Small Wars Journal

Visualizing Multi-Domain Battle 2030-2050

Mon, 07/17/2017 - 3:43am

Visualizing Multi-Domain Battle 2030-2050

Romeo Ayalin II and Megan Brady

The future battlefields of 2050 and onward will be complex, spanning physical and virtual domains and engaging and fighting enemies in ways we never have before. These battlefields will include various types of new threats, forcing the military to develop innovative strategies to protect our homeland. To be successful on the future multi-domain battlefield, the military will need to capitalize on the convergence of technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and big data, to pursue partnerships with the private sector, and to allow for new roles of leadership. The military as we know it today needs to refine and transform to serve and defend the United States and its allies in a more connected and complex future. The military needs to understand the challenges inherent to the rapidly changing battlefield domains, to undertake the exploitation of technology and to establish a grand strategy. With the successful execution of these transformational imperatives, the United States will have a key foundation to ignite the “third offset”.

The future battlefield will be characterized by the demand for fused data, cyber infrastructure, digitally enabled technologies and an agile mission command structure. The capability to manage the flow and exploit all elements of intelligence will be paramount to success. The future operating environment will be a complex one consisting of contested domains, lethal battlefields, dispersed organizations and degraded operations. Our Armed Forces will fight within and across disparate and distributed areas of operation. The anticipated tempo and characterization of engagements will vary widely and superior actionable intelligence will enable the development of advantages that joint forces can immediately exploit. One likely battlefield will be dense urban environments where both structural and industrial damage will be substantial. Given accurate, interconnected, mobile and more lethal weapon systems originating from non-traditional enemy force structures, integrating organizations, processes, technology and people will be critical in this multi-domain fight where vast amounts of data are essential to build real time actionable intelligence. Capabilities that provide real time battlefield intelligence and analysis will enable forces to act quickly and efficiently.

The battlefield of 2050 will be heavily reliant on data, data flow and the ability to maneuver. Data will be the most coveted weapon and the greatest tool. The digitalization of the Department of Defense (DOD) is an ongoing journey, from Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of transforming the US military from an industrial age to an information age based force by implementing network-centric operations, information technology and joint operations to today’s third offset strategy paired with the Defense Innovation Initiative. The third offset strategy and the Defense Innovation Initiative are more encompassing than just technology. This strategy is about increasing the competitive advantage of US and allied forces across all domains. Unlike the environment of the first and second offset strategy, we no longer have the choice of picking one enduring advantage, nor do we face a single monolithic or implacable adversary.

Today’s military is very much dependent on digital technologies. They coordinate air strikes using digital datalink and a tablet. Commanders once reliant on radios to obtain battle updates, watch digital feeds of streaming videos on common operating pictures populated by gigabytes of near real time digital data. Cruise missiles and bombs receive satellite relays of digital navigation and targeting updates to destroy enemy targets day and night, in rain and snow, in foliage-covered jungles and dense urban centers. Digital data and the networks that store, process, and disseminate that data have made the U.S. military extraordinarily capable. As the U.S. pushes for greater digital data driven capabilities and it becomes more effective on the battlefield, it also renders itself vulnerable to a virtual and physical strike on the digital networks and technologies that enable the US military’s modern lethality. By growing beyond a direct reliance on the digital and technologically enabled products and more fully integrating digital capability across enabling and core functions, the U.S. will mitigate this dependency dynamic.

