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Evolving the Command and Control of Airpower

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Introduction

The new Air Force Doctrine Publication (AFDP) 1 formally establishes mission command as the philosophy for the command and control (C2) of airpower, to be implemented through centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.1 It is an evolution of the long-standing airpower tenet of centralized control and decentralized execution (CCDE),2 intended to provide a unifying framework for the development of new operating concepts, organizational approaches, and materiel solutions that address the challenges posed by the future operating environment. This article describes the motivation for this change, frames mission command from an Airman’s perspective, and articulates practical implementation considerations for centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.

Mission command is a leadership philosophy that empowers subordinate decision-making for flexibility, initiative, and responsiveness in the accomplishment of commander’s intent.3 Mission command provides Airmen operating in environments of increasing uncertainty, complexity, and rapid change with the freedom of action needed to exploit emergent opportunities and succeed. Given the global reach and strategic effects of airpower, the Air Force’s approach to mission command requires continually balancing the need for tactical flexibility, management of global risks, requirements for precise effects synchronization, and the logistical challenges and realities of forward operations. It does so by:

  • Concentrating the responsibility and authority for deciding, directing, and approving military operations through centralized command
  • Enabling delegation of planning, coordination, and assessment activities to dispersed locations or subordinate echelons as appropriate and feasible through distributed control4
  • Fostering disciplined initiative and effective span of control at the tactical level through decentralized execution

Motivation

The first half of the traditional airpower tenet—centralized control—was born out of concerns in World War II that dividing air forces into multiple organizations with separate chains of command would dilute their effectiveness.5 As airpower concepts and capabilities matured amid a changing threat environment, decentralized execution later emerged as a principle for enabling maximum responsiveness to local conditions and requirements.

 

 

Today, joint force operations are increasingly interconnected, interdependent, and challenged. The reemergence of great power competition during a period of rapid technological advancement and proliferation has eroded the United States’ comparative military advantage. Our adversaries have evolved their capabilities and operational approaches to avoid and counter our strengths. Anti-access / area denial capabilities create contested environments that reduce the ability to conduct global operations across the competition continuum,6 diminish freedom of maneuver, and challenge the Air Force’s ability to operate. Operations in contested environments against a peer adversary will look very different than those that have taken place in largely permissive environments over the past two decades. This future operating environment requires examining how forces will sense, plan, decide, and coordinate actions to achieve mission success. Two key imperatives are to:

  • Effectively integrate and synchronize actions of global and theater forces across all domains to enable outcomes not readily achievable otherwise; and
  • Ensure resiliency against attacks on our C2 facilities, systems and processes, for continued combat effectiveness in contested environments.

Several efforts are underway across the Air Force to address these imperatives, including:

  • Emerging concepts and doctrine for joint all-domain operations (JADO),7 the evolution of joint operations and combined arms to enable integrating forces and capabilities from all domains, and synchronizing their actions to create desired effects at the time, place, and tempo of the commander’s choosing.
  • The development and experimentation for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) to connect “sensors” to “shooters” in support of JADO.
  • Concepts and approaches for agile combat employment (ACE) for dispersed operations in contested environments that entail launching, recovering, and maintaining aircraft from dispersed forward operating locations rather than traditional main operating bases. ACE increases force survivability while generating combat power.8 It includes an increased emphasis on operations in, from, and through austere environments.
  • The development of Lead Wing major force elements consisting of capabilities for mission generation, C2, and base operating support for expeditionary, sustainable ACE operations.9

The traditional CCDE tenet does not provide the explanatory power or nuance to describe different airpower organizing constructs that may be needed in the future across such efforts.10 For example, globally integrated JADO in contested environments may call for simultaneously:

  • Centralizing the development of an overall operational approach that integrates global and theater airpower and joint assets at the air component commander level;
  • Distributing control activities to dispersed lead wings executing ACE to maintain effectiveness amid sustained kinetic/non-kinetic attacks on joint force C2 nodes and systems; and
  • Centralizing the employment of space or cyberspace capabilities at the combatant command level for creating precisely timed strategic effects.

