Command in Complexity: Scaling Trust for Effective Joint All Domain Operations

By: Nicholas T. Narbutovskih
Approximate Reading Time: 13 minutes

Abstract: Complex environments necessitate a high level of trust for effective command and control. Special Operations Forces have leveraged their ability to form personal relationships to generate trust and achieve high performing teams. While they cannot rely on personal relationships, conventional forces must also find a way to forge trust to enable effective Joint All Domain Operations. They can do this through strategic education, rapid and relevant doctrine, and shared experiences, all of which require an institutional level focus at all levels of the joint force.


With the pivot to focus on peer and near-peer adversaries, conventional forces need to prepare to operate in contested and denied environments. This means they will fight decentralized by default in the future of major combat operations. There are several key elements to effective mission command in complex and disorderly environments. Among them, a deciding factor in successful joint combat operations will be trust between units and commanders, without the luxury of pre-existing relationships. It is unrealistic to expect large-scale maneuver forces and support functions to gain an elevated level of trust-based personal relationships. However, trust is still the deciding element in the effectiveness of non-linear battlefield operations in contested environments and great powers armed conflict.

The joint force must educate all echelons of leadership in strategic thinking, maintain relevant and timely doctrine, and develop shared frames of reference. These actions will build the foundation of trust and allow the joint force to leverage it among conventional forces. As the means of achieving trust and effective decentralized command and control with distributed authorities, trust must stem from the foundation of understanding, means, and intent


Over two decades of conflict, Special Operations Forces (SOF) have developed significant advances in technology and military thinking that have had profound effect on conventional forces. The bleeding edge of technology is a term that has grown to describe software or hardware that is so new that there is a significantly increased cost and risk of failure. This risk is balanced by revolutionary or otherwise asymmetric nature of the capabilities of bleeding-edge technology. From adaptive man-portable mesh networks to radically decentralizing authorities, the SOF community has served as the incubator for bleeding-edge technology and ideas.

SOF are generally successful at rapidly integrating innovative technology and quickly adapting their operating procedures to new ways of thinking. The key of this SOF success is trust; the abiding relationship between two professional operators who have trained together, know each other on a personal level, and have the confidence and competence to be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and excel in any environment.

The importance of trust in radically decentralized networks and authorities is not unique to SOF, but the SOF community is small, highly-selected, highly-trained, and narrowly focused in mission set. Combined with a steady deployment cycle, this allows joint SOF units to organize specific training events before deploying with task-organized units. Therefore, a SOF operator can capitalize on personal relationships and even know the name of the person that will answer the phone in a deployed environment. These factors allow them to build a very high level of trust, both within a team and between teams


The SOF trust model does not scale to conventional forces. The War on Terror has been tailor made for small, highly-trained, and well-equipped units to conduct specific tasks, but this paradigm is not the focus of peer competition. In the future, SOF may continue to represent the bleeding edge of development and combat; the focus on grey-space competition in the National Defense Strategy is uniquely suited to SOF core competencies. The main thrust of the NDS, however, is the focus on great powers competition. Because of this, we have a responsibility to translate their methods and lessons learned into scalable solutions for conventional forces. There are two areas that deserve our attention if we are to successfully transition from SOF to conventional forces; confidence and trust born purely from training and equipment, and reliance on non-organic forces or capabilities.

The SOF model of trust born of confidence in training and equipment is not applicable to conventional forces. Most SOF missions are no-fail and pivotal to success of major combat operations. Services heavily invest in both training and equipment relevant to their mission set, making SOF expensive. Because the overall number of SOF is relatively small, so is the absolute cost. This expense would rapidly increase when attempting to train and equip conventional forces in the same manner as SOF.

The SOF model of completely organic capabilities is not scalable to the armed conflict end of the competition continuum. When a peer competitor seeks to deny access to multiple domains simultaneously, SOF cannot operate without non-SOF support. A small SOF raid in a permissive environment might allow rapid cross-domain shifting using organic capabilities. When great powers are involved this becomes far more difficult. For example, with a contested air domain and denied EMS, SOF elements and support planners cannot simply move to conduct planning face to face. Non-linear battlefield operations mean that convergence occurs in limited timeframes, and conventional forces must be poised to take advantage of convergence without the luxury of reliance on some outside capability. These disadvantages in the SOF operating model make it unsuited for use by conventional units.