Awareness and concern for cyber-attacks, system vulnerabilities and potential losses of personal information have been fueled by recent commercial and governmental cyber intrusions and breaches. These malevolent activities increase the demand for more and better security products and services. The DOD responded with the establishment of the United States Cyber Command which “plans, coordinates, integrates, synchronizes and conducts activities to: direct the operations and defense of specified Department of Defense information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries.”1 A 2016 report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Cyber Defense Management, however, still believes that “most DOD systems are still not adequately protected against cyber threats.”2

Today’s advances in robotics, autonomous operating guidance and control systems, visualization, biotechnology, miniaturization, advanced computing and big data, and additive manufacturing are being primarily driven by the commercial sector and not by military labs. Not only will partnerships with the commercial sector advance the military in future warfare, it will allow the military today to better protect itself. Rapid technological advances in the commercial sector are provoking real time change to the present and the future conduct of warfighting. The military must more rapidly leverage the emergent commercial resources to stay ahead of adversaries. Without the partnership of the private sector with the government to continue their innovative knowledge sharing, it is unlikely the U.S. will have the ability to start the third offset. Military technology is lagging behind commercial worldwide.3 However, this infiltration of commercial technology must be done with precision and strategy. Without a grand strategy, the military runs the risk of focusing on irrelevant advances and insufficient adoption of technology without acquisition consideration. Only when a grand strategy is created, can acquisitions and technological considerations align and succeed. This grand strategy will require leaders to develop new skills that will enable them to form strategies for the third offset.4

Leveraging the commercial world to develop technology in order to stay ahead of their fast- following adversaries, will change the way the military operates in part and whole. The DOD’s continuing investment in technological development will require different skill sets for effective leadership. The attributes of a successful soldier will need to evolve as technology evolves. All levels of command will be affected by the changing character of war. Military leadership will have to develop a grand strategy to encompass the emerging technologies and respond accordingly amongst the ranks. Leadership will require an agile methodology across a steep learning curve to respond to the ever-changing multi-domain battlefield. Communication execution between the ranks will need to be increasingly more fluid. Allowing for new management approaches to implement and accelerate technological application to changing battlefield dynamics will enable successful grand strategy execution.

The interconnected, multi-domain battlefield of tomorrow will give a joint force commander multiple integration requirements from tactical to operational to strategic levels. By integrating capabilities across multiple domains, we will be able to provide commanders options and windows of temporary superiority that may be quickly exploited. In turn, this requires an agile implementation of mission command to gain relative victory. Leadership on this battlefield would have to be trained to thrive in chaos. In Afghanistan, successful leadership on the ground needed to understand tribal factions, the complexity of the problem, the caveats and constraints of any given situation, and be able to describe it to an ally or a tribal elder so they can understand it. The ability to influence and inform audiences in and outside of one’s organization will be important as is creating a common understanding among all participants.

Soldiers and leaders will need an understanding of technology and its applications. On September 2014, the Army created the Cyber branch as an acknowledgement to the “critical role that our cyber warriors play in the armed forces of today and tomorrow.”5 Cognitive dominance, the ability to outthink the issue, will be required as an ability to adjust what one knows to gain advantage. The demand for increased cognitive dominance by the soldier/leader will grow as strategic uncertainty increases. The increased demand for higher orders of cognitive dominance will place continuing pressures for delivery on education, training and doctrine application. The metric to gauge performance must also be changed. The Army formerly focused heavily on attributes placed an importance on intellectual capacity and prowess. Re-orienting the focus to what is accomplished with those key attributes changes the metric and the messaging to what is important – goals and results.

The roles of military leadership will be forever altered with the use of AI in the new multi-domain battlefield. Artificial intelligence will force the military to reshape itself accordingly, to respond effectively in fast approaching future multi domain warfare scenarios. The use and application of AI is the future of multi-domain warfare, and will be a catalyst for starting the third offset. Whomever can unlock the vast potential of AI first, will likely have military supremacy for years to come. Leveraging AI for warfare will change the roles of leaders, dynamics of command, and how information is disseminated among the ranks.

