21st Century Warfare Considerations

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Physical Operating Environments:
How the Cyber-Electromagnetic Environment Fits

by Jim Gash

Major Jim Gash, BA (History), BSc (Applied Mathematics and Physics), MA (History), a Signals officer, is a member of the future concepts team at the Directorate of Land Concepts and Designs in Kingston, Ontario. His current research areas include space, unmanned systems, and cyber issues.

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There has been much recent discussion at the strategic level of the Canadian Forces (CF) with respect to the nature of operating environments. In addition to the traditional land, air, and maritime environments, many strategists are proposing the introduction of new environments for consideration by military force developers.1 The CF Integrated Capstone Concept (ICC) published last year proposes three new environments, referred to as domains—space, cyber, and human—while declaring that even more operating domains will emerge in the future.2 Specifically, nano and quantum domains are mentioned as possibilities.

The intent of this article is to discuss the cyber environment. It will be argued that the cyber environment is nothing new. Rather, it is simply a unique manifestation of the electromagnetic (EM) operating environment—a familiar component of military operations with integral operating concepts and principles that lend themselves well to cyber.

The Land, Air, and Maritime Environments

The traditional environments of land, air, and maritime are distinct, and they will continue to be distinct in the future. This division exists because different technologies—and therefore unique supporting equipment, skill sets, and training—are required to physically operate within these distinct environments.3 Sometimes, the lines between operating environments can blur. The physical land environment, for example, may extend beyond mere geography, to include things such as water features (i.e., swamps, streams, rivers, and landlocked bodies of water). These features, however, differ significantly from ‘blue water’ oceans. Blue water requires distinct technologies—both surface and sub-surface—in which to operate. Land forces are ill-suited to navigating maritime shipping lanes, while naval ships are similarly undesirable for swamp or riverine operations. Thus, there is an enduring requirement to treat land and maritime as distinct physical operating environments.

Similarly, operations in the air environment require their own set of technologies.  Dirigibles, fixed wing, and rotary wing aircraft are all technologies required to operate in the air environment, yet they are completely unsuited to maritime or land operations, not to say that they are not essential to support both land and maritime operations. Although army brigade groups or naval task groups may be structured to include helicopters in their respective orders of battle, this must be considered a manifestation of joint operations rather than an example of merging physical environments. The use of distinct technologies to delineate physical operating environments opens up other possibilities for environments beyond land, air, and maritime. As distinct physical components, only space and EM need to be added to round out an all-inclusive model of the physical plane.

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Why Space is and Why Human is not 4

Should space be considered as a separate environment from air, or should it just be one aerospace environment? The answer essentially rests upon one’s definition of the term operating environment. Although several definitions exist, each with their own nuance, an operating environment may simply be thought of as the milieu in which military activities are conducted.5 Operating environments may be distinguished from one another, based upon the technology used by military personnel to operate therein.  Using this definition, it is apparent that air and space are indeed separate. Aircraft and satellites, for example, tend to work best in one environment, and not in the other.

Although space can be distinguished from the air environment, indeed, some argue that they are physically separated by the Karman Line itself—roughly where the speed required to maintain flight surpasses the speed required to maintain orbit, it becomes more difficult to conceptually differentiate cyber. In point of fact, there exists a fair degree of misunderstanding about what exactly is meant by cyber. Often, it is confused with virtual reality, or as something that exists on the information plane. The information plane, however, is not a physical environment. It is simply the link between activities that take place in the physical plane, and effects that are achieved on the psychological, cognitive, and moral plane, which together may be referred to as the human dimension. Cyber is physical in that it manifests only through the actual interaction between electrons and electromagnetic energy.

The ICC fails to mention the electromagnetic spectrum in its treatment of operating environments. It is understandable that the document included no discussion of potential future environments such as nano and quantum, given that we do not yet operate in such environments, at least, not intentionally. Given that we have been exploiting the EM spectrum for military purposes for more than a century, it is surprising that it was not given consideration in the ICC. Considerable attention was paid, however, to the human domain—an area outside the traditional breakdown of the physical plane.