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SOF operate at the speed of trust, and form teams based on personal relationships. Stephen Covey’s model of third-wave, or institutional trust, describes several behaviors that are apparent in high-trust organizations and are common in most SOF units. While positive behaviors like sharing information and tolerating mistakes are not solely in the realm of SOF, they have found a way to capitalize on trust within their organization by establishing personal relationships. The relatively small size of the community and the high frequency of deployment cycles with common partner units allow this style of organic trust. At a large-scale unit, such as a Joint Task Force (JTF) this becomes increasingly difficult and Joint All Domain Task Forces (JADTFs) might have units that will never see each other face to face. For example, a cyber unit assigned to a JADTF along with a space squadron will likely never meet the air, land, and naval forces they will operate with, but they must still have a deep level of trust to enable true Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). Personal relationships are powerful, but they do not scale to the level required for Joint All Domain Operations (JADO) at the operational level.

Both the size of conventional units and the unpredictable nature of complex non-linear battlefields make personal relationships unreliable as the source of trust for conventional forces. To illustrate this, consider the idea of personal relationships from the bottom up. While the average person might have regular contact with about 600 people, their social network is usually closer to 150. Of those, however, people really only have five individuals they truly trust, and only ten they would consider close. Translating this into the military, it’s easy to trust those on your crew, in your shop, or on your team; that’s not unique to SOF. Even the average company-sized unit might foster a feeling of trust among most members. But once you get above that threshold of around 150 people, you simply can’t know them all let alone trust them on a personal level. This is why SOF units are so effective at building and maintaining trust based on relationships; they are small and can rely on working with the same people on a regular basis. However, if highly effective command and control methodologies are to exist in JADO, we must scale trust across the joint force


Trust is a critical factor in effective delegation of authority in mission command. Senior commanders must be able to trust their subordinates to carry out their intent in comm-denied complex environments during JADO. Trust is easy when people have a personal relationship, shared goals, and common experiences. It is even easier to, either consciously or intuitively, build shared understanding and frameworks.

The scope of command authority that senior leaders are comfortable delegating during JADO to conventional forces will require more discretion as opposed to more specialized units. SOF have highly specialized training and equipment that enable them to conduct very specific missions with a high chance of success. Conventional forces maintain a much broader mission set and are responsible for applying the brunt of combat power during campaign by armed conflict in great powers competition. Conventional units also operate across the continuum of competition in mission sets as varied as Air Superiority to Surface Warfare to Humanitarian Relief. Because of this breadth of mission and responsibility, senior commanders must have trust in subordinate commanders they may never meet in person.

A tight-knit team has a common background, knows what to do and when to do it, and shares a common vision of success. These concepts are the fundamental building blocks of trust and grow naturally from personal interaction. To build these elements of trust in an organization as large as the U.S. Military, however, requires deliberate development and institutional focus. The three building blocks of trust for conventional forces and JADTFs are strategic education, effective doctrine, and shared paradigms.


A senior commander needs to trust a subordinate commander based on their experience and developmental education. When organizing for JADO, a shared background in strategic thinking that is common to all leaders from all services will provide a basis for trust. To enable the trust required for effective implementation of a Joint All Domain Task Force (JADTF), senior leaders must have the confidence that junior leaders have received a solid education in strategy. This education must allow them to operate autonomously at the tactical level in a way that will support strategic objectives. One way of implementing this might be with Joint Professional Military Education that extends from a common core at accession through all levels of a leader’s career. This focus must be on education, not training, to have the desired result.

