Napoleon and von Moltke: Ghosts of Airpower, past and future.

By Brandon T. Losacker

The Air Force lacks a coherent multi-domain airpower theory. This is a problem.

The current doctrine of centralized command and decentralized execution serves us poorly. Not because it fails to effectively and efficiently apply mass, but because the underlying assumption is wrong – it assumes centralized control is actually executable. This Napoleonic model presents an uncertain assumption reflecting 60 years of military dominance. That world doesn’t exist anymore. Airpower, and national security, is better served by cognitive abandonment of this perspective of dominance. Instead the Air Force should focus on crafting a more resilient theory of airpower, nested within a larger philosophy of warfare. This theory must reassert the mastery of the air domain while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of multi-domain power. Furthermore, it must update our command and control doctrine to enable a graceful degradation in airpower effectiveness during peer conflict while also setting the stage for increased operational agility. This is a tall order.

My vision of future combat is something one could describe as agility warfare. It is best understood as a holistic concept of war that emphasizes flexibility of action, intellectual and physical, to dynamically drive an adversary’s risk calculations inside their decision making capacity and planning processes. It allows annihilation, but adopts attrition as an equal means of physical action, intellectual maneuver, and risk imposition.

Within the context of agility warfare, I offer this modern airpower theory:

Airpower is three-dimensional envelopment from the air to execute and support violence upon the enemy throughout a theater of operations. Airpower is a component of agility warfare that leverages speed, range, and flexibility to apply mass in pursuit of tactical, operational, or strategic effect. Airpower is a distinct mechanism of military power best leveraged in concert with other-domain power. Successful future airpower employment requires dynamic basing and multipath command and control (C2) characterized by centralized mission direction, intermediate control, and decentralized execution.

This article is intended to encourage conversation and retort from the practitioner and the pundant alike.

The Framework for a Modern Airpower Theory

This theory aims to define, categorize, explain, connect, and anticipate airpower in a coherent examination of key characteristics and elements for continued relevance. These characteristics are distilled through warfare’s historical filter. It draws upon analogous history from Napoleon to World War II to develop a proposal for the command, control, and maneuver of future airpower. This airpower theory, and the proposal it supports, accounts for historical trends while nesting within the over-arching concept of agility warfare.

This idea for modern airpower anchors its definition on one key characteristic, the “execution and support of violence upon the enemy.” Lethal force is the ultimate instrument of power. Its historical preeminence is unlikely to change, even as technology does. An excerpt from the National Security Act of 26 July 1947 speaks to the raison d’être for use of the air domain to apply this ancient instrument. “In general the United States Air Force shall include aviation forces both combat and service not otherwise assigned. It shall be organized, trained, and equipped primarily for prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations {emphasis added}.”

Nations profit handsomely when they champion the mindset and development of those charged with making war. Each medium of warfare possesses unique advantages and limitations, distinct categorization of airpower as “three-dimensional envelopment from the air” bolsters the development of the air officer charged with its mastery. When other forms of power, such as space and cyber, are conflated into one amorphous definition, the practitioner is denied the intellectual framework to understand important differences between them.

The special characteristics of what airpower can do is currently inherent, but is not guaranteed to continue in the future. Successful future airpower employment requires dynamic basing and multipath command and control (C2) characterized by centralized mission direction, intermediate control, and decentralized execution. Integral to maintaining relevance is connecting this new proposed airpower theory to larger practical and historical context.

The Cycle of Airpower History
Airpower has historically been most effective when employed in concert with military power projected through and from other domains. This precept is the motive for multi-domain operations. As such, airpower is offered as “… a distinct mechanism of military power best leveraged in concert with other-domain power.” Specifying the multi-domain relationship of airpower connects the theory to the larger concept of agility warfare and historical instruction.

In order to dynamically drive an adversary’s risk calculations – inside their decision making and planning processes – there must be well integrated capabilities able to act rapidly and independent of detailed centralized control. Therefore, while airpower is best understood as a distinct mechanism requiring airminded practitioners, the expertise afforded by this focus is beneficial only insomuch as it enables ever greater integration.

