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Air Power Command and Control Part III: … People Determine — Chris McInnes

This is the third 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 and the second post looked at the shaping role of technology in air power command and control. In this post, he argues that people are the ultimate determinant of effective C2.

Ideas guide and technology shapes air power C2 but the ultimate determinant of effective C2 – and thus effective air power – has always been people. Two key people characteristics that have consistently correlated with effective air power C2 have been depth of relationships and intellectual credibility.

Depth of relationships can be the difference between success and failure: improvements in air power C2 efficacy between Afghanistan in 2001-02 and Iraq in 2003 can be attributed in large part to the efforts of USAF Lieutenant General Michael Moseley, based in Saudi Arabia, to build deeper relationships with his superiors at Central Command in Florida, and his counterpart land commander in Kuwait.

Then Lieutenant General Michael Moseley, Commander United States Central Command Air Forces [Image credit: United States Air Force]

Then Lieutenant General Michael Moseley, Commander United States Central Command Air Forces [Image credit: United States Air Force]

I mention Moseley’s geography to illustrate the challenges posed by physical separation to building partnerships across organisations. 

Arguably the closest air-land partnership of the Second World War was that in South East Asia Command, principally between British Lieutenant General William Slim and several RAF officers. Slim himself described this as a ‘brotherhood‘ that was underpinned by both commanders living in the same mess. Similarly, the commander of the USAF’s air expeditionary task force in Afghanistan found that ‘people we meet in the dorm, gym, chapel, or dining hall supply the social inroads and information needed to stay abreast of rapidly changing events.’

However, a persistent belief that advanced communications negated the need for physical presence delayed the establishment and empowerment of the Afghanistan air task force for several years. Air power C2 remains fundamentally a social activity and personal links are particularly important in reducing friction between organisations. For the moment, virtual presence remains actual absence.

Physical separation also has leadership implications within organisations because  it disrupts the traditional nexus between authority and responsibility by separating the commanders from the commanded. Units involved in distributed operations, such as remotely piloted aircraft squadrons, encounter ‘power struggles galore‘ as commanders around the globe seek to control scarce assets. One can be reasonably sure that those same commanders are less enthusiastic about accepting command responsibilities for the units.

Problems due to distance between commanders and commanded are not new though. In 1973, the commander of the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, based in Nebraska, was essentially chased off Andersen Air Force Base in Guam by his own bomber crews after he gave a speech that appeared to confirm the crews’ perception that he was remarkably disconnected from their experience. The rise of distributed operations also challenges traditional personnel motivation that have traditionally been based on geographic and social proximity to combat, and the intrinsic attractions of flight.

The challenge confronting air power C2 practitioners is that the span of control and physical separation of contemporary air power makes building deep human relationships more difficult, while the scrutiny and tempo of precision air power makes those relationships more important.

Finally, while air power C2 has consistently demonstrated technical and tactical excellence, similar levels of strategic perspicacity have been less forthcoming. Precision weapons and advanced communications enable an air power deluge but, since Desert Storm, precision air power has frequently delivered an incremental drizzle.

In part, this has been due to consistent weaknesses in air power thinking. An over-emphasis on achieving ‘decisive’ effects independent of surface forces has too often blinded airmen to the opportunities of joint force operations. The reverse has seen airmen narrow their thinking to what support air power can provide to others rather than developing an air-minded concept for joint operations.

Slim’s experience in South East Asia Command illustrates the difference. His was not a land campaign supported by air. Instead, he and his counterparts devised and executed an air-minded approach to jointly ejecting the Japanese from Burma. Slim drove adaptation of his 14th Army so that it could maneouvre and fight reliant on aerial resupply, and prioritised capturing and opening airfields. The air forces developed specific ‘earthquake‘ bombing techniques to neutralise Japanese defensive positions and innovative air mobility practices to account for the hostile environment.  The capture of a Japanese position at Gangaw in January 1945 epitomised the partnerhip’s ethos with Slim recounting in his memoirs that ‘Gangaw was taken by the air force and occupied by the Lushai Brigade.’

THE WAR IN THE FAR EAST: THE BURMA CAMPAIGN 1941-1945 (CF 324) Air Force Operations: Burmese bearers on a Royal Air Force airstrip in Burma sheltering from the midday sun under the wing of a Dakota. In the background are boxes of supplies brought by air and two De Havilland Mosquito photo reconnaissance aircraft belonging to No 684 Squadron, Royal Air Force. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Burmese bearers on a Royal Air Force airstrip in Burma sheltering from the midday sun under the wing of a Dakota. In the background are boxes of supplies brought by air and two De Havilland Mosquito photo reconnaissance aircraft belonging to No 684 Squadron, Royal Air Force. [Image credit: Imperial War Museum]

The popular perception of Desert Storm is one of triumphant technology but the operation’s success owed much to sophisticated concepts masterminded by Buster Glosson and David Deptula based on John Warden’s air campaign concepts.

But even Desert Storm suffered from legacy thinking.  Glosson regarded Warden’s initial thinking as ‘naïve‘ because it did not account for the role, or requirements, of ground forces. Moreover, he viewed Warden’s thinking on the probable duration of the campaign as wildly optimistic. This latter point is indicative of airmen’s tendency to ignore Clausewitzian friction. Instead airmen have consistently sought to engineer victory, reducing war to a question of resource allocation and scheduling.

The RAAF’s strategy acknowledges the centrality of people and joint war fighting for Australian air power as it enters a more challenging age. Effective air power C2 requires cohesive command teams with high levels of acuity, agility and adaptivity to minimise avoidable friction and overcome the unavoidable. These characteristics come from deep intellectual and social foundations that have been tested and adjusted through realistic, collective experiences.

Such experiences have not been prominent in Australian military history as contributing niche capabilities means following, not leading. Australian air power’s organisation and culture reflects this history.

Instilling a culture of strategic scholarship is a challenge for every air force but especially Australia’s as it confronts the complex engineering and logistics challenges of being the world’s first fifth-generation force. Plan Jericho’s program of work includes a discrete project focused on education and training for the future force, and the establishment of the Williams Scholars scheme is a positive step within the Air Force. The Central Blue is also a contribution to that effort.

These are important steps but the word friction –  ‘that which distinguishes real war from war on paper‘ – does not appear in Australia’s Air Power Manual. That matters because fighting real wars is air power’s ultimate purpose and the friction that characterises war should be a focal point for the people directing and doing the fighting.

As I have hopefully shown in these three posts, air power C2 is a primary source and solution to friction. Ideas guide and technology shapes but people are the fundamental determinant of effective C2 because they allow ideas and technology designed for one purpose to be adapted and applied successfully to others.  The pursuit of excellence in peacetime activities must not crowd out the RAAF’s reason-for-being: that most complex and chaotic of human activities, war.

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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