With the immense amount of intelligence that will be available to the soldiers on the ground, they will have more responsibility and knowledge to make decisions themselves. No longer will there be delays in information dispersions, the intelligence will go straight from the source to the soldier, being analyzed in the process. The success or failure of a military operation is now based upon the military’s ability to collect, process, and exploit data at the speed of the crisis. Soon, fewer analysts will be required to process and distribute data. This redistribution of resources will not only save manpower and money, but valuable time that can determine the success of an operation. This release of information to soldiers on the tactical level will allow for more rapid and less communication between the ranks. Therefore, there will be less direct command, rather implied knowledge that when intelligence is received soldiers will not have to wait for instructions to move forward.6

DOD has acknowledged the need to become the leader in the field of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is the future, and will be required to have supremacy on and off the battlefield. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work admitted that “The Department of Defense is a follower; future cyber battles will rely on AI.”7 Once the military is able to leverage the full ability of AI, there is no knowing how far it will take them. AI can determine suggestions based upon data, eliminating a middle man or extra body to conduct research and analysis. This not only lowers the risk of mistake, but expedites the process to deliver suggestions and intelligence straight to the solider. This AI integration frees the soldier to focus their immediate resources on mission execution with less demands for micro and macro risk assessments. AI will be able to consider a multitude of factors at speed. Threats around them will be accounted for using AI, allowing the soldier to focus on the mission execution, and less on the analytics and assessment of threats and unknown surroundings.

With the Pentagon’s focus and investment in AI, they could use this technology to build the ‘super soldier’ of the future. The military hopes to use AI to create a type of ‘smart brain.’ This ‘smart brain’ would enable the soldier to take in a multitude of information including all surroundings, locations of adversaries, allies, and threats. This volume of data and information thru AI may be processed, analyzed and supporting several simultaneous risk and resource decision options for execution. The ‘smart brain’ will do all this and provide the soldier needed resources and knowledge that was once only possible through computers at the home base. This ‘smart brain’ could also incorporate autonomous operation of military vehicles and process incoming data with the work of AI. When the soldier is in a dangerous situation, the ‘smart brain’ will allow for precision and accuracy on the battlefield, as the soldiers can rely on the ‘smart brain’ to do analysis for them. Additionally, with the use of AI, the idea of the soldier will likely be reinvented as autonomous vehicles, technology and machines converge to take the place of many humans on the ground. This will alleviate the threats for humans, and allow for the battlefield to take place outside the normal sphere.

However, with all this information being readily available to the soldier, when will this become overwhelming to them? When will the amount of data and intelligence coming in overload the soldier? An information filter must be in place for AI to filter information through this ‘smart brain’ to determine what is relevant. By determining what is the most vital and important information to provide the soldiers, this AI filter will alleviate information overload for the soldiers. Training and curriculum for the soldiers and commanders will need to be transformed to incorporate all the aspects of AI, and to process the large influx of data. Soldiers will need extensive training to understand the use of AI and the machine interface that will go along with it. Additionally, with the future use of more autonomous technology, engineers must make these technologies’ simplicity and ease of use a priority for the military operator. Future cyber battles will rely heavily on AI and human machine cooperation. It will soon not be possible to have a human operator operating at human speed fighting back at a determined cyber tech. The military will eventually need to develop and obtain a learning machine that does this for them, and train their soldiers to use it.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) have already been using AI for multiple years, and have taken it to war. This preliminary use of AI has allowed the military to see what is useful and where gaps still exist in AI processing and dissemination. One of the most difficult parts of AI, as SOF has discovered, is predicting the hotspots of where civil unrest may occur, which is an essential element to prevention practices. That intelligence is created by a mixture of proprietary software and survey data collected on the ground. Over the past few years, with the development of data and machine learning, we will soon have the ability to steer missions and predict uprisings more accurately before they start.

