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Dynamic Command, De-Centralized Execution

  • Published
  • By Captains Clifford “Jeeves” Butler, Robert “Bolton” Dee, Daniel Jagoda, Sebastian “Barrage” Kaiser, Gregory “Wedge” St. Clair, Logan “Devil” Wagner
  • Wild Blue Yonder

When our Air University Advanced Research group first gathered and began looking at ABMS, we were impressed with its proposed capabilities. The idea of ABMS is to compile data from across the joint services in order to increase communication and speed up the decision-making process. As we imagined a future conflict with peer adversaries and imagined what ABMS was designed to bring to the fight, we quickly realized that this software might also enable the delegation of command authority during contested, degraded operations (CDO).  Acknowledging the necessity to delegate command further down the chain, given the high potential for tactical units to be isolated from a centralized command, our team examined how air forces in the past have used (or not used) dynamic command to operate autonomously, given the commander’s intent in both modern-day operations, such as Inherent Resolve and Desert Storm, and historical operations, such as the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain and the air campaign in the Pacific theater during WWII. Our conclusion is that the USAF needs to break from traditional Air Force doctrine norms and consider dynamic, de-centralized command in a future peer conflict.

In Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the source of strategic C2 is the Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC). The CFACC is ultimately responsible for ensuring kill chains are closed and driving which kill chains to develop in the first place. Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) CFACC from 2016 to 2018, briefly described how kill chains were crafted during OIR in a 2017 press briefing saying, “We have two categories of targets and target development...deliberate and dynamic.”[1] He described deliberate targeting as a method that could take “days to weeks” using collected intelligence and strategic deliberation.[2]

In contrast, dynamic targeting would speed up that process from hours or days to minutes. For example, while on patrol, a bomber or strike fighter identifying an enemy convoy of fuel trucks in the vicinity of an oil facility would warrant a dynamic reaction. Since the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) would be reachable via radio communications, final approval for strike authority of dynamic targets was retained by them. Because the pilots would recognize that gas tanker trucks fall under their umbrella of purpose, which was to cripple the Islamic State’s economic capability, they would know to identify their sightings as useful dynamic targets that supported overarching strategic objectives.[3] Thus, units that understand command and mission intent are best equipped to dynamically target in order to meet the commander's intent.

Since C2 has operated in a permissive environment during OIR, taking the time to develop and strategize deliberate targets has been worthwhile.[4] In a future contested environment, however, a squadron may not have direct access to a continuously updated air tasking order (ATO) from a centralized command and may therefore have to rely solely on autonomous operations and dynamic targeting. By assigning geographic responsibilities and overarching mission intent early in a fight, operators can sustain their mission sets even after they lose C2 at all levels. In OIR, centralized command and decentralized execution of deliberate targets has proven to be efficacious. More importantly, it has alluded to the empowerment of tactical-level units to understand and successfully carry out mission sets without total influence from strategic leaders.

Operation Desert Storm was another operation of many tactical, operational, and strategic firsts. In particular, it was the first time airpower was effectively employed in a large scale under the direction of a Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) and operated under the doctrine of centralized control and decentralized execution.[5] Using smaller planning divisions within the Air Operations Center (AOC), ATOs were developed and distributed to units for employment. Once airborne, integrated C2 nodes (i.e. AWACS) acted as extensions of the AOC, ensuring tactical objectives in the ATO were met.

As this operation had an overwhelmingly large amount of combat airpower, there were learning opportunities on how best to delegate authority at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Two major lessons learned during this operation were that the centralized planning system was slow to respond to changes in the plan and that the assessment-to-targeting cycle needed to occur faster.[6] To compensate for this delay, CENTCOM Commander General Schwarzkopf entrusted CFACC Lieutenant General Charles Horner with autonomy over the air war. In turn, General Horner chose to utilize ATOs and mission-type orders (MTO) to enable dynamic targeting and decentralized execution at the operational and tactical levels. The MTO was not a substitute for the ATO but rather an addition to it, providing awareness of the commander’s intent. Horner further delegated authority down to his composite wing, where squadrons compared what the ATO had tasked to them versus what assets they actually had at their disposal. More times than not, the MTO made more sense than the ATO, based on tactical targets and composite wing makeup.

