Reshaping Centralized Control / Decentralized Execution for the Emerging Operating Environment

As the Department of Defense explores and transitions into a multi-domain capable force, it must also evolve its command and control (C2) structure to meet the complexities of the future operating environment. Leaders tend to desire control over the decisions in their organization. However, to fight effectively, the military will have to push this control to lower levels to be successful. This article takes a look at how this might look through the lens of the Air Force C2 structure.

By Brian “Bingo” McLean

Issue for Discussion:

Is Centralized Control / Decentralized Execution still valid for C2 of Air Force forces?

Since the earliest days of the Air Force, Centralized Control / Decentralized Execution has been a guiding tenet for employing airpower. Lessons of the North Africa campaign early in World War II were codified in Field Manual 100-20, Command and Employment of Air Power (21 July 1943):

Therefore, the command of air and ground forces in a theater of operations will be vested in the superior commander charged with the actual conduct of operations in the theater, who will exercise command of air forces through the air force commander and command of ground forces through the ground force commander. The superior commander will not attach Army Air Forces to units of the ground forces under his command except when such ground force units are operating independently or are isolated by distance or lack of communication.

In our current doctrinal language, the “superior commander” would be a joint force commander (JFC), the air force commander a commander, Air Force forces (COMAFFOR) and the ground force commander a commander of Army forces (COMARFOR).

(Note: In accordance with Air Force and Joint doctrine, the JFC normally designates the COMAFFOR with the additional title and duties as a joint force air component commander (JFACC). In this dual role, the COMAFFOR adapts the existing Air Force command and control structure and processes to execute joint air forces as the JFACC. This article will be limited to the COMAFFOR since that forms the basis for the JFACC structure when the COMAFFOR is dual-hatted as the COMAFFOR/JFACC.)

Although the precise language may have changed, the basic tenet is still valid as was reaffirmed by the Air Force Chief of Staff during the 2014 Doctrine Summit. Airpower, as a low density, high demand asset, is best employed under a single Airman (e.g., COMAFFOR ) responsible to a joint force commander instead of being subdivided between various surface component commanders.

But even though the central tenet has endured, the understanding of how to implement it in organizations and operations has changed over time. Force structure decisions since the end of the cold war, especially force drawdowns and organizational consolidations, have tended to flatten the C2 structure, elevate the level at which centralized control occurs, and bypass intermediate echelons of command – Air Expeditionary Wings (AEW), Groups (AEG), and Squadrons (AES) – as execution assets.

In some ways the Air Force has been a victim of its own success. The Air Force Forces Command and Control Enabling Concept (AFFORC2EC) and its associated implementing Program Action Directives (PAD) resulted in a very effective, very efficient and highly capable centralized control structure with the Air Operations Center (AOC) as a standardized weapon system. But an unintended consequence of this success in recent operations is the practice that centralized control is vested in the Combatant Commander (CCDR)-level COMAFFOR with decentralized execution occurring at the mission commander or flight lead. Although the current discussion of CC/DE in doctrine does not necessarily point to only a theater-level C2 construct, that has been the prevailing practice for several years. A generation of Airmen, with nearly two decades of operational experience in U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), have operated under the concept that centralized control/decentralized execution of airpower means control at the CCDR-level COMAFFOR and decentralized execution at the mission commander or flight lead level. Intervening AEWs, AEGS or AESs operated primarily as force providers not as potential force execution nodes.

Figure 1 below provides a simplistic illustration of these issues using Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) forces and organizations for discussion. Although 7th Air Force and subordinate Air Force forces on the Korean Peninsula are part of PACAF, they are (normally) further attached for operational employment as a separate Air Force Service component under the command and control of commander United States Forces Korea (CDRUSFK). United States Forces Korea is a subordinate unified command within USPACOM. This command relationship does not violate the tenet of centralized control under a single airman responsible to a JFC since CDRUSFK is a JFC under CDRUSPACOM. In each case, centralized control occurs at the JFC-level COMAFFOR. The COMAFFOR to CDRUSFK [commander 7th AF(AFKOR)] faces the same issues of centralized control/decentralized execution as does the commander of PACAF (COMPACAF) but at a slightly smaller scale.


Although centralized control at the CCDR level has proven to be effective in recent operations, ongoing analysis has revealed potential problems. First, centralized control at the CCDR level presents the single COMAFFOR with some significant span of control issues. Second, a control centralized in a single CCDR level COMAFFOR and AOC may be more efficient with limited resources but it also creates a critical vulnerability and a potential single point of failure if communications are disrupted between the central C2 node and the down range forces in the field.

Recognition of these challenges, especially the potential vulnerability of a single C2 node for all theater wide operations, led to the discussion of modifying Centralized Control, Decentralized Execution (CC/DE), to Centralized Command, Distributed Control, Decentralized Execution as a new tenet for employing airpower (CC/DC/DE). Under CC/DC/DE overall command is retained at the JFC level COMAFFOR. However detailed elements of mission execution and control may be delegated and distributed to subordinate command echelons as decided by the COMAFFOR. This provides a method of reducing span of control for theater wide operations and an extant capability to continue operations if communications are degraded or cut off between the theater COMAFFOR to the executing forces. Figure 2 again uses PACAF forces to illustrate how CC/DC/DE might be employed.


