How do Russia, China, Iran and North Korea approach multi-domain integration in defence?

Collage of UK defence and security images, photo by Jess Plumridge/RAND Corporation based on UK Defence Imagery Crown Copyright photos

To influence the development of the UK’s approach to multi-domain integration, a series of case studies explored potential adversaries’ approach to integrating domains of warfare, as well as across government and with external allies, partners and industry.

What is the issue?

UK Defence is confronted with a strategic and operational environment characterised by complex interactions among multiple domains, such as maritime, land, air, space, cyber and electromagnetic. This proliferation of domains increases the necessity but also the difficulty of developing and implementing effective strategy and operational concepts across domains.

At the same time, these new operational domains and environments present the UK, its allies and partners with novel opportunities to exploit the vulnerabilities of adversaries.

How did we help?

RAND Europe, as part of the Global Strategic Partnership, was commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defence to support the development of a UK concept for multi-domain integration (MDI). The aim of this concept is to allow the UK to achieve and maximise its advantage over potential adversaries by exploiting the integration of activities. This means integrating both vertically through the levels of warfare — tactical, operational and strategic — as well as horizontally across domains, across government, and with external allies, partners and industry.

For this study researchers focused on if, and to what extent, the UK’s potential adversaries – Russia, China, Iran and North Korea – are developing multi-domain concepts of their own and investigated the nature and drivers of the countries’ evolving perspectives on the future of warfighting.

The report also outlines how broad similarities in the ways that the UK’s potential adversaries conceptualise and implement MDI or related thinking present some important lessons for the UK. These findings fed into the development of the UK concept of Multi-Domain Integration and the first edition of the associated Joint Concept Note (JCN) 1/20.

What did we find?

  • Multi-domain thinking in context. In understanding the multi-domain approaches of potential adversaries, it is useful to distinguish the ‘narrow’ military operational aspects from the broader context of geopolitical and strategic competition.
  • Focus on information advantage. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea all emphasise superiority in the information environment as critical to success in a multi-domain conflict, with a particular focus on seizing a decisive advantage in the competition phase or early stages of a conflict.
  • Translating emerging concepts into practice. The emergence of multi-domain thinking in Russia, China, Iran and North Korea has been largely reactive, shaped by threat perceptions and their own geostrategic realities. In the absence of explicit doctrine, some adversary activities, such as force structuration and modernisation, reforms, capabilities acquisition and operations, nonetheless indicate multi-domain concepts beginning to translate into practice.

What needs to be considered?

  • There is an important difference between multi-domain doctrine (theory) and multi-domain posture (practice), and the UK should seek to bridge that gap as it matures its own approach to Multi-Domain Integration.
  • The UK should not project Western constructs on to adversary approaches to multi-domain thinking but must understand these on their own terms if the UK is to effectively counter them.
  • Potential adversaries do not possess perfect knowledge of UK and Western concepts or intentions, raising the risk of unintended consequences if each side misreads the other’s evolving approach to Multi-Domain Integration.