The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Col Danielle Willis, USAF and Col Paul Birch, USAF, PhD
/ Published March 18, 2021
The US military is banking on technological solutions to usher in the future of effective military command and control in a joint and all-domain combat environment. While much has been written about the Air Force’s technical development of the advanced battle management system (ABMS), given the Army’s skepticism of the program as a panacea for future operations and auditors’ concern over the acquisition risk of the program as it is now structured, little has been said about layering such an advanced decision aid upon a decades-old organizational structure.1
As a military, we need to tackle the problem of effective future command and control from multiple perspectives. The systems that the Department of Defense (DOD) envision to provide a competitive edge in future conflict are just as much about changing how organizations think and operate as they are about technology to enable different speeds and forms of combat. Innovation to meet the National Defense Strategy (NDS) imperatives cannot be just about what one could label “technological enabling” concepts; it involves disruption to how we think about peer-to-peer competition and conflict in terms of organizational systems.2
At the strategic level, we see the gears moving slowly in this direction. The Army has stood up its Futures Command in Austin, Texas and is resurrecting V Corps at Fort Knox, Kentucky to bolster operations in Europe.3 Similarly, the Air force has identified the “Air Force We Need” at 386 squadrons and Air Combat Command is reimagining it’s force presentation as a Lead Wing concept that can execute agile combat employment.4 Both show a willingness to restructure forces to meet the NDS. The Army’s plan is somewhat bolder because it also apprehends a fundamental need for change in how the service thinks about innovation vis-à-vis its maneuver units.
Just as was argued for both a top-down and bottom-up approach for JADC2 systems and tactics development, we propose that organizational transformations also need to happen both from the ground up and the top down.5 Forcing a top-down change without appreciating the perspective of the small units and personnel who will engage our enemy will only induce friction, not improve our ability to think faster than and outmaneuver the enemy.
In our current defense construct and in the proposed Lead Wing architecture, nearly all of our Air Force combat units are “plug and play.” Fighter and bomber squadrons, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, air defense systems, and personnel recovery are all centrally managed and allocated to combatant commands based on theater requirements. They are not aligned with specific joint counterparts but are trained and available to work within the system architecture at large. However, organizations like Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) and combat weather support to the Army, which are the most joint of the conventional Air Force units and arguably the best candidates for reform and flexibility, are bound by the concepts laid forth in the seventy-year-old Key West Agreement that created the Air Force in 1947.6 This rigid structure and the subsequent service level Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) bound these mission sets to rigid support structures that inhibit the kind of organizational innovation the future demands.
The TACP enterprise is built on the premise that trust between personalities is the premier way to ensure that the close coordination and detailed integration required to produce decisive effects on the battlefield. In reality, the Army’s maneuver unit capacity far outstrips the Air Force’s ability to provide aligned TACP and weather support under steady state conditions. Not only is the Air Force struggling to keep up with the current fight, it is ill equipped to support future operations. As the Army continues its work on hypersonic weapons and other ways of delivering ordnance over a very long distance, the old systems that assumed coordination over only short distances looks increasingly irrelevant. If we truly expect JADC2 and joint integration at the tactical level, we must allow tactical units to evolve to meet the demand. Conversely, developing enabling systems in a vacuum that does not account for or allow organizational evolution virtually guarantees that those systems will not meet operational needs effectively.
To that end, we offer some short- and long-term proposals. For the short-term, we must allow commanders to fill deployment requirements with the best trained and available forces instead of rote deployment of habitually aligned forces. We need to maximize the ability to innovate by tying the JADC2 concepts into units doing actual maneuver warfare and meaningful exercises today, not simply doing tabletop wargames or overly prescriptive “experimentation.” Finally, the Air Force needs to remove manpower roadblocks to allow commanders to redesign their units to meet emerging requirements instead of adhering to archaic work-time study methods to measure productivity. As top level evidence of our organizational inflexibility, the time it has taken higher headquarters to approve recent organizational change requests in our wing is twice the amount of time that elapsed between D-Day and the German surrender in World War II—and these are requests that simply move Airmen from one position to another; they do not add additional personnel to our rosters.
