and this is when both the existing and proposed definitions fall short. Do we need "landpower" to, or contribute to, shaping and influencing people, militaries, and governments, and to control the land and resources when we're not in a conflict? If we do, what does this landpower look like?

Or do we need to develop cooperative efforts with all our partners to avoid creating the perception of dominating a particular domain with "our" power. What would you call this effort where we're deliberately off loading power to pursue a condition that is perhaps more effective over time than the persistent wielding of power? Does the land domain and the associated landpower concept necessarily have value in peace beyond preparing for contingencies?


Tue, 09/10/2013 - 11:53am

I'm not persuaded that there is really anything at issue with the given definition of landpower. It seems to me that the joint aspect of landpower is implicit in the definition unless one chooses to willfuly think otherwise. The real challenge for the Army leadership is in understanding and articulating how the Army is necessary for vital and important national interests. This requires the ability to describe negative aims (i.e., prevent bad outcomes) as well as describing positive aims (i.e., achieving decisive goals). The former reflects the political appetite for land expeditions of any significant size and duration and the continuing need for a robust albeit smaller Army to support national interests through the land domain. It seems to me that redefining the term "landpower" conjures up thoughts of smoke and mirrors in the minds of policymakers, et al., instead of coming across as a serious engagement.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 08/30/2013 - 6:17pm

I'm sorry, this is little more than big army corporate propaganda.

The cold war rationale for sustaining a large ground force in peace is 25 years behind us. The conflicts of choice (clearly not "wars") of the past 12 years are no longer interesting to us. It is time for the Army to do its peace time duty and get small.