Jointness, Airpower, and the Emerging Security Environment


By Lt. General (Retired) Deptula

08/05/2011 – Since the advent of Goldwater-Nichols, a joint approach was to move contingency organizations and operations from independent, de-conflicted, service-oriented approaches to sustained interoperability.  How well the U.S. military has done that, where we are today, and where we ought be heading, could and should be the subject of a conference all its own, but suffice it to say, the degree of jointness exhibited since 1986 has ebbed and flowed based on the commanders in charge, and the degree—or lack thereof—that senior-most U.S. military leadership encouraged joint organization and execution.

The way America fights essentially boils down to this: individual services do not fight—they organize, train, and equip.  It’s the combatant commands that fight under the unifying vision of a joint force commander.  Jointness means that among our four services, a separately developed and highly specialized array of capabilities is provided through service or functional components to a joint force commander—his or her job is to assemble a plan from among this “menu” of capabilities, applying the appropriate ones for the contingency at hand.

It does not mean four separate services deploy to a fight and simply align under a single commander.  Nor does jointness mean everybody necessarily gets an equal share of the action.  The reason joint force operations create synergies is because this approach capitalizes on each services’ core functions.  Functions that require much time, effort, and focus to develop the competencies required to exploit operations in their respective domains.

When a single service attempts to achieve war-fighting independence instead of embracing interdependence, jointness unravels; war-fighting effectiveness is reduced; viable alternatives are ignored, and costly redundancies abound.  The last thing we need today as we face a resource-constrained future is to turn back the clock on Goldwater-Nichols.

Considering this perspective, it’s laudatory that the Air Force and Department of the Navy are committed to pursuing a new operational concept optimizing US power-projection capabilities.  As stated in a RAND Corporation study on Meeting America’s Security Challenges Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, “The familiar missions of deterring and defeating aggression through large-scale power-projection operations have not diminished in importance. In fact, these missions are, in many ways, becoming more challenging.”

Accordingly, one would hope to see mutual support for the new long-range ISR/strike aircraft because of how it will enable naval operations in anti-access environments.  The memorandum of agreement between the Air Force and the Navy on working BAMS (the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft) and Global Hawk interoperability is another example of partnership that should become the norm not the exception as we move forward.

Sea control isn’t just accomplished with ships anymore, and air control isn’t carried out just by aircraft. The air and maritime domains are seamlessly interconnected, and we owe it to America to be more integrated as two military departments.  Efforts to achieve better integration of air and sea-based capabilities are a welcome step in keeping alive the promises of a true joint approach to capitalizing on the necessary attributes each of the services provide.  We really need to take the next step however—the move from service interoperability to service interdependence.

It’s time our security architectures move forward to better integrate functions and capabilities across Service lines while simultaneously eliminating unneeded redundancies, yet retaining the separateness of the functions of the services that is really the linchpin of jointness.

The Need for Strategy

The United States has not had a clear, well-defined grand strategy since 1989.  Since the Berlin Wall collapsed, our strategy has been a reaction to various threats such as failed states, rogue regimes, Islamic radicalism, and nuclear proliferation.  There are however, two enduring tenets from our National Security Strategies over the years that will continue to form the basis of any future U.S. grand strategy.

Those two are that one, we need to maintain sufficient forces and capabilities to engage forward around the world to encourage peace and stability, and that two, in the event we do need to fight, we will do so away from US territory in a fashion that puts the other combatants’ value structures at risk.

In the Air Force Chief of Staff’s recently released vector on the Air Force vision, he states that the interplay of three major trends will characterize the future security environment—violent extremism, shifting regional balances of power, and the proliferation of advanced technologies.

It’s difficult to distil a clear grand strategy from these different trends.  Moreover, any grand strategy must adhere to political and economic realities:  For example it is unlikely Americans will lavish the Department of Defense (DoD) with funding for manpower-intensive operations, or undisciplined expenditures on new technology, or anything else not clearly linked to vital U.S. interests.

So given the enduring tenets of past National Security Strategies, the diverse multiple trends characterizing the security environment, and the reality that resources available for security are becoming more constrained, perhaps the best we can do is accept that in the broadest sense a Grand Strategy of “Strategic Agility” may be appropriate.