Perhaps the most useful aspect of any military theory is its anticipation of the future. Sound theory can guide intellectual and materiel preparation for the next war. The proposed airpower theory aims to do just this, by stating that “successful future airpower employment requires dynamic basing and multipath command and control (C2) characterized by centralized mission direction, intermediate control, and decentralized execution.” This is purposeful departure from a current Air Force doctrine that relies exclusively on large static airbases and centralized control and decentralized execution. This evolved theory anticipates a future operating environment characterized by long-range surface-surface weapons, denied PNT (positioning, navigation, and timing), contested space-based communications and awareness, and a rapid pace of violent combat. Few would argue these points. The proposed elements of success – dynamic basing and multipath command and control – are unique compared to other contemporary theories of airpower. Only by taking a broad view of the cyclical nature of war can any theory, airpower or otherwise, anticipate the demands of the future. Accurately anticipating the key to airpower’s future relevance requires a thought-journey 200 years in the past.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte employed his Grand Armée with greater speed and range than his contemporaries. He would use this superior speed to set upon his enemies with tactical surprise, denying the enemy opportunity to ready themselves for battle. This is not unlike modern airpower. From a central elevated vantage point Napoleon would “…survey the entire battle raging around him” and directly command the actions and maneuvers of his subordinate units, employing superior tactics, training, and discipline to decisively defeat his foe.5 The relatively small area of the Napoleonic battlefield permitted this early form of centralized control. However, rapid technological change in warfighting – brought on by the Industrial Revolution – inhibited field commanders from direct centralized control of maneuver forces over large distances.

The advent of breech-loading rifles, railroads, telegraphs, and steamship served to increase the geographic expanse of the battlespace. No longer could the field general preside over a battle and direct his forces to a definitive victory. Instead, wars became a series of related and inter-dependent battles, spread across hundreds of miles, requiring vast numbers of forces and presenting a “C2 nightmare.” The new weapons themselves denied opposing belligerents easy access to each other’s fielded forces by creating something akin to an A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) operating environment – albeit on a much smaller scale. Therefore, while maneuver was possible, the long distances and challenged C2 made it impractical to expand, or follow through, on fleeting tactical level breakthroughs. World War I is a culmination of the deleterious impact of technology on major war – herein lies the genesis of “no man’s land”.

Today, the CFACC (combined forces air component commander) is the airpower version of the Napoleonic field general. The central vantage point is the AOC (air operations center), from which the CFACC holds watch over an expansive battlespace through elegant command, control, and awareness mechanisms. The CFACC can direct individual combatants thousands of miles away. Airpower’s current reliance on centralized control is analogous to Napoleonic-style generalship. Significant technological changes are afoot. They promise to restrain easy C2 in a way functionally similar to post-Industrial Revolution warfare. The CFACC is likely to lose the ability to project airpower exclusively from large static operating bases and then efficiently employ it over vast distances due to severed or uncertain command, control, and awareness mechanisms. This begs an existential question: how can airpower remain an effective instrument of military power absent centralized control? History anticipates a forthcoming challenge, but it also suggests a solution.

This historical suggestion begins with Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke. He oversaw a series of notable military victories that brought about German unification in 1871. Despite the new challenges characteristic of war in this era, Moltke found success by applying several inter- related ideas: well planned Aufsmarsch (initial army deployment), maneuver for Kesselschlacht (“cauldron” battle, or encirclement), and direction by Auftragstaktik (mission tactics, or mission command). These philosophies informed Moltke’s operational methodology of striking from exterior lines to overwhelm the enemy. The German Wehrmacht of World War II largely solved the challenges of command, control, maneuver, and indecisiveness experienced in World War I by evolving Moltke’s ideas into Bewegunskrieg (war of movement). The German use of Moltke’s three elements was inherent in their operational-level employment of large armored Panzer Divisions. These units employed combined arms – the old term for “multi-domain” – coordination to maneuver along vast exterior lines, then under conditions of tactical surprise they attacked, broke-through, and destroyed enemy forces. Throughout this, they employed Auftragstaktik to maintain initiative and operate quicker than their enemies could respond. Importantly, Bewegunskrieg relied on extensive and elaborately planned Aufsmarsch. This prolonged deployment broadcasted intent and was only viable against a static or markedly inferior enemy. Future airpower effectiveness means building past the conceptual framework first laid by von Moltke, then furthered into Bewegunskrieg, and now pointing to greater levels of agility.

