Transforming the Power Projection Forces for the Liberal Democracies

With a solid communications structure, the 5th generation aircraft can function as a honeycomb which allows them to follow a distributed air con-ops. This allows them to become a roving motorcycle gang able to operate in three-dimensional space. (Credit: Bigstock)

2016-09-12 By Robbin Laird

The period ahead could be a very deadly one for the liberal democracies.

Ill-liberal powers whether they be states (Russia, China or Iran) or irredentist movements spouting 12th century values are clearly working to change the global order to their advantage.

Many factors of power are in play, but clearly one of them is military.

And if the liberal powers can learn to not dissipate their military capabilities and investments in nation building and other diversions, the reshaping of insertion forces able to meet threats and to meet clearly established political objectives can be strengthened.

Indeed, the decade ahead can be one of significant transformation for the military forces of the liberal democracies.

Most of the platforms necessary for transformation already exist; what is needed is more investment in standing up the new force and commitment to the culture change which a transformed military can deliver.

Also, crucial is changing the culture of the “high priests of strategy” who can find many places to send the military to serve metaphysically defined rather than Realpolitik objectives.

There needs to be a transformation of the strategic culture to recognize that setting clear and limited objectives and achieving clearly delaminated strategic objectives is necessary prior to sending the military as errand boys for abstract and undefined objectives.

Building the Honeycomb Modular Power Projection Force

Earlier, in our 2013 book on The Remaking of American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy, we argued that a new approach to military transformation and engagement between the U.S. and allies and partners in the Pacific was necessary to protect the interests of the liberal democracies in the Pacific.

The evolution of 21st century weapon technology is breaking down the barriers between offensive and defensive systems.  Is missile defense about providing defense or is it about enabling global reach, for offense or defense?  Likewise, the new 5th generation aircraft have been largely not understood because they are inherently multi-mission systems, which can be used for forward defense or forward offensive operations.

Indeed, an inherent characteristic of many new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and therefore they can be used to support strike or defense within an integrated approach.  In the 20th Century, surge was built upon the notion of signaling.  One would put in a particular combat capability – a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Air Expeditionary Wing – to put down your marker and to warn a potential adversary that you were there and ready to be taken seriously.  If one needed to, additional forces would be sent in to escalate and build up force.

Leveraging the Honeycomb and Swarming Capabilities Credit: Bigstock
Leveraging the Honeycomb and Swarming Capabilities Provides a Key Foundation for Modular Power Projection Forces Credit Photo: Bigstock

With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability.  Now the adversary can not be certain that you are simply putting down a marker.

This is what former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne calls the attack and defense enterprise.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create an a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously.  This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), and it is why Wynne has underscored for more than a decade that fifth generation aircraft are not merely replacements for existing tactical systems but a whole new approach to integrating defense and offense.

When one can add the strike and defensive systems of other players, notably missiles and sensors aboard surface ships like Aegis, then one can create the reality of what Ed Timperlake, a former fighter pilot, has described as the F-35 being able to consider Aegis as his wingman.

By shaping a C5ISR system inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which can honeycomb an area of operation, an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations. 

Inherent in such an enterprise is scalability and reach-back.  By deploying the C5ISR honeycomb, the shooters in the enterprise can reach back to each other to enable the entire grid of operation, for either defense or offense.

U.S. forces and policies in the region provided a crucial lynchpin providing the reachback and dominance necessary to protect national and allied interests.

The intersection of honeycombed force packages operating as modules and interconnected through networks will allow US and allied forces to shape a distributed force into the area of interest, and to provide strike and defense capabilities throughout a combat or spider’s web of operational capabilities.

An Update from British, Australian and American Forces

Since we published that book in 2013, we have had the chance to talk extensively with British, Australian and American military innovators who are creating the reality, which we projected in our book.

And new combat systems have come into being which are providing key building blocks for the new approach such as the Wedgetail, the A330MRTT, the F-35 and the P-8/Triton combination.