At a lower level, Horner’s trust was instrumental in the composite wing’s success in operating with mission-type orders.  Horner’s willingness to delegate operational decision-making to General Lee Downer, Commander of the composite wing in Turkey, allowed Downer to “fight” his wing, unlike other theater wing commanders who were dependent on the detailed daily ATO.  In addition, doctrinal concerns did not inhibit Horner from giving Downer his own area of responsibility and tasking him by exception. Though Horner was wary of the “route package,” or geographical targeting game plan, he was comfortable giving the wing relatively free reign within its AOR as long as he retained the authority to redirect the wing’s efforts as needed. Downer, in turn, delegated responsibility for combat planning to his staff who often tasked the wing’s squadrons with mission-type orders.

In summary, Desert Storm wing planner Lieutenant Colonel Maris McCrabb asserts, “Route packages, or whatever you want to call them, are the way to go if you want to operate with mission-type orders. They aren’t a problem as long as you have unity of command in the form of a CFACC who can focus the air effort in the areas he needs to. If more than one wing needs to operate in an area, then the other wings should be placed in supporting roles, and the mission commanders should be from the wing that is most familiar with the area. The targeting and coordination details can be worked out at the wing level.” The successful employment of mission-type orders during Desert Storm showed how lethal small, self-contained units could be without the need to coordinate for outside help.[7]

A review of the ongoing conflict within OIR and in Desert Storm provides the most current assessment of the Air Force’s ability to command and control. The practice of “centralized command” has remained consistent and unchallenged throughout OIR and Desert Storm due to the lack of any real threat or degradation to operational communication. In WWII, this communication structure was unavailable during the Nazi’s efforts to achieve air superiority.  Our research initially focused on understanding the campaign objectives, the decisive points that made them unsuccessful, and how the lessons learned can be related to our command and control structure in a future peer conflict.

Nazi Germany’s campaign objectives were to drive Great Britain to the negotiation table by establishing the threat of invasion through the use of air superiority, incapacitation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and isolation to deplete their war-making capacity so that invasion could occur. During their campaign, however, German leadership never established their intent or how they planned to establish air superiority.

The Luftwaffe lost focus on the air superiority objective of the invasion through inadequate planning and communication between Luftflotten Two and Three, and multiple shifts in focus from the German Supreme command of armed forces, known as the Oberkonmmando der Wehrmacht (OKW). This shift in focus was partly due to the drawing of resources away from the Great Britain campaign to prepare for the invasion of Russia and inadequate “all-source intelligence fusion” or sharing of intelligence and information as a consequence of the division of power and competition between subordinates. The Nazis never clearly established the method by which they were going to achieve air superiority prior to the campaign because they made several incorrect assumptions about the capabilities of the British based on insufficient intelligence. This caused them to make continual changes in targeting due to not clearly understanding their opponent.[8]

Nazi Germany’s center of gravity was that they had the numbers and the capacity to predicate where and when they would strike. However, Nazi Germany was employing centralized control during the Battle of Britain which, paired with a lack of initial direction, poor intelligence fusion, inadequate planning and communication between the Luftflotten, and a lack of consensus on targeting, led to their inability to establish air superiority. The Nazi leadership was not able to establish the British center of gravity due to poor intelligence fusion, which interfered with their ability to develop target identification and determine the value of the British Dowding C2 system. The Nazis had a 3:1 aircraft advantage during the initial phase of the battle, but they failed to establish intent for the campaign due to poor intelligence, disagreements on how to dismantle the RAF, and targeting changes due to shifts in focus. Overall, this suppressed the Luftwaffe’s capability to wage a successful air superiority campaign because it did not arm its Luftflotten with intent and a free flow of information and intelligence. Therefore, in conjunction with a lack of intent, the Luftwaffe’s centralized command and control structure and broken communication system prevented it from maintaining its advantage and winning its air superiority campaign.

The Luftwaffe’s failure during the Battle of Britain provides three key lessons.  First, task forces (TF) require intent, which can be done through the use of mission-type orders. Without clear-cut commander intent, task forces cannot be used effectively. Second, task forces must have free-flowing information and intelligence between wings and groups to ensure that all players understand their role and effectively execute the Combatant Commander's intent. Finally, once intent has been given through the use of an MTO, a combatant commander can update their intent but should decentralize control to the task forces and execution to the mission commander and squadrons.

