Small Wars Journal

Multi-Domain Battle: Getting the Name Right

Sat, 10/14/2017 - 12:25pm

Multi-Domain Battle: Getting the Name Right

Albert Palazzo

The logic behind the selection of the term multi-domain battle (MDB) is straightforward and is articulated in a paper that is freely available on the US Army’s TRADOC website. Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century [i] states that the US joint force can no longer assume dominance in any domain, the recognised domains being air, land, maritime, space and cyberspace and perhaps the addition of electromagnetic, information and cognitive.  As there are multiple domains and as all are expected to be contested, the term multi-domain battle was a reasonable choice to make by those responsible for the concept’s naming.

However, being reasonable and being useful is not necessarily the same thing. Names not only suggest what something is, they also set limits on what it may become, create unhelpful boundaries on thinking and inhibit discussion on the art of the possible. As soon as a concept is named, options on what it means, how it can be used and for what purpose are closed off. Therefore, those charged with naming MDB may have done the concept a disservice in their selection, no matter how reasonable a name it might seem.

TRADOC, the concept’s main proponent, does not appear to be aware that it has imposed boundaries on thinking regarding MDB. Its on-line MDB Frequently Asked Questions page cautions that the White Paper produced for the concept is not final. Rather, it is to be a point of departure to promote thought and discussion.[ii] Yet, any discussion has already been constrained by the very name given to the concept. In the rush to develop the central idea, MDB’s name has been institutionalised far too early in its development and has thereby closed down other interpretations and possibilities. I’d argue that the concept has fallen into the trap of starting with an answer at to what is needed rather than a more general open-ended question, and this has encouraged thinking along lines that support a predetermined destination.

An example of pre-determined thinking is suggested by an otherwise excellent article in Military Review. To illustrate MDB, the article includes a very traditional looking depiction of regiments and brigades sweeping to their objectives, supported by ECM, cyber and the other force elements.[iii] For many this would be a very comforting illustration as it demonstrates that MDB builds on an operational style that all US Army personnel would recognise. But its choosing highlights a particular way of war and emphasises a particular phase of operations, and perhaps misses the potential for other options that MDB might offer.

By emphasising ‘battle’ in its name, those designing MDB have advantaged Phase 3 of operations over the other phases. They have also disadvantaged strategy. The US knows how to wage war but has difficulty in articulating an achievable strategy to underpin it. In fact, some commentators, notably Andrew Bacevich, argue that the US military no longer understands how to even formulate strategy.[iv] Winning battles is a good thing, but without a sound strategy wars are generally lost. If MDB is to be the way forward for the US military it must then aspire to become more than an instrument of combat; it must also aspire to making sense of the strategic level of war. Perhaps MDB is its current form should be seen as version Mark I. If so, version Mark II should hopefully not be too far behind.

If not the name MDB, what are other options?  A few years ago I published a short article called ‘Compressing the Dimensions of War’, in which I argued that in the future the only domain that will matter is the land.[v] This is because, as range increases and precision becomes more accurate, land based missiles will come to dominate the sea and air out to thousands of kilometres. For example, one could say that the sea in the future should be treated, effectively, as wet land. I also prefer to consider the land as the sole domain because it reflects a holistic approach to war. Technology allowed humanity to operate in alien dimensions. Now technology is compelling war to return to the only domain that really matters – the one where humans live - the land.

As I thought more on the subject I concluded that a single domain might comfortable define effects that are physical in nature but not those that are of a cognitive kind. The physical domains (land, sea, air and space) were the original ones but the cognitive domains are also not strictly new because the target is the human mind, or as Clausewitz would have recognised, human will. Thus, there is nothing really new in any of the currently identified domains as none have modified the nature of war.

I also suspect that as technology improves, the cognitive domains will grow in importance and those who work in information operations may be the shock troops of the future. This will be at the expense of the physical domains that where the emphasis in on more traditional kinetic effects. I am not advocating in the slightest that future war will not involve violence and destruction, only that the cognitive domains will no longer be an afterthought. Technological advances will also lead to the identification of additional domains as will changes in definition of what constitutes a domain. For example, a strong case can already be made for a social media domain, one that will likely grow in importance as the effective targeting of the individual is realised through the mastery of big data. The potential number of domains is boundless and if too many are identified will differentiations between domains any have useful meaning?

In Australia the Vice Chief of Defence Force (VCDF) has publicly expressed his dislike of the name MDB and spoken instead on his preference to define the needs of the future in terms of an integrated force rather than a multi-domain one.[vi] The VCDF, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, has suggested that multi-domain thinking imposes limitations and that it represents faddism. For Australia, this is more than just a disagreement over word choice. Since the Australian Defence Force is much smaller than the US military it needs to obtain maximum efficiency from limited resources it has. One domain, an integrated one, could possible provide that efficiency.

