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Air Operations Center Evolution: A Roadmap for Progress

  • Published
  • By Colonel Frederick “Trey” Coleman

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 command and control 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 it needs to evolve if it is to be relevant in the next fight.

Modern technology and changes in the operational environment demand the AOC radically evolve 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 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 subject matter experts makes C2 more professional.

How the Air Force conducts operational command and control needs to change. These lines of effort may lead to an operational C2 construct that looks nothing like today’s AOC—and that’s okay. No matter how it is conducted, Command and Control is a core Air Force mission and a critical joint function. C2 underpins every bomb dropped, pallet moved, or gallon of fuel passed. It is how the Air Force executes commander’s intent in the United States Air Force, which is why it’s so important to get this right.


Since their onset, AOCs have all been physically structured very similarly. An AOC typically operates out of a single, massive facility, filled with hundreds or thousands of personnel depending on the scope of the mission. AOC systems have been relatively exquisite, with giant screens on the walls and countless rows of workstations all anchored to the floor by wires and cables. Those days are over.

AOC facilities are critical to the execution of operational C2, but they don’t need to be exquisite, massive, or expensive. It’s the people and the systems that matter, the facility simply needs to be sufficient to provide a steady and resilient platform from which the people and systems and do their work.

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 tablet in a coffee shop. Modern systems are making the work of the AOC less manpower intensive, but there is still a need for a large pool of people to do the thinking and execute the processes that are essential to operational C2. Intelligence analysis, correlation, and fusion; strategic planning; targeting; master air attack planning; tanker management; non-kinetics; assessment; and all the other functions of the AOC (over 300 of them) still require humans to think, coordinate, collaborate, and communicate.

Collaboration is easiest when everyone is in the same room, but this doesn’t mean that the entire organization needs to be collocated. 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 multiple communications pathways. Distribution is even more effective if critical functions are distributed outside of an adversary’s threat range. The reality is modern command and control is location agnostic. With modern communication systems, C2 can be conducted from anywhere and everywhere.

Although distribution increases resiliency, it can decrease 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. Being resilient can be terribly inefficient—resiliency certainly does not drive manpower savings. 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 essential to maintaining efficiency in a distributed organization.


Today, AOC systems and infrastructure are a liability and place critical operational C2 functions at risk. Based on the legacy Theater Battle Management Core Systems (TBMCS) platform, AOC systems are labor intensive, disconnected, and extremely fragile. Moreover, due to a lack of programmatic oversight, the AOC weapons systems have become disparate beyond recognition. This becomes glaringly obvious every time two AOC’s need to collaborate. No two AOCs use the same systems, so the transfer of information is manual and labor intensive, instead of being automated and synchronous.

But there is hope on the horizon. Air Force Material Command’s Elite software coding organization that goes by the moniker “Kessel Run,” is leading the enterprise in developing a replacement for the legacy AOC systems. The Kessel Run All Domain Operating System is designed to leverage automation and cloud-based data to streamline and synergize operational planning and execution.

It’s time for the AOC community to fully commit to Kessel Run. While AOC mission sets may be different depending on the operational environment, AOC systems should be similar and easily configurable to facilitate collaboration. Every AOC should use the same planning software and that software should reside globally in a cloud. This is not the case today. Today, every AOC uses a different version of TBMCS, along with myriad other local, proprietary software sets. Until AOCs stop using their own local version of the AOC weapons system and embrace Kessel Run, progress will be stalled.

The AOC Weapons System doesn’t stop with TBMCS or Kessel Run. Today, Microsoft Office applications, video teleconferencing systems, and secure chat rooms are as essential to operational C2 as TBMCS. The AOC enterprise (and to some extent the USAF) is hindered by local computer networks. Specialized, one-off, networks are expensive to build and maintain and they create stovepipes of connectivity that are difficult to traverse. The Air Force should consolidate its network into a single cloud environment, with both unclassified and classified instances, to ease data connectivity, accessibility, and sharing.

The final component of the AOC weapons system is the hardware itself. Today’s work centers all look alike. Big desks, lots of monitors, desktop computers or other processing units, and a web of wires, all anchored to cabling and power in the floor. This hardware has worked for decades, but it is antiquated, and it hinders agility. While leveraging cloud-based systems and a global network, future AOCs should transition to more mobile hardware. For example, tablets or even 3-D headsets can replace today’s desktop computers and would allow users to reconfigure or reposition depending on the task at hand instead of being anchored to a single position.


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 Air Force Forces Staff (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 Air Tasking Order (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 important but can come at the expense of planning and executing the ATO. If an AOC has a substantial warfighting mission, it is probably best for it to stand alone as a warfighting unit, 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 11-2 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 (including 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 authorities for 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 potentially incendiary 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 subordinate 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.


The Air Force suffers from a lack of operational command and control subject matter experts. AOCs—the weapons systems that the Air Force uses to execute operational command and control—have traditionally been manned by rotational 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 systems and processes that reside in the AOC weapons system as their own. Indeed, 13O training provides a great education to prepare field grade officers to work on joint staffs, but these staff tours should only follow (and then precede a return to) the officer’s primary weapons system—what is today the AOC. New 13Os should graduate with a basic qualification in the AOC—in a position such as Senior Air Defense Officer, Offensive Duty Officer, or Non-Kinetics officer. Then the 13O should progress through other divisions in the AOC, including the Combat Plans Division and the Strategy Division. AOC qualification and experience are a 13Os’ 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.


The Air Operations Center has delivered upon its promise. It has successfully delivered 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 C2—a generation that moves beyond the legacy AOC.

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 work force 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

Col 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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