Multi-Domain Command and Control
Maintaining Our Asymmetric Advantage
By Major General (retired) Tim Zadalis, US Air Force
‘War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. […] The commander in war must work in a medium which his eyes cannot see; which his best deductive powers cannot always fathom; and with which, because of constant changes he can rarely become familiar.’
Carl von Clausewitz, On War
As the pace of technology accelerated the availability of cutting-edge military knowledge, ill-gotten or developed, allowed potential adversaries the opportunity to close technological gaps that have long kept a qualitative combat edge for the United States, NATO, and coalition partners. In many domains, once seemingly insurmountable advantages are closing. The evidence is compelling: our adversaries have invested heavily in fifth generation airpower, stealth, and hypersonics; their prowess in cyber threatens not only the military, but also the civil infrastructure and institutions which militaries protect; and space is no longer the remote frontier of a few nations but is now a silent battlefield for many. Keeping ahead of an adversary’s development and fielding of near-parity systems is an expensive endeavour. Investments must be made in promising future technologies if we are to maintain our advantage. Equally, if not more important, is investment in areas where capabilities of each domain is leveraged to create warfighting synergies and link all domains – one such area is Command and Control (C2).
For decades, US and NATO Air Forces have fielded C2 systems enabling us to maintain dominance in the air. Arguably challenged at times by seams, but rarely by warfighting capabilities and like-minded air warriors. However, C2 as we know it will not support warfighting needs in future multi-domain conflicts, whether with near-peer adversaries or faceless non-state terror organizations. Our adversaries have analysed our systems, capabilities, and tactics attempting to minimize our advantage in every domain, and continued reliance on timely cross-domain information sharing between separate air, land, maritime, space, and cyber Operations Centres will not serve the needs of future warfighters. What is needed has become known as Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) – the ability to seamlessly analyse, fuse, and share what was once domain-centric information into a single C2 system that supports all domains and all levels of war.
The Emergence of MDC2 in the US Armed Forces
For the US Air Force, C2 is the foundation of peacetime deterrence, humanitarian response, and combat capability. The current family of C2 systems is the envy of adversaries and it is an ‘asymmetric advantage’ in multiple domains. In the coming decades, if implemented correctly by the US Air Force and NATO, MDC2 will preserve the asymmetric C2 advantage and may usher in the next Revolution in Military Affairs.1 That fact, was recognized by the US Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfien as he selected MDC2 one of his top three priorities during his tenure as Chief of Staff.2 At his direction the US Air Force has embarked on a journey to create an integrated C2 system between domains in which information is quickly analysed, integrated, and disseminated. The project is headed by Brigadier General Chance Saltzman and he is about to release the first strategy document titled ‘Multi-Domain Command and Control Campaign Plan Strategy Document’. The document sets forth the initial strategy for achieving MDC2 in the air, space, and cyber domains. Initially three Lines of Effort are identified including reassessing and refining Operational Concepts, leveraging Advance Technology, and improving Support Structures. While the document is US Air Force centric, it is clear the strategy recognizes the importance of a broader MDC2 system in the Joint and NATO arena.3
The US Air Force is not the only US service researching future C2. In October 2017 the US Army released a draft document, Multi-Domain Battle: The Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21 Century, detailing how future US and coalition forces might seamlessly operate in multiple domains.4 Implicit in the concept is C2. In order to leverage thinking in both services, the Air Force and Army have agreed to partner in a series of experiments designed to explore the components of Multi-Domain Battle C2.5 These joint experiments dovetail with previously announced Air Force MDC2 wargames scheduled beginning this fall. Both efforts will set a foundation for the development of MDC2 Joint Doctrine. Equally important, the initial work can and will set the stage for a broader MDC2 system that support warfighters in all domains – air, space, cyber, land, and maritime.
MDC2 Experiments and Wargames
At this stage of development, the MDC2 concept is tailor-made for experiments and wargames. These efforts are designed to test outside-the-box concepts and challenge the criticism that we prepare for the last war. Good concepts become capability, and poor ideas inform thinking for the next round of experimentation and wargaming. These are vital tools and significant emphasis must be placed on them lest they become an academic exercise with lessons learned destined for dusty military archives.
Strong emphasis on MDC2 was evident during the Global Engagement 2016 wargame where multi-service planners incorporated MDC2 thinking into a fictitious, but realistic, Article V-based scenario set in Europe. The fast-paced scenario was fought with limited assets in a short period of time. Since it was a wargame, future capabilities and force structure were added, and a ‘stepping-stone’ MDC2 construct was used with the goal of closing the gap between deliberate planning and dynamic re-tasking. The underlying assumption was a cyber-secure, cloud-based, and adaptive MDC2 system that integrated and shared information between all domains – from sensors to trigger pullers and between all component operations centres. The Joint Task Force commanders quickly moved assets between subordinate forces regardless of parent component. Mission-type orders were issued and the assets needed to accomplish the mission, regardless of parent service and nation, were allocated to the field commander for defined period of times to accomplish a specified mission before shifting to the next priority.6 The goal was to explore future C2 concepts, and most importantly, to learn.