In stark contrast, General George Kenney’s air campaign in the Southwest Pacific during World War II highlights the power of decentralized application of air power. His success was based primarily on two key factors: trust and open communications. The enormous amount of trust between Kenney and his commander, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, gave MacArthur the confidence to provide Kenney with nothing more than his own broad objectives, which allowed Kenney to decide how best to accomplish them.[9]

Trust played a key role throughout the entire chain of command. Kenney entrusted his deputy, General Ennis Whitehead, with significant structural and operational flexibility. General Whitehead, in turn, had a great amount of trust in the Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels subordinate to him, enabling their execution with less oversight. Kenney had also garnered the trust laterally across the chain of command with the Joint Forces in the Pacific, which limited outside requests to close air support and enabled the Air Force to choose its interdiction targets. Thus, Kenney’s subordinates had more leeway to interpret and execute their commander’s intent. Furthermore, trust across the chain of command prevented unproductive bickering over personnel and material.

Effective communication was also indispensable to Kenney's success in the Pacific. Communication up and down the chain of command allowed MacArthur, Kenney, Whitehead, and subordinate commanders to better understand the overall intent and pass along intelligence. It is important to note that the official MTOs were consistently accompanied by correspondence via personal letters as a sort of informal reporting both up and down the chain of command. These personal letters were crucial to clarifying the two-to-three-page MTOs down the chain of command. Up the chain of command, regular communication offered subordinate commanders an informal means to pass honest reports on the status of the campaign and forces. Additionally, communication across the chain of command in the form of each organization's “air intent” was useful for deconfliction, as well as synergizing effects.

This superior trust and communication manifested itself in the dynamic organization and reorganization of “task forces,” which were molded for specific objectives, then modified once they were achieved. Kenney’s task forces had the self-contained ability to generate their own intelligence, targets, escort, bombers, and support, which allowed them to remain effective when communications were inevitably interrupted. Additionally, this dynamic organization allowed the task forces to be disbanded and restructured as rapidly as the situation necessitated.

Trust, both vertically and laterally, and an emphasis on communication provided the US Army Air Forces with the necessary autonomy and flexibility to ensure an incredibly high degree of survivability for the force and a greater chance of success during a continuously changing campaign. Therefore, if we are to contend with a similar environment, we must build dynamic command and control structures around our ability to effectively communicate, while fostering trust across our organizations to remove barriers to adaptability.

Mission command and mission-type orders, however, require good two-way communications. While it is difficult to predict future communication environments, ABMS will hopefully help ease some of these concerns. In order to consider new ways to delegate command quickly and effectively, we imagined a scenario that would require it due to limited communications. If the Air Force is utilizing a mission-command model and has deployed composite task forces comprised of multiple air platforms and mission capabilities, how might the USAF delegate command during a conflict where communications are degraded?

Computer networks provide some interesting models for decentralized control in a peer fight due to their comparable structures and parallel complications of lost nodes.  The tree-style network configuration (Figure 1) most resembles our current top-down command structure. In such a configuration, taking out an upper-level node (A, B, or C) can effectively disable the entire network as lower-level nodes would be unable to communicate with each other.  

Figure 1. 
Tree Style Network
Figure 2. 
Mesh Network


Mesh networks (Figure 2) reduce this weakness by interconnecting nodes to each other to the max extent, thereby ensuring multiple paths for information flow. While the USAF unofficially develops this type of network within professional and social settings, but a more robust process is necessary to advance this flow of information between all nodes.

While assigning command authority presents one of the big hurdles to incorporating this type of network infrastructure in the USAF, both autonomous drone swarms and flocks of birds are examples of leaderless units that work together in mesh-node-style groups. In a leaderless flock of birds, the center elements have the most effect on the direction of the flock due to their position in the formation.[10] Drone swarms have incorporated similar basic characteristics with some additional inputs. Using “limited-time convergence consensus” techniques, drone swarms are able to quickly come to a group decision without a leader.[11] By drones communicating with only the other drones closest to them, the swarm can quickly iterate through multiple solutions (Figure 3), and the swarm is able to rapidly converge on a single solution without a defined leader.  

Figure 3. 

