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 Sandeep Mulgund, PhD
/ Published August 30, 2021
The United States Air Force is using the term agile combat employment (ACE) to describe a way of operating that relies less on large traditional main overseas bases as hubs for projecting combat power and more on launching, recovering, and maintaining aircraft from dispersed forward operating locations in concert with allies and partners. This shift has been motivated by adversarial advances in reconnaissance and weapons capabilities that can hold at risk those bases that have traditionally been considered sanctuaries. ACE shifts operations from centralized physical infrastructures to a network of smaller, dispersed locations that can complicate adversary planning and provide more options for joint force commanders. Its value proposition derives from the ability to hold adversary targets at risk from multiple locations that are defensible, sustainable, and relocatable. Recent events such as the PACIFIC IRON operation have showcased the Air Force’s flexibility in projecting power into forward locations.1
The potential benefits that ACE provides for projecting combat power in contested environments come with challenges for the command and control (C2) of dispersed forces in circumstances where communications are likely to be disrupted and airfields subject to persistent attack. ACE looks different in Europe and the Pacific. In Europe, it confronts what might be called the tyranny of proximity—short threat timelines against Russian missile launches or other attacks, and an expectation that any flight operations are readily observable. The Pacific presents the tyranny of distance—vast stretches of ocean between likely forward operating locations, with many of them in range of China’s rapidly advancing missile capabilities. Each presents distinct C2 challenges.
As the DOD develops and fields C2 capabilities such as the advanced battle management system (ABMS) for joint all-domain operations (JADO)2, what are the particular requirements that ACE will bring? What will ACE-oriented plans entail, and what information will decisionmakers require? Fundamentally, the idea of dispersed air operations from austere, forward operating locations is as old as the Air Force itself. Those early experiences demonstrated the complexities and risk tradeoffs associated with planning and synchronizing multifaceted dispersed operations in the presence of great uncertainty, providing insights that still resonate and can inform the evolution of ACE.
During World War II, the Eighth Air Force carried out extensive strategic bombing operations in western Europe, operating from numerous improvised and quickly built airfields scattered across eastern England.3 Tactics evolved rapidly as allied forces conducted increasingly penetrating raids launched from these bases towards common targets in the German heartland. To concentrate bomb release while massing machine gun firepower for mutual protection, long range bombers used what came to be known as a combat box formation, so named because diagrams of the formation showed each squadron of aircraft filling a box-shaped volume in the air.4 At a tactical level, well-defined procedures, radio beacons, and flares were used to establish the formation before proceeding as a cohesive unit of massed firepower. Individual aircraft would form up on their squadron first, and then the squadron commander would form on the group.5 Getting a group of aircraft into formation could take an hour or more, costing fuel and added crew fatigue. Keeping close formation was integral to its effectiveness—the tighter the formation, the more effective the mutual defense.
As is often the case, tactical effectiveness was subject to circumstances and decisions at the operational level. An example is the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission6 in August 1943, intended to cripple German aircraft production. The plan entailed two sizable task forces attacking separate targets. Seven B-17 groups from Colonel Curtis LeMay’s 4th Bombardment Wing would strike Messerschmitt production facilities in Regensburg. Brigadier General Robert Williams of the 1st Bombardment Wing was in command of nine B-17 groups who would strike ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt.7 LeMay’s force would go in first with the bulk of fighter escorts, while Williams’ larger force would take off minutes later from separate airfields. The two sets of forces were to fly a similar course as if heading for the same target, and then split apart inside Germany. The intent was to confuse and disperse German air defenses. After striking aircraft production facilities in Regensburg, LeMay’s force would proceed south to land in Algeria. Given the distances involved, the plan allowed only a 90-minute window to launch so that LeMay’s force could reach North Africa in daylight.
When the day came to carry out the plan, heavy fog hung over eastern England. LeMay’s force took off using well-honed instrument procedures, but Bomber Command headquarters held the Schweinfurt force (which was not practiced in such procedures) until the weather had cleared. Rather than dispersing defenses, the delay allowed the Luftwaffe to hit LeMay’s force head on, and then regroup to attack the bombers headed to Schweinfurt.8 A total of about 60 bombers out of 376 were lost—more than double the highest loss to that date. Another 100 were severely damaged and subsequently unusable. For those heavy losses, the results were modest and fleeting. The Schweinfurt raid caused an immediate significant drop in ball bearing production capacity, for which the Germans were able to compensate with reserve stocks. The attack against Regensburg aircraft production capabilities caused severe damage, but the Germans quickly rebuilt the factory and intensified efforts to disperse other fighter assembly plants in remote locations.