In the model proposed in the ICC at Figure 1, the human domain is represented in the same manner as land, maritime, air, space, and cyber. Although the model’s intent is understood to draw attention to the human dimension of military operations, delineating the human as an operating environment actually undermines the over-arching importance and omnipresence of the human dimension, thus defeating its objective of the elevation of the human dimension above the physical operating environments. It can certainly be argued that the human mind is an operating environment on the cognitive, psychological, or moral plane, each of which are underpinned by physical processes within the human brain, but such an argument overlooks the actual intent underlying the need to distinguish between operating environments.

Figure 1

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Figure 2 depicts the traditional depiction of the effects-based approach (EBA) to planning and operations. The EBA model may provide a better framework for situating the human dimension within an operational context. Figure 3 and the follow-on notes attempt to explain this approach.

Figure 2

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If environment is defined as the physical milieu within which activities are conducted, a comprehensive list of environments need only include land, maritime, air, space, and electromagnetic. These five environments are each valid in that they each require their own set of unique technological operating capabilities. Again, this is why space must be considered separate from air. Activities conducted within these environments occur in the physical plane, and effects are generated across the physical, information, and psychological planes. However, when considering the EBA, the emphasis of effort is directed at analyzing effects on the psychological plane. It is in this plane where effects have the highest payoff, because it is herein that the human dimension (formerly called human domain) dominates. 

Activities may have first-order effects upon the physical and information planes, but the milieu where effects matter most is upon the psychological plane, for this is where an adversary’s understanding is shaped, his will is undermined, and his cohesion shattered; where domestic opinion and operational legitimacy lay; where trust within the comprehensive approach is built; and where so-called ‘hearts and minds’ of local populations are influenced. As such, Figure 3 may serve as a more comprehensive framework in which to envision the all important human dimension. In this model, all activities conducted within the five physical environments are prosecuted with a view to achieving the desired effects in the human dimension, across all operational themes.

The human dimension is pervasive. The physical environments are merely the milieu within which activities are conducted to affect this human dimension.

The Electromagnetic Operating Environment – How Cyber Fits

Any given publication on the cyber domain will yield a unique definition as to what is meant by the term cyber. Within Canadian Forces doctrine, there is no definition prescribed for what is meant by cyber. It is therefore worthwhile to examine some of what has been said to date about cyber by the Canadian Forces.

The ICC describes the cyber environment as the cyberspace domain which includes the Internet, telecommunication networks, computer systems and software:

The cyberspace domain will be a mechanism for integrating all of the domains at the strategic level resulting in one common operational picture. This functionality will be complemented by the facility of the cyberspace domain to merge the strategic functions, producing integrated effects. Cyberspace may also be where the medium and the message are virtually inseparable.6

Figure 3

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The ICC acknowledges that an official definition of cyber remains a work in progress. It also states that cyber ought not to be confused with the information environment. Cyber is merely one physical environment where information can be passed. To confuse the two would obscure the purpose of the information plane, and disregard the fact that all activities conducted in the physical plane are meant to generate information that will achieve an effect in the human dimension. Cyber is but one of several physical operating milieus exploited in the conduct of information operations, and the term cyber itself presently ignores other EM considerations.

Figure 4

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The ICC hits upon a key point that unfortunately was not expanded upon, specifically, that telecommunication networks are encompassed in the cyber environment. As already mentioned, the ICC describes cyberspace as consisting of the Internet, telecommunication networks, computer systems, and software. Conceptually, software sits on computer systems which are connected via telecommunication networks creating a cyber world, most readily exemplified by the Internet. Moving this idea forward, we need to think of what is physically going on within this conceptualization; that is, the physical transmission of electromagnetic energy in order to physically manipulate electrons for the purposes of conveying information. It is the interaction of energy and electrons that wholly describes this environment. As this is the same thing that occurs in the greater electromagnetic battlespace, we may regard cyber as simply a subset of an all-encompassing EM environment.