In effect, a new foundation is being laid for the decade ahead in the transformation of the power projection forces and lessons learned by the warriors in combat, exercises and training will shape the way ahead for the decade after next.


Even though some technologies can be identified as important to the next decade, it will be through the shaping of a new paradigm through which new platforms will then be built and along with them incorporated or adjacent technologies.

From the discussions with the US and allied warfighters, a number of key characteristics can be identified with regard to key elements of the new paradigm of the kill web, or the honeycomb operational force.

The decade behind us was one where the platforms became connected and the joint and coalition force learned to leverage the benefits of such a force.

Now that is assumed, and the build forward is now to shape an distributed but integrated force.

First, platforms are expected to be interoperable.

If they are not, then they need to be replaced. The Australian Plan Jericho has been exploring among other things, how to bring those platforms considered important which are not interoperable with the combined force into the picture.

For example, in a Jericho Dawn exercise held last March, the Aussies sought to find ways to take an important Army asset, the Tiger assault helicopter, and to connect it to the RAAF’s air combat force.

According to an Australian Ministry of Defence press release on March 21, 2016, the exercise was described as follows:

Our Army is focussed on two key areas to ensure improved air-land integration. The first is to deliver better communication systems to ensure an agile, efficient and timely response to an intelligent, well-armed and motivated adversary,” said Major General McLachlan.

“The second is to advance how we plan and conduct air-land operations to deliver the right effect, at the right place, at the right time.

“The demonstration highlights how we can better harness the strengths of our team by digitally connecting air and land platforms…..

Capabilities involved include RAAF’s C-17A, AP-3C, KC-30A, E-7A Wedgetail and FA-18 Hornet aircraft, as well as the Army’s air-land enablers from the 16th Air Land Regiment, Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters from 1st Aviation Regiment, and vehicles and equipment from the Combined Arms Training Centre.

Second, platforms are expected to be integratable from the ground up.

As Air Marshal Leo Davis put it:

“It is like a jig saw puzzle.

You have these really nice pieces to the puzzle sitting in the container, but until you begin to look at the picture your trying to create through the overall puzzle, you do not know which bit goes where.”

With regard to F-35 as an example, Davies argued the following:

“I think Joint Strike Fighter on its own, a fifth generation air combat aircraft, could be regarded as just an air combat aircraft.

If you want to shoot the bad guy down, if you want to defend the battle space for a land maneuver or for a maritime strike, that’s fine.

But what we’re beginning to appreciate now is that it’s not just an air combat asset it is also an ISR node.

If you were to then put two more pieces of your puzzle down and go, “Well that’s starting to form a bit of a picture here,” in the center of your puzzle. ”

What else could I do if it was truly an ISR node?

How do I manage that asset differently than if it was just going to shoot down another fighter?”

Although the puzzle analogy suggested an overall approach what he really was focusing on the interaction between the evolving bigger picture, and relooking at what each piece of the puzzle might be able to do in fitting into a new puzzle big picture so to speak.

“How would you operate the air warfare destroyer differently as you add a Wedgetail, a P-8, a Triton or an F-35 to its operational environment?

And conversely, how could the changes in how the destroyer would operate as you evolve systems on it, affect how you operate or modernize the other pieces of the evolving puzzle?”

And to clarify what this means for platform acquisition, Air Marshal Davies discussed the Tiger case.

“I know it’s a little unfair, but we would probably rethink the combat system on Tiger if we were to buy an armed reconnaissance helicopter tomorrow. Having flown the airplane, I don’t have any issue with the airplane that is Tiger. But how do you integrate it? At the moment it is less than ideal in terms of integration.”

He argued that it was crucial to have a realistic and broad view with regard to force design in mind as one thinks about adding platforms, and a large portion of that force design needs to revolve around “integratability.”

Third, systems are expected to be upgradeable from the ground up. A new approach to integratability is associated with what might be called the coming of software upgradeable aircraft, such as the P-8/Triton, F-35 or Wedgetail.

