Air Force and Navy: When to Integrate

  • Published
  • By Todd Moulton

It is no secret the US Air Force and the US Navy possess a number of similar capabilities. While some capabilities such as strategic lift and aviation should remain separate to fulfill service respective requirements, those that are clearly redundant, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), should be combined to streamline operations and save resources. The Navy should cease its nascent ISR discipline and integrate its personnel and equipment into the Air Force’s structure, due to the Air Force’s experience with the ISR mission set and its robust ISR processing, exploitation, and dissemination infrastructure.1

Retaining Separate Capabilities – Strategic Lift

The services need to retain their respective lift capabilities, even though these capacities seem to overlap and replicate each other. While these capabilities appear duplicative, they complement each other.

The Air Force and the Navy own equipment and employ tactics, techniques, and procedures that enable them to conduct a range of complementary mobility operations that fill similar and different requirements in peacetime and during conflicts. The services’ respective mobility methods enhance Joint operations by affording all geographic and functional combatant commanders a variety of simultaneous or sequential options to fulfill mission requirements. The Department of Defense typically gears strategic lift capabilities toward achieving force sustainment and power projection. The armed forces rely on the Air Force and the Navy to project soft and hard power by leveraging the capabilities of US Air Force Air Mobility Command and US Navy Military Sealift Command.2

The defining differences between the services’ mobility competences are timeliness (Air Force) and the amount of weight (Navy) the services can transport. These disparities demonstrate why each service needs lift capabilities. The Air Force’s aerial lift assets can rapidly transport needed personnel and material into a conflict area or to a military-operation-other-than-war. This capability enables a Joint Force commander (JFC) to establish a base of operations from which to conduct maneuvers against an enemy or assist in an Ally or partner in nonmilitary matters.

The amount of equipment and personnel the Air Force can transport, however, is rarely enough to sustain forces on the ground or in the air for more than a few weeks to months without causing excessive damage to the fleet’s overall capability through over usage.3 The Navy complements the Air Force with its ability to carry an exponentially greater tonnage of forces and supporting material into a designated operating area.4 During the opening phases of Operation Desert Storm, the initial US forces arrived by air, yet the equipment and supplies for these men and women were aboard maritime prepositioned ships. In the final calculus, the Air Force quickly brought in 10 percent of the US military vanguard, which laid the foundation for a successful campaign against Saddam Hussein. In comparison, the remaining 90 percent of US personnel and supplies arrived by sea to execute the war.5

Retaining Separate Capabilities – Aviation

The services also have duplicative aviation competencies, but these capabilities mostly supplement, reinforce, and expand the other components’ capacities. Much like lift capabilities, Air Force and Navy aerial assets offer Joint Force commanders a litany of possibilities to sequence operations. While the services conduct counterair and countersea mission sets, timeliness, maneuverability, and aerial refueling are the primary differences between the services that necessitate maintaining their respective air capabilities.

Due to sustainment requirements, Air Force assets tend to be located hundreds or thousands of miles away from a potential conflict—a shortfall the Navy supplements. The Navy can position forces off the coast of a potential adversary, enabling a JFC to react quickly to any hostile land, sea, or air forces enroute to attack US military units. This proximity allows the JFC to establish and maintain local maritime and air superiority.6

Once the Air Force masses assets closer to the adversary, the service increases the JFC’s level of battlespace control by incorporating the fifth-generation Raptor, land-based bombers, and its unparalleled aerial refueling capabilities.7 The Navy’s limited in-air refueling capacity is a restricting factor in executing counterair and countersea tasks, but the Air Force’s plethora of aviation refueling options assist the Navy in maximizing its strike warfare potential by increasing the range of Navy fighters.8 The identified aviation gaps in the services highlight why the components should keep their aerial competencies.

When to Integrate - ISR

The services both have ISR capabilities. But the Air Force is far ahead of the Navy in developing and perfecting the mission set. The Air Force cites global integrated ISR as one of its primary competencies and is investing resources and cultivating personnel to achieve its stated goal of employing ISR to shape and drive decision making.9 The Air Force has roughly 35,000 Airmen and civilians involved in the ISR enterprise on a daily basis.10 This workforce and the well-honed capacity of the service’s distributed common ground system (DCGS) enables it to receive, process, and exploit information from multiple platforms in real time.11 The Air Force is already looking into the future to evolve its ISR capacity and expand this competency into the cyber realm to conduct offensive and defensive cyber operations to prepare the battlespace for the JFC.12

While the Navy is maturing its ISR capabilities, it is doing so in an ad hoc and uneven fashion. The Navy admits it heavily depends on the Air Force to fulfill naval ISR requirements and will continue to do so for the near term.13 The Navy’s main ISR platform, the MQ-4C Triton, modeled after the Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk, did not reach initial operational capability until 2021 after a seven-year delay due to technical and budget issues.14

The Navy’s DCGS-like construct is in the embryonic phases, and the Navy slated the processing, exploitation, and dissemination to run out of the Office of Naval Intelligence.15 The Office of Naval Intelligence’s processing, exploitation, and dissemination division will likely be far too small to process the amount of data coming from the service’s ISR platforms. An early indicator of the division’s lack in capacity was the Office of Naval Intelligence’s partnership with the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity for assistance with full-motion video processing, exploitation, and dissemination for high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft systems.

