The U.S. military is currently adapting to a new era of conflict. Senior military leaders, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, have focused heavily on improving readiness, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has led the charge in developing the capabilities and recruiting the personnel necessary to maintain an advantage during rapid change. The multi-domain battle concept articulates future combined arms operations. In doing so, it prepares forces for the increased jointness required to achieve effects across multiple domains, including new ones such as cyber. Doctrinal innovation also often galvanizes organizational innovation. The philosophical underpinnings of multi-domain battle should be used to design a new combatant command structure.
The successes of multi-domain battle
Advanced technology is rapidly changing the operating environment. Technology breaks down traditional barriers and extends range: cyberattacks and electronic warfare have physical impact. Previously unchallenged domains, such as air, are now vulnerable to short-range threats from the ground, as well as advanced anti-access/area denial equipment. Multi-domain battle creates opportunity in one domain using the capabilities of others, including nontraditional domains such as cyber and space. The vision has been embraced by Pacific Command Commander Adm. Harry Harris, who has sought to operationalize its interdisciplinary and creative thinking.
By coordinating cross-domain capabilities against a clearly defined problem set, Pacific Command demonstrates how the U.S. military should fight in the future. Through a mission-oriented combatant command structure, the U.S. military can apply this thinking more broadly.
Mission-oriented commands as the organizational equivalent
Today, actors like transnational groups and regional powers operate outside traditional borders and in nontraditional domains, which the combatant command structure does not readily accommodate. Effective commands should not be solely regional, but mission-driven, leveraging and coordinating a diversity of capabilities. These new combatant commands would be determined to counter specific current threats. They would mirror today’s commands on the surface but would be unrestrained by the current geographic definitions — allowing commanders to focus on the threat regardless of physical areas of responsibility.
These new commands should be designed to ameliorate the seams between responsibility and enable commanders to own the battlespace where their threat operates. For instance, there should be commands dedicated to countering major powers. Contingency planning regarding North Korea and Iran and assessing opportunities for Middle East stability also make the list. Finally, there should be a command that is dedicated to countering transnational terrorist groups (today spanning Central Command, Africa Command, Southern Command, Pacific Command, Special Operations Command and arguably Cyber Command). As is currently the case, the various commands would need to coordinate to align or deconflict missions. Seams between commands will always exist, and require coordination, but there are better and worse places for seams to exist. The geographic seams do not align to today’s operating environment.
In this model, the functional commands, such as Special Operations Command, Cyber Command and Transportation Command, operate as enablers — resource pools of capabilities that commanders exercise for a mission. This unifies command of the various tools available, synthesizing multidimensional capabilities into a strategic vision. Regional and intelligence experts, cyber capabilities, nuclear considerations, special operations, and traditional forces would all be coordinated to address the threat. The diversity of U.S. capabilities would be organized under one commander who would not be confined to geographic boundaries flouted by adversaries.
Without being constrained by purely regional definitions of areas of responsibility, this model provides combatant commanders the ability to track threats coherently around the globe — understanding the true status of the Islamic State group and its affiliates in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East; following Iranian terrorist financing networks in Latin America; understanding the strategic sea lane vulnerabilities of Chinese shipping routes to Africa and the Middle East; and monitoring other competitor military activities around the globe.
Multi-domain battle is designed to empower the services to mutually support one another against a defined enemy using all relevant capabilities. The U.S. military should achieve this same vision writ large through organizational changes.
The U.S. military is realizing that the future is joint: One service cannot complete the mission alone, and new domains must fuse with the traditional service-specific physical domains. To date, the focus has been on readiness, technology and doctrine. These steps are necessary to recruit and train U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to think critically in this emerging operating environment. But instead of moving solely to an era of intense jointness, the combatant command structure should be one of strategic integration. All capabilities available to the U.S. military should be coordinated under one commander to achieve desired effects against a defined threat to succeed in today’s environment. A mission-oriented combatant command model is designed to do just that.
Lauren Fish is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security.