Without the clear command structure provided by a tree-style organization, the traditional military command authority would go to the highest-ranking officer in a mesh-style network.  However, in a dynamic environment, this is NOT the most advantageous measure of leadership effectiveness (Figure 4). Looking back at bird flocks & drone swarms, the most effectual element is the node with the most connections to other nodes (Figure 5).

Figure 4. 
Rank-derived Command Node
Figure 5. 
Connectivity-derived Command Node

It is very important to distinguish the differences between a star network (Figure 6) and a mesh network. Mesh nodes are connected to multiple other nodes. In a star network, only the center node is connected to multiple nodes, which creates the same issue of a single point of failure as a tree-style structure. Conversely, if a center node is removed in a mesh network, it is still functional. (Figure 7)

Figure 6. 
Star Network Configuration
Figure 7. 
Degraded Mesh Network

Given the above studies of rapid and effective group decision-making, the proposed methodology of assigning command authority is to assess the current communication capabilities of each unit and give command to the most interconnected unit (Figure 8). This command unit would retain authority until a new mission tasking is released or communications with the network are severely degraded or eliminated. In the case of degraded communications, a pre-determined deputy would take over (Figure 9).

Figure 8. 
Command Assigned by Connections
Figure 9. 
Command Reassigned After Damage to Network

To illustrate this proposed methodology, a simplified large-scale example of this type of command structure is given. Presuming a large-scale, peer-to-peer conflict, the Joint Force Commander (JFC) would create a TF (Figure 10) and send an MTO to all the units within that TF. The TF would then establish communications with all the assigned units within the TF. While establishing communications in this new TF, the various units will create a network map and ascertain which unit is most connected in this network (Figure 11). The two most connected units would then be assigned TF/CC and Deputy CC roles (Figure 12).  An extreme example of this TF/CC assignment process would be a USAF captain leading a forward deployed unit at the center of the network, potentially taking command over a higher-ranking officer who is at the outer edge of the network. While rank would certainly be respected, in an environment where quick decisions will mean the difference between winning or losing the battle, rank will take a secondary role. Throughout history, quick decisions have been essential to victory, therefore miring the decision process in military bureaucracy sets us up for failure. Using ideas taken from flocks of birds, it is possible to enable the delegation of command quickly in a limited communications environment.

Figure 10. 
Create Task Force
Figure 11. 
Task Force Network Established & Mission Assigned
Figure 12. 
Task Force Command Assigned

Additionally, in the case of the TF/CC being removed from the network either deliberately or unintentionally, the network mapping should be quickly plotted, and the new TF/CC assigned (Figure 13). To reiterate, the priority when assigning a command authority is keeping the network intact over maintaining a fixed command hierarchy. This new CC would then maintain command until the next MTO is received.

Figure 13. 
Degraded Task Force Operations

These types of principles are not new as they have been used by past air forces to great success. While the development of better technology over the last 20 years has led the USAF and to rely on centralized command, this will not be possible in the future fight. Although ABMS will certainly aid in better communication, the USAF needs to be ready to utilize this technology to move quickly rather than centralize our decision-making and delay execution. Therefore, dynamic command and decentralized execution should be adopted, which is a step further than the current doctrine of “centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.” Further studies should examine if contributing factors such as mission objective, time constraints, geographical location, or availability of assets will influence this proposed command structure. In great power competition, the free flow of classified and unclassified communication that the USAF has become accustomed to will cease to exist. Therefore, it is inevitable that the shift towards dynamic command will happen. The question is whether or not the USAF will accelerate that change or die.


Captain Clifford “Jeeves” Butler
Capt Butler is an Intelligence Officer. He is assigned to the 93d Intelligence Squadron stationed at Peterson SFB and currently works as an Operations Officer. Captain Butler deployed to Afghanistan (2017-18) with the record-breaking 77 EFS in support of Operation FREEDOM'S SENTINEL and the RESOLUTE SUPPORT mission. Captain Butler commissioned through OTS and is a graduate of the University of Colorado (2009), the Community College of the Air Force (2014), the American Military University (2021), and Squadron Officer School (2022).

