Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein often begins talks with a description of what a really bad day might look like for the United States—from the perspective of a service chief.
As he tells it, the first call comes from US Northern Command to let him know the US is engaged with a peer competitor. Then comes US Strategic Command; then US Space Command, and so on. Each combatant commander lays out needs and demands, which keep stacking up as more lines light up on Goldfein’s phone. The point: Future wars cut straight across every domain—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. They’ll spill over geographic areas of responsibility as well.
Goldfein has been talking up multi-domain operations and multi-domain command and control (MDC2) at every opportunity for the past four years, so much so that some people’s eyes glaze over when he brings it up. But credit him with getting through. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, may call it “Joint All-Domain Command and Control,” but it’s the same thing.
The difference between conventional jointness and Joint All-Domain C2 (JADC2)—or MDC2, if you prefer) is speed and integration. In practice, jointness has often amounted to parallel play. Everyone’s in the same area of operations, and their activities are coordinated, but they are not fully integrated. For example, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army stayed west of the Euphrates River, and the Marines stayed east of the Euphrates as they both marched toward Baghdad.
Goldfein tells a compelling story to illustrate how he’s trying to change that construct. Visiting a defense supplier to see an air domain technology, he realized the supplier also had space capabilities. “So I’m assuming this connects to that, right?” No, the supplier exec came back. “That’s a different part of the company.”
The Chief’s inevitable takeaway: “I’m walking away from that offering.”
The Air Force can’t afford to buy capabilities that don’t connect. “If it doesn’t connect in all domains, if it doesn’t share information not only with our joint teammates but, equally important, with our allies and partners,” he says, “… then it’s no longer of interest to me as Chief.”
Jerry-built gateways that kluge together a connection aren’t going to be good enough. Gateways become bottlenecks. The chief wants the opposite: to open the floodgates. To move and process data in real time, enabling US and allied forces to keep adversaries on edge and at risk because they can’t be sure where the next attack will come from—that’s the objective. And that demands speed.
All-domain command and control cannot be reduced to high-function parallel play.
Speed is also needed in the acquisition system. To meet the objectives of the National Defense Strategy and to take on and deter aggressive, highly capable foes—China and Russia, of course, but also imitators and aspiring disruptors like Iran or North Korea—US forces will not be able to rely on an acquisition process that takes decades to produce results. Nor can its suppliers expect to have unlimited time to iron out the inevitable flaws in new weapon system designs.
For two decades, as America took on smaller, less capable foes, Air Force leaders cried out about the need to prepare for future conflicts with peer adversaries. Few listened. Instead, programs built for peer competitors were cut short, canceled, and delayed; planes and people were pushed to their limits. Now, the Air Force is too small and too old to meet all its obligations. Its modernization needs outstrip supply. And rejuvenation is still years away.
Yes, new fighters are coming off the assembly line—but not fast enough to replace aging aircraft that have already exceeded life expectancy; new tankers are arriving—but compromised by a faulty remote vision system that will keep them from becoming mission capable for four more years; a new bomber is under development—but first flight is still two years away.
It is certainly encouraging to see the Air Force double down on agile software development as a means to rapidly deliver iterative upgrades to the field and to step in and try to solve problems that contractors have found intractable, as with the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System. Likewise, USAF’s embrace of a new “Digital Century Series” of fighter aircraft offers an intriguing solution to creating a more continuous development cycle for modern aircraft. Yet, these approaches must be applied to existing problems as well as new ones. It is not a matter of one side or the other moving faster, but rather we need ways to forge closer, more cooperative, and more effective collaboration between the airmen who use the equipment and the designers, developers, and engineers who create it.
Neither the military—nor its partners in industry—can afford to be satisfied accomplishing in months or years what could be done in days and weeks. Nor can they accept being slaves to process when improvements can be had faster through other means.
It’s not for lack of money. When the next Air Force budget comes out, it will include some $9 billion over five years to develop the connective tissue that will enable Goldfein’s vision for Joint All-Domain Command and Control. How that money is spent—and how fast new capabilities spill out from that investment—will be a key measure of its success. There isn’t time to develop a silver bullet that may or may not arrive 20 years into the future.
All-domain command and control cannot be reduced to high-function parallel play. The combined threat of attack from every direction will be necessary in future conflicts to ensure adversaries, and not the US and its allies, are the ones rocked back on their heels. This is about delivering an offense so good that it makes our defense even better.
As a nation, we can’t always tell who our next enemy will be or who will want to be our friends. Our military may participate in diplomacy, but it doesn’t call the shots. What it does do is build the forces and develop the capabilities needed to deter and defeat adversaries. And it needs to do that more quickly and more efficiently.
America’s adversaries are well-versed in our American way of war, and they intend to use that knowledge and new skills and capabilities to disrupt our every advantage. To stop them, US and allied systems must be so closely integrated, their actions so easily synchronized, that adversaries will be simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of potential threats such a force can direct against them. The only thing rivals should be able to predict should be a decisive outcome—and one not in their favor.