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To Build Joint Command and Control, First Break Joint Command and Control

Commentary by Leland Cowie, Todd Graff, Craig Cude, and Brad Dewees via War on the Rocks

The crowd favorite in the Korean War section of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is a B-29 Superfortress known as Command Decision. Named after a 1948 movie that recounted the Army Air Forces’ decision-making during World War II, the plane shot down five MiG-15 fighters, dropped over one million pounds of bombs, and has iconic nose art featuring two of the seven dwarfs — Dopey and Doc — waiting apprehensively for a flipped coin to land.

Behind the Command Decision is a smaller, less popular exhibit about command and control during the Korean War. The exhibit includes a diagram illustrating how command and control was organized at the time — it offers a visual of how messages were relayed and who assigned resources to specific tasks. That picture is notable because, with minor changes, it could feature in any of the museum’s sections. It depicts a hierarchical, industrial-age structure, and could describe command and control in World War II, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at any point in the intervening period.

While still not exactly a crowd favorite, command and control is currently experiencing something of a renaissance as U.S. military leaders seek more interoperability between the different military services, less hierarchy in military networks, and systems that enable faster decision-making. The military has requested $3 billion to remake the system. The problem, though, is that the effort is focused almost entirely on the technology of command and control. The Defense Department is currently buying modular communications equipment that can connect people regardless of military service, building universal networks and data repositories, and developing decision-support tools that rely more on machine learning. While this technological disruption is necessary, it is insufficient.

The organizational structure of command and control should also be changed. The U.S. military should break up its current command and control system and replace it with small, modular teams that are not strictly aligned with a particular military service. This would help the system to deliver operational outputs faster and from multiple services at a given time. This effort would face challenges, especially overcoming longstanding organizational and doctrinal practices, but it would be worth it because a command and control system that spans all the services is the only way to generate multiple, unsolvable dilemmas for adversaries.

Command and Control Today

The U.S. military’s command and control system resembles a series of highways that all start together in the city center but, moving outward, travel in parallel lines and never intersect. These highways represent command and control pathways, the means of telling military assets where to go and what to do. The Navy and Marine Corps have their own command and control system, the Army and Air Force have another, and the Space Force and cyber functions, while relatively new, each have their own. When the secretary of defense issues orders, they are implemented by a joint organization responsible for conducting planning at the operational level — either a geographic or functional combatant command. At that operational level, planning is usually conducted jointly, meaning that it involves all of the military services. But at lower levels, where tactical execution takes places, command and control is siloed by military service. Once a mission has begun, pulling in another service usually requires contacting the operational level of command again, a labor-intensive and time-consuming step.

As tactical air control party officers, who are primarily responsible for bridging the operational gaps between the Air Force and the Army, we have significant experience with the military’s command and control systems. As an example of the problems we describe above, the equipment we use needs so-called “authority to connect” to military networks. Air Force systems are technically capable of connecting to any military service’s network. However, they only actually have the authority to connect to the Air Force’s network. During Army-Air Force exercises, we bring equipment to connect to the Army’s internet, plus separate equipment to connect to the Air Force’s internet, in addition to different people for monitoring each. Using one system, monitored by one person, would be much more efficient, but our teams are prevented from doing that. Though we find this example frustrating, it is actually relatively straightforward and noncontroversial to solve. The term “authority” has two meanings in command and control. The first is the authority to connect to networks, as described above. The second is the authority, once on those networks, to direct where military assets should go and what they should do. Given the incentives to protect bureaucratic turf, the challenges we face in actually directing assets across services are dramatically more complicated and contentious than the challenges we face in merely connecting across services.

The system works this way because the military values service autonomy. The current system reflects the assumption that clearly delineated military services, performing their own dedicated missions, can best achieve military goals. The system needs joint command at the top, but once direction is given, the services can operate autonomously. The current system also reflects the idea that longstanding relationships are necessary to make command and control systems function well. This need for familiarity between units and personnel is known as “alignment.” To take a specific example, tactical air control party members from the Air Force live on the same base as the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and regularly train with its personnel. By doing so, the tactical air control party members get to know the people responsible for making command and control work as they travel their respective highways. Alignment is something of a sacred cow in the world of command and control.

