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By Michael “Prop” Scott
The USAF and a Culture of Overreaching
Carl Builder’s 1993 seminal work, “The Icarus Syndrome” diagnosed gross cultural and organizational flaws within the United States Air Force, due to its abandonment of actual air power theory in favor of the employment of “vehicles,” or technology. The creation of factions within the Air Force and a culture of tribalism and jealous pursuit of relevance through the newest, brightest technology was the byproduct of lessons learned during Vietnam and the establishment of Strategic Air Command and deterrence theory. Unfortunately, despite the decades since the publication of Builder’s study and the implications of continued obedience to such impaired ideology, the Air Force has not been able to address the enduring issues related to the advancement of air power theory, largely due to a cultural fascination with commanding and controlling the cyber and space mission sets.
The lack of organizational focus and hyper-obsession is highlighted in the Air Force’s mission statement which states, “The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.” Compare that with the Army’s: “To deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt and sustained land dominance…” Or the Navy’s: “Maintain, train and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.”
Notice the significant difference between the first and the latter two? The Army and Navy’s missions are encompassed in a single domain. Of the other three Department of Defense branches, only the Marine Corps’ mission statement highlights multiple domains and that is largely a product of the expeditionary and independent nature of what they are asked to do as a service. “Marines are forward deployed to win our nation’s battles swiftly and aggressively in times of crisis. We fight on land, sea and air…” If the other service branches aren’t eager to shift their mission focus from their primary domain, why, then, is the Air Force continuing to pursue and absorb the bills associated with cyber and space command and control?
Combatant Command-Status: A Way Out and Forward
Despite its decades of flawed desire for primacy or executive agent status in commanding and controlling the space and cyber domains for the joint force, arguably at the sacrifice of air dominance, the Air Force was gifted an opportunity to gracefully step back from their flawed pursuit. They can and should take the unintentional aid and shift the organization’s focus back to dominating the aerospace environment.
The gift came in the form of elevated status for cyber and space within the Unified Command Plan. In 2017, President Donald Trump accepted Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ recommendation to elevate United States Cyber Command from a sub-unified command under United States Strategic Command to a Unified Combatant Command responsible for cyberspace operations. Additionally, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act directed the establishment of a United States Space Command as a sub-unified command under Strategic Command, essentially filling the void left by Cyber Command, while also allowing for future elevated status to a Combatant Command when resources, policy and manning allow.
The increase in command status for cyber and space operations highlights their criticality to national security and the Air Force should lead the campaign advocating for the establishment of Joint Cyber and Space Component Commanders within the joint force structure and begin distancing themselves from the self-induced requirements to command and control within those domains. This opportunity will benefit the Air Force’s ability to focus on its primary mission set and still allow valuable contributions to the space and cyber continuums in the same manner as the other service branches. In addition, the model for success has already been established and the Air Force need only look to Special Operations Command for a roadmap forward for space and cyber coordination, command, and control.
Special Operations Command: A Case Study in Success
In April 1980, the United States launched a covert rescue attempt to free American hostages held in the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Suffice to say, the mission, now universally referred to as Desert One, was a failure and left service members dead and charred aircraft and equipment in the Iranian desert. US Army Lieutenant General (Retired) Sam Wilson stated, “That crushing failure at Desert One and its consequences told everyone, despite the enormous talent we had, we hadn’t put it together right and something had to be done.”
Though the disaster at Desert One was tragic, the following investigation and subsequent creation of United States Special Operations Command in 1987 were extremely positive outcomes. Special Operations Command aligned the service branch special operations components under a single headquarters, at the time, responsible for overseeing those elements. Special Operations Command has continued to grow and morph and now provides command and control capability to the seven geographic Combatant Commands through Theater Special Operations Commands. Special Operations Command Central and the campaign in Afghanistan following 11 September 2001 is a good example that provides context and a better understanding of the command and control structure of Theater Special Operations Commands.
After the terrorist events on 11 September 2001, special operations forces from the Army, Navy, Air Force and coalition partners deployed to Afghanistan to target elements of the Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist networks responsible for planning and funding the attacks. Those assets, both equipment and personnel, were assigned to Special Operations Command Central, which was designated the Combined* Forces Special Operations Component Command for Operation Enduring Freedom. The campaign against violent extremism quickly expanded beyond the borders of Afghanistan, including an invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Combined Special Operations Component Command established subordinate task forces to deal with each new threat.
The Special Operations Model Applied to Cyber and Space
At first glance, it may seem appropriate efforts have been made to conquer coordination, command and control of cyber and space operations for the joint force. United States Cyber Command provides teams to geographic Combatant Commands called Cyber Operations – Integrated Planning Elements, in order to coordinate offensive and defensive cyberspace operations at that level. On paper, space command and control is slightly more robust with an established Combined Space Operations Center.
However, the current command and control architecture is ill-prepared to meet a near-peer adversary. Neither of the approaches currently employed for space or cyber truly demonstrate appropriate national resolve or highlight the magnitude of what will be asked of each in a future contested conflict. Both domains will be paramount in gaining access and allowing maneuver in the traditional land, sea, and air domains. In addition, how they present forces to future campaigns should represent the same level of commitment as elevation to Combatant Command-status.
The Air Force’s metaphorical cyber command and control land-grab largely began in 2008 with a failed attempt to establish a Major Command designed to provide “forces that the President, combatant commanders and the American people can rely on for preserving the freedom of access and commerce, in air, space, and now cyberspace,” according to former Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne. The Major Command failed, but the Air Force didn’t give up and developed the position of Director, Cyber Forces, (a Field Grade Officer position) within the traditional Air Force Air Operations Center command and control structure, designed to coordinate all cyber activity within an area of responsibility. However, the Director, Cyber Forces has no authority to execute missions and is a redundant level of bureaucracy within the Air Force command and control structure. Similarly, space coordination at the Joint Force Commander level is largely conducted via the Director, Space Forces position, a mirror image of the previously mentioned cyber equivalent, and the current Combined Space Operations Center is little more than a glorified Air Force Air Operations Center.
As stated in the introduction, the Air Force should step back from its crusades for primacy outside of the air domain and should instead advocate for Theater Cyber and Space Component Commands, under their respective Combatant Commands, in the same vein as Special Operations Command’s established hierarchy. All coordination, command and control, and employment of space or cyber assets and capabilities within the joint force structure should immediately be tasked to those agencies, alleviating the Air Force of this requirement. Instead, just like Special Operations Command, the Air Force will only be responsible for the production of personnel to meet the requirements asked of them by United States Cyber or Space Command, who in turn will provide the appropriate force structure to the theater commands. Of note, simply providing personnel to the new combatant commands would also be following suit with the other service branches and their strategies.
This concept may seem like the abandonment of vital mission sets for the Air Force, but that is not the case. Instead, it is a refocusing of priorities during a challenging time in our national security environment. The Air Force cannot afford to sacrifice its readiness and lethality in the air domain by splitting its attention three ways with looming peer and near-peer adversaries identifying gaps and weaknesses in our defense structure. Instead, by promoting the development of a Special Operations-like command and control structure for the new Cyber and Space Commands, the Air Force would simply be making all involved organizations more relevant and efficient, freeing the Air Force to dedicate more energy to its primary domain, while also highlighting the criticality of space and cyber to our success in future conflict. General Wilson’s statement in the wake of Desert One is just as applicable to the implications of failing at cyber and space command and control. The Air Force must get it right and handing it over to a joint force is the best use of talent.
*”Combined” is used in place of “Joint” when coalition partners are involved.
Major Michael Scott is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Staff College.
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 any organization of the US government.