Search our content

Home  /  Newsroom  /  Insights  /  Understanding a joint all domain operational concept

Understanding a joint all domain operational concept

It is all too easy to suggest that the military needs to be more adaptive and
imaginative in the twenty-first century. How to do so is the real question. Again, the answer is a simple matter, but its realization represents extraordinary difficulties because it involves changing military cultures...

Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC (ret.)

Understanding the Requirement for Forging a Joint All Domain Operational Concept 

The capacity to synchronize maneuver in multiple domains has been a fundamental cornerstone for success in military operations since antiquities. In spite of the synergy generated by maneuvering in multiple domains, many individuals are skeptical of transitioning to the concept of multi domain operations (MDO)1. They view MDO as a rediscovered Lazarus Taxon that is simply joint by another name. In the United States, the catalyst for transitioning to MDO has been the Army. What the Army has sensed is that operational environment is changing so dramatically that joint operations may no longer be effective. In 2018, the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) published TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-8. This document provides an excellent assessment of the changes in the operational environment that are mandating a transformation in the future of military operations. However, the concept used to convey the Army’s vision for MDO stops short of a true transformation. The MDO concept developed by the Army bears an eerie resemblance to the Air Land Battle construct of the 1980s. The overarching approach to operations presented in TRADOC 525-3-8 appears limited to battlefield geometry and converging fires. A visualization of that approach is depicted below at figure 1.    

Figure 1. Source: TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-8 – U.S. Army Concept: Multi-Domain Combined Arms Operations at Echelons Above Brigade 2025-2045, December 2018

In the ideal, MDO is an advanced form of maneuver warfare designed to meet the demands of the complexity, speed, and precision that are rapidly evolving in our technologically sophisticated global environment. 

The essence of MDO is creating competitive space through a deliberate synchronization of combinations of domains. This is necessary for several intrinsic reasons.

Those reasons involve the number of domains that require synchronization, the massive transformation occurring in civilian and military technology, and the tremendous vulnerabilities associated with the interdependencies between domains. What is being missed in the US Army’s explanation of the concept is the underpinning principles of MDO that will guide offensive and defensive operations. An example of this is the interdependencies that exist between domains.

The disruption, degradation or destruction of an interdependency between two domains has the potential to collapse entire systems such as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (C4ISR). 

This article has three principal objectives. The first is to provide the main arguments against transitioning to MDO. 

The second is to explain why transitioning to MDO is essential to future military success. 

The final objective is to propose an initial framework for developing MDO as a maneuver warfare concept. 

Key Arguments against Transitioning to MDO 

Perhaps the foremost argument against transitioning to MDO is the persistent perception that MDO is the same as joint operations. In actuality, this is factually not true. US joint doctrine which initially codified joint operations defines joint as activities, operations, and organizations in which elements of two or more Military Departments participate.2 Based on this definition, Joint is a concept that revolves around “additive” Service capabilities. Additionally, when the US 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act created joint operations the intent was not develop a new maneuver concept. The primary purpose of the Goldwater-Nichols Act was to enhance Service cooperation and reduce inter-Service rivalry. In contrast, MDO is a transition to a sophisticated, highly advanced form of maneuver warfare precipitated by a rapidly evolving digital ecosystem. 

Another argument commonly used against MDO is the fact that multi domain maneuver is nothing new. This is factually correct. Most probably the first recorded multi domain battle is the battle of the Nile Delta which occurred in 1175 BC. In this confrontation, Ramses III, pharaoh of Egypt was threatened by a ferocious confederation of tribes known as the Sea Peoples. This confederation of tribes directed their focus toward the Egyptian empire after successfully destroying the eastern Mediterranean’s coastal areas of Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, and Canaan, In preparation for the Sea Peoples attack, Ramses assessed that the Sea Peoples’ ships were technologically superior to the Egyptians and that Egypt could not defeat the Sea People’s fleet at sea. To compensate for this technological disadvantage, Ramses deliberately synchronized land and maritime operations. When the Sea Peoples finally attacked in 1178 BC, he allowed the Sea people’s fleet to enter into the Nile Delta unopposed. As the Sea Peoples entered the constrained confines of the delta, Ramses simultaneously attacked the Sea Peoples with the Egyptian fleet and archers on land. Unable to maneuver out of the trap the Sea People’s fleet was annihilated by Ramses.3

