Chris Tuck, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London
Joint Concept Note 1/20 (JCN 1/20), Multi-Domain Integration is the UK military’s conceptual response to perceived changes in the character of conflict. This document discusses, of course, this relatively new notion of multi-domain integration (MDI). This is a concept that is explicitly experimental, but it seems, at least within the British military, to be obtaining significant traction. So, what is it, and what questions does it raise?
A useful starting point is to identify what MDI is not. Multi-Domain Integration as envisaged in JCN 1/20 is not just multi-domain integration. The latter, as a description of a type of activity is hardly new. The term ‘multi-domain’ simply covers activities conducted in more than one domain; domains being ‘discrete spheres of military activity’. The term ‘integration’ is part of a lexicon describing various intensities of interaction within or between domains and could be understood to exist on a spectrum from simple de-confliction, through co-operation, then integration and, finally, fusion. Multi-domain integration in this literal sense falls easily under the traditional headings such as ‘jointery’ – where the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have progressively sought closer collaboration – and a ‘comprehensive approach’ whereby the armed services have increased co-operation with non-military security departments, agencies and non-state security actors.
It’s worth noting that MDI is also not the same as Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), the concept developed in the US Army in the 2018 document The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028. MDO it is a more narrowly military concept: it doesn’t look at the military’s role within a wider national system of integration. Moreover, the US Army’s concept of MDO, notwithstanding its references to the need to ‘compete’ and ‘recompete’ before and after armed conflict, is focused on cracking open enemy Anti-Access/Area denial (A2/AD) systems in the context of high-intensity war.
Instead, the concept of MDI explicitly attempts to move the British military’s thinking beyond jointery towards a new and more holistic approach to meeting threats and maximising British influence. MDI is a conceptual framework guiding military activity within the context of a highly integrated national system for the orchestration of power. MDI is defined in JCN 1/20 as ‘the posturing of military capabilities in concert with the other instruments of national power, allies and partners; configured to sense, understand and orchestrate effects at the optimal tempo, across the operational domains and the levels of war’.
To put this another way, MDI is an experimental concept that explores how the military should respond in the context of the creation of a highly integrated national (and to a certain extent international) system for the orchestration of the full range of the levers of power. This system would allow the UK to integrate all of the different domains and levers, military and non-military, at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of the application of state power and influence. This national integrated system does not yet exist, as the concept acknowledges. But JCN 1/20 effectively explores the logic of moving towards such a system and what it would mean for how the military operates. In that sense, MDI builds on the UK’s Integrated Operating Concept 2025 (IOPC25) by showing how the envisaged integration might in practice be implemented.
MDI doesn’t restrict itself to a specific level of conflict – it’s not, for example an operational level concept, unlike traditional joint approaches, although it does make reference at various points to some possible implications for the different levels. Nor does it presume that its solutions are strictly possible. It makes explicit assumptions, for example, about buy-in from allies and other government departments which self-evidently are highly contentious. It also acknowledges that the sorts of ideas that it outlines rely on technology that hasn’t yet been delivered. However, at the same time as being experimental, it is also a proselytising document. MDI sets out a problem statement and a preferred solution.
The solutions advocated by the document are based on its advancing of a very specific view of the contemporary and future character of war and the challenges that Britain faces. First, MDI argues that the UK is effectively in a state of permanent war, as a result of the expansion of the concept of war beyond the traditional, to take into account the sustained and dangerous campaign of unconventional ‘political warfare’ being used against the UK. Second, it assumes that the UK is currently losing this war. This is because our adversaries already in effect have national systems to orchestrate the instruments of power, and also because the UK is too defensive in its approach. Third, a military revolution is underway. It is assumed that we have crossed a watershed from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. In this new paradigm, information superiority and networking are decisive elements in war. Fourth, the traditional distinctions between domains is declining, driven by the pervasive relevance of space, cyber, and the electro-magnetic spectrum.
The JCN 1/20 MDI document makes clear that, whatever the practical difficulties, the central idea of maximal integration (which would, presumably, ideally result in fusion) within and across levels and actors is the optimal solution to these developments. In the ongoing war, the UK must ‘manoeuvre’ in every domain available to the government in creating the ‘effects’ necessary to defeat the political warfare being waged against it. In contrast to traditional joint forms of multi-domain integration, in MDI the military might not command all assets in a theatre, which could be drawn from a variety of actors and from a variety of levels.
This integration, it is assumed, will broaden the range of tools and possible combinations available to the UK; it will increase the synergies available in friendly actions; and increase the dilemmas faced by adversaries, who must face more, and more complex, ranges of threats across the domains and the spectrum of conflict. This is the context in which Defence needs to operate. As JCN 1/20 argues: ‘MDI is about designing and configuring the Whole Force for dynamic and continuous integration of all global capabilities together, inside and outside the theatre, munitions and non-munitions, above and below the threshold of armed conflict’.
In delivering this solution, MDI argues for a requirement to focus on four tenets. The foundational tenet is ‘Information Advantage’: a common, persistent, comprehensive understanding of adversaries, audiences, actors, and enemies. As the label suggests, this tenet is predicated on attaining information superiority. The second tenet is having capabilities ‘Optimised for the Environment’: essentially, having the right tools available for the specific context in which they are to be employed. The third tenet is creating capabilities that are ‘Strategically Postured’: having the right tools, in the right place and at the right time through such things as effective patterns of deployment. Last, MDI advocates ‘Creating and Exploiting Synergy’, this being the critical output of the orchestration of multiple tools of power.
MDI isn’t, then, conceptually, simply military-centric multi-domain integration. Nevertheless, in the end, in practical terms, that is what it could become, because of a range of potential challenges. Let me touch on four.
First, MDI is built on a set of contestable assumptions about the character of contemporary and future war. Should our concept of ‘war’ be expanded in the manner that MDI argues? Is a military revolution really underway? Are our adversaries really so effective at integrated national responses? In essence, are we privileging change over continuity – might less be changing than we think?
Second, there are obvious issues associated with the military, a small cluster of organisations, trying to experiment with a concept that is tied to a vision that is national in nature. But is an integrated national system for the orchestration of national power, or even a moderate facsimile of one, a likely development? That sort of structure, a holy grail for strategy-makers, has consistently failed to materialise because of the political, psychological, sociological, and organisational impediments to deep integration that are hard to overcome, even with new technology.
Third, in that vein, MDI acknowledges the potentially profound implications for the military; the concept will ‘change the way we operate and war fight, and the way we develop capability’. But the British military still struggles with jointery. To what extent can the MDI process overcome traditional problems that have always hindered integration between domains? After all, MDI, taken to its logical conclusion, challenges the very idea of single-services and traditional military cultures.
Fourth, how experimental will MDI really be – will it be rigorously tested and adapted? How much of it might actually be discarded if it is found to be questionable? Peacetime military innovation is, amongst other things, a political process. Major, high-profile, early buy-in and advocacy of the concept by the military creates organisational costs if MDI is seen to fail, creating an impetus for it quickly to become, not an experimental concept, but a de-facto doctrine.
At the moment, MDI is avowedly experimental and iterative, so at one level we can simply move forwards with it, seeing where it leads. But the operation of the four issues raised above might lead to something that is, in practice, much more evolutionary than revolutionary: MDI might indeed result in a narrower, more traditionally understood form of multi-domain integration rather than the radical leap forward currently envisioned.