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Future Land Warfare Collection 2021: A Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Multi-Domain Operations and Australia’s Joint Force—Risk and Opportunity

The armed forces of a minor power are not in a position to make major contributions to the development of the art of war and taking our cue from the British, in this as in so much else, the Australian Forces have thrown up no great theorist or systemiser. If the hallmarks of the American way of war are power and mobility, what can be said of the Australian variant?

Jeffery Grey[1]


The quest to identify an Australian ‘way of war’ has spluttered along since federation. Thirty years after Grey’s observation, we appear no closer to answering the question he posed. The continuity of our military history and practice in this regard is relentless and depressing. Arguably, we are again in the midst of adopting yet another essentially foreign concept—multi-domain operations (MDO)—as a de facto warfighting concept in the absence of an original and appropriate sovereign concept. In this paper I argue that critical examination of MDO can create ‘a festival of dangerous ideas’ around the development of an Australian way of warfighting, and also challenge how we might think about the operational employment of Australia’s joint force. The idea of ‘a festival of dangerous ideas’ is apt. Channelling the actual festival (held in Sydney each year since 2009), this critical examination of MDO seeks to ‘bring to light important conversations that push the boundaries of conventional thought’.[2] The ‘dangerous ideas’ which emerge illuminate risk and opportunity for the Australian joint force in the increasingly uncertain years ahead.[3]

It is apparent that MDO is a chameleon-like concept, adopting various and often inchoate forms, dependent upon both context and the understanding of the person engaged. This paper will describe the three most common forms of understanding which MDO generates in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) today, before examining the most substantive form currently developed—the US Army’s doctrinal version.[4] The review of US Army doctrine will include description of emergent US issues and criticism. This understanding in turn informs identification and evaluation of the likely risks and opportunities MDO implies for the ADF joint force. Awareness of such risks and opportunities will offer us the chance to develop sovereign Australian approaches to the emergent challenges of the 21st century, aligned with the sense of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update.[5] It is acknowledged that any such action will necessarily be tempered by the impact of the ‘fear of abandonment’ that ‘lies deep in the history of European settlement in Australia’.[6] Despite this paper’s ambition, it is unlikely that any Australian military concept will drift far too from the century-plus pattern of comfortable acquiescence to the doctrine of a stronger military partner. The paper concludes with ‘dangerous ideas’ for the Australian joint force, such as suggestion of an emergent way of Australian warfighting appropriate to strategic guidance, sovereign circumstance, alliance requirements and the context of the times.

What Is MDO?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Surprisingly for a topic which is subject to a lot of contemporary discussion, ‘MDO’ is either not defined or ill-defined by the institutions that discuss it.[7] For the purpose of this paper I will offer three normative senses of MDO that cover the most common forms encountered. The first is the ‘plain English’ sense which can be made of the words ‘multiple domain operations’: military operations, actions and activities conducted in and across two or more domains (such as land, air, sea, space and cyber/information) in order to achieve planned operational effect(s).[8] The second is MDO as an artefact of endorsed military doctrine. The US Army’s The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 is the most obvious and complete example, although other nations also have doctrine treating the subject.[9] The final normative form of MDO encountered in the ADF is a confused offering. It is reminiscent of the fictional solicitor Denis Denuto’s famous line in the 1997 Australian film classic The Castle: ‘It’s the vibe of it. It’s the Constitution. It’s Mabo. It’s justice. It’s the law. It’s the vibe and ah. No that’s it. It’s the vibe. I rest my case.’[10] This final form of ‘understanding’ of MDO, while arguably the most common, is also the most concerning. It combines ignorance of the subject with a half-grasped understanding from hearing something of the first and second forms of MDO. The problem arises because the term/catchphrase ‘MDO’ often leads individuals to leap to the framing (without the understanding) provided by the US concept.[11] The ‘Mabo/vibe’ form will only be eradicated by development of—and subsequent education about—an endorsed ADF view of MDO.

The first sense of MDO is one the ADF needs to carefully and critically engage with, think about and assess. The second, the US doctrinal sense, is one the ADF must carefully understand and develop appropriate responses to, given the weight of the ANZUS alliance, the fact that it is the most ‘mature’, and the possible impacts on Australian concepts, joint force design and interoperability.

