Is the USAF Effectively Embracing the Challenge of Executing Multi-Domain Operations?

Estimated Reading Time: 11 Minutes

By: Nick Tsougas

MDO Will Be Contested

The USAF requires a more candid approach to the harsh reality that it is not prepared to execute true MDO. There is currently too much territorial balkanization, red-tape, and cultural inertia to effectively address the myriad of changes required for effective implementation. This is of little consequence in the low intensity conflicts that have dominated the past 18 years, but the future holds an increased potential for a high-intensity conflict against a peer threat. Major combat operations will likely occur in China or Russia’s relative backyards, creating dire power projection issues, with a high probability that these localized battles will quickly escalate into an unrestricted global struggle across all six domains. Faced with this knowledge, the AF needs to quickly divest itself from the uncontested, unassailable expeditionary mindset that it has grown accustomed to and prepare for a new combat paradigm featuring full spectrum major combat operations orchestrated at the lowest levels of command.

To win in a future great power conflict, the USAF still expects to use an OPLAN model based on a 72-hour Air Tasking Order (ATO) cycle that is run by a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). This is completely unrealistic in an actual contested environment, relies on archaic Cold War era thinking, and does not take full advantage of the speed, flexibility, mass, and synergy that MDO offers. Not only is this concept too slow and cumbersome against a true peer threat, it relies on an overly vulnerable central node. The reality is that a future conflict will be won in the first few hours, let alone the first day. In addition, a theater CAOC, it’s backup, and other critical Command and Control (C2) nodes will be rendered useless by kinetic or non-kinetic attacks at the initiation of hostilities. Command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) will be contested and possibly denied at every level across the entire electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS). It seems that the current MDC2 developmental concepts gloss over this reality. However, it is nearly inevitable that lower level commanders and operators will not enjoy the luxury of reach-back and unparalleled situational awareness that they have become accustomed to in the modern era.

The USAF has a few initiatives to address these concerns such as Agile Combat Employment (ACE) and the previously mentioned MDC2 construct, however these are very nascent in their development, are not adequately addressing the challenges of MDO in a contested environment in their current iterations, and are moving at a glacial pace of implementation that is stunning in its apparent lack of urgency. It’s true that anything as complicated as ACE needs to have a crawl-to-walk-to-run approach, however the idea of adaptive basing has been in development for years, and still has not gotten off the ground. It’s time to stop admiring the problem and validating the concept and actually practice and exercise it on a large-scale, routine basis. This is something that needs to be practiced at the lowest levels every day for it to be viable under duress in a high-intensity conflict. Senior Air Force leaders have noticed this, in fact, Air Combat Command (ACC) released a memo in 2017 detailing the need to exercise leadership at the tactical level. Unfortunately, this did not dramatically change the way that operational squadrons train on a daily basis. Training requirements, deployments, dwell time constraints, horrifyingly low operational readiness rates, and the fact that middle echelon AF leadership is simply too risk averse have created an insurmountable institutional inertia.   

The USAF also cannot ignore the fact that ACE will most certainly occur under fire. With that in mind, it seems that no service, let alone the Air Force, is seriously looking at defending all of the warm bases and central hubs that will make adaptive basing successful. The USAF cannot rely on the other services to protect its assets from sustained missile attacks. It’s past time for the Air Force to seriously look at hardening these locations from attack with a concerted effort to acquire legitimate mobile, modern surface to air defense systems. Dispersion is not a valid option when an enemy like China can target every 8,000-foot runway in the Pacific that the service intends to use with a seemingly unlimited salvo of conventional missiles. The USAF understands that it will have to fight in this type of environment in the very near future, yet it currently has no operational squadrons, lower echelon leaders, or support organizations that are ready to successfully execute the concept on a reliable or sustained basis using actual war reserve materiel (WRM).

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

Figure 2: China’s Chengdu J-20 Black Eagle Supersonic Stealth Fighter.