Lately, I have begun to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter and the name is nothing more than a distraction. What we are talking about here is war, one of humanities earliest forms of social expression. Applying a label does not add much to a debate on what war’s future will look like and how one will fight.  But what I do know is that to deliver a tactical or operational solution to how forces fight in the future is not enough. MDB must also inform the strategic level of war if something remarkable and useful is to eventuate. It must also consider the changes to human society that may come about as the 4th Industrial Age[vii] unfolds and it must appreciate the values of the millennial generation whose members will soon move to the fore. The United States needs something that can do more than just fight and win battles; it must create a way of war that achieves desired political outcomes and contributes to the making of a better peace.  In sum, it must win wars. MDB is a start but something far more ambitious is needed. It is time to truly open the thinking.

End Notes

[i] See Another useful document is a list of FAQs found on another TRADOC page at

[iii] Robert B Brown, ‘The Indo-Asia Pacific and the Multi-Domain Battle Concept,’ Military Review, March 2017 at (accessed 11 May 2017).

[iv] C J Polychroniou, ‘The Anatomy of US Military Policy: An Interview with Andrew Bacevich,’ 6 December 2016, Global Policy at (accessed 13 July 2017).

[v] Albert Palazzo, ‘Compressing the Dimensions of War,’ in Land Power Forum, at (accessed at 4 November 2016).

[vi] VADM Ray Griggs, ‘Towards One Domain,’ Address to ASPI: Building the Integrated Force, 3 June 2017, at (accessed 8 July 2017).

[vii] On this see, Klaus Schwab, ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ World Economic Forum, at (accessed 14 October 2017).


Categories: Multi-Domain Battle - MDB

About the Author(s)

Dr. Albert Palazzo is the Director of the Australian Army’s War Research Centre. His Ph.D. is from The Ohio State University and his thesis was published as Seeking Victory on The Western Front: The British Army & Chemical Warfare in World War I. He has published widely on the history of the Australian Army and the contemporary character of war. His major works include The Australian Army: A History of its Organisation, 1901-2001; Moltke to bin Laden: The Relevance of Doctrine in Contemporary Military Environment, The Australian Army in Vietnam, The Future of War Debate in Australia, and Forging Australian Land Power, A Primer. His current research is on the effect of resource limits and climate change on the future character of war and technological advances and the rising superiority of the defence.


From the concluding paragraph of our article above:


The United States needs something that can do more than just fight and win battles; it must create a way of war that achieves desired political outcomes and contributes to the making of a better peace. In sum, it must win wars. MDB is a start but something far more ambitious is needed. It is time to truly open the thinking.


As we grapple with the idea of what (a) "a desired political outcome" might be and what (b) "winning" and "a better peace" might look like -- this, in a time of global competition -- let me suggest that we go back to the Old Cold War and NSC-68; wherein, one might suggest, these such matters (specifically, from the perspective of U.S.) were (1) last properly considered and were (2) last properly articulated:


II. Fundamental Purpose of the United States:

The fundamental purpose of the United States is laid down in the Preamble to the Constitution: ". . . to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." In essence, the fundamental purpose is to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.

Three realities emerge as a consequence of this purpose: Our determination to maintain the essential elements of individual freedom, as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights; our determination to create conditions under which our free and democratic system can live and prosper; and our determination to fight if necessary to defend our way of life, for which as in the Declaration of Independence, "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." ...

VI. U.S. Intentions and Capabilities--Actual and Potential


Our overall policy at the present time may be described as one designed to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish. It therefore rejects the concept of isolation and affirms the necessity of our positive participation in the world community.


Next, compare the above (and note certain similarities) to testimony before the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate, by former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, on Tuesday, May 9, 2017:


... America has always been about its principles. Its history has been the record of its struggle to realize these principles at home and to advance them abroad. ...

Political democracy and free markets were at the core of the rules-based international order that America and Europe created in the aftermath of World War II. And every war that America has fought since that time has been fought in the name of advancing the cause of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. America has never accepted the idea that it had to choose between its democratic principles and its interests. This is a false choice. Advancing freedom and democracy in the world also advances American interests. For a world that reflects these principles, is more likely to be a world in which America -- and Americans -- can thrive and prosper.


Last, and again as per our author above's "desired political outcomes," "a better peace" and "winning" requirements, consider the following from Christopher Layne's "Rethinking American Grand Strategy: Hegemony or Balance of Power in the Twenty-First Century" -- wherein he, likewise, reflects on (a) the Old Cold War, (b) the enduring guidance of NSC-68:


Even after the Cold War's onset, American preeminence, not containment of the Soviet Union, was the dominant force behind U.S. grand strategy. This was made clear in 1950, in the important National Security Council paper NSC-68, which laid the intellectual ground work for a policy of "militarized" and "global" containment. NSC-68 states that (1) the purpose of American power is "to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish" and that (2) the strategy of preponderance was "a policy [the United States] would probably pursue even if there was no Soviet Union."