Therefore, five physically distinct operating environments exist: land, air, maritime, space and electromagnetic (EM), where cyber is currently a subset of EM. The technologies required to operate in each are distinct, and each environment requires its own unique supporting equipment, skill sets, and training. 

Components of the EM Environment

The Canadian Forces Communications and Electronics (C&E) Branch focuses upon EM as its operating environment. With the advent of more and more advanced computer networks, the main effort of the C&E Branch has shifted away from radio and telephony towards intense focus upon network operations that link together all so-called domains of the Branch.

Figure 5

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As shown in Figure 5, the activities of the C&E Branch—described holistically as network operations—fit within the sphere of command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).7 The three domains of network operations include electronic warfare and signals intelligence (EW/SIGINT), communications and information systems (CIS), and computer network operations (CNO). These three domains are linked together by the physical EM environment, as depicted earlier in Figure 4. They are, indeed, inseparable. A quick look at each of these domains will demonstrate this conclusion.

EW is defined as:

… military action to exploit the EM spectrum encompassing the interception and identification of EM emissions, the employment of EM energy, including directed energy, to reduce or prevent hostile use of the EM spectrum and actions to ensure its effective use by friendly forces.8 The EW component is further divided into three sub-components: Electronic Attack (the employment of electromagnetic energy, including direct energy, to reduce or prevent hostile use of the electromagnetic spectrum and to ensure its effective use by friendly forces); Electronic Protection (action taken to ensure friendly effective use of the EM spectrum despite the adversary's use of EM energy); and Electronic Support (the search for, interception and identification of electromagnetic emissions in the EM battlespace). The products of electronic support include Electronic Intelligence and Communication Intelligence referred to collectively as SIGINT.9

CIS includes all of the resources that bind all of the other components of the command and control system:

To be more precise, it is an assembly of equipment, methods, and procedures, and, if necessary, personnel, organized to accomplish specific information conveyance and processing functions. CIS encompasses both communications and computer related resources including the associated low level software applications. Communication Systems (CS) provide communication between users and includes transmission systems and switching systems in support of information transfer. An Information System (IS) is used by individuals to store, retrieve, process and display information in support of job related tasks.  It includes software, applications and processing devices such as computers, scanners, and printers; in other words the Local Area Network (LAN) itself.10

CNO is comprised of three components: attack, exploitation, and defence:

Computer Network Attack (CNA) includes the means to attack computer systems.  Software and hardware vulnerabilities allow computers, storage devices, and networking equipment to be attacked through insertion of malicious codes, such as viruses, or through more subtle manipulation of data, all in order to affect the understanding, and ultimately undermining the actions of, the adversary. Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) supports Information Operations by the ability to get information about computers and computer networks, and the adversary, by gaining access to hosted information and the ability to make use of the information and the computers and computer network itself.  Finally, the purpose of Computer Network Defence (CND) is to protect against adversary CNA and CNE. CND is action taken to protect against disruption, denial, theft, degradation, or destruction of information resident in computers and computer networks, or of the computers and networks themselves.11

Arguably therefore, CNO could be a sub-set of CIS, or even EW. However, it is important to describe CNO as its own domain within the EM environment, as this distinction allows us to define exactly what we mean by the term cyber. CNO consists of those operations conducted within the cyber portion, or cyber domain, of the electromagnetic environment. Alternatively, the cyber domain ends where computer network operations are unable to achieve an EM effect. As communications and electronics technologies continue to merge, it is clear that the line separating CNO from CIS, and, indeed, the line between CNO and EW/SIGINT, will cease to exist. In this sense, the EM operating environment will eventually become wholly synonymous with the cyber environment.

Figure 6

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The three network operations domains are exhaustive in the sense that they include all military aspects associated with the manipulation of electrons and electromagnetic energy. In other words, these domains describe all military activities that take place within this particular component of the physical plane.