With SOF’s initial use of AI in battle, they have determined two main problems8 that developing AI can solve. First, soldiers need better intelligence extracted from data delivered and collected through an unclassified channel under likely challenging communication situations. Using AI, this problem can be minimized by enabling software to distinguish what is useful intelligence from raw data. The largest and most time-consuming problem is digesting and processing the enormous influx of data, and turning it into relevant intelligence. Today’s operators have more raw data than battlefield bandwidth. Air Force Col. Matthew D. Atkins, chief of the intelligence capabilities and requirements division at United States Special Operations Command has stated that, “Something DoD needs to get its arms around” is “moving sensor data around the battlefield to the folks who need to exploit it.”9 The key is to find ways to use data processing, exploitation and dissemination with fewer people. Atkins says that this is what troubles the military the most because it is the most human intensive. Atkins also argues that the U.S. Special Operations Command is particularly interested in “investments to buy down the manpower burden”10 The goal is to use AI and new data analysis tools to allow a machine with assistance of only a few people, to do what now requires five-hundred analysts. Another AI challenge, is overcoming the variety of the data they want to process and analyze. The commercial world possesses many big data analysis tools that provide insight to large amounts of data at a great speed. However, commercial researchers often say that big data comes in three flavors, volume, velocity and variety. DOD, is looking to leverage the variety aspect. Special operations often gather disparate data from multiple sources, and must have big data processes that are capable of more comprehensive and integrated analysis. Thus, the variety obstacle creates a specific need for machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The military needs to be extremely precise in the future battlefield. The field of AI and related technology developments that are occurring now, have the potential to equip the U.S. military with what is needed to initiate the third offset. The incorporation of these emerging technologies will allow the military to be well equipped to protect itself and execute with increased effectiveness and accuracy. With the evolution of these vast new technologies, simplicity and applicability at the lowest level will be needed to allow for soldiers to use AI and analysis at the lowest levels. Additionally, due to the exponential speed that the private sector is innovating, the military can no longer solely rely on military labs to develop their technologies. The military will need the convergence of technology, big data, AI, to leverage these technological resources from the private sector, simplify the applicability of AI and allow for the roles of leadership to evolve, to prosper in the future. By establishing this grand strategy for the future battlefield, it will enable our military to become stronger than it has ever been.

End Notes

1. U.S. Department of Defense, Cyber Command Fact Sheet, May 21, 2010.

2. DSB Task Force Report on Cyber Defense Management, September 2016, “

3. Cook, Cynthia. “DIUx: Capturing Technological Innovation.” RAND Corporation. November 23, 2016.

4. Herman, Arthur. “The Pentagon’s Smart Revolution.” Hudson Institute. June 16, 2016.


6. Cox, Matthew. “Army Leaders Search for Answers to Multi-Domain Battle.” March 13, 2017.

7. Prigg, Mark. “U.S. Military reveals it hopes to use artificial intelligence to create cyber soldiers and even help fly its F-35 fighter jet – but admits it is already playing catch up.” Daily Mail. December 15, 2015. create-cybersoldiers-help-fly-F-35-fighter-jet-admits-playing-catch-up.html.

8. war/113872/

9. Tucker, Patrick. "How Special Operators Are Taking Artificial Intelligence To War." Defense One. May 28, 2015. war/113872/.

10. Tucker, Patrick. "How Special Operators Are Taking Artificial Intelligence To War."

About the Author(s)

Romeo is a management consultant with a background in national security. He currently supports several business development initiatives, co-leads the regional veteran integration program and is active in his community to spur innovation. His MBA is from the University of Virginia, Darden School of Business and he received his cybersecurity certificate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Megan is a Data Analytics Practitioner for Accenture Federal Services, supporting the Defense Industry. Currently, she assists in data analytics interpretation, data mining, and data visualization to support a defense client’s supply chain system. Prior to joining Accenture, Megan served as a Research Intern at the Hudson Institute Center for Political and Military Analysis. She also worked on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Intern for U.S. Congressman Bob Goodlatte, and as a Legislative Intern for U.S. Senator Tim Kaine in his Roanoke Regional Office. Megan graduated from Virginia Tech in December 2016 with a B.A. in International Studies and a B.A. in Russian Language, with concentrations in National Security, Foreign Policy, and World Politics.