Centralized control is not necessarily a best practice for all situations, and blurs the requirements for the art of command with those for the science of control. Doctrine for current airpower employment and future JADO constructs across diverse Air Force mission sets must allow for the flexibility and versatility of centralization or decentralization needed, which CCDE does not express in an understandable way to diverse audiences across the joint force. The extent of centralization or decentralization must be calibrated to operational needs, founded upon clear logic and explicit language. The construct presented in this paper seeks to do so as follows:

  • Centralized command provides the framework for the development of all-domain, globally integrated schemes of maneuver requiring broad perspective, coordination, and reach. It also provides for the specification and delegation of conditional authorities to subordinate echelons for execution and adaptation in contested environments.
  • Distributed control describes how major expeditionary force elements use delegated authorities to coordinate fires, intelligence, information, movement and maneuver, protection, and sustainment functions to project combat power and maintain the initiative in accordance with commander’s intent.
  • Decentralized execution expresses how forces exercise tactical flexibility in the accomplishment of the mission, regardless of the extent of distributed control.11

 

Mission Command Principles

Successful mission command is enabled by:12

  • Building teams through mutual trust: Built over time through shared experiences, mutual trust is shared confidence between commanders, subordinates, and partners that they can be relied on and are competent to carry out the mission.
  • Creating shared understanding: A common understanding of the environment that includes an operation’s purpose, challenges, and ways of solving them equips decision-makers at all levels with the insight and foresight needed to make effective decisions and manage associated risks.
  • Providing clear commander’s intent: A clear and concise expression of the purpose of an operation, the desired outcome, and acceptable risks provides focus and helps subordinate and supporting commanders succeed, even when events do not unfold as planned. Commander’s intent succinctly describes what constitutes success.
  • Using mission-type orders (MTOs) when appropriate: Mission-type orders focus on the purpose of an operation rather than the details of how to accomplish it.13 They empower subordinates with the greatest possible freedom of action within the guidelines of commander’s intent. MTOs are most applicable and effective when there is a reasonable expectation that planning assumptions will remain valid during execution. Those assumptions may relate to strategic/political context, escalation concerns, logistical considerations, or other variables that inform a commander’s decision-making in the presence of unknowns. MTOs should be based on higher headquarters (HHQ) priorities and intent, nested within a five-paragraph order format, which can be adapted and applied to peer and lower echelons. The Air Operations Directive (AOD),14 planning orders, and operations orders, serve as foundational documents for developing and issuing MTOs.
  • Exercising disciplined initiative: Disciplined initiative is the proactive application of inventiveness and creativity in pursuit of commander’s intent, when existing orders no longer fit the situation or when unforeseen threats or opportunities arise. It is informed by a clear understanding of mission objectives, desired effects, scheme of maneuver, overall commander’s intent, escalation sensitivities, and broader strategic context.
  • Accepting prudent risk: All military operations contain uncertain, complex, and ambiguous elements. Commanders must analyze risks in collaboration with their peers and subordinates to balance the tension between protecting the force and managing the risks necessary to accomplish the mission.

Airmen execute mission command through centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution. Centralized command is the organizing standard for the effective and efficient means of employing airpower; it enables the principle of mass while maintaining the principle of economy of force.15 It allows for the effective integration of forces and capabilities needed for JADO. Because of airpower’s potential to create effects at the strategic and operational levels of warfare, it should be commanded by a single Airman, the air component commander. Distributed control exploits airpower’s flexibility and versatility to ensure that it remains responsive, survivable, and sustainable, particularly in contested or degraded environments in which executing forces may be cut off from the air operations center (AOC). Decentralized execution is the delegation of authority to achieve effective span of control, foster disciplined initiative, and empower subordinates to exploit fleeting opportunities. Each is discussed further below.

Centralized Command

Centralized command concentrates the authority and responsibility for deciding upon, approving, and directing military operations across the competition continuum.16 It focuses on:

  • Development and communication of clear and decisive commander’s intent and vision
  • Global/theater integration of kinetic and non-kinetic actions and capabilities for JADO to enable precise effects synchronization with the required timing, tempo, and emphasis17
  • Airpower coordination on a global scale between theaters and commands
  • Strategic and operational planning and apportionment
  • Capability and asset allocation in support of distributed control
  • Definition and (conditions-based) delegation of authorities
  • Empowerment of subordinate commanders