Our challenge is that the Nation has many interests…but only a select set are fundamentally vital in nature.  I suggest that among those are: Stemming nuclear proliferation; Managing the rise of near-peer competitors; Ensuring access to key resources; Maintaining strategic alliances; Protecting open access to the global commons; and, Defending the homeland.

America’s grand strategy and fundamental global interests should be mutually aligned.  In looking to a future of how to do that, one idea gaining attention is the notion of offshore balancing, and it may play a key role as a subset of “Strategic Agility.”

Essentially, offshore balancing means that the U.S. influences—or balances against adversaries—without relying on a big deployed footprint.  Instead, it uses forces from offshore, whether located in the US, based with trusted allies, provided by the Department of the Navy and/or Air Force, Army, or all of the above.  It’s not isolationism.  Rather, it permits American intervention, but favors indirect methods in conjunction with allies and proxies to compel and/or deter adversaries.

Indeed, offshore balancing may become an element of “Strategic Agility” of necessity due to economic realities and a diminished appetite for manpower-intensive nation-building adventures.

The Role of the USAF in National Strategy

Air power shapes, deters, and dissuades so we can attain fundamental national interests minimizing the need for combat operations.  When combat is necessary, aerospace capabilities yield a variety of strategic, operational, and tactical effects that provide asymmetric advantages by projecting power while minimizing liabilities and vulnerabilities.

Our Nation has three services with air arms—the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.  Those air arms exist to facilitate their parent services core functions—their mastery of operations on the ground, at sea, or in a littoral environment.

The Nation has only one Air Force, whose reason for being is to exploit the advantages of operating in the third dimension of air and space to directly secure our objectives.  It possesses the speed, range, flexibility, lethality, and persistence to respond to events anywhere, anytime with tremendous agility.

Airpower is particularly well suited for offshore balancing and a strategy of “Strategic Agility.”  Fundamentally, it provides our civilian leaders options and influence, if it is understood as more than simply a substitute for its military predecessors, and if connected di­rectly to desired strategic end-states.

Regardless of how America’s future grand strategy is characterized, the strategic narrative of the Air Force is to provide global initiative.   For over 20 years the Air Force has codified its strategic objectives as providing Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power.  The global initiative enabled by these tenets emphasizes not only the agility of airpower capabilities, but also the flexibility that such capabilities provide to civilian leaders.

Essentially, the Air Force is a capabilities-based force.  This actuality makes it the Nation’s strategic hedge regarding future challenges… this is a highly desirable characteristic considering that we are horrible predictors of future conflict.

What does this narrative mean for the strategic priorities of airpower?   Airpower can achieve political effects through a spectrum of means:  deterrence, long-range strike, persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance or ISR, humanitarian relief, partnership building, special operations, and a variety of rapid response non-kinetic actions such as airlift, information operations, cyber effects, and economic development.

Its future efficacy will be viewed through a triple lens of operational effectiveness, cost-effectiveness or value, and efficiency.  Fiscal challenges will mandate a re-evaluation of airpower in all its forms and the combined effects they can achieve.

The air-sea integration concept—also known as AirSea Battle—is an excellent example, since it re-conceptualizes how airpower and sea power can integrate in a cost-effective yet strategically-relevant manner.  Thus, achieving synergies with the Navy should be a major strategic priority.

Strategic Priorities

Four unique contributions define the Air Force in the context of its objectives—gaining control of air, space, and cyberspace; holding targets at risk around the world; providing responsive ISR; and rapidly transporting people and equipment across the globe.  Underpinning and embedded in each of these unique contributions is command and control.

The nature of the modern security environment demands that we focus on sustaining these contributions.  However, the Air Force faces challenges in maintaining these capabilities on three fronts—economic, technological, and cultural.

Economic pressures are going to critically affect the Air Force’s ability to sustain its contributions.  The Air Force is operating a geriatric force that is becoming more so every day.  Bombers and tankers over 50 years of age, fighters and helicopters over 30—for comparison purposes the average age of the U.S. airline fleet is 10 years…and they don’t pull 6 or more times the force of gravity on a daily basis as our fighters do.

Across the future years’ defense program, the Air Force is averaging buying 118 aircraft per year.  That equates to a replacement rate of 48 years.  If you remove those aircraft that aren’t replacing present systems, then the average is about 65 aircraft per year…or an 87 year replacement rate.

