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Standing Up a Joint Task Force: Lessons from COVID

  • Published
  • By Major Jennifer Rudolph

How prepared were you for COVID-19? It is safe to assume it caught many military organizations by surprise, as it did for the rest of the world. As to be expected, there were many challenges of standing up a joint task force from within the Michigan National Guard (MING) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Exploring the stand up of Joint Task Force-Michigan (JTF-MI) provides insight for using lessons learned for standard operating procedures, balancing ANG and ARNG processes and equities in daily operations through exposure between the two organizations, and learning and teaching historic and cultural considerations as a partner in the community.

State National Guard Organization in Michigan

The Michigan National Guard falls under the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Led by the MING Joint Staff and supported by State Operations, the MING is the parent organization for both the Michigan Air National Guard (MI ANG) and the Michigan Army National Guard (MIARNG). The day-to-day organizational structure functions out of Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) in Lansing, Michigan and existed prior to the activation of JTF-MI.[1] The National Guard Bureau establishes the baseline requirement of “31+4” personnel for state Joint Staffs.[2] Balancing staffing requirements and representing equities between the MI ANG and the MIARNG is critical to effective JFHQ operations as indicated by best practices from the Joint Staff.[3]

JTF-MI Arose Out of a Disordered and Complex Context

The MING stood up Joint Task Force-Michigan (JTF-MI) in March of 2020, activating JTF-MI during the widespread uncertainty of the COVID pandemic. Using David Snowden and Mary Boone’s cynefin model, JTF-MI stood up and operated during a complex context where there is no one right answer, and “some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux.”[4] In this case, the major change was a re-orienting of priorities towards public health and safety measure to continue required operations and meet the demands for support coming from the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC), sometimes with guidance emerging daily from multiple governmental levels.

Standing up a new JTF involved many elements: the MI ANG, the MI ARNG, State Operations staff, and the MING Joint Staff. This also included partnerships with the Michigan State Police as the lead agency for emergency management and the Michigan Wing of the Civil Air Patrol to distribute supplies and test kits. The changing guidance from public health and Department of Defense (DoD) officials aptly reflected a context of “unknown unknowns.”[5] No one knew how long the need to support for food banks, COVID testing in Michigan prisons, or community vaccination clinics would last, or what Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) role would be. Would the DoD’s Stop Movement policy cancel scheduled deployments? This swirl of uncertainty led to a rapid accounting and/or confirmation of every N95 mask, utility vehicle, and available member of the entire MING to provide the JFT-MI commander as appointed by The Adjutant General of Michigan, with an up-to-date snapshot of the resources available.

Figuring out the right way to provide support to which foodbank with the right amount of personal protective gear and enough members to support the request were challenging decisions requiring hours of planning and coordinating with the SEOC before sending the first members to support. The two force-generating units (MI ANG and MIARNG) initially used different processes for approving requests for service members from JFT-MI and sourcing to subordinate units. Only once JTF-MI found itself developing its own battle rhythm, procedures, and norms in the complex context could it fall back in standard military command and control occurred. The complex context would later become a complicated context using fact-based management once JTF-MI resolved the new organizational structure, filled required positions, and developed a battle rhythm.

Evaluating Risk and Communicating Commander’s Intent

As JTF-MI developed a battle rhythm and started sorting through the complex issues, The Adjutant General of Michigan had to impart the commander’s visualization of the process on JTF-MI. Understanding the situation was difficult, as described above in the complex situation. Developing an end state was also challenging, since the outcome had many different potential planning horizons: provide effective support until the need in the community no longer existed? 100% vaccination rates and easy access to same-day testing facilities? Provide short-term capacity to alleviate the over-burdened health care system? The end state was all three and more and shifted depending on the need communicated from the SEOC. Providing creative solutions such as using the Civil Air Patrol to distribute test kits or the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy to create fabric face masks meant answering and anticipating a wide range of support requests.[6]

One example of communicating commander’s intent connected to the historical context of the Michigan National Guard. The used of uniformed, armed, and motorized troops in downtown Detroit caused MING leadership to carefully consider risk during this visualization process. In 1967, the MING deployed to downtown Detroit in response to unrest directly from police raids and indirectly from the racial, economic, and social challenges faced by populations in Detroit.[7] The purpose of this example is to demonstrate consideration for historical context and risk assessment in constraining how MING members conducted community support operations. The Adjutant General of Michigan directed that MING members serving in downtown Detroit would not carry weapons nor drive military vehicles to reduce risk and avoid mis-interpretation due to the historical context. This display of strategic empathy towards the situation demonstrates the critical nature of history as part of the planning process.

It is worth noting due to the nature of the pandemic that civil-military relations were not the only area where risk was concerned in the commander’s decision-making process. Members working in JTF-MI headquarters and on community operations all required to conduct risk assessments during both concept development and once on-sight to effectively conserve critical medical supplies while providing the proper personal protective equipment to maintain safety and health of the force.

Commanders at every level considered many factors in this process, to include the impact of taking members away from their civilian occupations, and primary incomes, to provide community mission support. For example, does the unit have enough available members to support the task without taking away from the essential base support required to launch, recover, and maintain aerial refueling capacity? Since the MI ANG is a smaller organization, it could not activate entire units made up of many different Air Force Specialty Codes (equivalent to the Army’s military occupational specialty). Doing so would have likely brought in the wrong collection of skills: members either over-qualified in a technical field or the wrong combination of skills with a unit compared the SEOC tasking. These considerations appeared vastly different, or at least less apparent, than the MI ARNG’s processes, which would entail creating concepts of operations, briefing the JTF-MI commander for approval, and then tasking units through night orders.