Simply training harder or with more rigor is no guarantee of developing a sense of strategic thinking in leaders at the lower echelons of command. The critical difference between training and education lies in the idea of a “right answer”. In training, there is a right answer, a way of performing a skill or behavior to a standard. In education, the goal is to teach theoretical knowledge so that the student can then use that knowledge to understand the world, or to synthesize new understandings or methodologies. This is why an education in strategy is so critical; strategy cannot be trained because it is not about winning, it is about being able to develop a plan for gaining continuing advantage. This is done by taking what is known through tacit and explicit knowledge and synthesizing the right solution for the problem at hand in an iterative loop. For senior leaders to truly trust their subordinate leaders enough to delegate authority to the level necessary for JADO, they must have confidence not just in their training but in their strategic education.


Effective doctrine allows tactical efforts for strategic effects. It is not enough to have an education in strategy; the actions of a leader must be predictable to allies especially when operating in a communications-denied environment. Just as cars operate safely on the highway because drivers all know the rules and follow them, common doctrine and understanding of basic warfighting principles is essential to JADO. Effective doctrine is both relevant and timely.

Doctrine must be relevant, i.e. it must apply to the situation at hand clearly and concisely. It must also be realistic; doctrine cannot stray so far into the realm of concept that it outpaces capability. Most importantly doctrine must be timely; modern non-linear battlefields are complex environments, with the geopolitical and sociological factors that lead to conflict being even more complex. Complex systems evolve rapidly, and a pure reliance on empirical evidence is a slow process. The slow development of doctrine can result in best practices that are no longer applicable when published. This is perhaps the worst and easiest pitfall; doctrine cannot wait. As doctrine is a point of departure, the risk of making something up that is unpredictable to allies is much higher. If the playbook no longer applies, improvisation may result in great results but at best these will be localized and unrepeatable; at worst actions may lead to chaos and the undermining of other critical efforts.

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The last element of trust that will enable distributed combat operations in conventional units is a common paradigm. Less easy to describe than education and doctrine but no less critical to trust, a paradigm is a set of beliefs, assumptions, and cognitive frameworks that allow us to interpret raw facts. Multiple paradigms can result in the advantage of cognitive diversity when solving problems in complexity. However, complete lack of empathy for other paradigms can result in dissonance. Modern conventional units suffer from significant drift in paradigms between service components, despite the fact that many service capabilities overlap the same domains. The Army flies fixed wing aircraft, and the Navy flies fighter jets, however their different understandings as to the best way to use these assets stems from a significant departure in paradigm. In this example the difference is driven by mission set, and that mission drives a deeper paradigm of warfare in general. To truly engender trust at an institutional level without sacrificing the cognitive diversity inherent in domain or service specialty, a common paradigm of JADO is critical. In addition to the previously mentioned Joint PME structure, services could combine basing decisions to allow joint paradigms to develop on their own. Short of this, the establishment of full-career joint strategic education and relevant, effective, and timely doctrine will move the conventional force paradigms in the right direction.


There is no question that organizing for JADO requires a re-thinking of current command relationships and doctrinal understandings of the best way to employ combat power. The Department of Defense must find a way to embrace the concepts of operation and trust institutionalized by US Special Operations Command. This will allow radically decentralized command relationships, distributed mission authorities, and complex and adaptive warfighting units. The only way to effectively balance the need to mitigate risk with the imperative to act rapidly in information-age warfare is trust between commanders at all echelons. This trust cannot rely on personal relationships. Senior leaders must develop trust by educating all leaders on strategic thinking from the beginning of their career. This must go hand-in-hand with developing and then continuing to maintain and distribute concise, clear, effective and timely doctrine. These two lines of effort will create shared frames of reference and understanding in the minds of all military members and could be catalyzed with joint PME and mixed basing decisions. Only through a focus on education, doctrine, and shared mental models will the United States be able to generate trust at a large enough scale to enable effective JADO in future wars.

Major Nicholas T. G. Narbutovskih (USAFA; MSOM University of Arkansas; MMOAS, Air University) is Vice Dean at Squadron Officer School, Maxwell AFB Alabama. As U-28A Instructor Pilot he has flown Special Operations missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Inherent Resolve, and Operation Resolute Support. He previously served as Academic Program Director, Squadron Officer School, and Director of Operations, 30th Student Squadron, Squadron Officer School. Email:

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 US Government.

Featured Image By: Air Force photo by TSgt. Joshua J. Garcia.

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