By Captain “Tater”
Approximate Reading Time: 8 mins
I stand firmly convinced that decisive Mission Commanders at the tactical level of warfare are a key component to victory in multi-domain operations. Within the context of this article, multi-domain operations will be classified as the complementary synergy of the air, land, maritime, electromagnetic spectrum, space, and human domains.
Within this continuum of domains, interdependencies exist which will be exploited and defended in future military operations. To frame this discussion, I would like to examine my recent combat experience in Syria and an unexpected phone call that would direct my first real-world assignment as Mission Commander.
“I’m doing what?” That was my first thought after I hung up the phone notifying me that I was going into immediate crew rest to be the Mission Commander for the largest strike in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR) history—President Trump’s directed response to the Syrian Regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population during the spring of 2018. As much as I’d like to tell you that I had a put me in, Coach! attitude (and a large part of me did), there was part of me that admittedly had the same nerves I did the night before the first day of middle school. My community, Air Battle Managers (ABMs), have recently seen increased opportunities as Mission Commanders in large-scale exercises; however, I was to be the first real-world operation ABM Mission Commander for OIR.
As a result of the extensive training I had received a year prior at the United States Air Force Weapons School, I was sufficiently prepared to be tasked with ensuring the tactical execution of the operation played out exactly like my colleagues in the Mission Planning Cell (MPC) at Al Udeid had drawn it up on paper. Fortunately for our forces, the plan produced by the MPC was well-developed and the Syrian regime offered little to no resistance—so we were able to quickly and decisively execute the effects that we had been tasked to achieve.
Today, months removed from the excitement of the strike, I’ve had time to reflect upon the mission and my role in it as both an ABM and as the Mission Commander. It occurs to me that our celebrated victory may have turned out very differently if assumptions in the plan produced by the MPC had proven false or if the Syrian Regime had offered more resistance.
Therefore, I believe that the Air Force needs to make future tactical operators (who may or may not have had the opportunity to receive the training offered by the Weapons School) ready for when their moment as Mission Commander comes because their moment will occur in a far different context than my turn as Mission Commander—their moment will occur in the multi-domain context.
The multi-domain operations that will frame “tomorrow’s war” will prove more challenging to navigate than the traditional warfare and even counter-insurgency operations that the Air Force has become accustomed to. The emerging security environment and future threats that will highlight multi-domain operations will attempt to deny/degrade the operational environment, thus providing our adversaries the ability to seize the initiative as operators attempt to re-establish connectivity between the tactical and operational levels. However, this denial can be countered by producing decisive Mission Commanders at the tactical level who are able to apply operational guidance to real-time decision-making that will enable mission success.
The Air Force must invest in the development of decisive Mission Commanders in order to manage the denied and degraded multi-domain operations that we expect to see in the emerging security environment, and this investment must manifest in the form of platform upgrades and training enhancements.
Tactical Command and Control (TAC C2) platforms are ideal for Mission Command. The platforms have long on-station time (up to ~22-24 hours for airborne platforms and 24/7 for ground-based) which allows them to remain present and preserve continuity for the entirety of an operation without the fuel limitations that typically plague Mission Commanders executing from other platforms. Additionally, these platforms have access to the preponderance of inputs needed for decision-making via multi-radio communications suites that include SATCOM, UHF, VHF and HF frequencies, radar, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems, tactical chat, datalinks, and a variety of other systems. In addition to providing a wealth of battlefield situational awareness, these systems also enable reach-back connectivity to Air Operation Centers (AOC) that transcend the line-of-sight limitations possessed by other tactical platforms, allowing TAC C2 to serve as a bridge between the operational and tactical levels of warfare, translating operational level guidance to tactical decisions at a rate that will allow our forces to operate within a decision-making cycle that outpaces our adversaries, enabling us to seize the initiative.
Also, TAC C2 platform crew constructs utilize a variety of individuals (usually 20 or greater personnel) from diverse backgrounds, and these crews operate in a “1g environment” (i.e., afforded an environment that does not include flying an aircraft) removed from the threat and typically protected by a layered defense plan (i.e. Defensive Counter Air assets, Integrated Air and Missile Defense systems, etc.). Such an environment affords crew members an atmosphere that is ideal for problem-solving and quickly generating tactical solutions to dynamic events with the added bonus of being able to leverage the expertise of multiple individuals—such an environment is necessary to processing and correctly acting upon the influx of inputs that will be present in multi-domain operations.
If we agree that the success of a Mission Commander is reliant upon platform capabilities and training, then the question that naturally follows is how does the Air Force prepare decisive Mission Commanders to be successful in tomorrow’s multi-domain operations?
For airborne platforms, an obvious consideration is that aging of the fleet issues must be resolved as many of these platforms have exceeded their projected lifespan (e.g., E-8C JSTARS). Additionally, as warfare moves beyond counter-insurgency and into the multi-domain, it is imperative that TAC C2 platform upgrades (e.g., E-3 Block 40/45) keep pace with that of the rest of the USAF to ensure that Mission Commanders executing from these platforms continue to have access to all of the inputs available to make decisions.
Likewise, Air Force training needs to be adjusted to produce decisive operators capable of Mission Command rather than operators who can easily transition to the role of Mission Command. I use the word adjusted deliberately rather than overhauled because most operational AFSC training evolves to provide more experienced operators with the skillsets needed to function as a Mission Commander; however, training must (even as early as initial pipeline training) ingrain the intangible skills necessary to be a Mission Commander:
- To understand and apply Commander’s Intent (possibly without the ability to reach back to the AOC for clarification)
- To understand the bounds of Acceptable Level of Risk (ALR) and how to keep tactical execution within it
- To generate real-time solutions to dynamic events that are in line with the Commander’s Intent
- To understand the assumptions upon which a plan is based and how to recognize and overcome when an assumption is faulty or inaccurate
- To not only make sound decisions but also to recognize when a decision needs to be made
- To recognize when an informational input is false or incomplete
The end result of these adjustments to Air Force training will be a decisive Mission Commander, able to gather and process multiple inputs and act decisively on these inputs to generate tactical solutions to accomplish the Commander’s Intent within the prescribed ALR.
About the photo:
An F-16 Fighting Falcon, E-3 Sentry, F-35A Lightning II, F/A-18 Super Hornet and an EA-18 Growler are set up in a static display Aug. 29, 2016, during Exercise Northern Lightning at Volk Field, Wis. Northern Lightning allowed all five of these aircraft the opportunity integrate and operate in a joint environment while performing counter air, suppression and destruction of enemy air defense and close air support in a contested environment.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Stormy Archer)
The author’s personal information has been removed from this article for the purpose of OPSEC.
Disclaimer: 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.