END QUOTE (Go to the top of the second column of Page 9.)

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

With the demise of the Soviet Union cir. 1990, and with advent of such concepts as "universal western values," the western version of "the end of history" and "the overwhelming appeal of our (the western) way of life," etc., the U.S./the West came to believe that our "desired political outcome," our "better peace," our idea of "winning" -- as reflected in such documents as NSC-68 -- these could, with few exceptions, be achieved (a) without fighting (most importantly, in the realm of "ideas"), (b) without subduing and (c) without forcefully "transforming" (more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines) the governments and populations of the other states and societies of the world.

Now that these such post-Cold War concepts (see "universal western values," etc., above) have largely been disproved, we must face the fact that (a) fighting, (b) subduing and (c) forcefully transforming (more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines) -- other governments and populations -- this, indeed, is our post-Cold War fate/our present "order of the day." This, if we are to "win" (to wit: if we are to fulfill "the fundamental purpose of the United States;" which is "laid down in the Preamble to the Constitution").

With these "desired political outcomes"/these "winning" and "better peace" requirements now in the forefront of our minds, and admitting now that this will be an uphill/global competition battle rather than the downhill "end of history" slide that we envisioned at the end of the Old Cold War, only now -- IN THIS SUCH ADVERSE, CONTESTED CONTEXT -- to properly contemplate when, where and how we might pursue our political objective noted in NSC-68. This in what is essentially, once again, a global competition for power, influence and control arena/a global battle of state and societal organizing ideas.

(And thus where, much as in the Old Cold War, the advance of one's own state and societal organizing ideas and institutions [for the U.S./the West: those of "market-democracy"] best describes [a] what "winning" actually looks like and, thus, [b] how such things as "multi-domain battle" should actually be conceived?)


Thu, 01/13/2022 - 11:12am

In reply to by Warlock


Tue, 10/24/2017 - 2:13pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

That's because MDB has little to do with war. MDB is a reaction to the Air-Sea Battle concept published by the Air Force and the Navy in 2010 (now watered down into JAM-GC), in conjunction with a forecast strategic shift to the Pacific. MDB is to show the U.S. can't wage war without the United States Army in the vanguard (as opposed to securing airfields and anchorages) -- the "battle" is not for terrain, but for a proportion of the DoD budget.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 10/20/2017 - 9:02am

My recommendation to those assembled at the MDB workshop hosted by the Marine Corps University was that any effort limited to the currently recognized physical domains, and confined to "battle" would do little more than move us from the box we are currently in, into a new box that was little different.

Instead I recommended that we combine the type of thinking expressed in the Chinese white paper on "Unrestricted Warfare" with the sound mission command principles captured in USMC doctrine by General Al Gray as "Maneuver Warfare" and create something unconstrained by any box or domain: "Unrestricted Maneuver Warfare."

Frankly, it was an idea too big for the room.


Mon, 10/16/2017 - 10:56am

Dr. Palazzo,

I enjoyed your article and agree with a lot of your points. Setting limits also reminded me of Unrestricted Warfare published in 1999. Your points about pre-determined thinking and strategy are also accurate.

1. One recent update to JP 3-0 Joint Operations removes the six-phase joint combat operation model and depicts six general groups of military activities that typically comprise a single joint combat operation.

2. Unrestricted Warfare offers an "extended domain view" and assesses "domains delineated by visible or invisible boundaries which are acknowledged by the international community lose effectiveness". There is also a full section entitled: "Supra-Domain Combinations".

"As with its placement in our discussion, the concept of supra-domain combinations is an indispensable link in the groundbreaking line of thought about going beyond limits. Just as aircraft had to break the sound barrier before they could fly at supersonic speeds, those who are engaged in warfare must break out of the confines of domains if they are to be able to enter a state of freedom in thinking about warfare."

Additionally, "Supra-Tier Combinations" involve combining all levels of conflict into each campaign.

3. Additionally, I would take the land domain further and specify cities. Megacities and dense urban areas etc. Definitely a "hot topic".

4. "Maneuvering" in the cognitive domain is crucial and has implications for shaping and preventing conflict in addition to winning.

5. Article point: "The potential number of domains is boundless and if too many are identified will differentiations between domains any have useful meaning?"

Agree and believe the joint "holistic view of the OE" is a good model of INTEGRATION, which has implications for the force as the Australians have accurately assessed.

6. An integrated approach to achieving desired geopolitical outcomes has eluded us for awhile now...