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Beyond the AOC – Building the Next Generation of Operational Command and Control

Wild Blue Yonder --

For the past three decades, the United States Air Force has successfully executed operational command and control (C2) through the processes and systems born and refined in the Air Operations Center (AOC). Established in the days of Desert Storm, today’s AOC is a highly polished weapons system, uniquely suited to plan, produce, and execute operational C2 through the Air Tasking Cycle. Simply put, the AOC is how today’s Air Force fights at the operational level, and it works—today—but needs to evolve if it is to be relevant in the next fight.

Modern technology and changes in the operational environment demand that the AOC radically evolves in order to keep pace with emerging friendly and adversary capabilities. As Air Force assets become even more exquisite and as adversaries become more capable, the need for more resilient, agile, efficient, and professional C2 becomes more critical. The legacy AOC, housed in a giant building, anchored by localized systems, and manned by a constant rotation of temporary personnel, will not suffice in the next fight. It is time to evolve to a different construct.

There are four main lines of effort that can be used to drive change: distribution, systems, organization, and manning. Distributing operational C2 functions to multiple facilities outside of adversary threat ranges makes C2 more resilient. Replacing legacy localized systems with cloud-based automated systems makes C2 more agile. Organizing based on the needs of the operational environment makes C2 more efficient. Building and fostering a cadre of operational C2 subject matter experts makes C2 more professional.

These lines of effort may lead to an operational C2 construct that looks nothing like today’s AOC, and that’s okay. How the Air Force conducts operational C2 needs to change in order to actualize centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution in a peer fight. But this necessary change doesn’t obfuscate the imperative of C2. No matter how it is conducted, C2 is a core Air Force mission and a critical joint function. C2 underpins every bomb dropped, pallet moved, or gallon of fuel passed, which is why it’s so important to get this right.

Distribution

Since their onset, AOCs have all been physically structured very similarly. An AOC typically operates in a single facility, or several collocated facilities, within theater boundaries manned by hundreds or even thousands of personnel (depending on the scope of the mission). These facilities are usually outfitted with giant screens on the walls and countless rows of workstations all anchored to the floor by wires and cables, connected to massive local data centers requiring arctic HVAC conditions and constant human interface. These exquisite facilities were once necessary to perform the work of the AOC, but today they create a giant vulnerability.

The reality is modern command and control is location agnostic. With modern communication systems, C2 can be conducted from anywhere or from multiple places at once. Advances in connectivity and virtual collaborative tools present very viable options to geographically distribute personnel. Distributing C2 functions can make C2 more resilient by creating multiple nodes and communications pathways. Distribution creates even greater resiliency if critical functions are distributed outside of an adversary’s striking range.

Being resilient can be terribly inefficient. Although distribution can increase resiliency, it can decrease organizational efficiency by creating barriers to collaboration. In fact, it is safe to say that without mitigation, there is often an inverse relationship between resiliency and efficiency. Therefore, distributed organizations need to take very intentional steps to mitigate impacts to efficiency resultant from distribution. One way to maintain efficiency in a distributed organization is to distribute the right teams. Distribution is most successful when interdependent teams remain collocated. For example, it is more effective to distribute an entire division, rather than just a few functions of that division. Similarly, another way to distribute is based on shift work. It is better to distribute an entire shift, rather than just some functions of that shift. Finally, an effective battle rhythm and well-connected systems are absolutely essential to maintaining efficiency in a distributed organization.  

There is a dangerous narrative that suggests the Air Force no longer needs AOC facilities; that the work of the AOC can be done by a single person or a handful of people from a coffee shop. Modern systems and automation are indeed making the work of the AOC less manpower intensive, and may in fact streamline many of the processes in today’s lengthy air-tasking cycle, but there is still a need for a large pool of people to do the work of operational C2. Intelligence analysis, correlation, and fusion; strategic planning; targeting; air defense operations; offensive operations; tanker management; assessment; and all of the other functions that go into operational C2 (over 300 of them) still require humans to think, coordinate, collaborate, and communicate, and they need a space from which to do it.

Facilities are still critical to the execution of operational C2, but they don’t need to be exquisite, collocated, or within an adversary’s striking range. It’s the people and the systems that matter; the facilities simply need to be sufficient to provide a steady and resilient platform from which the people and systems can do their work. 