Since Ramses’ victory at the Battle of the Delta, the basic premise of synchronizing objectives and effects in multiple domains has never changed. What has changed, however, is the operational environment and the computational power that provides the foundation for access to domains. In terms of MDO, advances in technology have always been behind the exploitation of domains for military operations. As mankind developed new technologies, those developments provided access to domains that were previously inaccessible. This is exemplified in the advent of the ship building technology over 4,600 years ago that provided access to the maritime domain and afforded naval forces the ability to bring asymmetric effects on the land domain. In 1903, the Wright brothers flew for12 seconds at Kitty Hawk and ushered in the opportunity to take advantage of vulnerabilities on both the land and maritime domains. This was followed in October and November 1957, by the successful Soviet launches of Sputniks I and II. In the six decades since Sputnik, the entire world has become dependent on space-based capabilities. Additionally, the ongoing revolution in microchip and quantum computing technology is now providing access to the unforeseen power of key properties embedded in another emerging domain, the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). Access to the EMS combined with advanced computing power is dynamically changing the speed, reach, lethality and sophistication of even the most basic of military operations. 

Why Transition to MDO? 

The transition to MDO is a subtle, but very significant evolution in maneuver warfare theory characterized by the ability to operate within the confines of extreme complexity, speed, and precision. However, because the requirement for MDO has been evolving over decades many individuals do not recognize the need to transition or the source of causation. The overriding catalyst for transitioning to MDO revolves around the global proliferation of computing power and its impact on advanced technologies and planning, decision, and execution (PDE) cycles. In 1960, a computer engineer named Douglas Engelbart gave a presentation to the inaugural International Solid-State Circuits Conference on the concept of scaling. His theory was that future electronic circuits would be made smaller, component speeds would increase, they would require less power, and ultimately become cheaper to produce. Sitting in the audience was Gordon Moore, a future cofounder of Intel. In 1965, Moore published an observation that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. Known today as Moore’s Law, computer processing power has been doubling every eighteen months to two years and is expected to continue into the future through the processes of monolithic and systems scaling, neuromorphic microchips, and quantum computing.4 

To place Moore’s Law in perspective, in 2013 the computer industry was able to place hundreds of millions of transistor on single microchip the size of a fingernail. By 2015 the industry was building 10 nanometer thick microchips capable of holding 20 billion transistors. Researchers have followed this up with 7 and 5 nanometer computer chips with 30 billion transistors. These chips are 40 per cent quicker than previous microchips and save 75 percent in power when running at the speed of current day chips.5 One company named KnuEdge has developed a chip with 256 cores capable of running different algorithms simultaneously and connecting the cores instantly.6 This leap in technology significantly enhances the ability to integrate multiple functions on a single device that may have been previously incompatible or lacked the power to operate the function. 

The exponential growth of this computing power has created a security environment where the pace of cyber, directed energy, nanotechnology, and hypersonics are eclipsing the normal capacity to predict their effects. This change in the strategic and operational environments is significantly affecting the ability to effectively synchronize maneuver in multiple domains through joint operations alone. Although the world has undergone dramatic technological changes in the past, we are still only in the nascent stages of understanding the impact of the evolving digital ecosystem on future military operations. Additionally, advances in technology have dynamically changed all previous notions of battlespace. This is occurring because as technology has evolved it has formed interdependent relationships between the domains. As a result, access or lack of access in one domain can have cascading effects in one or more domains. The speed and lethality of conflicts in the upcoming decades will crush current PDE cycle standards and offer only limited windows of opportunity to exploit key adversary vulnerabilities occurring in a domain. The side who recognizes and understands the complexities inherent in multi domain operations and has the speed and precision to both protect and exploit domain interdependencies will be the winner in future conflicts.

