When waging war against their enemies, ancient Greeks often prayed to the deities Ares and Athena. Ares, the fiery god of war, was known for his brute strength and reckless aggression; while Athena,  the sagacious goddess of wisdom, was known for her strategic thinking and righteous sense of justice. Because it married mind with muscle, their partnership was thought to be a perfect pairing for soldiers seeking victory.

But wars in this new era of great power competition are different from wars then. If the ancient Greeks were engaged in conflict today, the best object of their prayers might be Proteus, who in Greek mythology was a prophetic sea god who could unravel the past, discern the present and foresee the future. Although Proteus was omniscient, he did not like sharing his secrets. To avoid doing so, he would often change his form to hide from those who sought his counsel, metamorphosing into animals, trees, and even elements like water and fire.

To triumph over their adversaries, warfighters in the 21st century must be just as prescient and adaptable as Proteus. Because they are neither telepaths nor shapeshifters, however, they must derive their clairvoyance and versatility through multi-domain integration: sharing functionality and data seamlessly across platforms that are on the ground, at sea, in the air and—increasingly important—up in space.

Kay Sears, vice president and general manager, Boeing Space, Intelligence & Weapons Systems (Boeing Photo)

This is especially true for the United States as it prepares for potential conflicts with peer and near-peer adversaries, suggests Kay Sears, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space, Intelligence and Weapons Systems. “When you go to war with a peer adversary, the ability to work between and among domains in what would be considered nontraditional ways is what will make a difference in the fight,” Sears said. “For that reason, multi-domain integration and multi-domain operations—the ability to work between and within domains—has become vital.”

The itch for multi-domain integration is obvious. What is needed now are the cross-domain tools, technologies, and systems with which to scratch it.

Orbital warfare: Space as a warfighting domain

The case for multi-domain integration is stronger than ever thanks to the emergence of space as a warfighting domain.

“The space domain is the domain that’s newest to the fight, and it has created a really interesting dynamic in terms of how we think about warfighting,” explained Sears, who said the space domain has two primary warfighting functions that are evident in the mission of the U.S. Space Force that stood up in December 2019. The first is supporting other domains—for example, satellites collecting imagery to inform ground- and air-based operations like reconnaissance and missile defense. The second is protecting the space-based assets that make the first function possible. “Adversaries have figured out that space gives you major advantages in a fight, including the ability to see assets moving around, the ability to track, the ability to warn and the ability to queue. With our adversaries launching capabilities to take that advantage away, we now must defend ourselves in space so that we continue to maintain the high ground there.”

The critical importance of the “high ground” puts space at the heart of multi-domain operations and capabilities.

Consider a potential conflict in the Pacific region, for example. “A Pacific fight is unique because of how far away it is from our infrastructure and because of how an adversary may think about their area of regard … If you picture it on a map, how are we going to get close and be effective in that warfighting area?” Sears asked. “Multi-domain capabilities will be really critical because there will be areas of denial—areas that a lot of our assets might not be able to get into because the risk would be too high.”

Artist rendering of the Boeing-built E-7A which works in concert with space-based platforms to flow real-time operational data from the battlespace bubble to the joint force. (Boeing image)

Enter a platform like the E-7, an early warning and control aircraft that Boeing is developing for the U.S. Air Force. “Its job is to paint the picture for what’s happening all around it,” explained Dan Gillian, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s mobility, surveillance and bombers division. “I think of the E-7 like the head coach of a team: it’s there to help coordinate all the resources around the field. And, it works with space in a more integrated way, which is like having coaches up in the press box who are able to look down and get a different view of the same thing.”

In the aforementioned scenario in the Pacific, an airborne platform like the E-7 could work in concert with space-based platforms to turn a fragmented picture into a holistic outlook for military commanders and warfighters. “The E-7 communicates directly—let’s say line-of-sight—with radar. As it comes into a denied area that we call the ‘bubble,’ it’s talking to satellites and might ultimately hand its data off to space. We can then use space to beam that operational picture down into the denied area where the E-7 was operating,” Sears said. “That’s just one example … There are several missions that normally would be done in the air or on the ground that we’re going to have to use space for because of where we’re fighting.”

