Multi-Domain Battle: The Need for Integration with National Strategy

This paper is the last in 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 Multi-Domain Battle’s compatibility with U.S. grand strategy. The first article asked if the U.S. had identified the right problem for Multi-Domain Battle to solve, while the second addressed some of the cultural factors that may hinder the concept’s utility.


Multi-Domain Battle has many flaws, but its most fatal is that as presently envisioned it risks being an underachiever. The United States, if it is to re-exert its global position, needs a military strategic concept that is more than just an iterative update of Air/Land Battle. It needs one that is great, if not revolutionary. Those designing Multi-Domain Battle are right in seeking a land force able to contest and win the fight in and across all domains, and which takes advantage of technological advances in connectivity, visibility, and lethality. This is a good start, but only if its present form is seen as Multi-Domain Battle Mk1. Version Mk2, which nests Multi-Domain Battle within a military and national strategy, must quickly follow. In a world in which the effective division between the domains of war is increasingly blurred, there is less utility or need to maintain sharp distinctions between the levels of war and the organs of government. Multi-Domain Battle’s successor needs to become the instrument through which the United States treats war as a holistic, unitary undertaking by the government, the military, and the people.

The Land Force and National Strategy

Multi-Domain Battle as presently described is a narrowly conceived concept for battle by the land forces of the United States—the Army and the Marine Corps—with increasing input from the Air Force. That this is the case is made very clear in a Military Review article by one of its main advocates, as well as in the concept’s latest update from the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. No doubt many, if not most, concept writers would see this focus as appropriate. Unfortunately, they are wrong. A way of war fighting that considers only one domain and level of the art of war rests on a false foundation. As all readers would understand, winning battles—even winning every battle—cannot compensate for a poor or non-existent strategy and inadequate national will and direction.

...winning battles—even winning every battle—cannot compensate for a poor or non-existent strategy and inadequate national will and direction.

Without Multi-Domain Battle’s integration with a national strategy, defeat will still be the result, no matter how instrumental the concept is in advancing soldier (and marine) excellence in  tactics and operations. Without its evolution into a mechanism that integrates all the levers of power the United States can wield, the military will continue to bear a disproportionate role, one that will only become harder to sustain into the future as American power declines relative to emerging powers. Worryingly, neither of the Multi-Domain Battle documents linked to above mentions the word strategy in its body, only in the notes or appendices, and both treat government and the military as distinct and separate entities. This must change.

In Yellow Smoke, Major General Robert H. Scales observed that after the end of the Cold War the U.S. Army needed to reset its:

...strategic moorings and derive a clear understanding of its strategic relevance to America’s future national policy before it could be reasonably expected to devise a new operational method of fighting on land.[1]

In short, Scales believes strategy needed to come first and, once designed and accepted, informs how to fight. Although he penned these words in 2003, contemporary thinkers routinely remark that the United States still does not have a strategy, either a military one for its wars or a national one for its policies. Ideally, the United States should have a strategy that addresses both, one that both guides the military and unifies all the government’s capabilities behind the achievement of well-considered political goals.

Whole-of-government is Pentagon jargon everyone wants to believe in but in reality, few nations ever achieve. Yet, this has not always been the case. During the Second World War, the United States and its allies mobilized their entire societies and co-ordinated their efforts and resources within their domestic economies and across the alliance. The United States government set up a series of organizations, such as the Office of War, and gave them sweeping powers to match government requirements with industry capacities to maximize productivity and military strength. In the future, U.S. commanders must similarly have the ability to call for assistance from all government departments, including obvious ones such as Departments of State and Treasury but also Commerce, Energy, and Agriculture—and even other agencies such as the Smithsonian—to a much greater extent than they have needed or been prepared to do since 1945. These agencies will also need to develop the means to respond. The Civilian Expeditionary Workforce program is a start but much more needs to be done before the United States is able to direct all strengths towards a common goal. The principles behind Multi-Domain Battle (Mk2) can be the mechanism to achieve this objective.

Yes, the stakes were higher in the Second World War than today, but this may not always be the case. If China’s rise reaches the point of challenging the United States in the Pacific or a resurgent Russia exerts more pressure on Eastern Europe, and as the relative power balance continues to shift against the United States, its military will not be able to cope against such competitors without considerable assistance from other agencies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in 2016. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty)

Just to be clear, however, civilian control of the military must remain absolute. Multi-Domain Battle (Mk2) can be the mechanism by which to unify national power, yet  the harnessing of this power and the setting of its direction must always remain a function of the nation’s civilian leadership.

Making it Work

Those developing Multi-Domain Battle are right that the harnessing of information will allow U.S. commanders (at all levels) to break down the barriers between the domains of war. The resulting cross-domain synergy will give the United States an asymmetric advantage against its adversaries. With its information edge, the U.S. military should be able to make better decisions faster than its opponents and exploit the resulting advantages before opponents can react.

