Since WW2, effective airpower integration into land forces has been a recurring theme. But as Western air superiority faces a new era of contestability, the lessons of the last 20 years need to be reexamined in the light of new threats, new technologies, and new ideas. Responding to this gambit, Steve Burr, Mark Cowin, Richard Kohn and Cole Freeman present a vision of future all-domain control teams, exploring how it can bring a scalable solution to future force integration challenges.
‘If you knit up the power of the army on the land and the power of the air in the sky, then nothing will stand against you and you will never lose a battle.’
- General Sir Bernard Montgomery
From El Alamein to Afghanistan, the importance of effective air power integration into land forces is extensively documented. Ever since General Montgomery and Air Marshal Coningham set up their headquarters side by side and defeated Rommel’s Afrika Corps, western doctrine has underlined the importance of air-land integration at the tactical level. Indeed, since that point, lessons from conflict have underlined failings caused by lack of joint command and control and failure to integrate effects.
Throughout the Global War on Terror, the pinnacle of tactical air-land integration has been the preserve of the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC). One of the great successes of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan was the scale in which airpower contributions including strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and mobility were integrated by these trained service personnel. This tactical level support was then reinforced by air command and control structures emplaced throughout the chain of command to enable wider theatre co-ordination.
Air-land integration lessons learned over the last 20 years of conflict, while meaningful, are marred by the air superiority enjoyed by the coalition and the relative plethora of air assets available for tasks. The challenge for future conflict will be to adapt the structures that have enabled effective air-land integration into methods which acknowledge novel and heightened threats in Australia’s near region. Such methods must be able to integrate capabilities across electronic, space and cyber domains to achieve advantage against the enemy.
This challenge is compounded due to the limited resource base for tactical air command and control in Australia. It is acknowledged across the coalition that future conflicts will require personnel to demonstrate increased flexibility in their application of force and an ability to adapt operating capability seamlessly across the spectrum of warfare. The US Army describes the operating environment as one that is trending toward ‘a multi-polar international system with a wicked mixture of state-sponsored proxy, non–state actor (NSA) fomented, and cyber oriented low-level conflicts’ and ‘competitive interactions . . . that fall between traditional war and peace.’ Modern revision of Charles Krulak’s ‘Three Block War’ indicates that commanders at the lowest level will not only have to work in the spectrum between peace support and general war; but will also be required to operate within the electromagnetic and information environments to achieve tactical and strategic effect. Increasingly, personnel will be required to specialise across multiple fields and be proficient in a wide range of areas to achieve the desired effects. For command and control agencies, the free passage of information enjoyed over the last 20 years has long disappeared. Effectively functioning in a congested, contested and competitive environment will require greater ingenuity and flexibility.
Coalition partners are already embarking on new and novel ways to support future integration. Dewees et al. in the article To Build Joint Command and Control, First Break Command and Control outline that
‘In our professional community we have built an example of what these future command and control nodes can look like. Called “all-domain control teams,” we have brought together small groups of people — fewer than 10 — from multiple backgrounds, and given them equipment that can communicate with the most commonly used assets in the military. Our teams have experts in air, ground, cyber, space operations and integration.’
The proposition of “all-domain control teams” presents a significant opportunity for the ADF. Small teams that are capable of creating asymmetry across the battlespace, must be linked into integrated networks. These teams need to be strategically placed to integrate effects across multiple domains such as in standoff attack, electronic warfare, merged surveillance and reconnaissance, data-driven targeting and digital long-range fires. At the tactical level, these teams can operate to support multiple ground commanders simultaneously, and extend the arm of the Joint Task Force multi-domain effects capability into the tactical battlespace. Flexibility and the ability to achieve effective integration will be paramount. Effective capability requires permanent and integrated structures that allow for multi-disciplined training and personnel drawn from a range of specialisations.
To deliver these effects, bespoke small teams designed to balance agility and expertise can deploy via air, protective mobility, on foot, by boat or in civilian vehicles, depending on the task. Communications can be established through a variety of waveforms and hidden through the use of civilian internet and telecommunications or hardened through frequency variation and waveform management. Once established, teams would provide a conduit for mission data, connecting targeteers with effectors, updating and relaying command and control information, providing enhanced threat cueing for air defence and decentralised control for air packages. Teams will be able to draw data from ground electronic warfare detachments and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to enhance threat awareness across the battlespace. In achieving these effects, the team extends the reach of the Joint Force Commander – executing and integrating their intent in the constantly changing brigade and divisional battlespace.
The expertise to achieve this capability is already available and established within the current Air Force tactical air command and control capability. A combination of air support controllers, JTACs, force protection specialists and combat communicators make up a cadre staff in the Tactical Air Control Party capability. These personnel are already experienced in the integration of effects, and offer an ideal launch pad for developing an all-domain control capability. Additionally, inclusion of subject matter experts in datalinks, cyber and space effects offers increased potency of the team and may be tailored to suit mission objectives. Developing this capability alongside coalition partners, namely in the AUKUS coalition would serve to further embed interoperable command and control concepts that our commanders will increasingly rely upon in the future.
What about the cost? To develop and trial this capability will require a control team of 4-8 personnel and will largely use in-service equipment. Once validated, these teams offer a scalable solution dependent on the complexity of the mission set and desired mission outcomes. The greatest risk presents through the challenge of the status quo. The future orientated solution challenges established processes and necessitates experimentation of flexible command and control arrangements and operating models. Senior commanders can empower these decentralised control teams through delegation of authorities and promotion of a mission command philosophy. They must foster the development of modernised, relevant tactics and techniques, and enable liaison across services and nations. They will be required to challenge our personnel to solve our emerging command and control problems as they appear, with safe and operationally effective solutions.
The development of a ground-up, innovative command and control capability that binds together joint and coalition tactical effect is an overdue and critical requirement for operational success. Our force must realise a distributed low-cost high-value command and control capability that gets to the heart of the Air Force’s Jericho Disruptive Innovation program and enables the next generation of Montgomery and Coningham’s great realisation for the modern battlespace.
Steve Burr is a ground defence officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and previously in the Royal Air Force. He has operational experience as a JTAC, tactical air control party (TACP) commander, air liaison officer and as a force protection specialist.
Mark Cowin is an air traffic control officer who has specialised in aviation command and control. He has operational experience in TACP, expeditionary ATC deployments, and has instructed JTACs for the RAF, USMC, and US Army. He has completed postgraduate study in management and is currently completing additional postgraduate study in space operations.
Richard Kohn is an air traffic control officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. During his time in Air Force he has gained experience in various air liaison functions, including air traffic control, mobile air operations teams, TACP, and as a JTAC.
Cole Freeman is a United States Marine Corps Officer currently on exchange with the Royal Australian Air Force. As a weapons and tactics instructor, he has operational experience in air power integration across the multinational environment.
The views expressed are that of the authors and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.
 ADF Concept for Command and Control of the Future Force, page 9 (para 5)  Joint All-Domain Command and Control for Modern Warfare, Lingel (et al.) 2020, RAND Corporation [URL]  David Ellis, Charles Black, and Mary Ann Nobles, “Thinking Dangerously: Imagining US SOCCOM in the Post-CT World,” PRISM 6, no. 3 (2016): 115