Systems

Today, AOC systems are a liability and place critical operational C2 functions at risk. Based on the legacy Theatre Battle Management Core Systems (TBMCS) platform, AOC systems rely on manual data entry and extremely fragile databases that reside only on local servers. Moreover, AOC systems have become disparate beyond recognition. Every AOC uses a different set of software and a different set of data, and those systems and data are not readily available at other echelons or in other AOCs, thereby preventing shared awareness and hindering resiliency and collaboration.

Air Force Material Command’s elite software coding organization known as “Kessel Run” is leading the AOC enterprise in developing a replacement for legacy systems. The Kessel Run All Domain Operating System (KRADOS) is designed to leverage automation, cloud-based data, and intuitive interfaces to synergize operational planning and execution and enable shared awareness at echelon. It’s time to embrace and fully fund KRADOS as the future of the baseline AOC weapons system.

The future of the AOC weapons system doesn’t stop with KRADOS. Other software applications like Microsoft Office and secure chat rooms are equally essential to operational C2. But like TBMCS, many of these software applications and data sets also currently reside on local computer networks and are not accessible to others. The AOC enterprise (and the rest of the USAF) is weighed down by these local, proprietary computer networks and localized data. Unique, one-off networks are expensive to build and maintain, and they create stovepipes of connectivity that are difficult to traverse. The solution is to consolidate these myriad local networks into a professionally managed cloud environment, with layered security levels, to enable data connectivity, accessibility, and sharing.

In addition to software and data, the final component of the AOC weapons system is the hardware itself. Today’s AOC work centers all look alike: projection screens, desks, monitors, computers, and a web of wires that anchor the systems and users to the floor. This hardware has worked for decades, but it is antiquated and hampers agility. While leveraging cloud-based systems and a global network, future AOCs should transition to more mobile hardware. For example, wireless tablets or 3-D headsets can replace desktop computers and projection screens and would allow users to reconfigure or reposition based on the task at hand instead of being anchored to a single position. Personal devices such as tablets or headsets also enable role-based security, which further facilitates collaboration, particularly in a coalition environment.

Whereas AOC mission requirements may be widely different based on the operational environment, AOC systems should be highly similar and easily configurable in order to facilitate collaboration. Every AOC should share access to the same software and data (tailored to their unique mission) and that software and data should reside in a cloud so that it is accessible globally, at echelon. Finally, AOC hardware should be mobile and personalized, enabling functional agility.

Organization

Every AOC is organized differently. Current doctrine lays out several different organizational models for the AOC. The key variant in these models is the relationship with the AFFOR A3. Traditionally, the AOC has been a distinct unit in the Air Component, separate from the AFFOR staff, commanded by a colonel that is a Group or Wing Commander equivalent and who reports directly to the CFACC/COMAFFOR. But over the past several years, many commands have begun merging the AOC into the A3 Directorate. There are a lot of good reasons to do this. There is certainly a lot of overlap in AOC and A3 duties and responsibilities. There is also a constant manpower shortage, and mergers are a good way to manage workload when two organizations are both understaffed. But merging the AOC and the A3 isn’t always a panacea of efficiency.

The AOC has a very specific, nuanced purpose: to plan, produce, and execute the ATO. AOC processes and systems aren’t designed to do anything else. Failure to execute AOC processes results in mission failure for a warfighting air component. Merging a warfighting AOC with the AFFOR staff can put those critical processes at risk by distracting and inundating AOC personnel with AFFOR tasks and responsibilities that are equally important but come with an opportunity cost. If an AOC has a substantial warfighting mission, it is probably best for it to stand alone as a warfighting unit that is laser-focused on planning, producing, and executing the ATO. 

However, most AOCs are not actively engaged in high-ops tempo warfighting. Every AOC has a different workload based on their operational environment, and thus a different capacity for a broader degree of responsibilities. Therefore, it is appropriate that the relationship and organization of the AOC differ between theaters. If an Air Component’s AOC is not heavily engaged in planning, producing, and executing a daily ATO, merging with the AFFOR staff may be the most efficient use of manpower. However, no matter how it is organized, the AOC must be ready and able to plan, produce, and execute the ATO when the time comes.    

How an AOC is organized should also affect how it is led. Today, all AOCs have Commanders. The question is, does the Air Force still need AOC Commanders? If the AOC has merged with the AFFOR staff, why does it need a Commander? Why would it not be led by a staff Director like the rest of the Directorates? Relatedly, doctrine intends for the AOC Commander to also be the AOC Director in times of conflict. But what if the AOC Commander is not the Director? Does the lack of operational authority detract from the role of the Commander?