Centralized command is best accomplished by an Airman at the component commander level who maintains a broad focus and perspective on joint force commander (JFC) objectives to prioritize, direct, integrate, plan, coordinate, and assess the use of airpower using global and theater assets. It empowers the air component commander to respond to changes in the environment and enables priority and balance, while still allowing subordinate echelons to exercise initiative. Centralized command promotes effectiveness and preserves flexibility and versatility at the operational level. It supports the joint principle of unity of command.18 Unity of command may nonetheless give way to unity of effort in coalition operations with complex command relationships or stability operations requiring extensive interagency coordination.19

Distributed Control

Distributed control enables commanders to delegate planning and coordination activities to dispersed locations or subordinate echelons to achieve an effective span of control and to seize the initiative, particularly in physically or electronically contested environments. It focuses on:

  • Distributing and executing commander’s intent, vision, and orders
  • Ensuring apportionment and allocation in accordance with commander’s intent
  • Locally integrating kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities to synchronize effects
  • Conducting situationally-driven operational and tactical planning refinement

Distributed control allows subordinate commanders to respond to changes in the operational environment and take advantage of fleeting opportunities. The benefits inherent in distributed control (as well as decentralized execution) are maximized when clearly communicated commander’s intent guides subordinate actions. They enable supporting continuity of operations by dispersed units in contested/degraded environments in which communications with HHQ have been disrupted.20 Operations in contested environments may necessitate a greater degree of distributed control but bring increased risks of unintended consequences without an accurate understanding of overall mission context and evolving operational constraints and restraints.

Decentralized Execution

Decentralized execution is the delegation of authority for effective span of control in carrying out plans and orders and to foster disciplined initiative at the tactical level. It focuses on:

  • Implementing clearly delineated and forward-thinking commander’s intent
  • Executing orders informed by shared and mutually understood risk-to-force and risk-to-mission assessments and management approaches
  • Integrating kinetic and non-kinetic actions and capabilities at tactical level
  • Executing conditions-based authorities delegated to the lowest capable and competent level
  • Empowering command by negation, which allows subordinate commanders to conduct operations as they deem appropriate unless denied by a superior21

Decentralized execution allows subordinates to exploit fleeting opportunities in dynamic situations. To achieve decentralized execution, the air component commander and subordinate echelons use MTOs with clearly communicated commander’s intent to empower front-line decision makers (e.g., strike package leaders, air battle managers, forward air controllers) to make effective on-scene decisions during complex, rapidly unfolding operations. Decentralized execution facilitates effectiveness and resilience at the tactical level.

Mission-Type Orders

MTOs are a technique for writing orders that provides subordinates with maximum freedom of action within commander’s intent. By focusing on goals and effects rather than targets, they emphasize results to be attained based on HHQ priorities and intent, not how to achieve them. By expressing intent and direction through MTOs, the commander attempts to provide clear objectives and goals to enable subordinates to execute the mission. Commander’s intent should specify the goals, priorities, acceptable risks, and limits of the operation. Subordinates should be able to operate independently for a specified period of time based solely on commander’s intent within resources available or accessible.22

MTOs should succinctly state the mission, task organization, commander’s intent and the overall concept of operations, tasks to subordinate units, and minimum essential coordinating instructions. The proper level of detail is situationally dependent; some operations require tighter levels of command and control than others. The MTO should be based on the five-paragraph order format, and should outline what is required (capabilities, resources, or connectivity) for the lower echelon commander to execute the mission under delegated authorities. They should address considerations such as:

  • Command and support relationships, to include direct liaison authorities
  • Conditions-based authorities
  • Operational area
  • Targeting priorities
  • Sustainment approach
  • Primary/alternate/contingency/emergency communications plans and associated information-exchange battle rhythm with HHQ and peer units
  • Areas of anticipated ambiguity calling for commander’s discretion
  • Acceptable risks to strategy, force, and mission

MTOs are most applicable and effective when there is a reasonable expectation that planning assumptions will remain valid during execution. Guidance such as planning orders, operations orders, the master air attack plan (MAAP), and the air operations directive (AOD) developed through the air tasking cycle provide the foundation for the development and issuance of MTOs. They can be provided as appendices to the AOD to provide direction on how to maintain the initiative absent further guidance from HHQ.