Initial Framework Recommendations for Creating a Viable MDO Concept

Developing a viable operational concept requires the examination of three basic structural elements. The first element is codifying a clear definition of what constitutes a domain. The United States’ joint doctrine specifically defines the air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains, however, it does not define domain. This oversight limits the inclusion or exclusion of other items that may assist in clarifying a conceptual framework. In other words, there may be other entities that should be considered as domains that are not currently identified in our doctrine. A clear definition can also limit the inclusion of miscellaneous entities such as the information or cognitive domains that may only serve to create unnecessary complexity. 
The foundations for building an operational definition of domain can be found in the origins of the word. The word domain evolved from English, French, and Latin roots in the 15th century and it was used to describe what an individual, federation, or confederation controlled. In today’s context, however, the traditional sense of control and the superiority it provides may be outdated by virtue of emerging offensive and defensive weapon systems. As a result, the term domain may need to include a more holistic descriptor such as “access or control.” The reason this is important is if a force has access to a domain when it needs access, absolute control may not be necessary. Additionally, if we are to develop an advanced maneuver concept based on domains, the term domain must be directly correlated to the vision in the concept. Consequently, the key elements in the definition that should be present are maneuver space, access and control, and the superiority necessary to successfully accomplish the mission. A recommended definition of a domain is a “critical macro maneuver space whose access or control is vital to the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission.” Based on this definition, there are six critical maneuver spaces that will dominate the future development of advanced maneuver warfare theory. Those spaces are the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), space, air, land, maritime, and human. 
This designation of maneuver spaces deviates from the evolving US doctrinal concepts being developed for MDO. The rationale for this deviation is if you have access to or control of these maneuver spaces your chances of success are significantly enhanced. Conspicuously absent from this framework proposed in this article is cyberspace. The reason for this is cyberspace operates within the EMS. If you control desired segments of the EMS, you control the ability to employ cyberspace tools. Thus, both cyberspace operations and electronic warfare are capabilities that operate within the EMS. This does not mean that cyber operations are not important. It simply means that the desired maneuver space is what gives you the necessary access or control to accomplish the mission. 
This is confusing because there are a number of misperceptions about both cyberspace and the EMS. First, cyberspace and cyber operations are not magic. Successful cyber operations require a painstaking process of gaining access to a system. This process, especially for peer competitors like Russia, can take literally years. Once a cyber-operator has access to the system, the operator must develop a tool to operate within that system. However, even with access and a tool specifically designed for a targeted system, a simple software update or change of a router can block the access to the system. 
The EMS in contrast is a physics-based maneuver space that is essential to control the operational environment during all military operations.7 The spectrum represents the range of wavelengths or frequencies over which electromagnetic radiation extends. The significance of this is almost every advanced military system and concept programed for the future is dependent on access to the EMS. This includes advanced C4ISR systems, radars, missiles, aircraft, naval vessels, as well as concepts such as intuitive sensing, edge computing, hyper-automation, and almost all maneuver operations in the space domain. A representation of the EMS is below in figure 2. 
Figure 2. The Electromagnetic Spectrum. Source.8

The preeminence of the EMS is recognized by both the Russian and Chinese militaries. As far back as 1973, Russian Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov stated, “The next war will be won by the side that best exploits the electromagnetic spectrum.” Over the past decade, Russia has invested heavily in systems such as the Krasukha-4 which reportedly creates a dome that is impenetrable to electromagnetic waves. A number of Chinese authors echo Admiral Gorshkov’s assertion about the EMS. One of those authors is Wang Zhengde. In the book, Informationalized Confrontation, Wang explores warfare in the electronic realm and argues “both sides in any conflict want control of the electromagnetic spectrum.” Despite the intrinsic value of the EMS there are a large number of individuals who view access to the EMS as simply a bandwidth allocation problem. Although bandwidth allocation is exceptionally important, it ignores the maneuver operations that are occurring in the EMS. Figure 3 is an illustration of how Russian assets could create maneuver options in the EMS against US and NATO forces. In this example, a Based on the dependence of advanced technologies on the spectrum, the EMS is arguably the most important domain for future maneuver concepts. However, without a comprehensive definition of what a domain is, the EMS is either relegated to a lesser status or potentially omitted. 

