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Expanding the Battlefield: An Important Fundamental of Multi-Domain Operations

April 27, 2020

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Since its birth in 1775, the U.S. Army has often been at the forefront of battlefield innovation—once war begins. Its history of initial preparedness, however, is mixed. From the Revolution through Vietnam, America lost the first battle of many of its major wars. Bunker Hill, Fort Mackinac, Manassas, Kasserine, Task Force Smith and Ia Drang underscore the cost of a failure to prepare between wars. In fact, the type of military dominance that the United States has enjoyed for the past 30 years is historically rare. Such dominance is also short-lived. This is especially true of great powers that miss major changes to the character of war. If the Army wants to avoid returning to the tendency to lose its first battles, it must transform.

The potential, if not the imminent prospect, of war between the United States and one of several possible peer states represents the greatest threat of a catastrophic first battle loss; it has driven a renaissance of thinking about great-power competition and warfare. At the forefront of these discussions within the defense community has been the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept. As other services have begun to grapple with the same challenges addressed in this new operating concept, interest in both the problem and in MDO’s proposed solutions has grown. Understanding, however, has unfortunately not grown as fast as interest; this article seeks to increase the depth of understanding of MDO in general and to describe some specific implications for modernizing the U.S. Army. 

The MDO concept deals with great-power and peer competition, and with war, in areas of the world where there are significant numbers of relatively modern militaries capable of operating effectively in the five domains of military operations: land, maritime, air, space and cyber. It is broader in scope than previous Army concepts, in large part because the advent of the information age, 21st century science and technology advances and adversary concepts designed to dilute U.S. advantages have blurred the distinction between peace and war. The MDO concept therefore addresses both competition before, during and after war, as well as armed conflict between the United States and a peer military. It enables the Army to realize in the information age the truism that war is an extension of policy. Once elected leaders commit the Army, it must win in order to enable political negotiation from a position of advantage.

MDO represents a dramatic shift in the Army’s focus from counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, throughout almost 20 years of war, to an emphasis on high-end competition and conflict against adversaries with the potential to put American vital interests at risk. This advent of legitimate existential threat capacity by peers threatens even to overturn the post-World War II international order that has enabled the United States to become the world’s preeminent diplomatic, economic and military power. As the nation returns to this side of the spectrum of competition and conflict, the Army, as a profession, is relearning the doctrine of large-scale combat operations and the importance of words such as momentum, tempo, operational reach, culmination, forms of maneuver, types of defense and the like. And, the Army is learning other things for the first time: the need to actively compete left of conflict in order to enable winning in conflict; a focus on systems and networks rather than formations to defeat A2AD (anti-access/area denial); and the rapid integration of cyber, information warfare, electronic warfare and the space domain at echelon in order to create overmatch. 

The current Field Manual (FM) 3.0, Operations, makes the shift for the operating force within the limits of current doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leader development and education, personnel, facilities and policy (DOTMLPF-P). But the limits are tangible. MDO is intended to drive change for the institutional Army to ensure that the intellectual precedes the physical in the development of the future force, enabling the United States to win in competition and conflict in the future. 

Because of MDO’s broad scope, the range of debate, dialogue and force development activities touch on every aspect of the Army. After summarizing MDO, this article will describe the physical characteristics of the operational problem in some detail. Then it will describe how the Futures and Concepts Center (FCC) is doing the math to ensure that the Army can fight and win on the MDO battlefield. 

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