However, why limit this information advantage to the military? Could not other government agencies use the same techniques as those developed by the military to gain advantage for the United States in its contest with other states and non-states? Are not the principles underpinning Multi-Domain Battle transferrable to other levers of government power which can support the attainment of national objectives?

U.S. Navy and Army special operations forces training together in 2014. (Sgt. Christopher Prows/U.S. Army Photo)

The steps needed for the United States to achieve the benefits of cross-agency synergy are fairly straightforward. There are only two. The most important is that the United States must articulate a grand strategy for its place in and vision for the world. It should be a narrative that identifies what the United States wants to become and how to achieve it. Then U.S. policymakers  must establish an organisation to coordinate efforts in support of this strategy within and across agency lines. The obvious nature of the first step does not require further comment. On the second, the history of the Second World War provides numerous case studies on how to make such synergy work. For example, the United States and the United Kingdom established an organization called the London Controlling Section, which did a brilliant job of coordinating Allied deception operations around the world.[2]

To employ military terms, the organisation is decided upon will take responsibility for what I term Phase 00. This phase represents concerted and focused efforts by all government agencies to achieve strategic objectives by seeking advantages over potential adversaries before the commencement of hostilities, or even before the commencement of operational planning. War may not even be the ultimate intent of Phase 00 actions. In fact, success at Phase 00 may forestall the need for war in the first place by allowing the United States to achieve the outcomes it seeks through other means.

Limiting war to Phase 00 brings other benefits. It would give the United States more and financially cheaper options than a default embrace of forever wars. Also, in an age of increasing weapon lethality and proliferating nuclear weapons, the United States can better control escalation. If war appears necessary, however, or is unavoidable, the role of the military would move to the fore as Phases 0 to 4 proceed, although other government agencies would continue to support as necessary. With the completion of hostilities the United States would resume Phase 00.

The implications of implementing a whole of government Phase 00 are serious. The principles of Multi-Domain Battle would be the means by which the United States would enter a constant state of contest or struggle, but one that hopefully delays (or prevents) the outbreak of hostilities. In fact, a government-wide Multi-Domain Battle commitment could only lead to this. That is not how Western societies currently perceive war and peace, nor is it how they believe relations between states should work. Instead, Western societies see war and peace in binary terms, impossible to exist simultaneously. However, this is only because Western societies have forgotten that historically constant contest has been the norm in how states (and sub-states) behave towards each other. Unfortunately, the United States’s potential adversaries do not share this forgetfulness. Elsewhere I have argued that Multi-Domain Battle is not the best name for this concept. With its extension to other levers of government power the name makes even less sense.


It is possible China’s rise as a global hegemon may not continue. The internal challenges China’s Communist leadership must master are formidable, and there is every likelihood that demographic, environmental, or other factors may slow, or even reverse its rise. Russia’s resurgence could also prove short-lived, and the current regime may be swept away in another political and economic crisis similar to that which resulted in the the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, for the United States to bank on a potential adversary’s misfortune is not sound policy. Nor is such complacency fair to the men and women who serve in the military.

The United States cannot afford to delay halting its relative decline by creating the means to bring together all its levers of power in order to maximize its strength in the contests to come. Failure to move swiftly will only make the protection of the nation and its global interests harder and more dangerous for the military to achieve. It will also mean that in the future the military will require an increasing share of the nation’s wealth just to maintain its current superiority over potential adversaries who are growing more powerful. Which other parts of American society are willing to bear a reduction in their share of the national wealth in order to meet the military’s requirement? A nation which already must contend with internal challenges of its own, including financial, racial and demographic as well as the unrest generated by an increase in wealth inequality, cannot afford to allocate much more to the military without facing the risk of social strife or even civil war. As Andrew J Bacevich has stated the United States "must set its own house in order."

To achieve the full potential of the information era, Multi-Domain Battle must become more than just a concept for fighting that is owned by the military. Combat divorced from greater purpose, from a political end and from strategy, generally results in defeat. To succeed in this era, the United States must abandon the notion that a sharp distinction exists between war and peace, and must embrace constant contest. Those who have rightly perceived the opportunity to break down the barriers between the domains of war as a positive one must see that their logic also mandates the elimination of the divisions between the military, other agencies of the government and the people. Multi-Domain Battle must expand its remit and become the instrument by which to set a national vision, and it must harness the entirety of national power to achieve national objectives.

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. 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: "The Battle of Trafalgar" by William Clarkson Stanfield (Wikimedia)


[1] Robert H Scales, Jr., Yellow Smoke: The Future of Land Warfare for America’s Military, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, p. 6.

[2] John B Dwyer, Seaborne Deception: The History of the U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers, New York, Prager, 1992, p. 4.