Figure 3. Example of Maneuver in the Electromagnetic Spectrum 

The failure to define domain also has repercussions on how we perceive the effect of operations on human beings. Any doctrinally approved definition of a domain must be sufficiently holistic to include desired human outcomes. One of the biggest omissions of current US and NATO doctrine is the absence of the human domain. Ironically, the “theory of victory” begins with an understanding of humans. In fact, all military operations from humanitarian assistance to major combat operations are inherently human endeavors. Despite this importance, most militaries avoid the complexity of human behavior. The focus instead tends to be on information and cognition. Information is a tool used to support military operations and cognition is the process of learning. This focus, however, loses sight of the fact that military operations are directed at changing human behavior. Generally speaking, military operations revolve around three forms of behavioral change. Those changes are deterrence, compellence, and suasion. The overarching intent is to use information and cognition to influence decision making at specific behavioral focal and create the conditions for behavioral change. One military that does this well is Russia. 

The Russians wage holistic campaigns across the human domain by using digital, cognitive, and psychological means to manipulate an adversary’s perception of reality. Their objective is to misinform the adversary’s perception and interfere with the decision making processes of individuals, organizations, and governments.9 They accomplish this through integrated information strikes that serve as a tool of coercion and create a form of reflexive control. By definition, reflexive control is “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.”10 It is also important to emphasize that reflexive control has long been taught at various Russian military schools and training programs, and is codified as Russian national security strategy in the Gerasimov Doctrine. An illustration of this is Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine.11 

The key elements of Russia’s reflexive control techniques in Ukraine have been: 

  • Denial and deception operations to conceal or obfuscate the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine 
  • Concealing Moscow’s goals and objectives in the conflict 
  • Retaining superficially plausible legality for Russia’s actions by denying Moscow’s involvement in the conflict 
  • Threatening the West with military power 
  • Employing a vast and complex global effort to shape the narrative about the Ukraine conflict through formal and social media. 

Russia’s emphasis on decision making and reflexive control provides them with a unique advantage in exploiting key aspects of MDO. This is because they advocate modeling the enemy’s impression about the activities of the decision-maker himself. This is combined with an understanding of the enemy’s decision making processes, organizations, goals, and plans, to formulate one’s own preemptive goals and plans.12 The US fails to think in this manner because US doctrine focuses on information operations and cognition versus a holistic understanding of the human domain. Developing a taxonomy for the human domain would significantly enhance the effectiveness of US information operations. 

An example of a human domain taxonomy at the operational level is shown at figure 4. A taxonomy is the practice and science of classification of things or concepts, including the principles that underlie such classification. This example highlights four salient considerations for the human domain. Those are the methods for approaching avenues of influence, establishing key avenues for influencing decision making, focusing on behavioral change, and directing actions at specific behavioral focal points. This type of analytical model is not intended to be prescriptive. The model will change based on a number of factors including the mission, type of environment, and whether the focus is it at the strategic, operational, or tactical level. Additionally, it is vital that we precisely target specific behavioral focal points to change human behavior. In general, there are three major focal points in the human domain. Those are leaders, organizations that support the leaders, and the population. The key is understanding how humans translate into maneuver space and a recognition that the human domain is ultimate decider of success for all military operations. 