Without adequate funding, we are destined to go down one of three paths: we get smaller, we get weaker, or we get smaller and weaker.

Closely coupled to economic challenges are technological changes.  These include potential adversaries’ growing access to asymmetric weapons as well as the promise of new technology such as increasingly autonomous, stealthy, and persistent aircraft—many remotely piloted, directed-energy weapons, anti-satellite capability, and cyber wizardry among others.

All these issues—potential adversaries, economic concerns, and technological change—interrelate with perhaps the most challenging of all facing not just the Air Force, but our entire National Security establishment:  institutional change.

Our establishment will suffer if its internal organizations fail to adapt to new, disruptive innovations and concepts of operation.  New technology—and old technology applied in new ways—blurs traditional roles, yet people tend to cling to their traditional mental model of how things should be.  An example is non-traditional ISR.

One of our significant challenges is how we will satisfy the growing demand for ISR in a future of constrained defense resources. One way is to capitalize on the sensor capabilities inherent in our modern aircraft.  However, traditional nomenclature and thought constrains understanding of capability in this regard.

For example, 5th generation aircraft are termed “fighters,” but technologically, those F-22s and 35s are not just “fighters”—they’re F-, A-, B-, E-, EA-, RC, AWACS-22s and 35s.  They’re flying sensors that allow us to conduct information age warfare inside adversary battlespace whenever we desire.

Another example is the expenditure of vast sums of money to acquire more motion video using old technology and concepts when new technologies and techniques are available.  The DoD recently made a decision to buy 15 more orbits of MQ-9 Reapers at a cost of 4.5 billion dollars and about 3000 manpower billets when wide-area airborne surveillance systems can provide dramatically more and better capability at a fraction of the cost, and without anywhere near the number of additional personnel.

In the face of disruptive innovation and cultural change, the military can maintain the status quo, or it can embrace and exploit change.  I suggest that the latter is preferred.  One way to get a handle on institutional change is to grow personnel who are widely-read, widely-educated, open-minded innovators who realize how much they don’t know.  George Marshall once stated, “The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is learning how to learn.”  Yet, so we must.

A challenge of the future is educating the National Security community to understand the potential of airpower, especially in the gale of creative destruction wrought by technological change.

Adapting the USAF to the New Strategic Enviornment

Former Secretary Gates said, “The defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of the country’s fiscal woes.  However, as a matter of simple arithmetic and political reality, the Department of Defense must be at least part of the solution.”

Part of that solution must be articulation by the Nation’s Defense leadership that the first responsibility of government is the security of its people… Defense leaders need to remind the public and Congress that before we start cutting, we need to establish priorities.

The starting point for those priorities should be our Constitution.  The preamble of which stipulates that it was established to “provide for the common defense, [and then to] promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Providing for the common defense is U.S. Government JOB ONE.  Watching the debates over the deficit this past week has provided ample evidence that too many people in leadership positions who should understand this, in fact…do not.

Like all the services, the Air Force will play a role in the solution to austere Defense budgets, but hopefully not by retrenching or continuing business as usual on a reduced scale.

According to the Air Force Chief of Staff,  the Air Force will make difficult choices to balance near-term operational readiness with longer term needs, and fit all of that into a more affordable package.  The bottom line however, is that when you’re broke; fundamental interests are what count—everything else is a liability.  That demands much clarity regarding goals and desired outcomes.

A budget-driven roles and missions debate is underway, but a thoughtful conversation regarding national interests and strategy has yet to occur.  Today’s conference is a bright start to that dialog.

It’s in the Nation’s interest to secure national objectives through deterrence, dissuasion, and regional shaping—in other word’s peace through strength.  To do so requires sufficient numbers of capable systems to win 99 to 1, vice 51 to 49.  When combat operations are necessary, we must employ forces capable of securing our country’s objectives in an efficient and effective manner—projecting focused and intelligent power, and minimizing liabilities and vulnerabilities.

These points don’t just apply to the Air Force; each of the services has a contribution to make.  If we want to retain our role as the world’s sole superpower we need to retain the strongest Army, Navy, Marine Corp, and Air Force in the world.

One should understand that the only thing more expensive than a first rate Air Force is a second rate Air Force.

A version of this article was presented August 4, 2011 at the Center for Naval Analyses conference on “American Grand Strategy and Seapower.”