The Importance of Joint Multi-Domain Operations in the Face of New Pacing Threats

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A U.S. Marine with Headquarters Battalion, 3d Marine Division, sets up communications equipment during exercise Keen Edge 22 - a biannual, bilateral command post exercise between the U.S. military and the Japan Self-Defense Force. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Diana Jimenez)

One of the common themes that you hear from military decision-makers and senior leaders across the United States Department of Defense is that the fight of the future will require all services to operate together across domains. However, with the reemergence of near-peer adversaries and adversaries that are increasingly sophisticated and capable, this requirement for coordinated multi-domain operations (MDO) is expanding to include our strategic allies and coalition partners.

Nevertheless, in 2022, coordination and communication between disparate services within the U.S. military remains a challenge. And that hurdle is even bigger when attempting to involve U.S. coalition partners. The increased role of technology in warfighting – coupled with the disparate networks and technologies that have been adopted by each different organization involved – can make it difficult to enable the coordination necessary to conduct joint operations against a pacing threat.

To learn more about the challenges that face the United States and its military allies as they attempt to enable both multi-domain operations and joint multi-domain operations, we sat down with Joseph Graf, a Fellow and Communication Systems Architect at Collins Aerospace and one of the authors of the recent whitepaper, “Resilient Autonomous Networking.”

The Modern Battlespace (TMB): Multi-domain operations is something we hear a lot about from the military at conferences and events. Why is multi-domain operations such a strategic priority for today’s Department of Defense? How is multi-domain operations different than how the DoD has traditionally conducted operations?

Joseph Graf: Multi-domain operations has been a vital part of the success of the U.S. and our NATO allies for many decades.

During the opening speech at NATO EDGE 22 in Mons, Belgium, General Philippe Lavigne, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Transformation, gave a couple of examples. The classic pre-NATO example of multi-domain operations is Operation Overlord, which was executed in Normandy back in WWII. In this example, the Allied forces executed a complex mission across multiple stove-piped domains with a preplanned script with much advanced planning to achieve our objectives.

Over the decades, we have continued to conduct operations in multiple domains, learning the value as we go. A more recent example he cited is in Afghanistan, where allied forces relied on today’s communications technology to bridge the stove-piped domains in a relatively benign communications environment. However, these cross-domain connections lack the resilience needed for real-time synchronization to ensure the force multiplication required to consistently achieve our objectives in the future.

In order to ensure continued overmatch in tomorrow’s battle, we need seamless, resilient communications technologies to create a more organic multi-domain force that is able to act/react in near-real-time to the changing dynamics of our operations.

TMB: What is the difference between MDO and JOINT MDO?

Joseph Graf: I really like how General Lavigne defined MDO and Joint-MDO during his speech as, “…the orchestration of military activities, across all domains and environments, synchronized with non‐military activities, to enable the alliance to deliver converging effects at the speed of relevance.”

He went on to say, “…there is a big difference between conducting complex joint operations – as we do today – and being able to conduct multi-domain operations, as we aim to do tomorrow. Joint operations are military actions conducted by joint forces: significant elements of two or more military services operating under a single Joint Force Command.”

Click the image above to download a complimentary copy of the recent whitepaper, “Resilient Autonomous Networking.”

He indicated that there is a big step between executing operations in multiple domains and conducting seamless multi-domain operations in the future, “…MDO is larger; MDO coordinates and synchronizes activities from multiple forces – military and non-military – that can operate in a non-traditional domain.”

This means seamlessly orchestrating operations across the five domains: sea, air, land, space, and cyberspace, across joint forces with communications networks that are robust, resilient, and able to operate as one network – or, as we say, a complete heterogeneous network that synchronizes operations across all domains, sharing the right information with the right people at the right time.

TMB: What is the current reality when it comes to military networks both within the DoD and with our coalition/allied partners?

Joseph Graf: Today, we have a patchwork quilt of networks that we use to conduct and coordinate missions. Within these networks, we rely on waveforms designed to operate in various environments – from permissive environments where high data rates can be achieved to highly contested environments where there is a trade between cost, complexity, and data rates to overcome jamming or to remain stealthy.

The amount of information we can send in a non-contested environment is high and doesn’t require a lot of optimization. In fact, we use standard IP protocols and can achieve a high degree of interoperability – much like how we use our smartphones today. However, once we work our way into the contested battle space, the amount of data we transmit is constrained due to the operational environment. We have to optimize the data and the way it is transmitted to ensure it is reliably received.