Although not formally identified as CC/DC/DE, a form of Distributed Control was used to good effect in the later stages of OPERATION IRAQ FREEDOM (OIF) and OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF). As shown in the below figure 3, the theater COMAFFOR (AFCENT/CC) established 9th AETF-Iraq and 9th AETF-Afghanistan as subordinate echelons of command with delegated authority to employ forces under their command. This command relationship and organizational structure has been codified in Air Force doctrine as “AETF-X.” The theater COMAFFOR retains overall command at his/her level, but delegates elements of control to distributed subordinate echelons for decentralized execution.


On the surface, CC/DC/DE may appear to be different from CC/DE since the operational control line goes through the subordinate NAFs and Wings instead of direct from the theater COMAFFOR to the field forces. But is there a real difference in substance, or only a difference in name? Centralized control, even at the CCDR-level COMAFFOR still permits decentralized execution through the subordinate echelons of command. Through decentralized execution, the senior commander delegates to subordinate echelons the authority to respond in accordance with senior leader intent. Suppose for the sake of discussion that instead of decentralized execution occurring from the COMAFFOR direct to the mission commander or flight lead the COMAFFOR decided to delegate authority to a subordinate echelon of command (e.g., NAF or wing) for execution. These subordinate echelons would, in turn, exercise a degree of centralized control over their included commands and forces and employ decentralized execution through their subordinate echelons of command. This results in a pyramidal command structure of cascading centralized control with decentralized execution. This possible organizational structure, again using PACAF forces, is illustrated in Figure 4 below.


Such a C2 structure of command in depth was commonly practiced by NATO air organizations during the Cold War. This procedure better enabled graceful devolution of command and continuity of operations in the event of loss or disruption of higher echelon command due to enemy action.

Seen side by side in the figure below, there does not appear to be much difference between CC/DC/DE and CC/DE in depth. Either term may be used to describe a command arrangement in which the theater COMAFFOR retains overall responsibility for air operations from a central location while delegating authority for mission execution to a subordinate echelon of command.


From the discussion at the 2014 Doctrine Summit and the 2015 Command and Control Summit, the agreed upon way forward is that CC/DE remains the overall tenet for air Force organization for command and control of airpower. However, this tenet does not describe a specific organization or command relationship or method for achieving CC/DE. The concept of CC/DC/DE as a technique provides redundancy and continuity of operations if faced with degraded communications or loss of contact between the central command node and the fielded forces.

But whether we call it CC/DC/DE or CC/DE with command in depth we cannot employ such a C2 concept unless we are properly manned, equipped and trained for it. Either description depends upon a capable and practiced subordinate C2 architecture below the AOC to be able to command and control that echelon’s portion of the fight. This does not mean that we must replicate the C2 structure of the theater AOC and AFFOR Staff at each succeeding echelon. Much of the detailed planning and coordination can be still be done at the centralized theater AOC. However as was shown with the experience of 9th AETF-Iraq and 9th AETF-Afghanistan, subordinate C2 elements must have some ability to plan, coordinate and control their forces at least for a limited time or extent. The subordinate echelon commander will need the capability to identify and task the specific forces under his/her command for the missions to be accomplished IAW the theater COMAFFOR’s commander’s intent. Once these forces are identified, the “AETF-X” structure can leverage the theater AOC for the detailed planning and integration with other air forces on the theater ATO. Once launched, TACON of the missions may be executed through the theater AOC as part of the total air operation. The below figure shows where such subordinate C2 echelons may be needed for PACAF to implement either CC/DC/DE or CC/DE in depth.


At present, our subordinate echelons (wings/groups/squadrons) are not experienced in carrying out this level of C2 and probably not manned or equipped to rapidly gain the necessary experience and capability. Achieving this capability at echelons below the theater COMAFFOR may require an increased commitment in training, manpower and resources to achieve success as envisioned by either concept.


Centralized Control, Decentralized Execution remains as a central tenet for how the Air Force organizes to successfully employ airpower. But we cannot assume that the single theater COMAFFOR directly executing C2 over fielded forces without active participation by subordinate echelons will remain viable in the face of a near peer competitor. Centralized Command, Distributed Control, Decentralized Execution is a valid organizational technique for implementing CC/DE to provide continuity of operations in a degraded communications environment But there is a price to pay in training and equipping if we are to realize the concept.

Lt Col (Ret.) Brian “Bingo” McLean is a Joint Doctrine Analyst in Doctrine Development, LeMay Center, Maxwell AFB AL. His specialty is command and control, and he is the primary instructor of the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) Course for Senior Leaders who have the potential to fulfill that role in various capacities throughout the world. Previously, Lt Col McLean flew C-141s, F-4s and F-14s and amassed over 2,500 flying hours.

 Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.



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