Software upgradeability provides a key opportunity to evolve the capabilities of an air combat platform without having to change the hardware and correlated software configurations through a complicated upgrade process.

And the software will evolve with the evolution of the threat and the coming of additional opportunities to shape a “new” aircraft, which will look the same but not operate the same in the battlespace. That is the point about software upgradeability.

The introduction of software upgradeable systems introduces a new dynamic as well.

Clearly, the manufacturer needs tight configuration control over the core systems software.

That is clear; but the shift is to shape an application layer on top of the core systems software, which can be introduced much more rapidly.

The military is envisaging their own version of the Apple development, modernization and migration model.

In an interview with the RAF ISTAR force commander, the importance of integrated upgradeability was seen as crucial to shaping the evolving force.

As the core platforms are replaced by an all software upgradeable fleet, the possibility could exist to put the platforms in competition with one another for modernization upgrades.

“Which upgrade gets the priority for which platform to make the greatest contribution to the integrated ISTAR capability are the sort of decisions that should lie with the ISTAR Force in the future – it is at Force level, not within individual programmes and projects that the overall capability benefit can be seen and prioritized.”

We then discussed the notion of transformation as a process, not an outcome.

The Air Commodore was very keen to stress again the need for “cultural change, where the aperture is opened for the team and they can embrace greater integration”

“We have the iPhone 6 generation in the Force now, yesterday’s analogue approach to our business is no longer appropriate.

“With the aperture fully open, the individual platforms and capabilities become the apps that enable the integrated Force ‘iPhone’.

“Thinking of it in this way, will allow us to tap this new generation of warriors.”

Fourth, the platforms function in networks but it is not about some giant global network, which can be disrupted; it is about force packages operating as modules working together to achieve objectives and their power extended as they are connected with other force packages.

In effect, the senior commander’s roles, which shift to assembling, deploying, evaluation and augmenting or withdrawing force packages as dynamic tasks, are achieved. It is not about managing the tactical details of forward deployed operations.

For example, work at 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade is focused on shaping such a capability.

2d MEB is clearly focused on working international naval relationships, which played a key role in Bold Alligator 2014 and Exercise African Lion 2014, the largest exercise on the African continent.

 In Bold Alligator (2014), the Marines worked an interwoven C2 relationship with the Dutch, who also commanded the USS Arlington, a new US Navy LPD, and worked for and adjacent to the Navy-Marine Corps construct.

Coalition participation required installing CENTRIXS, an allied communication system, on the USS Kearsarge, which improved the forces’ readiness for future crisis and contingency operations.

Throughout the exercise, 2d MEB experimented with various configurations of MAGTF C2 support for operations by leveraging the enhanced US and allied seabase.

In order to facilitate C2 aboard limited amphibious ships, 2d MEB experimented with a robust reachback capability.

Reachback capability allowed 2d MEB to deploy a small part of the staff on ships but employ the whole staff using modern communications technology from a land-based structure given the ships’ space constraints.

2d MEB is a standing operational HQ with no forces assigned.

This provides flexibility to GCCs. Because 2d MEB was designed with its most likely mission in mind – crisis response – the unit needs to be able to deploy and provide C2 within 24 hours after heeding a GCC’s request.

The lack of force structure outside the CE allows the unit to serve as the Swiss army knife of C2 for the GCC.

2d MEB can deploy the CE and composite joint and international forces already close to the operating area.

The flexibility of the MEB CE also allows the unit to deploy and employ scalable force packages of as little as a few thousand personnel for crisis response and up to 15,000 for its most deadly mission – small-scale conventional warfare.

This is important for warfighting and operating throughout the ROMO the MC engages in.

The leadership of the Australian Navy has highlighted as well the importance of flexible task forces in reshaping combat power.

The foci of both Vice Admiral Barrett, Chief of Navy, and Rear Admiral Mayer, Commander Australian Fleet, at the recent Air-Sea integration conference held by the Williams Foundation is upon re-energizing the task force concept, but in terms of modular force packages which include, Army, Navy and Air Force capabilities configured to achieve the mission with appropriate tool sets.