A Practitioners View of Airpower Theory
In light of analogous history and in support of more agile warfighting, how does this airpower theory apply in practice? Figure 1: Multi-path C2 Network and Packet Distribution conceptualizes multi-path command and control. Assuming degraded, or absent, over-the-horizon communications, a CFACC would issue broad intent to his subordinate air wings. This message “packet” would be time-stamped and sent up with the aircraft. The “packet” would enter a distributed network of line of sight (read laser and data links) until it was relayed to the combat operations group (COG) commander. The COG commander, leveraging Auftragstaktik, would control the combined arms integration efforts. Assets organic to the COG, and those flowed in from the main airbases (see Figure 2: Command and Control of Actual Air Forces), would provide decentralized execution. These COG commanders must be self-sorting to push excess “flowed” air assets from their working areas to adjacent COG(s) in accordance with strategic intent. This concurrently requires airpower expertise and joint commitment.

1: Multi-path C2 Network and Packet Distribution

The COGs themselves will provide dynamic and agile maneuver along the enemy’s exterior lines to quickly respond to theater exigencies and facilitate attack. For example, if a US mechanized division is preparing to attack, the CFACC would move a COG into position to provide the intermediate control of air assets flowed toward the “front.” The COGs will provide a flexibility of action, intellectual and physical, to dynamically drive the enemy’s risk calculations inside their decision making processes in a way current Air Force doctrine does not. Furthermore, we should assume enemy forces are operating with shorter interior lines – internal logistical lines of communication and maneuver – this significantly bolsters their ability to generate combat power. Agile maneuver along enemy exterior lines forces them to react; so while we cannot necessarily lengthen their interior lines, we can multiply them.

The COGs must be light composite units consisting of air transportable HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket system), SHORAD (short range air defense), maintenance, security, intelligence, command staff, and vertical/short-takeoff aircraft capable of strike control and personnel recovery. In execution, a COG would land (probably by C-130) on a roadway or austere field. The HIMARS and SHORAD quickly off-loaded. ATACMs (army tactical missile system) strikes launched against factor enemy surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile sites. The SHORAD system(s) would provide localized air defense. The strike control aircraft would land, refuel, and re-arm then take-off to coordinate strikes in support of the ground scheme of maneuver. The COG commander would coordinate with the ground force commander and other COG commanders to ensure correct apportionment and assignment of flowed air assets. After a day or two of operations, the COG would move locations or be sustained by an operational reserve COG.

As the ground force moves forward, the enemy A2/AD screen moves back. This permits slightly deeper air and missile strikes against enemy surface-surface missile sites, which subsequently allows forward movement from the ground force. It is akin to operational-level bounding overwatch. The maneuverability of the COGs will offset the loss in friendly airpower efficiency because it forces a higher planning and targeting burden on an enemy under constant attack on and from their periphery.

The earlier dissection of the proposed airpower theory – and the more involved discussion of anticipation – reveals several identifiable implications of the theory. First, airpower is aerial delivered violence. This definition properly orients the practitioner. Second, it is categorically distinct from other-domain power. Maintaining this distinction produces air-minded officers with requisite airpower expertise. Third, airpower is uniquely suited to achieve violent effects at any level of war throughout a theater. Fourth, airpower is best applied in concert with other-domains. Lastly, airpower experts must anticipate the future by accepting history’s instruction which calls for centralized mission direction, intermediate control, and decentralized execution while leveraging more dynamic basing. Operationalizing the five elements of this airpower theory produces a proposal for multi-path command and control. Furthermore, it baselines the fielding of jointly-manned combat operations groups. These two things will not overcome every obstacle to airpower’s employment. However, history seems to move in cycles. The proposed airpower ideas are useful because they simultaneously account for historical trends while nesting within the concept of more agility warfighting. It points us in the right direction, even if it cannot solve every challenge.

Brandon “Sack” Losacker is an HH-60G evaluator pilot and former instructor pilot in the Marine Corps’ UH-1Y utility and light attack helicopter. He has over 2,400 flight hours, including 400+ combat missions. He is a distinguished graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School, was the top academic graduate at Air Command and Staff College, and currently serves as the Chief of Personnel Recovery Operations for US Air Forces Central Command.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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