Empower Lower Echelon Leadership

To account for this type of highly contested battlefield where individual units will be forced to act without an ATO, the Air Force needs to empower commanders and operators at the lowest levels. Regrettably, the Air Force does not practice or exercise the type of command at the squadron or wing level that will allow forces to succeed in a future fight. Although the USAF does a commendable job creating mission and package commanders, it relies on the AOC and the ATO to dictate the specifics. The service will be paralyzed if it is denied access to either or both of these during a future conflict. The AF needs to rewrite doctrine and publications to ameliorate its reliance on the centralized command and decentralized execution it used in past conflicts. This will also require significant changes to the current cultural paradigm. It should embrace the commander’s intent and mission type orders that other services use to enhance flexibility, speed, and lethality. AOC and ATO responsibilities should be dictated down to the wing and squadron level so that these forces can rapidly respond to emerging targets and threats. Allowing each wing to have AOC-like capabilities and authorities will remove the vulnerable central node that exists in the current structure and will allow lower level forces the ability to fight and survive on their own. This type of self-reliance will be necessary in a true multi-domain contested environment where fleeting pockets of access and superiority will exist. Tactical commanders will need the flexibility, authority, and real-time situational awareness required to seize limited windows of opportunity. There is simply no way that the current architecture can keep up.

This will obviously incur more risk and generate an increased possibility of fratricide. These types of issues can be reduced with redundant, distributed information networks that feed lower level commanders the knowledge and situational awareness necessary to make battlefield decisions. The idea is not to create an “unjammable” network, but to create so many repeating nodes that if one section is affected, it will have a small net effect. Exploitation of such a network will always be a concern, however if the US invests more heavily in quantum cryptography it will create a nigh “unhackable” system. This type of network will also be more resistant to kinetic attacks and will severely complicate enemy targeting. There will be too many nodes for the enemy to destroy in order for them to impede friendly actions. This network should utilize existing efforts such as Talon Thresher and other data amalgamation platforms in concert with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to create targetable tracks that tactical operators can engage or use to build situational awareness. National technical means (NTM) should not be the sole or primary source of data because of their inherent vulnerability to kinetic and non-kinetic attacks in a highly contested environment. Instead, the goal should be to make everything with a sensor a potential contributor. The key will be to get relevant data incorporating “multiple votes” from disparate sensors directly to the lowest level warfighter to enable real-time decisions. This type of employment will require a significant amount of training at every level. Senior leaders will need to adjust to higher levels of risk acceptance while tactical operators acclimate to increased levels of uncertainty and guidance. Geographically separated squadrons and wings will need to train with other package assets utilizing these distributed information networks on a regular basis to build the muscle memory necessary to deconflict and force package effectively in a contested environment. This training will also support the ACE initiative and will build the lower level leadership and initiative that the Air Force needs to embrace to succeed in future conflicts.

Reimagining the Future

To support this new approach to C2, the AF should also rethink its research, development, and acquisition of emerging technologies. The service placed too much emphasis on low observable technology and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as a whole at the expense of broader spectrum advancements, particularly in the EMS domain. This is antiquated thinking, and it is not embracing the nature of future conflict. Meanwhile, China and Russia are weaponizing information, pushing the boundaries of gray zone conflict to affect the human domain, and whole-heartedly embracing disruptive technologies like quantum computing on a scale that the Department of Defense (DoD) is not matching. The service and the DoD as a whole should be redirecting their time, effort, and money into technologies such as unmanned robotic swarm algorithms, hypersonics, capabilities in the EMS domain, AI, battery improvements, and directed energy weapons. The US is woefully behind peer adversaries in the field of hypersonics, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile capability, and a commitment to dominate in AI development. The US needs to use the opportunity created by the abrogation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty to immediately level the playing field with China in the Pacific. In order to keep up with cutting edge advancements the USAF also needs to streamline and eliminate the plethora of roadblocks in the acquisitions process. Current practices are not dynamic or agile enough to keep pace with the rapidity of modern-day advancements. The DoD can no longer afford to create niche defense spending programs that are too large to fail, do not provide advantages or capabilities in every domain, and that take over 25 years to come to fruition. Ongoing initiatives like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Assault Breaker II program offer a comprehensive solution to these issues. The Air Force requires an unwavering commitment to this type of overarching science and technology strategy in order to breakdown stovepipes, remove bureaucratic red-tape, streamline interoperability, and increase rapid acquisition of disruptive technologies that will help solve the many issues caused by trying to execute true MDO.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

Figure 3: US Navy X-47B Stealth Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle.