The Navy stated the service did not have the capacity to support the MQ-4C’s initial operational flights and the resulting process, exploit, and disseminate mission data at US Pacific Fleet. Moreover, the Navy had to rely on the Air Force’s Special Operations Command to train eight Navy personnel to integrate with the Marines in processing, exploiting, and disseminating full-motion video data from the Triton missions.16

Instead of continuing to build an organic capacity, the Navy should fold its assets and manpower into the Air Force DCGS infrastructure. The Navy could embed liaison officers with the DCGS to ensure the Air Force met Navy ISR requests. The Navy’s attempts to stand up a clearly duplicative competence does not make sense when the Air Force already efficiently and effectively conducts the mission set. The Navy could easily attach itself to the Air Force DCGS construct and fulfill the Navy’s tactical and operational informational needs.


The Navy and the Air Force possess coexisting lift, aviation, and ISR competencies. The services’ respective lift and aviation capacities complement each other and offer Joint Force commanders numerous options to execute and accomplish objectives during various phases of a campaign. The flexibility and versatility the services’ lift and aviation capabilities afford JFCs highlight the need for each service to retain these competencies.

Conversely, the Department of Defense needs to consolidate the disparate and redundant Air Force and Navy ISR capabilities under the Air Force. The Navy’s ISR capacity is limited, not well resourced, and years behind the Air Force in the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures and equipment. Furthermore, Joint Force commanders do not gain enough additional return on investment by having both services provide ISR-based situational awareness. The immature state of Navy ISR capabilities should lead the Defense Department to rely on the Air Force to fulfill DoD ISR requirements, bringing Navy ISR personnel and platforms under the Air Force DCGS construct.

Lieutenant Commander Todd Moulton, USN, is the officer in charge, Joint Reserve Intelligence Center Detroit, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan.


[1] Jonathan Greenert, “Navy Perspective on Joint Force Interdependence,” Joint Forces Quarterly 76 (January 2015): 12, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/.

[2] Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education (LeMay Center), Air Mobility Operations, Air Force Doctrine Publication (AFDP) 3-36 (Maxwell AFB, AL: LeMay Center, June 28, 2019), 1, https://www.doctrine.af.mil/; and US Department of the Navy (DoN), Headquarters US Marine Corps (USMC), and Headquarters US Coast Guard (USCG), Forward – Engaged - Ready: A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy (DoN), March 2015), 24, https://www.globalsecurity.org/.

[3] Chad T. Manske, “The Strategic Airlift Shortfall.” Unmanned Airlift: A Viable Option for Meeting the Strategic Airlift Shortfall (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2004), 7–12. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/; and Robert Owen, “US Air Force Airlift and the Army’s Relevance,” Parameters 47, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 107–9, https://press.armywarcollege.edu/.

[4] DoN, USMC, and USCG, Naval Operations Concept 2010: Implementing the Maritime Strategy, (Washington, DC: DoN, 2010), 21–22, https://irp.fas.org/.

[5] Headquarters USMC, Expeditionary Operations, Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 3, (Washington, DC: HQ USMC, April 1998), 2-12, https://www.marines.mil/; and Christopher R. Paparone and James Crupi, “What is Joint Interdependence Anyway?” Military Review (July–August 2004): 39, https://apps.dtic.mil/.

[6] DoN, USMC, USCG, Naval Operations Concept, 22.

[7] LeMay Center, Air Mobility Operations; Benjamin S. Lambeth, Combat Pair: The Evolution of Air Force-Navy Integration in Strike Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007), x; and Gideon Grudo and Brendan McGarry, “2017 USAF Almanac,” Air and Space Forces Magazine, June 2017, 99, https://www.airforcemag.com/.

[8] DoN, USMC, and USCG, Forward – Engaged - Ready, 24.

[9] LeMay Center, Global Integrated Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance Operations, Air Force Doctrine Document 2-0 (Maxwell AFB, AL : LeMay Center, January 6, 2012), https://irp.fas.org/.

[10] William T. Eliason, “An Interview with Mark A. Welsh III,” Joint Force Quarterly 74 (3rd Quarter 2014): 8, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/.

[11] US Air Force, “Air Force Distributed Common Ground System,” (website), October 2015, http://www.af.mil/.

[12] Eliason, “Welsh,” 13.

[13] DoN, USMC, and USCG, Forward – Engaged - Ready, 28.

[14] Mark Pomerleau, “Navy Gets First New Triton Drone for Ocean Surveillance,” Defense News, November 13, 2017, https://www.c4isrnet.com/; and Pomerleau, “Future Plans Emerge for Navy’s Triton Surveillance Drones,” Defense News, April 9, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/.

[15] Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Public Affairs, “Navy-Marine Corps Intelligence Partnership Supports Triton Unmanned Maritime Patrol, Reconnaissance Efforts,” ONI, December 17, 2020, https://www.navy.mil/.

[16] ONI, “Intelligence Partnership.”

The views and opinions expressed or implied herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government.