Over the long term, the Army and Air Force need to amend the service level MOA that restricts these joint functions. This means understanding that TACP and Army weather support are high demand and low density assets and treating them like the high value niche capabilities that they are. Increasing the flexibility of a support asset means that it can be put to use at the best time, even if every commander can’t “own” an asset dedicated to a specific unit. If we do this right, we’ll build systems that maximize how a supported commander can see what will be available when needed without allowing anyone to “game” control of that asset through shrewdly manipulating the business rules that apportion and allocate it in the battlespace. We also need the Air Force to recognize that it may not have the ability to manage all long-range strikes from a central facility like the air operations center in the near future. For ABMS to be effective, it must be able to distribute a common operational picture to field units on the ground who might generate those “fires.” As former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Will Roper stated, the central vision of ABMS is to create “a system to make data produced anywhere discoverable anywhere.”7 Finally, we need the Air Force to fundamentally re-think its manpower enterprise in a similar way to how it has re-imagined coding with the Kessel Run project to rapidly solve technological problems.
As with the technological aspects of JADC2 innovation, our organizational argument evokes an analogy rooted in the transcontinental railroad. By building from both the East and West simultaneously—and by using techniques better suited to local geography and economics—the United States was able to unite the continent quicker than if it had started at one end or the other or hewed to just one type of construction technique, financing, or management. While organizational and process innovation is not as visible as the development of a whole new command and control system, it evokes just the S-type innovation that Safi Bahcall described in Loonshots: a novel idea or process change that no one believes will have an impact, but ultimately revolutionizes an industry.8
As both interest in and concern over JADC2 and ABMS escalate, as the number of entities who can provide long-range strikes over a distance that formerly only a missile or aircraft could muster rise, and as maneuver units in all services experiment to move away from the industrial-age formations that prevailed from World War II to the present, we have a golden opportunity to build a system that accommodates all of these changes. But we must immediately and aggressively move to ensure that the system includes a “ground-up” perspective as well as the Air Force’s preferred “centralized control, decentralized execution” paradigm. To neglect either perspective will lead to an ineffective system, and is both a subpar acquisition approach as well as an irresponsible way to provide for the national defense.
Col Danielle Willis, USAF
Danielle Willis is a colonel in the US Air Force. She is the commander of the 93rd Air Ground Operations Wing, which contains the preponderance of forces responsible for providing the Army and Air Force with tactical-level command and control. She is a doctoral student in public administration at Valdosta State University. LinkedIn
Col Paul Birch, USAF, PhD
Paul Birch is a colonel in the US Air Force. He is the chief of staff for US Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), which is responsible for air operations, either unilaterally or in concert with coalition partners, and developing contingency plans in support of national objectives in US Central Command’s area of responsibility. He holds a PhD in Military Strategy from Air University. LinkedIn
1 Paul Birch, Ray Reeves, and Brad Dewees, “How to Build JADC2 to Make It Truly Joint,” Breaking Defense, 19 February 2020, https://breakingdefense.com/; Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “ABMS Can’t Be ‘Sole Solution’ for Joint C2, Army Tells Air Force — Exclusive,” Breaking Defense, 22 February 2020, https://breakingdefense.com/; US Government Accountability Office, “Defense Acquisitions: Action Is Needed to Provide Clarity and Mitigate Risks of the Air Force's Planned Advanced Battle Management System,” Report to Congressional Committees, April 2020, https://www.gao.gov/.
2 DOD, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/.
3 US Army, “Army Futures Command: Leading the Transformational Modernization of the US Army,” https://www.army.mil/; Kyle Rempfer, “Army Resurrects V Corps after Seven Years to Bolster Europe,” ArmyTimes, 12 February 2020, https://www.armytimes.com/.
4 Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, “The Air Force We Need: 386 Operational Squadrons,” US Air Force, 17 September 2018, https://www.af.mil/; Tech Sgt Carlin Leslie, “Agile Flag Paves Way for Lead Wings,” US Air Force, 3 November 2018, https://www.af.mil/; Maj Scott D. Adamson and Maj Shane “Axl” Praiswater, “With Air Bases at Risk, Agile Combat Employment Must Mature,” DefenseNews, 12 November 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/;
5 Paul Birch, Ray Reeves, and Brad Dewees, “Building the Command and Control of the Future from the Bottom Up,” War on the Rocks, 16 January 2020, https://warontherocks.com/.
6 History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kenneth W. Condit, Volume II, 1947-1949, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Washington, DC, 1996), https://www.jcs.mil/.
7 Lauren C. Williams, “Air Force Seeks Proof of Concept in Latest JADC2 Experiment,” FCW: The Business of Federal Technology, 26 August 2020, https://fcw.com/.
8 Jennifer Ouellette, “‘Loonshots’” and Phase Transitions Are the Key to Innovation, Physicist Argues,” ARS Technica, 29 December 2019, https://arstechnica.com/.
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