It is a Swiss army knife concept of operations using modular force packages operating as a honeycomb to achieve the desired combat effect.

Fifth, sustainability has to be built into the force.

Military leaders are looking for the new systems to significantly more maintainable in order to provide for higher reliability and dispatch rates.

This is about designing into systems ways to ensure that the platforms are more sustainable; and because the key foundational platforms are often multi-national systems – such as F-35, P-8, Triton, A330MRTT – the expectation is that they can be globally sustainable.

And this means cross-maintainable with core allies when operating in a common area of interest.

Sixth, the force is expected to be able to contribute and to operate in a secure manner within a distributed battlespace and commanded by a distributed C2 package.

C2 is become an essential element for force structure transformation, rather than focusing excessively on the ISR, or collection of information to inform decisions.

The shift from the kinds of land wars fought in the past decade and a half to operating across the range of military operations to insert force and to prevail in a more rapid tempo conflict than that which characterized counter-insurgency operations carries with it a need to have a very different C2 structure and technologies to support those structures.

The shift to higher tempo operations is being accompanied by platforms which are capable of operating in an extended battlespace and at the edge of the battlespace where hierarchical, detailed control simply does not correlate with the realities of either combat requirements or of technology which is part of a shift to distributed operations.

Distributed operations over an extended battlespace to deal with a range of military operations require distributed C2; not hierarchical detailed micro management.

In effect, the focus is upon shaping the commander’s intent and allowing the combat forces to execute that intent, and to shape evolving missions in the operations, with the higher level commanders working to gain an overview on the operations, rather than micro-management of the operations.

Unfortunately, the relatively slow pace of COIN, and the use of remotes (UAVs or RPAs) in the past decade have led to a growing practice of growing the level of command in order to try to exercise more detailed control. This has led to the current situation in the air operations against ISIS where you have more members of the CAOC than you have actual air strikes!

According to one of the architects of Desert Storm, Lt. General (David) Deptula, the CAOC for Desert Storm was quite lean, and the goal was to get the taskings into the hands of the warfighters to execute, with a later battle damage assessment process then informing decisions on the follow on target list.

It was not about micro managing the combat assets.

And this was with air power multi-mission assets, which went out to execute a command directive in a particular area of the battlespace to deliver a particular type and quantity of ordinance in that area of the battlespace.

With new air technologies, multi-tasking platforms will fly to the fight and execute the initial commander’s intent but will shift to the mission as needs arise during the air combat operation. Fleeting targets are a key reality, which requires an ability for the pilots to prosecute those targets in a timely manner, rather than a deliberate C2 overview manner.

Put in other terms, the command structures will need to “lean out” and to work with warfighting assets where the pilots and operational decision makers are at the point of engagement, not in a building housing a CAOC.

This requires building in a new approach to C2 from the ground up as the new assets are introduced into the force. For example, the introduction of the F-35 should bring with it a fundamental rethink away from hub-and-spoke C2 to distributed C2 and modular force package operating forces.

C2 for fifth generation aircraft is about setting the broader combat tasks and unleashing them to the engagement area, and once there they can evaluate the evolving situation during their engagement time and decide how best to execute the shifting missions within the context of the overall commander’s intent.

Hierarchical command and control of the sort being generated by today’s CAOCs is asymmetrical with the trend of technology associated with fifth generation warfare.

As Robert Evans, a former USAF pilot, and most recently with Northrop Grumman put the change:


Formations of F-35s can work and share together so that they can “audible” the play. They can work together, sensing all that they can sense, fusing information, and overwhelming whatever defense is presented to them in a way that the legacy command and control simply cannot keep up with, nor should keep up with.

That’s what F-35 brings.

If warfighters were to apply the same C2 approach used for traditional airpower to the F-35 they would really be missing the point of what the F-35 fleet can bring to the future fight.

In the future, they might task the F-35 fleet to operate in the battlespace and affect targets that they believe are important to support the commander’s strategy, but while those advanced fighters are out there, they can collaborate with other forces in the battlespace to support broader objectives.