Service autonomy and a commitment to alignment are no longer good organizing principles for today’s command and control. True autonomy is not practical when battlespaces are large. During a recent Army warfighter exercise in which we participated, an Army corps — a large unit commanded by a three-star general — was tasked with responsibility for a battlespace that ranged over 300 kilometers. In that type of scenario, staying out of each other’s way is impractical. Outside of exercises, every service’s operations must now take account of space and cyberspace, precisely because modern weapon systems rely on space-based and cyber capabilities for passing information. More importantly, the military has decided that truly joint operations are more necessary now than ever, and not just at the level of operational planning. The U.S. military seeks to confront adversaries with unsolvable problems in the form of multiple simultaneous threats across land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace. The current command and control system confronts American adversaries with exactly the opposite of this — solvable problems. Using our earlier analogy, adversaries know where all the cities are and they know how to clog the traffic on the highways. They know that preventing travel to any particular destination simply requires shutting down the highway leading to that destination.

The necessity for hosting command and control nodes within the services they support has been waning for years. Due to the strain of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the services were often left scrambling for high-demand personnel wherever they could get them, foregoing the luxury of alignment. Command and control systems were supported by whoever was available at the time, and that support often did not come from “aligned” units. As a result, commanders have become more likely to consider whether command and control is available at the moment it is necessary, not whether it physically lives just down the road. More recently, the pandemic-related innovations that have changed other industries have also impacted the military: Long-distance interactions are now more common and easier than they once were.

An All-Terrain System

The command and control system should be changed and should start relying on teams that are not tied to any particular military service — the parallel highways of today’s system should be scrapped and the military should adopt an all-terrain approach to travel. Command and control teams with datalink and internet access already have the technical ability to talk to any service. While those tactical teams are currently limited to controlling a single service, it is not because they lack the equipment to talk across multiple services.

The really hard change would be an organizational one, namely building teams of people with the training and authorities needed to command and control across all areas of warfare. It is existing authorities, in particular, that currently restrict teams to their respective highways. Both dimensions of authorities — the authority to connect to networks and the authority to direct assets — need to extend across all the services and be pushed down to the tactical level. The U.S. military should stop thinking of conventional command and control nodes as belonging to a particular service, and begin thinking of them as joint entities that can “plug and play,” drawing on personnel from different services, as necessary, in order to accomplish a given mission. The organizing principle for these nodes should be maximizing the number of different types of warfare they can engage in at any point in time. The organizing principle should not be the degree to which they fit into traditional command and control lanes. When our team arrives at an exercise today, we are an Air Force command and control team, connected to Air Force networks for the purpose of controlling Air Force assets. Our team and others like us across the U.S. military should be viewed as multi-functional command and control teams that are able to connect to, and control assets across, all the services. This change alone would help the U.S. command and control system take a big step toward posing unsolvable problems for adversaries. The number of possible paths between the city center and any desired destination would dramatically increase, complicating the enemy’s targeting and also increasing the survivability of the command and control nodes themselves.

In our professional community we have built an example of what these future command and control nodes can look like. Called “all-domain control teams,” we have brought together small groups of people — fewer than 10 — from multiple backgrounds, and given them equipment that can communicate with the most commonly used assets in the military. Our teams have experts in air, ground, cyber, and space operations. They are equipped for maneuver. Rather than stay in one place as current command and control nodes mostly do, these teams move, pull-in data, radiate information to others in the network, and repeat. This way of operating increases their survivability. Unlike the hierarchical systems employed in the past, these future command and control nodes would also have the ability to grow, when and where needed, in response to the operational environment.

This type of team, already wargamed with successful results, can be a building block for command and control of any mission. The team can be the equivalent of an all-terrain ride-sharing service for the command and control system — a tactical-level commander who knows where she needs to go could hail one of these teams. She would not have to go back to the city center, which would entail requesting support from a higher level of command. Within the Air Force alone, there are a number of command and control functions that could all be performed by the all-domain team, including defending bases, guiding air campaigns, coordinating humanitarian assistance, or providing support for the U.S. Army. Dozens of these teams, operating in redundant networks, could provide a survivable means of command and control against adversaries with sophisticated targeting capabilities.

Challenges and the Way Forward

The idea of having small, redundant teams for command and control is not unique. Similar structures are common in the special operations world. Even outside of special operations, several conventional command and control organizations have come to the same idea independently, an encouraging sign for the idea’s viability. Regardless of where the idea originates, however, it runs into the same roadblocks. To make all-domain control teams a reality requires delegating sufficient authorities to them. The idea will not work if command and control nodes are restricted to only one highway. Command and control reform will require commanders to grow comfortable with delegating the authority to task — or at least with delegating the permission to request tasking — to junior officers or senior enlisted personnel from any service in the U.S. military. The tendency is for authorities to trickle up. Once at a high level, those authorities become sticky and it is hard to bring them back down. Doing so would require commanders to take risk. In the tradeoff between flexibility and control, commanders would have to lean more toward flexibility, embracing a philosophy of command and control known as “mission command.” In a future communications-degraded battlefield, executing a commander’s intent through mission command will be even more important — all-domain control teams are one avenue to implement the required command and control system.

