Multi-Domain Battle: The Echo of the Past


The current military leadership in the  U.S. knows that if the United States is to succeed in its future wars it must find the means to reclaim its previous battlefield dominance. Its potential adversaries have adapted and implemented countervailing capabilities to negate U.S. advantages, especially its ability to project and maneuver force globally. Multi-Domain Battle is the latest answer proposed, and its support among U.S. Army 4-stars is such that there is an air of inevitability to its endorsement as the land force’s way of future warfighting. This high-level endorsement, however, does not necessarily guarantee something useful will eventuate. It was not that long ago that the revolution in military affairs of the late 1990s was advanced as a transformative event that would assure U.S. dominance over all rivals. Instead, it resulted in a technology-centric way of fighting that defied the enduring nature of war and resulted in a lessening of U.S. combat power for the wars the nation had to fight.[1] The U.S. military may not suffer the same fate from Multi-Domain Battle. It is advancing at such a pace, however, that there has been little time to unpack all of the challenges its implementation may face, as well as the second order effects its employment will generate.

Gen. David Perkins, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, talks about the multi-domain battle concept at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Oct. 4, 2016. (U.S. Army Photo/Sean Kimmons)

This paper is the first of a three-part series, each part focusing on a particular aspect of Multi-Domain Battle’s utility for the United States and its allies. This article examines whether those driving Multi-Domain Battle have identified the right problem. The second article focuses on the cultural factors that may hinder the concept’s utility, and the final will address its compatability with U.S. grand strategy.

The discussion of Multi-Domain Battle has already generated a number of criticisms, such as a recognition of the immensely difficult institutional adjustments its implementation will require. Even the usefulness of the word domain has come under scrutiny. This article will be similarly critical and will challenge the concept’s rationale. It will disagree with the often presented need as a response to the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia. Instead, it will make the case that the problem to address is the widening of the killing zone. In doing so it suggests that basing Multi-Domain Battle on the wrong cause risks implementing a concept that will not be useful for the wars the U.S. will fight. History will be used to highlight that the challenge to maneuver and access the United States now faces is not novel and that this situation has been met in the past.

Multi-Domain Battle and the Echoes of the Past

In May 1864, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia fought themselves to a standstill over blood-soaked ground. Defensive firepower swept the field between the fortified lines separating the two armies, making any advance a costly endeavour.[2] The ability of the defender to create a killing ground in front of its positions only increased over the rest of the century. The new technologies are familiar to us today—breech loading rifles and artillery, machine guns, smokeless powder, and quick firing artillery all appeared over the following fifty years. The apogee of defensive fire domination was reached on the Western Front during the First World War. These weapons proliferated across Europe, North America, and beyond and soon became commonplace throughout the world.

The military leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries certainly understood the problem posed by the superiority of such firepower.[3] New technology had shifted the pendulum of war from its normal setting between the offence and the defence to one that made maneuver and closing with the enemy prohibitive. Today’s combatants face a similar problem. Fire can now cross thousands of kilometres and strike with unprecedented accuracy. The soldiers of the First World War struggled to cross a no man’s land that measured in yards. Today’s combatants face a killing zone of theatre, if not global, proportions. The side wishing to maneuver and close with the enemy once again confronts the daunting challenge of crossing a lethal space, but one now of immense distance.

In 1917 a solution to the defensive fire advantage was found, one that holds lessons for today. The solution’s origins lie in the Battle of the Somme, a name that still brings forth the image of wholesale slaughter, even after the passage of 100 years. In the battle’s aftermath, the British and French created a small, corps-level organisation called the Counter-Battery Staff Office.[4] Each office consisted of just a handful of gunnery and intelligence officers, and in essence the Counter-Battery Staff Office was war’s first intelligence-fires fusion cell. Provided with data from the sensors of the time—flash spotters, sound rangers, aerial observers, and human intelligence—the Counter-Battery staff plotted the position of the German artillery. Once this was known, the calibrated British and French guns could fire with an accuracy remarkable for the time, giving them the ability to silence the German artillery at the point and time of their choosing.

British troops pose with a new tank during the Battle of the Somme. (The Great War Project)

The suppression of the enemy’s artillery, combined with tanks to cut the belts of wire guarding the German trenches and a rolling barrage to suppress the enemy’s machine guns, meant the British and French infantry were able to traverse no man’s land in sufficient numbers to wrest ground from the Germans. The same weapons that favoured the defender were reconceived to favour the attacker and, when linked with accurate intelligence, swung the pendulum of war back to a neutral setting. The result was that from the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918 to the great Franco-British success at Amiens and on to the end of the war, the Germans received a relentless series of blows that led to the Armistice.