In the spirit of this restructuring and reallocated acquisitions focus, another progressive idea is to eliminate the idea of separate services altogether. This could be a next generation Goldwater-Nichols Act or a paradigm shifting National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that charges the DoD with creating Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF)-esque units that encompass maritime, air, land, space and EMS assets that are able to fight MDO in contested environments with little to no centralized control. Imagine a highly mobile, potentially amphibious armored task force with C4ISR elements that has the organic capability to mount a significant air defense. This unit would have a legitimate compliment of long and medium range surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) and anti-ship cruise missiles. Finally, the task force would also have the ability to launch Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) that could execute penetrating airborne interdiction, close air support, electronic attack, and ISR missions. Having all of these capabilities within one task force will allow it to move with the speed, flexibility, and synchronization that units spread across services simply cannot match. If that idea proves too revolutionary for implementation, it may be time to rethink the idea of an independent Air Force. With the potential for a future Space Force and an increasingly independent Cyber Command, does the DoD need a penetrating counter air platform operated by the USAF if other services can hold any enemy target at risk utilizing hypersonics, SSMs, strategic cannons, and railguns? If a future multi-domain task force had the organic ability to conduct close air support, air superiority/air defense, and airborne interdiction using indigenous UCAVs and other land-based weapons, the Air Force may only need to exist to conduct airlift, air-to-air refueling, and other support missions. If the DoD truly wants to dominate the next conflict, it needs to accept some ostensibly radical ideas of restructuring to succeed in MDO.

No Time Like the Present

The USAF has spent too much time mired in counterinsurgency operations over the past 20 years and it cannot continue to take a lackadaisical approach to MDO. Potential adversaries did not remain idle and quickly eroded the Air Force’s perceived dominance in air, space, and the EMS. The service is not anticipating, adapting, and responding quickly enough to maintain its grassroots technological advantage and thus it needs to restructure its doctrine, thinking, training, and execution at every level in order to succeed in a future war. C2 and execution authority should be delegated to the lowest echelons of command, and the service needs to exercise this within the ACE concept as soon as possible. A dedicated, redundant, distributed network also needs to be created to support the ACE construct and to allow lower level commanders the situational awareness to execute operations in a truly contested environment. Finally, the service should reenergize and refocus its concept of what military research, development, and acquisition look like. The Air Force will be hard pressed to succeed in the next conflict against a great power if it does not take bold steps to engender the execution of true MDO.

Major Nick Tsougas is an Instructor Pilot with over 2000 hours in the F-15E. He is currently a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Staff College. Email: nicktsougas@gmail.com

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.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

11 thoughts on “Is the USAF Effectively Embracing the Challenge of Executing Multi-Domain Operations?

  • February 21, 2019 at 3:30 am
    Permalink

    Good read. I agree the CAF needs to do something more in rehearsing said concepts . RED FLAG was trying to get there, WS Intregration Phase is close with a few of it’s vul’s; however, RED FLAG I believe has taken a step backwards and has removed many NKO programs from the playlist during -1/-3’s, and put a focus on primarily strike aircraft for the wingman (the original purpose of RF). There is little true battle management opportunities, no re-role of target authorities, and almost zero punishment for NKE mistakes (with the exception when an EA-18G or another asset is off axis…maybe). I understand MDO is a relatively new term and the AF is still trying to figure it out how it will do it at an operational level (maybe even at the tactical level), but we’re reaping the by-product of not having parallel efforts in development of 5th gen fighter aircraft and new Tac C2/Op C2 systems (Blk 40/45 E-3 did not increase combat capability or bridge the Cross Domain Solution or Multi-Level Security gap. The C2 community is fighting in a 5th Gen war with 2nd Gen systems. Until USAF systems our more resilient and nolonger stovepiped in development, MDO may be a stretch too far.