In summary, the EM environment includes electronic devices and their components (both hardware and software), the physical hardware and infrastructure connecting electronic devices, and the spectrum of electromagnetic energy itself, including all forms of radiation and EM particles—both elementary and atomic. Each specific domain within the over-arching EM environment may include some or all of these components. For example, the cyber domain includes all communications and information exchange enabled by computer-based networks. It is the domain where computer network operations are conducted. This ought not to be confused with the term cyberspace.12 As CIS, EW/SIGINT, and CNO continue to merge, the cyber domain will expand to encompass all aspects of the EM environment. This process of expansion or envelopment, traditionally referred to as convergence, will eventually make the EM environment synonymous with the cyber environment.

Perhaps the best terminology to employ here, in order to account for the traditional use of the EM operating environment for military activities, recognition of the growing importance of cyber, and the issue of convergence, is the cyber-electromagnetic environment.

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The Case for New Environments - Quantum

Given the definition of environment, is it reasonable to expect that new environments will emerge? The ICC mentions quantum and nano as potential candidates, while acknowledging that there may be even more domains that we have not yet considered.

Quantum refers to discrete packets of EM energy. To be sure, quantum theory is a different subset of physics than electromagnetic theory, although there is considerable overlap. However, this does not imply that a separate military physical environment is needed to describe activities and behaviour at the quantum level. It is the macro effect of quantum activities that is of interest on the physical plane. For example, futuristic quantum computing would be part of the cyber-electromagnetic environment. 

Movement at the quantum level is not easily described. Physicists use probabilities and terms like quantum tunnelling to illustrate how particles move from point-to-point in traditional space time. It may well be that particles at this level actually move through undiscovered dimensions. To be sure, the discovery of new spatial dimensions beyond the traditional three (up-down, left-right, and in-out) will fundamentally change our perception of physical space. One could even imagine futuristic military applications involving the conduct of operations within these higher order dimensions—where we could, for example, manoeuvre across vast distances without ever being seen.13 No technological advance, however, will allow us to pass formed three-dimensional structures in such a manner. Quantum will therefore not emerge as a future operating environment.

A Nano Environment?

Another potential future operating environment put forward by the ICC is nano.  Nano is a scaling factor that refers to a relative size rather than a place. Nano-science and nanotechnology therefore deal with behaviour and activities of physical entities at the nano scale. Generally speaking, we may think of this as the molecular level. There are, indeed, unique technologies required to operate at the nano scale, and therefore, at first glance, it appears to be a strong candidate for a future operating environment – although it begs the question of whether the ability to conduct military activities in ever-shrinking milieus requires the emergence of new environments. For example, we have atomic warfare at present, yet this has not driven the requirement for the recognition of a separate atomic operating environment.

Nanotechnology best fits into the pre-existing operating environments in much the same way as described earlier here for atomic weapons and quantum computers.  Depending upon the technological advance, nano devices, including their activities and behaviours, will simply fit into other domains. For example, nano weapons will affect operations in particular environments much the same as CBRN weapons do today. As such, they will simply be a component of the physical environment that they affect. In a similar vein, nano robots (or nanobots) will be part of the environment in which they work, be that land, maritime, air, space, or even the cyber-electromagnetic environment.

Much the same as the maritime environment includes surface and sub-surface settings, the land environment logically expands to include the subterranean environment, as similar technologies and basing would be required in order to support both ground-surface and underground operations. The aerospace milieu is unique in that different supporting technologies are required for the conduct of military operations. As such, the physical setting above the Earth’s surface is logically split into two separate and distinct operating environments. The electromagnetic nature of the physical world completes a holistic model of the physical plane of military operating environments. They constitute the sum of physical milieus where military activities can be conducted in order to convey information that will achieve effects in terms of shaping and influencing the human dimension—the ultimate objective of military operations at all levels. To be sure, technological developers need to continue to look at the physical world at scales much smaller than can be seen by the human eye, but such research into enhancing the human ability to operate in the five environments does not imply the emergence of new environments. 