Dan Gillian, vice president and general manager, Boeing Mobility, Surveillance & Bombers (Boeing Photo)

The advantage afforded can be summed up in a single word: resilience. “The E-7 is an awesome platform by itself. But when you add in a space layer or a sea layer, now you have multiple layers of information coming together in one spot to create a much better-informed picture,” Gillian said. “And if one of those layers isn’t working or isn’t able to be there in the way that it should be, you have redundancy built in so that you can have the same information moving around through multiple channels. That’s resilience.”

Next-gen platforms unlock cross-domain capabilities

The E-7 is just one example of a platform that’s making the need of multi-domain integration into a reality. Another is the KC-46 Pegasus tanker, whose primary missions include aerial refueling, cargo transport and medical evacuation.

“Today, the KC-46 is communicating with space on a regular basis for beyond-line-of-sight communication, but think about the KC-46 of the future,” Gillian said. “It will always bring gas to the fight, and it will always move cargo around in the theater. That’s what it’s designed to do. But increasingly, we see it as a player in the digital network. It has a lot of computing capability in it, and we have the ability to bring more resources on board so that it can participate in the same picture-forming and information-command-and-control loop that the E-7 does … Both of these platforms will be able to work with space to move information around and build a more reliant, resilient and integrated site picture with multiple sensors coming together to help inform that picture.”

Space-based platforms also are driving multi-domain integration, according to Sears, who cited the 12th-generation Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) communications satellite that Boeing is building for the U.S. Space Force. “This is not your grandmother’s WGS … It incorporates several next-gen technologies that will enhance the resilience of communication systems, such as anti-jam capability and signal protection,” Sears said. “It’s going to carry a payload that can process the Protected Tactical Waveform, which gets at not only how do we fight and protect ourselves in space, but how do we then provide a protected comm link that can connect to airborne and maritime platforms, maneuver forces on the ground, and all the other assets that require secure comms?”

An artist rendering of WGS-12 on orbit. “This is not your grandmother’s WGS … It incorporates several next-gen technologies that will enhance the resilience of communication systems, such as anti-jam capability and signal protection,” Sears said. (Boeing image)

When it comes to satellites, orbital diversity is a key ingredient that supports multi-domain capabilities. Traditionally, most satellites have lived in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), which offers persistent coverage from fewer spacecraft, but also high latency. A new generation of small satellite operators, meanwhile, is focused on putting satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), which is easy to reach and offers low latency, but demands a large concentration of platforms to mitigate their vulnerability to area- or domain-wide effects, including electronic attack—and, therefore, a large cost.  Boeing is an advocate for highly capable satellites working in complement with highly proliferated satellites across multiple orbital regimes as a means for fielding resilient and effective space order of battle.  This includes satellite constellations in medium Earth orbit (MEO), which matches LEO in terms of accessibility and latency, but can achieve more coverage and offers increased visibility over GEO—the closer you are to Earth, the easier it is to track what you can see—with fewer platforms.

“We as a general aerospace industry have proven that you gain resiliency by being in different orbits,” said Sears, who cited advanced missile warning systems as an example. “We have to know what missiles are inbound to the United States in order to defend ourselves. And if you look at missile warning architecture right now, you have had a traditional GEO component with SBIRS and Next Gen OPIR, but now the Space Force is looking at the MEO orbit which offers visibility, coverage and survivability advantages not achievable from LEO alone.”

“They’re also looking at putting missile warning payloads on LEO. So, now you’ve got a GEO, MEO and LEO missile warning architecture, and that’s going to be a lot more resilient than where we started with just GEO,” continued Sears, who said the same argument holds true for communications satellites. “A lot of folks are saying that what we need is to proliferate the LEO comm, but if you poke a hole in that you’d better have some additional comm satellites in MEO or GEO to help pick up what you’ve lost in LEO.”

Having space-based assets in multiple orbits that can work in harmony with assets in the air, on the ground and at sea does not just create resilience. By extension, it also creates deterrence—which is a primary goal of the U.S. military in this new era of great power competition.