Captain Robert “Bolton” Dee
Capt Dee is an Instructor Pilot on the B-52H Stratofortress. He is assigned to the 5th Operational Support Squadron at Minot AFB and currently works as the Wing Datalink Manager. Captain Dee has deployed to Anderson AFB, Guam (2019), Fairford AB, Great Britain (2020), and most recently to Al Udeid AB, Qatar (2021). Captain Dee is a graduate of the Air Force ROTC program at Stanford University (2014) and Squadron Officer School (2022). 

Captain Daniel B. Jagoda
Capt Jagoda is a Weather and Environmental Science Officer. He is assigned to the 28th Operations Support Squadron at Ellsworth AFB and currently works as a Weather Flight Commander. Captain Jagoda earned an M.S. degree in Physical Meteorology from the Air Force Institute of Technology (2020) and supported the advancement of directed energy technologies. Captain Jagoda is also a graduate of the Air Force ROTC program at the University of California, Los Angeles (2016) and Squadron Officer School (2022).

Captain Sebastian “Barrage” Kaiser
Capt Kaiser is an Instructor Weapons Systems Officer on the F-15E Strike Eagle. He is assigned to the 4th Training Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB and currently works as the F-15E FTU A/G Phase Manager and Chief of F-15E FTU Courseware, as well as a line F-15E FTU Instructor for the 334th Fighter Squadron. Captain Kaiser has deployed to an undisclosed location (2019) in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Captain Kaiser is a graduate of the Air Force ROTC program at Rutgers University (2015) and Squadron Officer School (2022). 

Captain Gregory “Wedge” St. Clair
Capt St. Clair is an Air Battle Manager on the E-3G AWACS. He is assigned to the 963d Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker AFB and currently works as a Flight Commander. Captain St. Clair has deployed to Al Dhafra AB, United Arab Emirates twice (2019 and 2020) in support of Operation FREEDOM'S SENTINEL and the RESOLUTE SUPPORT mission. Captain St. Clair is a graduate of the Air Force ROTC program at Auburn University (2014) and Squadron Officer School (2022).

Captain Logan “Devil” Wagner
Capt Wagner is an Instructor Weapons Systems Officer in the F-15E Strike Eagle. He is assigned to the 389th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home AFB where he currently is the C-Flight Commander. Captain Wagner has deployed to Al Dhafra AB, United Arab Emirates in support of Operations SPARTAN SHIELD, INHERENT RESOLVE, and FREEDOM’S SENTINEL (2019). Captain Wagner is a graduate of Troy University (2015) and Squadron Officer School (2022).



[1.] Air Force Doctrine Publication 3-60, Targeting. (Maxwell AFB, 12 November 2021).

[2.] “Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Harrigian via Teleconference.”, 24 May 2017,

[3.] Ibid.

[4.] Stacie L. Pettyjohn, and Becca Wasser, “From Forever Wars to Great-Power Wars: Lessons Learned from Operation Inherent Resolve.” War on the Rocks, 20 Aug. 2021,

[5.] Clint Hinote, Centralized Control and Decentralized Execution - A Catchphrase in Crisis?, Air Force Research Institute Papers (Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala: Air University, 2009), 8-10.

[6.] Philip S. Meilinger, “Ten Propositions Regarding Airpower” Airpower Journal, 10: no. 1 (Spring 1996), 49, 52-53.

[7.] Michael E. Fischer, Mission-Type Orders in Joint Air Operations: The Empowerment of Air Leadership. SAASS Thesis (Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Air University Press, May 1995), 42, 49.

[8.] Christopher Lazidis, “Air Parity: Re-Discovering Contested Air Operations.” School of Advanced Air and Space Studies Thesis (Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala: Air University, 2016), 31.

[9.] Together, MacArthur’s goal and Kenney’s tasks were to isolate the Japanese forces at Rabaul, prepare for the assault on the Philippines, occupy the Philippines to cut Japan off from the Southwest Pacific, and prepare for the final assault on Japan. Fischer, Mission-Type Orders, 17.

[10.] Diane Galistan, “Do Flocks of Birds Have a Leader? Researchers Study Pigeon Flights.” International Business Times, 20 Nov. 2019,

[11.] Wu Chen, Jiajia Liu, Hongzhi Guo, “Achieving Robust and Efficient Consensus for Large-Scale Drone Swarm.” IEEE Transactions on Vehicular Technology, 69: no. 12 (1 Dec. 2020), 15867–15879,

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