Figure 4. Taxonomy of the Human Domain 

Based on an examination of future military operations, advanced technology, battlespace, and the definition of a domain, both the EMS and the human domain merit inclusion the emerging MDO construct. However, the real evidence for this inclusion exists in second structural element for forging a holistic MDO vision.  The second structural element is a clear articulation of the interrelationships between domains. This is extraordinarily important because domains function within a continuum or whole system. This means that when one domain conducts an action or is acted upon, the impact of that action must be assessed in relation to the effects on the other domains. Understanding the arrangement of domains provides insights into how friendly and enemy systems function and the initial vision for domain priority of effort. This is significant because emerging technological efficiencies are providing access to multiple domains at the same time. This development in turn has generated deliberate interdependencies between domains. These interdependencies are highly exploitable and if left unprotected can collapse entire systems and create catastrophic consequences. This has an obvious importance for both offensive and defensive operations and is intrinsic to the success of capitalizing on fleeting opportunities. The key to implementing effective MDO schemes of maneuver is understanding how the continuum of domains functions. 

The Continuum of Domains is a construct that emphasizes thinking of maneuver as a whole. The continuum exists as an interconnected relationship between six key domains: the EMS, space, air, land, maritime and human. In general the EMS enables all domains. Space enables the air, land, and maritime domains which influence the human domain through access, control, exploitation of interdependencies, and protection of interdependencies between domains. A simplistic, linear illustration of the continuum of domains is at figure 5. In this illustration, the EMS attacks a critical space satellite that provides positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) for forces in the air, land, and maritime domains. The denial of PNT affects the air domain’s ability to provide close air support (CAS) and air interdiction (AI) to the land domain. It also has an impact on a Missile Defense Surface Action Group that is providing defensive counter air (DCA) to the air domain. The cumulative effect of this action is temporary paralysis of the leadership in the human domain. This temporary paralysis enables the attacking force to employ preplanned combinations of domains in either asymmetric maneuver or mass the domains for convergence at a critical point. The result is the destruction of the adversary’s system and the submission of the adversary’s will. 

Figure 5. Domain Interrelationships within Continuum of Domains

At this juncture in the article, it is important to stress that the example of domain relationships in figure 5 is only one of many arrangements that can be employed within the continuum. The real objective is using combinations of domains to thrust complexity on the adversary and expose their interdependencies. Establishing a comprehensive vision for how domains interact within the continuum provides a crucial baseline for the third structural element for effective MDO. This element is the development of both offensive and defensive deliberate combinations of domains designed to destroy the adversary’s systems and defeat their will. The US Army’s approach to this is through the power of convergence. The Army defines convergence as: Rapid and continuous integration of capabilities in all domains, the electromagnetic spectrum, and information environment that optimizes effects to overmatch the enemy through crossdomain synergy and multiple forms of attack all enabled by mission command and disciplined initiative.13 TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, GL-2 

A conceptual illustration of this concept is shown below at figure 6. Convergence is a very effective and lethal mode of maneuver that leverages the synergy of all domains at a critical place and time. The challenge with convergence is it diminishes the effectiveness of asymmetric domain operations that occur at the operational level. Additionally, convergence can actually simplify problem sets for an adversary when we should be imposing complexity on them. Although future operations should be thought of as a continuum or whole, it does not mean that domains must act at the exact same time or place. Actions taken within domains that dislocate or disrupt the adversary’s forces can be very effective means of achieving key objectives without the risk associated with convergence. The integral element of MDO is not the convergence of domains. It is how the domains are synchronized that determines success. 

Figure 6. Convergence14

Even though a commander’s goal may be convergence of domains or synergy between domains, the gateway to effectiveness will invariably be synchronization. The basic principle of synchronization will be one of the most dynamic components of executing successful combinations of domains and effective MDO. This will take the form of deep neural networks which will optimize the synchronization of domain actions into holistic maneuver. A framework example for a deep neural network is illustrated below in figure 7. 

Figure 7 Framework for a Joint All Domain Deep Neural Network15

This neural network synchronizes the objectives and effects between domains, assesses the adversary’s use of domains, determines barriers, time, and distance factors, identifies risk, and establishes the potential operational actions required. Additionally, this network can examine factors such as lunar data, sea state, and terrestrial/space weather that impact operations. The calculations in this network can be manually calculated or computed through machine learning or augmented intelligence. The intent is not to make decisions for commanders. The goal is to speed up PDE cycles by providing commanders with potential synergies between domains. 