The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

US Army MDO doctrine arose in a context of increasing United States concern about the ‘re-emergence’ of actual or potential great-power competition, and the development and acquisition of sophisticated technological capabilities that can create so-called ‘anti-access and area denial’(A2AD) zones.[12] This was coupled with a perception of emergence from a period of ‘strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding’.[13] Army’s MDO doctrine reflects the ‘conceptual azimuth’ taken in response, ‘returning the U.S. military to a time when each higher echelon (division, corps, theatre Army) has a unique task and purpose across domains’.[14] Unsurprisingly, the pamphlet detailing the doctrine is long and dense (102 pages).[15] A useful summary is offered by the former Commanding General of US Army TRADOC, General Stephen Townsend:

The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 concept proposes a series of solutions to solve the problem of layered standoff. The central idea in solving this problem is the rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare to deter and prevail as we compete short of armed conflict. If deterrence fails, Army formations, operating as part of the Joint Force, penetrate and dis-integrate enemy anti-access and area denial systems; exploit the resulting freedom of maneuver to defeat enemy systems, formations and objectives and to achieve our own strategic objectives; and consolidate gains to force a return to competition on terms more favorable to the U.S., our allies and partners.[16]

The doctrine is succinctly summarised in the pamphlet by the catchphrase ‘Compete, Penetrate, Dis-integrate, Exploit and Re-compete’.[17]

Examination of MDO must include The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 as a case study because it is the most definitive and comprehensive example of a developed MDO doctrine among the ‘Five Eyes’ partners. Given its predominance in the lexicon, it is not unreasonable to assume ADF members subscribing to the ‘Mabo/vibe’ sense of MDO have in some way been influenced by it. However, it would be wrong to assume universal acceptance of the doctrine, even within the US joint force—it is an Army doctrine, burdened with both the authority and the challenges that come with such status. The example of the United States Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance is illustrative.[18] Conceptually rich (in the document it mentions composite warfare, expeditionary advanced based operations, and distributed operations), it nevertheless makes no mention of MDO. Another difficulty arises from MDO being an ‘operational approach for a very context specific US military problem designed to drive US Army force design and resourcing that manifests as an output of the US Program Objective Memorandum process’.[19] Despite general acknowledgement that it is a ‘work in progress’ constructive criticism of the MDO doctrinal work is common.

Several criticisms are identified by Huba Wass de Czege, the founder of the School of Advanced Military Studies, in analysis published by the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute.[20] The most telling is that MDO as presently advocated by the US Army is a ‘theory of warfare’ rather than a ‘theory of victory’ for war. This is a strong criticism—one that an alliance partner such as Australia with far fewer means and endurance than the US should find disturbing. Another problem de Czege perceives is equally concerning: he regards the schema underpinning the concept as reactive, rather than proactive, to threats to allies and partner nations the US is ‘treaty bound to defend’—essentially ceding the strategic initiative to an enemy.[21] Both of these are valid concerns; equally, they may be relatively easily ‘fixed’ in any revision of the doctrine. Other problems are less easily fixed; they reflect flaws in the doctrine’s underlying logic.

The summative catchphrase ‘Compete, Penetrate, Dis-integrate, Exploit and Re-compete’ draws attention to two large problems of logic. The first is an assumption that an enemy, having been ‘defeated’ through the loss of their A2AD system through competition, penetration, dis-integration and exploitation by the ‘blue force’, will readily retreat from conflict and resume ‘competition’. This idea is both fanciful and without historical precedent. The historical record actually suggests the opposite. From the Spartans to the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, or the Vietnamese Communist forces ‘defeat’ during the Tet Offensive, an enemy often does not realise they are ‘done’. This is recognised in the often repeated military truism ‘the enemy has a vote’. The second significant flaw in this ‘return to competition’ logic is that it fails to address the nuclear power elephant in the room. The US specifically mentions Russia and China, both nuclear armed powers, as potential threats or aggressors. But the doctrine is conspicuously silent on what might trigger a nuclear response from either in the face of provocation or military operational distress.

Other criticisms range from the serious to the almost inevitable. An obvious one is that the concept, while superficially situated within a ‘joint force’ premise, is no real way ‘joint’ at present. Another is the sheer complexity which manifests from the concept as envisaged. This complexity comes less from the large number of players, units or agencies required to make MDO ‘work’ than from the increasingly exponential number of transactions they generate through interaction and influence. This is creating institutional thought about command, control and management of MDO—such as the challenge of re-creating or reintroducing ‘Theatre Armies’ between Corps Headquarters and Combatant Command (COCOM) Component Theatre Command Headquarters.[22]

At the serious end of the scale of concern is the premise of deliberately planning to take on and defeat a threat to the A2AD zone. This is the exact opposite of an asymmetrical approach—it is taking on the enemy on the ground and theatre of their choosing, where they have invested considerable time and effort to array layers of sensors, networks, defences and lethality. Attrition is both an acceptable and often a necessary strategic or operational approach. However, defaulting to it risks not only costs in blood and treasure but also distortion of force design. War comes in many forms, and while the US may have resources and agility to adapt when it gets involved in a different war to the one envisaged, it is almost certain Australia does not. Australia’s joint force needs to be an ‘all-rounder’, able to meet the demands of many missions. This leads to consideration of other specific concerns for the Australian joint force.