This creates inconsistencies between the patchwork quilt of networks since different types of networks optimize the data in different ways creating disparities between the networks.

We typically rely on gateway-type functions to bridge the compatibility gap between these disparate networks. This means there is a lot of coordination and planning to ensure interoperability across all these networks. Once you bring in multi-domain operations, the problem is exacerbated – and it only gets worse once you add the “J” to MDO, as there are security policies that dramatically complicate information exchange.

“…as technology advances, the amount of information we want to send increases exponentially…” – Joseph Graf

Also, as technology advances, the amount of information we want to send increases exponentially, as indicated in the brief I gave at the NATO EDGE 22 on technologies required for MDO. This need for more and more information means we need technologies to help us maximize the utility of our existing networks to provide an overall heterogeneous networking experience, that is, seamless and resilient interoperability across all networks and domains.

TMB: Why is it important for MDO and joint operations that networks interoperate? What capabilities are lost when there is no interoperability between disparate networks and waveforms?

Joseph Graf: Coordination between the various domains and joint forces is critical and required to enable the Alliance to deliver converging effects at the speed of relevance. Interoperability is a complicated subject. Not only are we talking about sending and receiving information across various networks seamlessly, but the content within the messages themselves needs to be in a format that all the domains can consume. Further, there are security policies that prevent sharing of some types of information and may hinder coordination across joint forces.

Technologies are emerging, and many exist that will help solve this seamless, resilient networking problem to ensure MDO and Joint MDO. Concepts in Cloud computing and data sharing are also contributing to the solution. Still, all of these capabilities need to work together to ensure the information transmissions are prioritized based on region, domain, phase of the mission, and so on, so as not to congest the various constrained networks with information that is not relevant to that particular domain’s objectives.

“Military and commercial industries have developed numerous waveforms and datalinks to provide communication and networking services that cover a wide range of spectrum, bandwidths, resiliency, reliability, and networking capabilities. However, each one of these waveforms and datalinks is a standalone communication system…” – Joseph Graf

TMB: What impact does this lack of interoperability have on resiliency? How does it impact the PACE plan for military networks?

Joseph Graf: Interoperability can be used to ensure that the right information gets to the right user at the right time. This interoperability allows us to utilize multiple networks to send high-priority data over redundant links to increase resilience. That is, when one network is disrupted, the flow of information remains unabated.

In a similar way, PACE (Primary Alternate Contingency Emergency) is a way to prioritize communication methods as disruptions occur. Today, this is a fairly manual operation that slows down the reaction times in sending information. In fact, there may be cases when a platform’s ability to remain viable within an operation is crippled if a consistent flow of information is not available.

Adding automation to PACE helps reduce operator workload, and combining the PACE plan with resilient networking concepts can dramatically improve the overall performance as various communication links become stressed.

TMB: We’ve been hearing about MDO for what feels like a decade. Why has it taken so long to make this a reality?

Joseph Graf: In reality, operations across multiple domains have been happening for decades, but achieving the goals we now associate with MDO and Joint MDO requires emerging technologies to provide the glue necessary to seamlessly link these disparate networks.

Military and commercial industries have developed numerous waveforms and datalinks to provide communication and networking services that cover a wide range of spectrum, bandwidths, resiliency, reliability, and networking capabilities. However, each one of these waveforms and datalinks is a standalone communication system, a homogenous network of its own, whether it be Line of Sight (LOS), Directional Line of Sight (DLOS), or Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS), as well as commercial or wired links.

“Today, we have a patchwork quilt of networks that we use to conduct and coordinate missions. Within these networks, we rely on waveforms designed to operate in various environments – from permissive environments where high data rates can be achieved to highly contested environments where there is a trade between cost, complexity, and data rates to overcome jamming or to remain stealthy.” – Joseph Graf

Each of these links serves a specific purpose. With the proliferation of these numerous waveforms and communication methods, now more than ever, the armed forces today need to develop requirements for a modern, integrated, and interoperable digitalized communication system to enable networked command and control in increasingly challenging environments. In this way, the scope of communications systems has evolved toward a “network-of-networks” or what I have been referring to as “heterogeneous networking.”

We do not want to reinvent all of these homogenous networks, so we have the challenge of converging these multiple networking systems into a seamlessly integrated network and distributing their information to the right consumers and end users at the right time, “at the speed of relevance.” This is the most cost-effective approach to achieving MDO/JMDO.

To learn more about the interoperability challenges facing the military and the RAN framework, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the whitepaper, “Resilient Autonomous Networking.”