Is the present challenge to maneuver much different? The scale of today’s metaphorical no man’s land is without precedent, as is the range and accuracy of modern fires. Complicating the challenge is that traditional kinetic fires have been joined by new types with effects in the cognitive domain that have seemingly unlimited range. However, it is essentially the same problem, and it probably requires a similar solution. In 1917, the integration of new technologies and the invention of combined arms warfare broke the power of the defence. By the end of the Second World War, combined arms had given way to joint operations as the means to link the strengths of the various services into a cohesive and effective whole, once again allowing maneuver to take place. Multi-Domain Battle has the promise to create a new concept of war that can again unlock the battlespace and prevent the bloody stalemate of the Western Front in the First World War. However, its present development pathway risks resulting in an outcome that is flawed and too limited in its application to achieve this goal.

Evoking Change: The Context of Multi-Domain Battle

On one level, Multi-Domain Battle’s focus on China and Russia is appropriate. China’s military strength has been growing impressively, and its territorial ambitions have increased tensions across the region. Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe and its cyber saber rattling has brought back memories of the Cold War standoff. While such developments may appeal to Cold War nostalgia, and might meet bureaucratic requirements, it is far too simplistic and discounts implications the rise of long-ranged accurate fire holds for the ability of the U.S. military to operate against different opponents. In doing so, it may render the concept overly specific, if not irrelevant, and doom the U.S. (and its allies) to a design that will hinder success in unanticipated wars against unanticipated foes.

The advances in technology we are witnessing will allow an opponent to create a kinetic-based killing system that will inhibit or even prohibit the maneuver of forces across entire theatres of operation, a scale that has not been seen before. The effect of this development will be further compounded by breakthroughs in the cognitive domains of war that further extend the killing zone to a global scale. When a target is connected, range will be largely irrelevant. Distance, and to a certain extent time, no longer matter in the cognitive domains. Understanding fires from a purely kinetic perspective is no longer valid when a cognitive blast radius may be greater than that of the largest nuclear weapon. The geographic divisions military organisations make in defining a front, a support area, and the national support base are no longer relevant. Every nation’s homeland is now militarily in play, in a way not dissimilar to the Cold War. This is a major disruption to how the U.S. and other societies have understood the character of war in the recent past. The likely interference of Russia in last year’s U.S. election may be a minor harbinger of a far more disruptive future in this regard.

What difference can it make if those designing Multi-Domain Battle are acting on possibly the wrong threat diagnosis? Designing a solution for a misdiagnosed problem can result in the inculcation of a way of war unsuited for the wars of the future. One is reminded of the French Army during the interwar period. No one can accuse the French of not thinking seriously about war during these years, but, in the doctrine of the methodical battle, they got it wrong and misread the opportunities presented by mechanisation. There were many factors contributing to France’s defeat, but at their core was a misinterpretation of the art of the possible and a singular focus on a particular way of war.[5] Shaping Multi-Domain Battle for the wrong problem may see the United States similarly sow the seeds for a military disaster that is avoidable.

It is also worrying that those developing Multi-Domain Battle are situating it for war between peer competitors. This is a second order consequence of the focus on the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia. What appears overlooked is that wars between peers tend to be long, painful, and expensive in lives and treasure. There are exceptions, of course, such as Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866, but these are the exception. Long wars also tend to generate considerable complications that may be incompatible with the contemporary values of western societies. For example, most of the west no longer has an awareness or understanding of what a long and painful war entails. The current wars do not raise an existential crisis, at least not for those of the west. How does a military take the people along when the population believes wars are to be waged by a professional military class and losses, both in lives and treasure, are not expected to be borne by the wider society?


Advances in technology have invariably resulted in changes in how military organisations organise, equip, and fight. Industrial revolutions typically spark even greater opportunities for improvements in weapons, tactics and concepts for waging war, and for the reorganisation of societies. This is all normal, and history provides a rich tapestry of example for how such change has been navigated in the past. However, useful change is more likely if the correct questions are asked. While China and Russia are both mounting challenges to the world order the focus on these rivals discounts other factors. It is far too early to know if Multi-Domain Battle is the right way forward. If it is to succeed, however, the aperture of analysis must be widened and greater consideration be given to an unprecedented event, the emergence of a killing zone of global scope.

Albert Palazzo is a Canberra based defence thinker. He has published widely on the history of the Australian Army and on the changing character of war. In addition to multi-domain battle his research interests include climate change and its effect on Australian security. This article is based on an address the author gave at the May 2016 USARPAC Commanders Conference. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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Header Image: Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1914 (Roger Pattenden)


[1] Williamson Murray, America and the Future of War: The Past as Prologue, Stanford, Hoover Institution press, 2017, pp 30-35.

[2] For an outline for the Battle of Spotsylvania see, Gordon C Rhea, The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

[3] On this understanding see M. A. Ramsay, Command and Cohesion: The Citizen Soldier and Minor Tactics in the British Army, 1870-1918, Westport, Praeger, 2002.

[4] "The Counter-Battery Staff Office and the Control of the Enemy", Journal of Military History 63:1 (January 1999), 55-74.

[5] The best account of French failure of imagination remains Robert Allan Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939, Archon Books, Hamden, 1985.