The changes above will also only be possible if thinking on alignment becomes more flexible. While alignment does have benefits, such as allowing for unit cohesion in joint operations, it cannot be the primary organizing principle for command and control nodes. They should be considered multi-functional, capable of fulfilling a range of command and control needs across the different phases of conflict, in addition to the tasks from their aligned units. Command and control entities will need to be based on the specific capabilities required for a mission and fulfilled by just-in-time requests rather than just-in-case hedging. The military calls this “effects-based thinking” — planners do not ask for specific platforms to do a mission, instead they ask for a desired effect and tactical experts then find the best platform to achieve it. The same basic idea should characterize how the military organizes its command and control system.

All-domain control teams, comprising a mix of command and control professionals from the different military services, should become a regular feature of major military exercises. The teams should be involved from the early stages of exercise planning, in order to inform commanders of what authorities they will need to be operationally effective. The exercises themselves should involve multiple military services. Currently, the major exercises developing new command and control systems are led by individual services. With a single service in charge, any exercise inevitably prioritizes command and control functions that fit comfortably within that service’s traditional highway.

Progress will also depend on commanders at the operational levels of war — two-, three-, and four-star generals or flag officers — being willing to delegate conditional authorities to direct assets in conflict. When they do choose to delegate, commanders should make a point of doing so in a noticeable way, creating an incentive for peers to embrace mission command. This is also something that can start to be done in exercises. We have not yet experienced an exercise in which a general or flag officer insisted that participants conduct the exercise in her or his absence. Doing so would replicate a scenario in which an operational command center is unreachable and the delegation of authorities becomes necessary. If commanders are willing to give up control, temporarily, it would force the exercising units to define which authorities should be delegated and under what conditions.

Looking Ahead

The Command Decision, the Superfortress from the Korean War, overshadows the Air Force museum’s command and control display for many reasons beyond its being a singularly popular aircraft. Its prominence within the museum reflects a more general trend within the military itself. Tangible platforms — specific weapons that perform a small set of functions — have a long history of eclipsing the command and control systems that direct those weapons. In part, this is because platforms are easier for people to wrap their minds around, and also because weapon systems are closer to the forward edge of conflict. The same thing can happen again today, and in fact it already is happening. The F-35 fighter, one of the U.S. military’s most prominent platforms, is on the leading edge of the command and control renaissance. The military is at risk of making the same mistake of focusing too heavily on weapon systems, while failing to design, organize, and empower overarching command and control constructs.

This risk of repeating old mistakes is all the more reason for command and control reform to receive attention from the military’s leadership. Ultimately, the military needs to pursue reform because changing command and control is about changing how the military makes decisions during conflict, and decision-making is fundamental to military leadership. If senior officers truly value the decision speed that they claim is necessary in modern conflict — shifting timelines from weeks to minutes, if not faster — the only way to get there is to empower many people to be able to make decisions. If the intent is to make decisions faster, and to truly present our adversaries with unsolvable problems, the military needs to move beyond the command and control system it has now.

Leland Cowie is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and commands the 3rd Air Support Operations Group at Fort Hood, Texas. He has combat experience in the F-15C, MQ-1B, and Tactical Air Control Party weapons systems, and is a graduate of the National Intelligence University, the School of Advanced Military Studies, and the Air War College Grand Strategy Seminar. On the Joint Staff, he led the team responsible for writing the 2018 National Military Strategy and also served as the chief of operations for the National Military Command Center. 

Todd Graff is a captain in the U.S. Air Force and leads a Tactical Air Control Party command and control innovation cell at the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron. He co-built and led the demonstration of the all-domain control teams described above. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force’s Command and Control Warrior Advanced Course.

Craig Cude is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and the commander of the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron, in which time he was responsible for standing up that unit’s command and control innovation cell. He is an F-16 fighter pilot by background with three separate Tactical Air Control Party assignments, and is currently the primary U.S. Air Force liaison with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division. 

Brad DeWees is a major in the U.S. Air Force and a Tactical Air Control Party officer. He is currently stationed at the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron on Fort Carson, Colorado. An alumnus of the Air Force Chief of Staff’s Strategic Ph.D. program, he holds a Ph.D. in decision science from Harvard University, and frequently writes on command and control. 

The views expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or any part thereof.