AFI 1-2 clearly spells out a commander’s responsibilities, regardless of what unit he or she commands: mission execution, unit improvement, resource management, and caring for Airmen. Of the four command responsibilities, the one that becomes the most nuanced in the AOC is mission execution. If the mission of the AOC is to plan, produce, and execute the ATO, then the decision to have a commander in the AOC means that it is the commander’s responsibility to ensure the ATO is planned, produced, and executed. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the commander has operational authorities, such as target engagement authority. AOC mission execution authorities are those authorities that drive the AOC processes: battle rhythms, systems, procedures, manning, relationships, organization, etc. If the AOC commander is also the AOC Director, then his responsibilities will also include operational authorities, but those operational authorities ultimately belong to the CFACC, not the AOC Director or the AOC Commander.

If an AOC is organized in such a way that the commander of the AOC has the requisite authorities to execute that unit’s mission—to ensure mission execution, to drive unit improvement, to manage that unit’s resources, and to provide for the well-being of Airmen (to include discipline)—then it is appropriate for that AOC to have a Commander. If the AOC Commander does not have these authorities, then that organization should be led by a staff director and the command responsibilities should lie with the COMAFFOR. Establishing a commander in an organization in which that commander does not have authority for all of the four command responsibilities could be a disservice to the commander and the organization, creating an uneasy organizational dynamic and introducing friction into an already tense environment.

A final consideration: commanders should work for commanders. Subordinating a commander to a staff director puts the commander and the organization in a precarious position. A staff director doesn’t have command responsibilities or authorities and therefore may prioritize staff functions over command functions. If a staff director prioritizes staff functions over command functions, a commander could be put in a position where his or her command responsibilities are at odds with the expectations of his/her supervisor. Certainly, this outcome is not inevitable, but subordinating a commander to a staff director can create an unbalanced organizational structure that will need to be intentionally and constantly mitigated.

Manning

The Air Force suffers from a lack of operational command and control subject matter experts. AOCs have traditionally been manned by rotational or transitional forces from myriad backgrounds with no requisite C2 experience. The new 13O Multi-Domain Officer career field presents a never-before-seen opportunity to build and develop operational C2 subject matter experts. 

To be relevant, the 13O career field should embrace the operational C2 systems and processes that today reside in the AOC as their own. Indeed, 13O training provides a great education to prepare field grade officers to work on joint staffs, but just like in other weapons systems, staff tours should only follow (and then precede a return to) the officer’s primary weapons system—what is today the AOC. AOC qualification and experience are a 13O’s credibility, just as aircraft hours and qualifications are a pilot’s credibility. 

In return, the Air Force will need to ensure a viable and attractive career path for 13Os that includes promotion and command opportunities. Without opportunities for career progression, the Air Force will struggle to recruit talent into the 13O career field. Command opportunities for 13Os could include commanding AOC Air Support Squadrons, commanding AOC divisions (this requires converting divisions to squadrons), and at the O-6 level, commanding entire AOCs.

Conclusion

The legacy Air Operations Center has delivered upon its promise. It has successfully executed operational C2 for three decades. But its time has passed. As Air Force assets become even more exquisite (and more limited), and as adversaries become more capable, the Air Force needs a new generation of operational C2—a generation that moves beyond the legacy AOC construct.

Distributing operational C2 functions to multiple facilities outside of adversary threat ranges makes C2 more resilient. Replacing legacy localized systems with cloud-based automated systems makes C2 more agile. Organizing based on the needs of the operational environment makes C2 more efficient. Building and fostering a cadre of operational C2 subject matter experts makes C2 more professional. These are all critical requirements of a future operational C2 system, but these advancements don’t necessarily drive manpower or cost savings. In fact, distribution, agility, process efficiency, and a professional workforce may in fact drive increased manpower and funding requirements.

Whatever the cost, the reality is that the legacy AOC, housed in a giant building, anchored by localized systems, and manned by a constant rotation of temporary personnel, will not suffice in the next fight. It is time to evolve. With the smart distribution, connected and similar systems, task-built organizations, and professional manning, the AOC can evolve into the next generation of C2.

Colonel Frederick “Trey” Coleman
Colonel Frederick “Trey” Coleman is the commander of the 505th Command and Control Wing, headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The mission of the 505th CCW is to prepare and enable the Joint Force to execute war-winning command and control of Air Power. Prior to the 505th, Colonel Coleman commanded the 609th Air Operations Center in Al Udeid, Qatar. He also commanded the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

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