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Air Power Command and Control Part II: …Technology Shapes… — Chris McInnes

This is the second in a three-part series on the development of Western operational-level air power command and control arrangements by Wing Commander Chris McInnes. The first post outlined the impact of ideas on command and control, while this post looks at the shaping role of technology in air power command and control.

Technology – particularly precision weapons and advanced communications – have redefined the meaning of mass and shifted the air power paradigm from sorties per target to targets per sortie. The impacts on the C2 system have been an increase in commanders’ span of control and a reorientation of the central C2 challenge – from massing aircraft to massing information.

From sorties per target to targets per sortie. [Image credit: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments]

From sorties per target to targets per sortie. [Image credit: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments]

Individual precision weapons require more information to guide them to their target than dumb weapons, while attacking individual targets requires more detailed information than striking area targets. The capacity to hold multiple targets at risk simultaneously compounds the demand because information must be generated to support each option. The increased reach and speed of contemporary air power means executable options may be available across a vast – global for the United States – area. Improvements in communications and the normalisation of precision air power has amplified these effects through higher expectations and greater scrutiny over individual targeting decisions.

Improvements in remote awareness and capacity to intervene in mission execution have enabled the rise of tactical generals who feel compelled to intervene because of the scrutiny and expectations. Peter Singer describes a tactical general who:

. . . proudly recounts how he spent ‘two hours watching footage’… [and] having personally checked the situation, he gave the order to strike [and] even decided what size bomb his pilots should drop on the compound.

The tactical general – or politician – wielding a thousand-mile screwdriver is a reality that can, and must, be managed by leaders who can build trust with their superiors, but also trust their own personnel to get on with the job at hand.

Combined Air Operations Center [Image credit: United States Air Force]

Combined Air Operations Center [Image credit: United States Air Force]

The more pernicious impact of the lack of trust inherent in the tactical general phenomenon is the erosion of the division of labour within C2. Senior officers can impose themselves on junior tasks but junior officers cannot substitute for senior personnel. Moreover, the junior officers are denied valuable experience that would serve them well in future. NATO’s air war for Kosovo in 1999 exemplified the problems caused by an eroding division of labour. Senior leaders – military and civilian – substituted individual target approvals for building a coherent strategy.

This focus on small decisions meant that the larger issues that only senior leaders could resolve, such as the proscription of strikes against Serbia proper, were neglected. Meanwhile, the junior personnel who could have made small decisions more rapidly if given strategic guidance felt so dis-empowered they appeared to lose the capacity to coordinate with others.

But it does not have to be this way. Danish and Norwegian contributions to NATO’s operations over Libya in 2011 were particularly useful at critical times because they could ‘act rapidly and decisively’ as authority had been delegated based on a clear understanding of their national rules of engagement and sovereign interests. These examples highlight that the eroding division of C2 labour results from a choice and that reinforcing traditional roles can enhance C2.

The shape and function of the C2 system has also been shaped to support tactical generals. Where once aircraft crews alone has the awareness to find targets and deliver weapons, they may now simply transport a weapon as part of a networked engagement chain. The real-time coordination of diverse actors and inputs necessary for networked execution management has so far only been possible in an AOC. Consequently, the AOC has become increasingly automated and more focused on execution management – further eroding the division of C2 labour.

Moreover, the automation of C2 processes can over-simplify complex choices and make qualitative evaluation of decisions and plans more difficult. The emphasis can become one of turning all the traffic lights green rather than understanding specific circumstances, particularly in time-sensitive situations. Procedural automation can also intensify the lure of execution management by outwardly reducing it to an engineering process, and thus appealing to the cultural bias of air forces for technical solutions. This impact is apparent in the frequent use of quantitative measures, such as the number of hours flown or weapons employed, in assessments of operational effectiveness. Improved communications certainly increase the granularity of information in the C2 system, but in so doing they can reduce clarity. Giving commanders a better view of the trees may mean they cannot see the forest.

Processing masses of information has so far required masses of people. In 2014, the USAF chief of staff stated that 53,000 of his personnel were directly involved in C2. At the same time, the combined total strength of the RAF and RAAF was approximately 51,000. In 2011, NATO’s C2 of air operations over Libya were underpinned by American enablers, including ‘by the far the largest contingent of strategists, targeteers, and other directors and managers of the campaign.’ In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, American commanders allocated British ground forces a 60-person USMC air liaison element to supplement the UK’s ‘handful of air liaison officers‘ that had already proven ‘completely inadequate’ for high tempo operations. The distinction between first and second tier air power is no longer precision weapons, it is the C2 capabilities to employ them.

The RAAF is on the path to becoming the world’s first fifth-generation air force so technology is clearly at the heart of its capability. The Service, and the broader ADF, has experienced some of the C2 implications of precision air power through operations in the Middle East since 2003 but this experience has been as a small element within a US-led coalition. Thus, the RAAF has not yet encountered the full implications of providing precision air power C2 leadership, particularly in terms of resources and the challenges of serving as the central hub of a joint and multi-national operation. Europe’s NATO members learned the hard lesson during Libya that such leadership can be thrust upon you unexpectedly. Australia would do well to learn from their experience.

Wing Commander Chris ‘Guiness’ McInnes is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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