The Enduring Tension between Centralization and Decentralization

The tension in balancing centralization, distribution, and decentralization is not new, and will continue to be a situationally dependent concern requiring the application of commander’s judgment within the context of HHQ guidance. Some situations (e.g., high-value or time-sensitive targets, operations with extreme political sensitivities, covert/clandestine operations, offensive cyberspace operations, or nuclear employment) may require a level of centralized execution of specific operations, most notably when the JFC wants to control strategic effects and manage risks at the sacrifice of tactical efficiency or effectiveness. Figure 1 articulates considerations that commanders can use during planning to support sound decisions on the extent of control distribution and execution decentralization.23 Incorporating an understanding of these questions into effective C2 arrangements will be a critical element of the Air Force’s approach to JADO.

 

 

Figure 1. Balancing centralization and decentralization

The Way Ahead

In the months and years ahead, a wide range of interconnected Air Force strategy and concept design efforts, technical capability development, force presentation constructs, and experimentation activities will bring the principles articulated here to life. Such efforts will:

  • Develop, train, and codify practical MTO guidance
  • Evaluate centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution approaches in upcoming training events such as BLUE FLAG, RED FLAG and AGILE FLAG exercises
  • Apply the approaches through dynamic force employment activities
  • Refine interrelationships between AOD, air tasking order, and MTO products within continually evolving AOC processes, to include coordination and integration with space/cyberspace forces, distribution of the AOD to subordinate units as the basis for an MTO, and overall joint force integration
  • Inform and synchronize interrelated efforts on AOC evolution, ACE, Lead Wing, and the ABMS

These exploratory efforts will be a critical enabler for the Air Force’s support to JADO and the implementation of the Joint Warfighting Concept. For these changes to be effective, they will call upon the Air Force to change our ideas, our organizational approaches, and the tools we use to get the job done. A sustained education effort will be critical to changing a culture that has grown accustomed to operations in permissive environments. The deliberate and methodical evolution of the airpower core tenet to meet future challenges will be a key element of accelerating change across the Air Force.

Sandeep "FRAG" Mulgund, PhD

Dr. Mulgund (BASC, University of Toronto; PhD, Princeton University) is a highly qualified expert senior advisor to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (AF/A3). He is leading the A3’s efforts to evolve air component approaches to operational-level planning, execution, and assessment to more effectively incorporate operations in the information environment as part of the Air Force’s overall approaches for joint all-domain operations.

Notes

1 AFDP-1, 22 April 2021, https://www.doctrine.af.mil/.

2 Joint Publication 3-30, Joint Air Operations, July 2019, https://www.jcs.mil/.

3 Mission command - the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders (Department of Defense Dictionary), https://www.jcs.mil/.

4 Gilmary Michael Hostage III and Larry R. Broadwell, Jr., “Resilient Command and Control: The Need for Distributed Control,” Joint Force Quarterly, 3rd Quarter, 2014.

5 Lt Col Clint Hinote, “Centralized Control and Decentralized Execution: A Catchphrase in Crisis?,” Air Force Research Institute Papers, 2009.

6 Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, Competition Continuum, June 2019, https://www.jcs.mil/.

7 AFDP 3-99, Department of the Air Force Role in Joint All-Domain Operations, October 2020, https://www.doctrine.af.mil/.

8 AFDP 3-99.

9 TSgt Carlin Leslie, “ACC to Conduct Experiment Testing Agility and Lead Wing Concepts during Agile Flag 21-1,” Air Combat Command, 21 October 2020, https://www.acc.af.mil/.

10 Explanatory power is the ability of a theory or hypothesis to effectively explain the subject matter to which it pertains.

11 Lt Col James W. Harvard, “Airmen and Mission Command,” Air and Space Power Journal, March-April 2013.

12 Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, Mission Command, https://armypubs.army.mil/.

13 Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, 22 October 2018. https://www.jcs.mil/.

14 Joint Publication 3-30.

15 Joint Publication 3-0.

16 JDN 1-19.

17 AFDP 3-99.

18 Joint Publication 3-0.

19 “Unity of Effort” in Basic Doctrine, Vol 1, 27 February 2015, https://www.doctrine.af.mil/.

20 Col Trent R. Carpenter, “Command and Control of Joint Air Operations through Mission Command,” Air and Space Power Journal, Summer 2016.

21 AFDP 3-30, Command and Control, January 2020, https://www.doctrine.af.mil/.

22 ADP 6-0.

23 Lt Col Clint Hinote, “Centralized Control and Decentralized Execution: A Catchphrase in Crisis?”

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