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The discussion of operating environments must not be dismissed as mere scholasticism. The purpose of clearly delineating the physical milieus of operations has a most useful application to the capability development process. Thinking merely in terms of how space and cyber support the land, air, or maritime environments creates the potential for vulnerabilities and lost opportunities. For example, if cyber is thought of only as the glue that links command with the other operational functions, we risk marginalizing the cyber component of the physical plane to a synonym for CIS—the so-called zeros and ones with which only ‘jimmies’ should be concerned. We would thus miss the full range of force enhancement capabilities that cyber offers. When examining the future security environment, and considering the trend towards full convergence of cyber, EW/SIGINT, and CIS, it becomes clear that an opportunity or vulnerability in one domain may be physically linked to exploits or threats in another. As such, a comprehensive understanding of what cyber is and how it fits into the traditional environments is essential.


  1. The terms environment, domain, and environmental domain are either used differently or synonymously, depending upon the source. The lack of common language is often what stirs debate on such conceptual issues.

  2. This article will use the term domain to describe a sphere of influence. For example, the land domain may refer to those things which can be influenced by the land component commander. Not necessarily restricted to influence by one person, domains may be influenced by any number of different things (hence forming an infinite set of domains). The cyber domain, for example, may consist of the physical space influenced by actions in cyberspace—anything from blogging to computer network operations.

  3. This technology-based conceptual distinction between operating environments was proffered by Mr. Regan Reshke, Chief of Staff Land Strategy Science Advisor, during Directorate of Land Concepts and Designs (DLCD) discussions concerning the nature of the human dimension in March 2010.

  4. The discussion in this section is based upon DLCD discussions concerning the nature of the human dimension in March 2010.

  5. For example, the ICC describes an operating environment as being “… where elements of power and influence are exercised.” It lists maritime, land, and air as some of the domains within this environment.  This language is contrary to existing terminology employed by the land, air, and maritime environments.

  6. Chief of Force Development, Integrated Capstone Concept, at http://cfd.mil.ca/CTF/resources/Core%20Documents/30557_ICC_PROOF.pdf, accessed 8 March 2011, p.  30.

  7. This diagram was borrowed from the Canadian Forces School of Communications and Electronics Campaign Plan (draft second edition), p. 5.

  8. Chief of Land Staff, Electronic Warfare, B-GL-358-001/FP-001, at http://lfdts.kingston.mil.ca/DAD/ael/pubs/B-GL-358-001-FP-001.pdf, accessed 8 March 2011, p. 31.

  9. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). The generic term used to describe COMINT and ELINT when there is no requirement to differentiate between these two types of intelligence, or to represent fusion of the two. Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) refers to technical material and intelligence information derived from EM non-communications transmission (i.e. radar, navigational aids, jamming transmissions) by other than intended recipients. Communication Intelligence (COMINT) refers to technical material and intelligence information derived from EM communications and communication systems (i.e. Morse code, voice, facsimile) by other than intended recipients. See Electronic Warfare, p. 18.

  10. Chief of Land Staff, Signals in Support of Land Operations, Volume 1, B-GL-351-001/FP-001, at http://lfdts.kingston.mil.ca/DAD/ael/pubs/B-GL-351-001-FP-001.pdf; accessed 8 March 2011, pp. 1-3.

  11. Chief of Land Staff, Land Operations, B-GL-300-001/FP-001, at http://lfdts.kingston.mil.ca/DAD/ael/pubs/B-GL-300-001-FP-001.pdf; accessed 8 March 2011; pp. 5-50.

  12. Cyberspace is a colloquialism used to refer to the virtual or on-line world created by the physical global cyber infrastructure. It is usually used synonymously with the Internet itself. The cyber operating environment may include portions of cyberspace. For example, military operations may use cyberspace for intelligence activities, or they may simply exploit the physical public telecommunications infrastructure. It is worth noting, however, that the cyber operating environment is not the same as cyberspace.

  13. See further discussion of extra dimensions on the interactive website: 12 Events That Will Change Everything, at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=interactive-12-events .