Concerns for the Australian Joint Force

If we plod along with only the feeble lantern of our vision of contemporary events, unaided by history, we see—to be sure—a little of the past just under our feet; but the shadows are grotesque and misleading, the darkness closes in again behind us as we move along, and none can be sure of direction or of pace or of the trueness of action.

George F Kennan, 1957[23]

Kennan wrote in a time which is—in many respects much like today—a time of revisionism, the ever-developing threat of peer-on-peer state war with a nuclear branch or sequel, and proliferation of coercive statecraft. Such conditions demand strategic agility and original thought specific to the circumstance of each nation-state. Aspects of US MDO doctrine currently appear unhelpfully misaligned with the Australian circumstance.

Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update is inherently defensive in scope and aspiration. It favours a secure immediate region over distant crusades in support of an already diminished ‘rules-based global order’. In contrast, US MDO doctrine is literally and explicitly offensive; effectively envisaging the conduct of high-end attrition warfare outside of Australia’s immediate region. This divergence, if unaddressed, has potential to warp Australia’s strategic and operational approach to its sovereign defence needs. Specific problems include the possible distortion of Australia’s joint force design in order to fit a foreign warfighting concept. This could hasten the componentisation of ADF force elements as part of a putative combined joint Indo-Pacific force already evident in some parts of the Australian joint force. It may also further the perception of the ADF as a ‘strategy taker’ rather than a ‘strategy maker’. The inferences for Australian sovereign force thinking, design and warfighting cannot be easily dismissed.

Another concern goes to the negotiation and development of interoperability. The advent of ‘Theatre Army HQ’ for the conduct of MDO within the Indo-Pacific has implications for a joint force Australia’s size. A current debate in the US Army is about how the difficulties of raising such headquarters, estimated at being 4,000 people or more in size and staffed with experienced and ‘joint enabled’ people.[24] Clearly Australia will not raise, or have the ability to raise, such headquarters. But this does raise the issue of how any (likely two-star) Australian Joint Task Force will ‘connect, integrate and operate’ with a plethora of three- and four-star US headquarters at the corps, theatre army and COCOM ‘Title 10’ component and COCOM levels is a serious command and control interoperability question. A related concern also requiring attention is the control, access and use of the sensitive sovereign national assets allies would need to use in order to conduct MDO as envisaged.

A Few Dangerous Ideas

Scenarios have the power to engage and open the minds of decision makers so that they pay attention to novel, less comfortable and weaker signals of change and prepare for discontinuity and surprise.[25]

MDO may well be the scenario which, combined with contemporary Australian strategic guidance, challenges us to reassess the operational practice and coordination of the US alliance. As such, it may unexpectedly enhance the alliance by challenging us to operational pragmatism and the development of new ideas and contributions to shared security and defence concerns. Because sovereignty matters, this is a profound issue. It would be unacceptable to ADF force designers to circumscribe the freedoms of any future Australian government in a crisis through the constraints of a force designed for a non-sovereign way of war or operational approach. The further development or advent of MDO as a US concept may well have a ‘forcing function’ to drive decisions about an ‘Australian way of war’ for our circumstances in the 21st century.

So what might a way ahead look like? The policy detail in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update is sympathetic with, if not already implying, the idea that the Australian joint force could or should develop an A2AD zone for our sovereign defence in or near our immediate region. Development of such a zone aligns with attainment of the strategic defence objectives of shape, deter and respond.[26] Such conceptual development could be presented to the US alliance relationship as complementary to the US MDO concept through securing both the immediate region (it is another military truism that all theatre commanders like a secure flank and rear) and Australia itself as a combined allied support area for operations in the Indo-Pacific. This would help the ADF to identify areas of technical development, cooperation and coordination with the US that could allow mutual benefit and inform ‘interoperability wins’. The idea has the potential, through negotiation, to pragmatically define agreed and contingent operational outcomes of the alliance relationship. This may reduce the risk of surprise in the event of conflict and enhance partnership on the basis of shared understanding. These ideas will allow us to distinguish the unique military challenge the ADF is required to address, and propose an overarching central idea (concept) that is distinguishable from, but interoperable with and complementary to, any US MDO concept.

