“We will go beyond the traditional concept of ‘joint’ to a depth of multi-domain integration that adds up to far more than the sum of the parts.” That was the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence’s pledge in “Defence in a Competitive Age,” a 2021 command paper. It outlined how the armed forces would adapt to novel threats from increasingly belligerent state and non-state aggressors by utilising new technology.

It is a theme that has been taken up across the defence industry. Rhetoric around developing space and cyberspace capabilities to complement traditional military competencies in land, air and sea is well-worn. The language of multi-domain integration implies something more involved. It points to the need for what Sir Patrick Sanders, then-Commander of the UK Strategic Command – now Chief of the General Staff – called “penta-phibians”: personnel who can ride a wave of technological change to operate seamlessly across all five domains of warfare. Encouraging technological compatibility and collaboration between military branches is no longer enough. The race is on between the West and the rest to spur a new era of operational efficiency and integration. Breaking down silos will be crucial but again this is not new.

Since the 2021 command paper was published, the breakout of war in Ukraine has upped the ante on integration. It highlighted the growing influence of the “grey zone”, with cyber-attacks preceding open hostilities and aggressive sanctions following them. It has emphasised the importance of open-source intelligence: satellite and social media data means the conflict can be tracked in real time. Military strategists need to get on top of these trends. In future wars, the victors will be those that can harness data across domains, parrying disjointed attacks from their foes while delivering devastating coordinated ones of their own.

Platitude or plan of action?

Breaking down silos and leveraging data sounds impressive. Whether governments are committing the money and manpower to make it a reality is another matter. “Transforming our ways of working”, a chapter in the 2021 command paper, reflected the UK’s government’s recognition that fragmentation was a problem. But it was light on detail about what should come next. The paper tasked Defence Intelligence – a part of Strategic Command – with deploying technology to “coordinate intelligence operations” and “become more agile in exploiting its knowledge.” Timelines and checklists for implementation remained unclear.

Additionally, there are political challenges to contend with. In Europe, for example, the impact of Brexit is uncertain. Frameworks like PESCO allow the UK to maintain participation in EU defence initiatives if member states assent. But the UK has conventionally taken a hard line against pancontinental projects. Meanwhile in July 2022 the EU Commission announced €1.2 billion worth of support for 61 projects investigating defence integration across the bloc. Some firms may find that clients on the continent are integrating at a different pace to those in the UK; industry will have to pull together all the harder to make integration feasible.

An important prerequisite is cultural reset across the defence world. In an August 2022 briefing paper, James Marques, a defence analyst at GlobalData, observed that digital transformation looked sluggish. “If large companies are to pool resources and collaborate to produce leading-edge platforms and capabilities,” he said, “(they) are going to have to explore interoperability with one another’s processes in a manner not typically seen in conventional market competition.” If policymakers are serious about integration, they will have to work more closely with operators on the cutting edge of managing defence data. They must also encourage these operators to work with each other – somehow coaxing defence contractors to share insights with competitors.

It is a topic firmly in the spotlight for industry analysts. In an interview earlier in 2022, Derrick Pledger, Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President at Leidos, spoke of the need for “glueware”: a digital bridge between legacy processes and new capabilities. Mountains of data and teams of top analysts cannot be turned into operational advantage while systems are outdated and departments run clashing protocols. Administrators may be aware of this but, isolated and wary of outside interference, progress could be slow and logjams will ensue.

Industry boosts the momentum

The path to multi-domain integration, then, will not be an easy one. But experiments continue to test its viability. For example, joint military drills in the US are now incorporating network resiliency in wargames. Its strengths and weaknesses can then be assessed across combat operations – “not after the fact, not in a special IT forum, not with just the CIOs”, according to Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, former-Director for C3/Cyber, CIO, Joint Staff J-6 in the US Department for Defense, “but in front of the warfighters to say: ‘Here’s the impact this move would have had.’” This should help to starkly illustrate shortcomings and provide a foundation for negotiating solutions – overcoming the cultural and legacy issues hampering multi-domain integration.

Working out what these solutions should be is a tricky task. Industry is helping to provide a roadmap. For example, Leidos’s service management, integration and transport solution (SMIT) has already been rolled out across US naval IT systems, managing both physical and service networks while bringing together myriad services from multiple providers in one platform. It is a first step to integrating the isolated networks that have hitherto provided ad hoc connections for military branches’ digital assets. This is a crucial foundation for the operational imperative known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). It will mean the deluge of open source and private intelligence confronting analysts can be processed and shared between domains and allies, maximising the potential of new technology.

Such initiatives show that, despite political and cultural challenges, the digital ingredients clearly exist for multi-domain integration. Network resiliency is a clear priority among the world’s top military thinkers, the drive to connect data across domains is gathering momentum and the likes of Leidos are making it possible. It may be a buzzword in command papers and policy debates, but innovators have created the blueprint for an integrated future. With legislative backing, they can make it a reality.

To find out more about multi-domain integration, the components needed to bring it to fruition and how Leidos can help, click here.