What might these historical examples tell us about how C2 capabilities and approaches should evolve to best enable ACE? Key lessons learned pertain to the complexity of synchronizing massed tactical actions from dispersed locations, and the challenges of developing robust, adaptable plans in the presence of uncertain and incomplete information. New Air Force doctrine9 provides the foundation to address these challenges by framing mission command as the philosophy for C2 of airpower, implemented through centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.
At the tactical level of decentralized execution, forces must have the information that enables them to understand the current and expected threat environment, the overall plan, their role within it, status of forces, available support relationships, and the means to be used for coordinating actions at the times and places required. Today there is no need for WWII-style combat boxes, but massing effects rather than just forces will call for aligning intent and actions across disparate and dispersed units in highly dynamic situations. Under the DOD’s vision for JADO, those actions will span air, space, cyberspace, land, maritime, and special operations forces who will need to be in the right places at the right times to create complementary and mutually reinforcing effects. Information about friendly forces and threats may be incomplete, inaccurate, and potentially subject to adversary manipulation. As such, tactical level ACE playbook approaches and capabilities must enable dispersed forces to adapt and prevail despite uncertainty, using the best available information to local commanders. This will necessitate shifting the balance between offensive and defensive operations in response to what is achievable in light of available connectivity and logistical support.
At the operational level for centralized command and distributed control, the ability to understand what forces can achieve with available resources and to trade off risks become critical. Offensive/defensive capabilities and expertise available at each forward operating location may vary, as will available logistical support. The success of an overall plan may depend on aligning the actions of distributed forces, as was the case in the Regensburg-Schweinfurt raid. Decision support tools should thus illuminate the trade space in which a commander can successfully maneuver and adapt in changing circumstances. Plans must be resilient in the face of the unexpected, and the commander’s intent conveyed to executing forces must provide the latitude needed to adapt to changing circumstances not foreseen beforehand. An intermittent or degraded ability for dispersed forces to communicate with higher headquarters should be the assumption, not the exception. This may drive the design of planning and collaboration tools to incorporate “offline modes” that provide partial functionality amid disrupted networking. The conditions under which a plan is no longer viable must be understood widely, so that dispersed forces can make appropriate local adjustments within the bounds of commander’s intent. Planners must understand and incorporate the timelines that may be associated with bringing together dispersed forces into favorable positions for conducting successful attacks. Plans must be realistic for what can be accomplished against targets in contested environments where friendly force logistics may be the limiting factor.
Two elements are common to these needs—the ability to develop, maintain, and share timely, accurate, and relevant mission information across dispersed forces despite adversary attempts to deny or degrade it, and the ability to make and disseminate risk-informed decisions in conditions of imperfect knowledge. That information should provide dispersed commanders a shared understanding of what is happening across the theater, and what they can do to achieve the mission. Capabilities such as those under development for ABMS will be critical to providing the necessary awareness. Procedures, training, and effective delegation of authorities must enable Airmen to thrive amid the unexpected. The reconciliation of these seemingly contradictory needs—better situational understanding combined with the ability to take the initiative amid uncertainty—will be a critical enabler of how the Air Force realizes the ACE vision. Ongoing ACE events such as PACIFIC IRON will provide venues for developing, evaluating, and refining materiel and non-materiel approaches that will give Airmen the edge in a crisis.
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.
1Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs Pacific Air Forces, “‘Pacific Iron’ to Showcase Us Air Force’s Strategic Flexibility,” U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, 13 July 2021, https://www.pacom.mil/.
2 Gen David Allvin, “How We Get to Captain America-Level Battle Speeds,” Defense One, 8 July 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/.
3 Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).
4 “Combat Box,” Wikipedia, 8 July 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/.
5 Philip Kaplan, Bombers: The Aircrew Experience (London: Aurum Press, 2000).
6 “Schweinfurt–Regensburg mission,” Wikipedia, 18 August 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/.
7 Miller, Masters of the Air.
8 Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (Little, Brown and Company, 2021).
9 Air Force Doctrine Publication 1, The Air Force, March 2021, https://www.doctrine.af.mil/.
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