Conclusion—Surviving the Festival of Ideas

Colin S Gray titled the introductory chapter of one of his books ‘Getting the big things right enough’.[27] It is an appropriate thought to conclude this paper with. MDO presents a large and varied conceptual presence—and this paper necessarily only lightly touches on the possible range of complexities. The risks and opportunities raised in our examination of MDO are matters of complex and enduring strategic and operational significance. Themes such as the nature of alliance partnerships, combined interoperability of joint forces, employment of national strategic assets across and through domains, command and control of combined theatre armies, and the possible emergence of a sovereign Australian way of warfighting for the emergent 21st century Indo-Pacific contribute to a ‘festival of dangerous ideas’ that emerges from consideration of MDO. By their very nature the issues arising from these themes challenge the status quo of conventional thinking in today’s ADF. Yet the unpredictability of long-term national security challenges will always confound the irresistible forces that drive prediction.[28] This offers a cautionary note for those who are profoundly enthusiastic about the prospects of MDO and equally for those who are cynical.

The Australian government’s strategic direction in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update is crystal clear with respect to the importance of the ANZUS alliance, the imperative for Australian sovereign approaches and the primacy of geographic focus on Australia’s immediate region over all others. Australia’s joint force is at a pivotal point in time. MDO presents it with options ranging from being a sovereign joint force operating in a secure alliance relationship through to being a subordinate force provider for a larger alliance partner. Getting ‘the big things right enough’ through careful consideration of an Australian way of joint warfighting will ensure we neither limit future options nor unwittingly subvert strategic guidance through simply embracing a foreign MDO concept. We have an opportunity to address Jeffrey Grey’s challenge as to the contribution a minor power might make to the art of war as well as securing the nation against emergent challenges through development of an Australian way of warfighting: dangerous ideas indeed.


[1] Jeffrey Grey, 1990, A Military History of Australia (Sydney: Cambridge University Press), 5.

[2] The Festival of Dangerous Ideas was co-founded by the Ethics Centre and the Sydney Opera House in 2009. It was presented at Sydney Opera House for eight years and in its ninth year inhabited Cockatoo Island with a festival presented by the Ethics Centre with the UNSW Sydney Centre for Ideas. See The Ethics Centre, 2020, Festival of Dangerous Ideas, at, accessed 28 September 2020.

[3] The phrase dangerous ideas is used throughout this paper in the sense of new or emergent ideas that challenge the conventional or accepted orthodoxy.

[4] United States Army, 2018, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028.

[5] Department of Defence, 2020, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia).

[6] Allan Gyngell, 2017, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942 (Melbourne: La Trobe University Press with Black Inc.), 5.

[7] For example, the ADF does not define MDO in either the Joint Glossary or any extant doctrinal publications.

[8] Author’s developmental ‘working’ definition.

[9] United States Army, 2018, TRADOC Pamphlet. For an example of allied ‘Five Eyes’ doctrinal treatment of MDO, see United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, 2020, Integrated Operating Concept 2025 Primer, (Shrivenham, Wiltshire: Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre).

[10] The Castle (1997), Rob Sitch (Director), Working Dog and Village Roadshow (Production).

[11] Personal correspondence, 2020, email ‘RE: Welcome your thoughts on the thought bubble below’ between author and LTCOL XXXXXX (anonymised to enable blind assessment), 11 September 2020.

[12] Department of Defense (2018), Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: United States Government), 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] General William S Wallace (retired), 2020, Multi-Domain Operations in Context, Landpower Essays, LPE 2-4 (Arlington, VA: The Association of the United States Army), 1.

[15] United States Army, 2018, TRADOC Pamphlet.

[16] Ibid., iii.

[17] Ibid., v.

[18]United States Marine Corps, 2019, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, at, accessed 27 September 2020.

[19] Personal correspondence, 2020. A ‘Program Objective Memorandum’ (POM) is a recommendation from the U.S. Services and Defense Agencies to the Office of the Secretary of Defense concerning how they plan to allocate resources (funding) for a program(s) to meet the Service Program Guidance and Defense Planning Guidance.

[20] Huba Wass de Czege, 2020, Commentary on ‘The US Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028’ (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press).

[21] Ibid., xxi.

[22] United States Army, 2018, The U.S. Army Concept for Multi-Domain Combined Arms Operations at Echelons Above Brigade 2025–2045, Version 1, September 2018 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: United States Army Combined Arms Center); Colonel Darren W Buss (2020), ‘Echelons above Brigades Headquarters in Multi-Domain Operations: Field Army Alternatives’ in Colonel Gregory L Cantwell (retired) (ed.), 2020, Theater Army Role in Multi-Domain Operations Integrated Research Project (Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College), 23–54.

[23] Cited in Gyngell, 2017, 1.

[24] Buss, 2020, 23–54.

[25] Angela Wilkinson and Ronald Kupers, 2013, ‘Living in the Futures’, Harvard Business Review, 91, no. 5, 126.

[26] Department of Defence, 2020, Defence Strategic Update.

[27] Colin S Gray, 2009, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books Inc., University of Nebraska Press).

[28] Richard Danzig, 2011, Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions about Prediction and National Security (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security), 4.


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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