“If you think about how the air layer can interact with the space layer and the sea layer, that multi-domain communication and information sharing allows you to have all your resources in the right place. And that coordination is a deterrent in and of itself,” Gillian said.

Operational snapshot displaying how Boeing is delivering decisive mission advantage in, from, and to space. (Boeing image)

Next steps: Enabling the cross-domain future  

While Boeing already is developing platforms that bring multi-domain operations to fruition, government and industry can further enhance and accelerate multi-domain integration by pursuing a few critical shared goals.

The first is collaboration. “We need a really tight relationship with our customers,” Sears said. “We’re really stressing that as they conduct their wargames, develop their concepts of operations, and force designs. We’re asking for industry to be involved in these activities so we can see how they actually play the pieces—how they use our assets and what we need to change and tweak … No one knows our products and our capabilities better than us, so we want to be a part of the planning to better understand what trades our customers are making and how we can bring our investments to bear.”

The second shared goal on which government and industry must partner is in the development of open systems. For example, Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems recently completed the small satellite VICTUS NOX for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command. On the platform is a dedicated area reserved for late-breaking payloads supplied not only by Boeing, but also by its peers and competitors.

“We could literally be packing things up to go to the launchpad and integrate an incoming payload from a different company addressing a different threat,” Sears said. “We believe in designing products to receive payloads that can come from anywhere— open systems in the truest sense so you can leverage all of industry’s best capabilities.”

Echoed Gillian, “We’re really committed to open architecture because it allows information and knowledge to flow freely. That’s how we help our customers do their job the best.”

A third priority is cybersecurity. “We think about cybersecurity in two ways,” Sears said. “One, we are vigilant internally about protecting our network with standards that exceed DoD requirements. So, there’s a cybersecurity model and audit, and we do very well in terms of protecting our own information. Second is the cyber wrapper that we build into our products … things like red/black architecture when you think about a communications satellite or a missile warning satellite. We’re very used to building those kinds of systems.”

A final and more complicated piece of the puzzle is procurement. “When you think about multi-domain operations, the Department of Defense is starting to tackle the question of how they can work jointly across domains and link capabilities, but they’re not yet changing how they acquire,” Sears said. “They might define a system that goes through different domains, for example, but they’re still buying it on a piecemeal basis based on what domain it intersects … That’s a challenge facing multi-domain operations that we’re going to need to address.”

Boeing’s space agenda: Alignment, architecture, acquisition

Boeing has developed a strategic approach to developing multi-domain warfighting capabilities. It revolves around three foundational pillars that echo the aforementioned priorities: alignment, architecture and acquisition.

“The alignment piece really has to do with industry and our customers,” Sears said. “We want to understand the evolving threat and how our customers are thinking about the courses of action available to them so we can fine-tune our investments.”

That alignment then enables the design and development of innovative, open system architectures to address mission needs with pace in real time with cost-informed solutions.  “Alignment with our customers leads to an architecture solution that we all understand because we’re looking at defense in-depth together,” said Sears.

Simply put: When industry and government get on the same page about mission priorities from the get-go, they can deliver improved capabilities at a faster cadence.

The final ‘A’—acquisition—is the lever that leads to activation and execution. “The biggest inhibitor to us investing our capital and our research-and-development dollars is inconsistent messaging and inconsistent funding from the Department of Defense. So, the signals our customers send are really important because they impact how we leverage the resources that we have,” Sears continued. “I believe those three As—the alignment on what we need to do, the architecture that’s designed, and the signals from our customers that they’re actually going to acquire it—put us as a nation on a path to work in lockstep. And if we’re working in lockstep, we’re going to get things done.”

It’s that attitude that will give the United States the “Protean” advantage it needs to win future conflicts, Gillian said. “We understand that the future fight is a multi-domain fight,” he concluded. “At Boeing, we have contracts and platforms across all layers—land, sea, air and space—and we’re really proud of that. Thinking about air and space, in particular, we have the capability today to integrate domains in real time, and we know we can build on that even further if we build to open standards in a way that allows everybody to bring their best kit and equipment forward for our customers.”

Sears echoed his sentiment. “There is a sense of urgency to all this and Boeing stands prepared to drive these cross-domain solutions.”