The F-35 pilot could be given much broader authorities and wields much greater capabilities, so the tasks could be less specific and more broadly defined by mission type orders, based on the commander’s intent. He will have the ability to influence the battlespace not just within his specific package, but working with others in the battlespace against broader objectives.

Collaboration is greatly enhanced, and mutual support is driven to entirely new heights.

The F-35 pilot in the future becomes in some ways, an air battle manager who is really participating in a much more advanced offense, if you will, than did the aircrews of the legacy generation.

In fact, the former MARFORPAC, Lt. General Robling, underscored to central importance of distributed C2 for a deterrence in depth strategy in the Pacific.

The Australian military is small in comparison to the US, but it is a lethal and technologically sophisticated force.

In the face of a large-scale threat, they, like the US and others in the region, wouldn’t be able to defend by themselves.  They would have to be a part of a larger collective security effort and ally with the US or other likeminded nations in the region in order to get more effective and less costly defense capabilities pushed farther forward.

This is one reason why their buying the JSF and the “Wedgetail” is so important. These two platforms are amazing force multipliers that bring to the region superior Command and Control and networked strike capabilities.  These capabilities will be both additive and complementary to the capabilities other nations bring to collective security in the region.

The JSF with its superior networked sensor suite can collect a lot of information from sources at significant distances, and partner with the capabilities of the “Wedgetail” to help disseminate that information to air, sea, and land forces who need the information.

These capabilities and others make perfect sense for Australia and the greater Asia Pacific’s collective security requirements.   In addition, other countries like Japan and Singapore can likewise contribute to this collective security because they too are buying the same types or similar military capabilities.

I like the term deterrence in depth because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not always about defense in depth.

It’s about deterring and influencing others behavior so they can contribute to the region’s stability, both economically and militarily, in an environment where everyone conforms to the rule of law and international norms.

The emerging perspective which can be characterized as a kill web, or the “network as a weapon” or a “fifth generation enabled force” can be encapsulated in the graphic above, which reflects the convergent lines of transformation shaping a foundation for the next decade of change.

Building Platforms After Next

The need to operate at greater distance and to deal with a growing diversity of threats has highlighted the importance of ensuring an ongoing modernization effort to enhance that the liberal democracies have the capabilities to fight as a an integrated team in that battlespace.

This requires capable platforms, which can perform their core missions but to do so with greater effect by being more capable through the connectors or enablers for a more integrated force.

Each of the key platforms has a set of core functions, yet their impact is enhanced by inter-connectivity and determining how best to operate those platforms in ways which enhance the overall capabilities of the force.

When approaching the question of the acquisition of new platforms, a key consideration needs to be what does that platform bring to the integrated battlespace?

Posing the question in this way then drives a different way to think about those new platforms which might be added to the force.

How can its organic capabilities enhance the capability of the force to provide for an integrated effect?

How can the platform contribute to the multiplier effect of its operation within the battlespace?

How can the force best survive and prevail and how do new platforms contribute to that effort?

How upgradeable is the platform with regard to the other key capabilities operating in the battlespace?

How can the central role of software upgradeability best be recognized and supported in building out an information secure, decision dominant force?

How to measure cost effectiveness in an integrated battlespace world?

How do new approaches to sustainability built into 21st century systems get recognized as cutting edge ways to have a more effective and sustainable force, rather than being audited to death by 20th century practices and thinking?

The most expensive acquisition could well be one that is the cheapest up front in terms of initial price tag, but is not an effective member of an integrated battlespace.

Such platforms might only contribute to a narrow function without any real capability to evolve with the forces shaping a way ahead to reshape capabilities to achieve key effects in the evolving battlespace and within that battlespace shaping an open-ended force integration process.

In short, the decade of innovation underway can lay the foundation for a new approach to platform acquisition, which can get out of the platform centric ghetto that is so often the only lane in which platforms are discussed, considered and bought.