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MDO –An Emerging Concept

Picture Courtesy DVIDS Hub

While integration of forces is a conventional approach for destruction and neutralization of the enemy employment of multiple domains for facilitating combat in the tactical area is leading to the concept of MDO with strategic as well as operational connotations.

At the outset it must be confessed that there is lack of clarity on the concept of multi domain operations and the issue is being debated mainly in the United States given nature of adversary and the tools that are used by Russia, China or even North Korea and Iran to gain politico diplomatic advantage even before a shot has been fired. This is also seen as trends for future conflicts into the 21st Century. In the operational context domains have been traditionally defined as land sea and air. These have been expanded to space or aerospace, undersea, cyber and information.

There are numerous subsets that can be defined within these domains such as perception management, media and influence operations in the information spectrum. The segmentation of domains today as well as weaponization not in the classic sense of employment of violence but for gaining a politico-diplomatic advantage has led to consideration of the phrase- ‘multi domain operations.

While defining MDO should be the first stage for explaining a new concept, this is not being attempted here given the complex drivers of MDO but a sense would be provided by the end of the article. More over the loosely worded term of hybrid warfare what-ever that may mean is likely to further create diachronic challenges.

Implied herein is to underline that if war is politics by other means a simplified Clausewitzian aphorism, then the tools available in multiple domains will facilitate the ultimate objective of the Indian Armed Forces as given in the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces 2017 – ‘War Avoidance.” Herein war implies the use of violence for political ends.

Yet MDO provides options for achieving political ends without violence or minimum loss of lives. It is winning without fighting that has been espoused by Sun Tzu or adopting the line of least resistance to achieve maximum decision – the Indirect Approach propounded by Liddell Hart. In some ways winning without loss of blood may not appeal to Indian martial values where valour on the battlefield and sacrificing ones life in the defence of the nation or the Nishan [flag] is seen as the ultimate duty of the soldier. An attitudinal change may therefore be necessary to win without losing lives. A perspective of the domains and tools for conduct of MDO in the contemporary context may be called for.

MDO – Domains

The MDO domains are reiterated as integrated or stand-alone medium to include land, sea, air, space, cyber and information. The salience of MDO as different from wars waged in the past arises from the multiple tools that are available in each domain to gain a political objective.

For instance, targeting critical satellites by using anti-satellite missiles may send a strong signal to the adversary of potential to decapacitate military as well as civilian infrastructure.

Cutting of a submarine cable connecting the information highway may cause extensive disruption in the flows of economy and business bringing a nation to a halt yet it may not cause a single loss of life. Cyber is another medium that is vulnerable for targeting.

In the varied tools– drones and missiles have emerged as the asymmetric options that can be exercised by an adversary to penetrate the strategic vulnerability loop forcing him to call for peace. At another level domains could be seen as - diplomatic, political, economic or energy. Classically these would be grand strategic rather than the military domain yet operational capabilities exist today to achieve the desired successful outcome through employment of MDO tools.

A recent example may be noteworthy in this regard. On 14 September Saudi Arabia reported a strike by 18 drones at the Abqaiq oil processing facility, four cruise missiles the Khurais oil field and three missiles towards Abqaiq which fell short. 11 spheroid separation tanks used to separate gas from crude oil were destroyed in Abqaiq amongst other damage shutting down 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil production for Saudi Arabia or 6% of total global supply. While Saudi Arabia amongst others blamed Iran and the Yemeni proxy Houthi, a United Nations inquiry failed to establish that, “cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles used in these attacks are of Iranian origin."

The message that was send by this strike was however crystal clear – Saudi Arabia identifying vulnerabilities at least temporarily has opted to avoid escalation. The information domain provides options for strategic shaping of the environment in the Adversaries core political sphere such as the U.S. Presidential elections.

Influence operations launched to shape the same have been alleged especially by the American Democratic Party with Republican Mr Donald Trump beating Ms Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential elections – who had been leading in the opinion polls. Indeed if influence operations were employed Russia may have gained a four year reprieve in a softer relations with the United States under President Trump. While this may seem over simplification of the dynamics of internal polity as well as bilateral diplomacy between the world’s premier nuclear powers- the United States and Russia – the underlying trends cannot be brushed aside.

MDO and War Avoidance

In an earlier part of the article, MDO was identified as a possible stratagem for war avoidance. Most recently this was witnessed again in the Middle East. In June this year U.S. military cyber forces crippled Iranian military computer systems after Iran’s provocative action of downing the Global Hawk high altitude surveillance drone.

U.S. Central Command confirmed on 20 June that Iranian military had shot down a BAMS-D RQ-4A Global Hawk. Some Iranian commanders also publicly proclaimed the same but were quickly rebuked by the higher leadership for fear of provocation. As the World’s premier military and economic power this could have been seen as a setback for the U.S. and there was rising demand for a counter strike.

US President Donald Trump, however opted to launch a cyber-attack on Iran’s military network sending the right signals yet avoiding an escalation which could have spiraled out of control in what is the, ‘energy hub,’ of the World - the Persian Gulf.

MDO – As Options of Contentions for the Future

Violent wars are best avoided given the impact that these can have globally witness crippling of the Saudi oil infrastructure albeit temporarily – yet use of coercive means are unavoidable – under these circumstances MDOs provide the options ahead. Culled from the discussion above – MDO’s could be seen to be conducted in the land, sea, air, space, cyber and/or information domain with their respective subsets to achieve direct or indirect national objectives in the political, economic, energy, socio – political, ethnic spheres and so on.

Armed forces will increasingly have to adopt to fighting in the MDO environment integrated in multiple dimensions to gain a strategic advantage over the adversary even before the first shot is fired. Such an advantage can also be achieved in the tactical domain by rightly configuring the forces. The move to shift from coordinated to integrated war fighting and leap to MDO for the Indian Armed Forces is thus now.


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