It is important to note that Russia already uses nomograms to calculate critical operational factors and speed up their PDE cycles. The Russians are also investing heavily in artificial intelligence. As a result, we cannot rely on an outdated observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop designed to react to an adversary. We are already at OODA point and we must realize that the ability to deal with the complexity, speed, and precision required by MDO depends on a proactive PDE cycle that shapes OODA point.16 The key is understanding what domains are, how they interrelate, and how to synchronize them to achieve synergy and convergence. 


The transition to MDO will continue to be debated in many circles in both the US and NATO. The actual transition to MDO, however, is exceptionally prudent. Our strategic and operational environments are changing so dramatically that we must develop a maneuver concept that goes far beyond “additive Service capabilities.” Potential adversaries are leveraging emerging technology and developing operational concepts to directly challenge our approach to joint operations. Although multi domain operations is far from a new maneuver concept, the ability to deal with the emerging complexity, speed, and precision required for successful operations mandates a new operational theory. 

This theory must be translated into a clear operational pathway that enables NATO’s forces to operate in compressed PDE cycles and proactively synchronize combinations of domains to deter and if necessary, defeat adversaries that threaten NATO. Establishing an operational pathway will require an intellectual investment far beyond battlefield geometry and fires. To be fully accepted by NATO member nations MDO must provide a framework that defines domain, explains the interrelationships between the domains, and develops advanced concepts for synchronizing combinations of domains. Until this occurs, MDO will simply be joint by another name. 


  • 1. Note: The US Air Force uses the term Joint All-Domain Operations (JADO) instead of MDO. JADO are actions by the joint force in all domains that are integrated in planning and synchronized in execution, at speed and scale needed to gain advantage and accomplish the mission. 
  • 2. CJCS, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, January 2020, p.113. 
  • 3. Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2015, p.5. 
  • 4. Monolithic scaling might be referred to as “classic” Moore’s Law scaling, with a focus on reducing transistor feature sizes and operating voltages while increasing transistor performance. System scaling improvements are the gains that help us incorporate new types of heterogeneous processors via advances in chiplets, packaging, and high-bandwidth chip-to-chip interconnect technologies. See Robert Chau, A bright future for Moore’s Law, Venture beast, January 7, 2020, accessed at 
  • 5. David Nield, IBM’s New Computer Chips Can Fit 30 Billion Transistors on Your Fingertip: The World’s first 5-nanometer Chip, Science Alert, 6 June 2017, accessed at fingertip 
  • 6. Jelor Gallego, An Ex-NASA Chief is Making Chips that use the Same Biological Principles as the Brain, Futurism, June 15, 2016 accessed at knuedge-a-neuro-computing-startup/ 
  • 7. Joint Publication 6-01, Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Management Operations, 20 March 2012, p. 1-1. 
  • 8. The Electromagnetic Spectrum. Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Science Mission Directorate (2010). Introduction to the Electromagnetic Spectrum. Retrieved March 9, 2019, from NASA Science website: and 
  • 9. Dmitry Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy” Proliferation Papers 54, p.27 (2015), accessed at Accessed 26 May 2020 
  • 10. Thomas, Timothy L. “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 2004, vol. 17, p. 237. 
  • 11. Maria Snegovaya, Russia Report 1 Putin’s Information Warfare In Ukraine Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare, Institute for the Study of War, 2015, p. 7 
  • 12. Timothy L. Thomas, Russian Military Thought: Concepts and Elements, MITRE, August, 2019, p. 4-7 
  • 13. TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, GL-2 
  • 14. Ibid., p.26 
  • 15. Jeffrey M. Reilly, Joint All Domain Strategist Concentration, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, 2014. 
  • 16. OODA Point refers to the compression of future planning, decision, and execution cycles. 

Story by Mr. Jeffrey M. REILLY 

Director of the Multi Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College 


Via per Busto Arsizio, 20
21058 Solbiate Olona (VA) Italy

Media Operations

Public Affairs Office
Tel.: +39 0331345117 - 0331345118
Fax: +39 0331345124