The International Fighter Conference, 2019: Networked Lethality and Shaping an “Integrated Distributed Force”


Last year’s International Fighter Conference provided a chance for the participants and the attendees to focus on the role of fighters in what we have been calling the strategic shift, namely, the shift from the land wars to operating in higher intensity operations against peer competitors.

It is clear that combat capabilities and operations are being re-crafted across the board with fighters at the center of that shift, and their evolution, of course, being affected as well as roles and operational contexts change.

The baseline assumption for the conference can be simply put: air superiority can no longer be assumed in operations but needs to be created in contested environments.

It is clear that competitors like China and Russia have put and are putting significant effort into shaping concepts of operations and force structure modernization which will allow them to contest the ability of the liberal democracies to establish air superiority and to dominate future crises.

There was a clear consensus on this point, but, of course, working the specifics of how one would defeat such an adversary in an air campaign gets at broader and more specific force design and concepts of operations.

The conference worked from the common assumption rather than focusing on specific options.

But the way ahead was as contested in the presentations and discussions as any considerations for operations in contested airspace.

We argue that what the liberal democracies are working to shape in response to the new strategic environment is something we call building an “integrated distributed force.”

For example, the new Sec Def, Mark Esper, has prioritized defense efforts in the Pacific as a key anchor to the Great Power strategy.  In particular, given the withdrawal from the INF treaty, a key focus is upon the building of new conventional longer-range missiles deployed throughout the US and allied Pacific defense perimeter.

This entails interactive technological, force structure and geographical deployment dynamics.  We have argued that a new basing structure combined with a capability to deploy and operate an integrated distributed force is at the heart of the strategic shift, and not only in the Pacific.1

This is a key part of the effort to shape a full spectrum crisis management capability whose con-ops is shaped to deal with adversary operations within what some call the “gray zone” or within the “hybrid warfare” area.2

The nature of the threat facing the liberal democracies was well put by a senior Finnish official: “The timeline for early warning is shorter; the threshold for the use of force is lower.”

What is unfolding is that capabilities traditionally associated with high end warfare are being drawn upon for lower threshold conflicts, designed to achieve political effect without firing a shot.

This means that not only do the liberal democracies need to shape more effective higher end capabilities but they need to learn how to use force packages which are making up a higher end, higher tempo or higher intensity capability as part of a range of both military operations but proactive engagement to shape peer adversary behavior.

In today’s world, this is what full spectrum crisis management is all about.

It is not simply about escalation ladders; it is about the capability to operate tailored task forces within a crisis setting to dominate and prevail within that crisis. If that stops the level of escalation that is one way of looking at it. But in today’s world, it is not just about that but it is about the ability to operate and prevail within a diversity of crises which might not be located on what one might consider an escalation ladder.

The presence force however small needs to be well integrated but not just in terms of itself but its ability to operate via C2 or ISR connectors to an enhanced capability. But that enhanced capability needs to be deployed in order to be tailorable to the presence force and to provide enhanced lethality and effectiveness appropriate to the political action needed to be taken.

This rests really on a significant rework of C2 in order for a distributed force to have the flexibility to operate not just within a limited geographical area but to expand its ability to operate by reaching beyond the geographical boundaries of what the organic presence force is capable of doing by itself.

This requires multi-domain SA – this is not about the intelligence community running its precious space- based assets and hoarding material. This is about looking for the coming confrontation which could trigger a crisis and the SA capabilities airborne, at sea and on the ground would provide the most usable SA monitoring. This is not “actionable intelligence.” This is about shaping force domain knowledge about anticipation of events.

This requires tailored force packaging and take advantage of what the new military technologies and platforms can provide in terms of multi-domain delivery by a small force rather than a large air-sea enterprise which can only fully function if unleashed in sequential waves.

This is not classic deterrence – it is about pre-crisis and crisis engagement.

The force we are building will have five key interactives capabilities:

  • Enough platforms with allied and US forces in mind to provide significant presence;
  • A capability to maximize economy of force with that presence;
  • Scalability whereby the presence force can reach back if necessary at the speed of light and receive combat reinforcements;
  • Be able to tap into variable lethality capabilities appropriate to the mission or the threat in order to exercise dominance.
  • And to have the situational awareness relevant to proactive crisis management at the point of interest and an ability to link the fluidity of local knowledge to appropriate tactical and strategic decisions.

The new approach is one which can be expressed in terms of a kill web, that is a US and allied force so scalable that if an ally goes on a presence mission and is threatened by a ramp up of force from a Russia or China, that that presence force can reach back to relevant allies as well as their own force structure.

This year’s international fighter conference focuses on a core aspect necessary to be able to be in position to shape an integrated distributed force, namely, namely, what the organizers are calling networked lethality.

The conference will be held from 12-14 November 2019 in Berlin and the program and opportunity to register for the event can be found here:

For a look at some of the arguments and presentations at last year’s conference, see the report below.

International-Fighter-Conference-2018 (