Multi-Domain Operations: Ambitious yet flawed plans to deter Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific

Patrick Flannery | Indo-Pacific Fellow

China is rapidly developing its military technology in the Indo-Pacific and the US is losing ground. Part of the US push to maintain the balance of power involves Multi-Domain Operations (MDOs); a bringing together of land, air, sea, space and cyber capabilities to counter and defeat states with the power to challenge US supremacy.

This year, the US Army intends to reveal its proposal for MDO 2.0 and plans to establish a second Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) in the Indo-Pacific. It is even exploring the option of basing soldiers and weapons in the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. However, 2020 is also an election year, and the US Army is facing budget constraints that will inhibit its ability to carry out the MDO project.

1. The Role of Multi-Domain Operations (MDOs)

MDOs are a recognition that any future war will take place across all domains. They aim to remove the institutional segregation of military capabilities and elevate the role of branches typically thought of as support. This effort is led by the newly formed Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare and Space Units (I2CEWS).

The main purpose of MDOs is to aid the US in future joint operations against opponents with advanced anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD). A2/AD is the use of interconnected technologies to deny freedom of movement. This could mean the use of missiles, sensors, and other technologies by China to prevent the US from intervening in a certain area.

This CSIS power projection visualiser shows China’s overlapping capabilities in the South China Sea. With effective MDOs, the US could operate across multiple domains to counter Chinese A2/AD and open windows of opportunity for forces to deploy and secure territory. Long-range precision fire or air missile defence could open the way for the Army to move in.

1. Deterring Conflict in the Indo-Pacific

The challenging terrain and vast distances of the Indo-Pacific make it the optimum arena to test the MDO concept. A major motivation for the MDO concept is preventing a fait accompli victory by China. A 2019 United States Studies Centre report warns that if China’s A2/AD technologies continue to outstrip US capabilities, China may feel able to take islands in the South China Sea, East China Sea or even Taiwan, before the US could properly respond. By the time the US mobilised, the costs of conflict may be too high to risk intervening.

Without constant and credible deterrence, adversaries will be emboldened to seize territory. The success of deterrence will partially depend on effective military exercises, both live and simulated, across the Indo-Pacific. These exercises will be essential in figuring out the necessary logistics required to carry out MDOs with allies and partners within the Indo-Pacific.

1. Unclear and Underfunded

MDOs are generally accepted as a necessary step forward for the US. However, the way the concept has been carried out is subject to criticism from people like prominent defence commentator, Albert Palazzo.

He argues that the main problem with the MDO concept is that it is not connected to any form of strategy. There is no plan for what happens after MDOs beat A2/AD and break through with ground forces. If the US truly had China on the ropes, then conflict could go nuclear. Most answers involve massive escalation.

There is also a lack of internal logic. War with peer competitors is not rapid and decisive, which is what MDOs are designed for. They are almost inevitably long and gruelling wars of attrition. Without clear strategy, the purpose of MDOs is relegated to one of general deterrence.

Cynics accuse MDOs of merely being the Army’s way of justifying its presence in the Indo-Pacific, where competition with China is mainly contested in the air and sea.

Additionally, while the Indo-Pacific is supposedly the priority theatre for the US, this is not reflected in funding and focus.

The US Department of Defence Fiscal Year 2021 President’s Budget proposal maintains a distinct disparity in fundingfor Indo-Pacific Command, spending 2.5 times more on European Command and 50 times more on Central Command. For Indo-Pacific MDOs to truly reform US military culture and help balance against China, budget allocation must change.

However, with the 2020 US presidential election fast approaching, now is not the time to come asking for increased funding.

Also crucial to the success of the MDO concept is the US alliance structure, something that has been threatened by President Trump. Countries like Japan and Australia will be pivotal in presenting a united front and sharing the costs of developing new technologies and operations. Australia has a clear strategic interest in a robust and maintained US presence in the Indo-Pacific. Some have even argued Australia should develop its own MDO program.

But MDOs will remain a paper tiger until proper resolve comes from the top-down. Defence requires long-term planning and if the US does not realign its priorities now, they may lose out in the Indo-Pacific.

Patrick Flannery is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.