    Reply
  • February 22, 2019 at 9:50 am
    Permalink

    I agree that the Nellis war does not effectively replicate how we need to operate in an MDO environment. The solution that the AF is looking at for this is to go completely virtual. I agree with your comment about Tac C2, but I think we’ve given up on it. The answer, for better or worse, is for 5th gen fighters to have the SA and survivability to control themselves. I actually think this is a good thing, because in a contested environment, relying on a link back to Tac C2 is a vulnerability. MDO is not a new concept or a new term, it’s just en vogue right now. It’s just another concept that we’re going to validate, admire, and talk about to death. I’m arguing that we need to actually take drastic measures to implement it now.

    Reply
    • February 23, 2019 at 2:48 pm
      Permalink

      Tac C2 inside a double digit SAM IADS is vulnerable, there’s no arguing that, and having 5th gen fighters ball it up and go into the MEZ to F2T2E a system(s) is what 5th gen (F-35) was designed to do. But unless a WOC wants to take the responsibilities of the TACS and Tac C2 everything else—fuel management, min effects/forces, cyber and space synchronization, X-Check/Go-No/Go criteria, NAI sensor managements, etc.—then good luck to the pilot in the 5th gen fighter trying to battle manage the 24/7 fight during a “singular”, “single”, one, strike package. True, Tac C2 is irrelevant.

      We need to start thinking about the SA Tac C2 could be presented outside the tradition “datalink”, inside a contested environment, when burn-through is achievable based on range, and other resilient systems are on the forefront to feed into a C2 architecture. Doctrine does need to be re-written as the as the original author mentioned, and move towards Centralized Command, Distributed Control, Decentralized execution.

      Reply
      • February 24, 2019 at 12:21 pm
        Permalink

        I agree that it’s a lot to ask of a single seat fighter. Probably too much. Tac C2 is also extremely vulnerable to long range AAMs, not just IADS. It’s a difficult problem.

  • February 22, 2019 at 9:47 pm
    Permalink

    Well-written article. A lot of good information. I agree; I don’t think the AF is ready for a near-peer air war right now.

    Reply
  • February 23, 2019 at 11:13 pm
    Permalink

    Good discussion, Paul. There needs to be much more thinking toward the resiliency of C2. I don’t mean hardening and defended existing capabilities, but determining how we will ultimately carry out the core function of resource alignment and allocation to ensure they are available to respond or take advantage of opportunities. I believe we will find resiliency (and effectiveness) through simplicity. What is the minimum amount of information operational-level commanders and tactical units require to carry this out? The idea we will fully orchestrate tactical alignment and tasks from the operational level (as we do now) is a fallacy. Operational art will be more about posturing. I think we have a lot to learn from disaster operations (especially domestically) on this front. These are chaotic environments where operational-level commanders focus primarily on resource allocation and alignment–there’s no way they can get in the tactical weeds (rescue this person at this location, then this one, and so forth). Final point: we need to acknowledge that AI is the fundamental technology behind MDO, as PGMs were the fundamental technology behind AirLand Battle. The latter was considered a success when put to the test in Desert Storm. The former will just be a concept paper among the stack of military theories that never went anywhere, unless we empower tactical operators with AI-driven platforms to achieve the vision you described. Sound military theory is more than tech, but successful application doesn’t happen without a fundamental technology to underpin it (Tanks, trucks, and radios → Blitzkrieg).

    Reply
    • February 23, 2019 at 11:26 pm
      Permalink

      Sorry Nick (not Paul)

      Reply
    • February 24, 2019 at 12:26 pm
      Permalink

      Good points. I don’t think operational or tactical operators are currently prepared to execute the type of operations you described. We need to train and build to it as soon as possible. Concur with respect to AI too. It’s time to do an AI “moonshot” right now. China’s already started theirs.

      Reply
  • March 1, 2019 at 7:23 am
    Permalink

    Eight years of RIF’s, reduced budgets, influx of political ideology, the wholesale release of technological information via unchecked espionage to the Chinese under the Clinton and Obama regime’s has caused us to be 10 years behind in our defense capabilities.

    Reply
  • April 6, 2019 at 9:26 pm
    Permalink

    Great article. It addressed the finer details of emerging and relevant threats to our ability to engage in a peer-to-peer conflict. Now we need senior leadership to read this article and seriously consider the finer details.

    Reply

Leave a Reply