Applying Lessons from COVID to Large-Scale Combat Operations

While these lessons learned did not arise out of combat, they are applicable to large-scale combat operations, and the U. S. Air Force (USAF) addresses these concepts in Air Force Doctrine Publications (AFDP) 3-0, Operations and Planning,[8] 3-99 Joint All-Domain Command and Control,[9] and the USAF’s Blue Book, A Profession of Arms: Our Core Values.[10]

In AFDP 3-0, Operations and Planning, AFDP 3-99, Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), and AFDP 1, The Air Force, the USAF connects leadership and ethics with organizational conduct. Making sense of complexity connects to AFDP 3-0, Operations and Planning in the imperative to understand the art and science of complexity inhere in developing holistic strategy: “the results of contact between adaptive systems such as military forces and political actors, which, like living systems, are interactively complex and nonlinear.”[11] Since the systems present in both an unprecedented pandemic and war are complex, adding sister services, partners, and allies further compounds the need for interoperability to conduct operations. The USAF doctrine on JADC2 discusses this specific aspect of future, integrated warfare: “JADC2 architectures should ensure interoperability with allies, partner nations, and agencies, enable integration into central C2 nodes, and simultaneously provide the ability to operate independently at the tactical edge, disconnected from C2.”[12] Interoperability, the second leadership concept, applies both for the MI ANG and MIARNG to create an effective JTF-MI and in large-scale combat operations.

AFDP 3-0, Operations and Planning, discusses risk and commander’s visualization, and both are critical when conducting operations within the competition continuum. Regardless of the level of war, “to maintain momentum, conditions may necessitate higher risk activities like integrated combat turns, specialized fueling operations, or wet wing defueling. Other examples include operations inside an adversary’s integrated air defense system, limited defenses at landing sites, and short notice dispersal operations.”[13] Once the commander makes decisions around risk, commander’s visualization is integral to communicating the acceptable level of risk, whether on wearing a disposable medical mask or N95 or on what type of aircraft can fly within surface-to-arm missile engagement zones.

Finally, the ethical basis for the USAF is the core values, whether during COVID operations or in large-scale combat operations. The Blue Book speaks to two reasons how the core values support an ethical organization: first, the demonstration of core values can indicate the ethical climate and culture of an organization and the discipline to avoid ethical fading. Second, act as a “beacon” toward professional conduct.[14] The USAF links using the core values to create and sustain an ethical organization to the resulting success of such an aligned organization: “success hinges on the incorporation of these values into the character of every Airman…. They provide a foundation for leadership, decision-making, and success, no matter their rank, the difficulty of the assigned task, or the dangers presented by the mission.”[15]

Preparing for the Next JTF

The COVID pandemic is unlikely to be the last time the MING stands up a JTF. This means that the organizational lessons that occurred during JTF-MI demonstrate applicability to large-scale combat operations: complexity, interoperability, risk and commander’s visualization, and ethical alignment within an organization. With that in mind, several recommendations with state national guards to smooth out the experience when the next JTF stands up. First, using lessons learned, create standard operating procedures to stand up JTFs within state national guards using ANG and ARNG members. Second, balance ANG and ARNG processes and equities in daily operations to provide improved understanding of how service components can create joint processes. Third, exposure between ANG and ARNG members through regular JTF-level exercises and frequent exchanges could improve the understanding and trust required during a crisis. Finally, the historic and cultural considerations are important for leaders at the highest level to make effective decisions as a devoted partner in the community. States’ national guard leaders should continue communicate and discuss these considerations to inform and education members because it could allow them to use the same information during decision-making at their respective levels.

Major Jennifer Rudolph
Maj Rudolph is an Air Battle Manager in the Michigan Air National Guard. She previously served as the Air LNO to JFT-Michigan during the initial response to COVID-19 while assigned to the 217th Combat Operations Squadron, Battle Creek, MI. While on active-duty, she was a Senior Director on the E-8C JSTARS and an instructor at Undergraduate Air Battle Manager Training. Maj Rudolph recently completed a Master of Military Arts and Science degree while attending the US Army's Command and General Staff College, conducting human subjects research on empathy in the military.


[1]. Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) “DMVA Strategic Plan,” accessed May 15, 2022,

[2]. Chief, National Guard Bureau (CNGB), CNGB Instruction 1001.01, National Guard Joint Force Headquarters-State,

[3]. Joint Staff, J7, Deployable Training Divisions, “Insights and Best Practices on Joint Headquarters Organization, Staff Integration, and Battle Rhythm,” accessed May 15, 2022,

[4]. David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” Harvard Business Review, November 1, 2007, accessed May 15, 2022,

[5]. Snowden and Boone, “A Leader’s Framework.”

[6]. Civil Air Patrol, “Mich. Wing Transporting COVID-19 Test Kits,” Mich. Wing Transporting COVID-19 Test Kits, accessed May 15, 2022,; National Guard, “Youth Challenge Academy Cadets, Staff Mobilize for Community,” National Guard, accessed May 15, 2022,

[7]. Britannica, “Detroit Riot of 1967,” accessed May 15, 2022,

1. United States Air Force (USAF), Air Force Doctrine Publication (AFDP) 3-0 Operations and Planning,, 4 November 2016.

[9]. USAF, AFDP 3-99, The Department of the Air Force role in Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2),
, 19 November 2021.

[10]. USAF, Blue Book, A Profession of Arms: Our Core Values, 16 May 2022,

[11]. USAF, AFDP 3-0, 2016, 7.

[12]. USAF, AFDP 3-99, 2021, 6.

[13]. USAF, AFDP 3-99, 2021, 24.

[14]. USAF, Blue Book, 2022, 12.

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