There were numerous lessons learned from the planning sessions and wargame execution. MDC2 can greatly improve operational awareness at all levels, shorten the F2T2EA ‘Kill Chain’7 and increase combat effectiveness if done correctly. However, it highlighted the biggest vulnerability: a cyber compromised MDC2 cloud-based structure.
At this point, a fictitious example may help to illustrate MDC2. Imagine, decades from now NATO is locked in a contest with an adversary. A space-based sensor supporting the Alliance picks up an Electronic Intelligence hit on a mobile Anti-Access/Area Denial Surface-to-Air Missile system. It cues other ISR assets that quickly corroborate the identification. Within a cyber-hardened cloud-based structure Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) occurs using state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence (AI). Immediately tens of thousands of digital OODA loops occur at a speed John Boyd could only imagine.8 Information is shared, updated, and fused in a high-speed iterative process. Within seconds tactical recommendations with risk information begin to appear at the MDC2 Operations Centre. To destroy the target the commander has options: In the air, an armed Remotely Piloted Aircraft is overhead, F-35s are nearby and can be re-tasked, or a B-21, with the load out to destroy the target, will be in range in 35 minutes. On the ground, an Army High Mobility Artillery Rocket System unit can easily strike the target, or there is a Special Forces unit operating covertly nearby. At sea, a Navy cruiser and a submarine stand ready with next generation Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles. And last but not least, reliable partisan forces, who want their territory back, stand ready to act. The multi-domain savvy Commander uses operational art to determine the optimum solution for neutralizing the target. Field Commanders are issued Mission-type orders and assets. Then using decentralized authorities, the field commander manoeuvres as necessary to destroy the target.
As MDC2 concepts mature in the coming years an overarching combined-arms Grand Strategy is needed so that each Service and NATO MDC2 strategies can nest under. Without one, the risk of integration challenges in the future increases tremendously, especially between nations. Failure in implementation threatens capability and drives up future C2 costs at the expense of other warfighting capabilities. Clearly, now is the time to accelerate collaboration and develop a MDC2 Grand Strategy.
Another sign that we are moving in the right direction is the addition of US Army and Navy O-6s (NATO OF-5s), along with officers from Five-Eyes nations to Brigadier General Saltzman’s MDC2 team.9 This collaboration crosses service and national boundaries will result in a unified vision and Grand Strategy. Clearly, expansion of NATO participation is needed.
Cyber security and Information Technology (IT) highlight why a Grand Strategy is needed. Cyber and IT support for MDC2 at the service, component, and national-level depends on developing an impenetrable and resilient system. Advances in computing speed and capacity, machine-to-machine and machine-data-human interfaces, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Deep Learning and the ethics surrounding semi-autonomous weapons all require significant investigation, and all will contribute to an effective MDC2 system. Equally critical are undeveloped cyber capabilities of the future and partnering with industry will tease needed capabilities out in the years to come. However, all MDC2 efforts will be for naught if we cannot secure the systems.
Operationalization of MDC2 requires a fundamental shift in how we protect IT systems. Since the beginning of the digital age militaries have fielded systems that focused on delivering warfighting functions. Cyber protection, while not an afterthought, has focused on protecting systems from penetration with firewalls, ‘patching’ security gaps, employing robust encryption algorithms, and constant monitoring by cyber warriors. Future adversaries, whether state-sponsored or lone-wolf actors, will continue attempts to exploit vulnerabilities. Therefore, it is imperative the next generation of IT assets supporting MDC2 focus on cyber security and encryption from the onset, and add compliant functionalities to an already secure construct. This is a paradigm reversal. If done correctly, the hardened cloud-based structure will set the stage for the MDC2 RMA. Do it wrong and we commit ourselves to building on a system that has proven vulnerable in the past. Stated another way, develop the cyber security protocols upfront, keep them on the cutting edge, and require capabilities-based systems to comply with the standard.
As we look to develop a cloud-based construct to support MDC2 we may have to look no further than ACC’s Combat Cloud initiative. The ongoing project seeks to fuse ‘big data’ from multiple systems that normally do not communicate with each other into a single, coherent picture for analysts and warfighters.’10 It is the digital equivalent of today’s PED process supported by AI. And if done right, ACC’s Combat Cloud has a much broader future beyond the near-term goal of supporting air, space, and cyber Air Force operations. ACC’s Combat Cloud can become a stepping-stone for Joint and NATO MDC2 integration. Expanding the vision for ACC’s Combat Cloud, again, requires a long-range Grand Strategy to achieve a seamless MDC2 capability.
So, what is needed for MDC2? Continued robust intellectual debate on how to maintain our C2 asymmetric advantage, and about MDC2’s future role. To help focus service and national efforts, an overarching vision and Grand Strategy is needed. Vigorous service and national development must continue with an eye towards overall integration. Aggressive engagement with industry to leverage cutting edge work, especially in cyber protection and AI is needed. A robust schedule of experiments and wargames must separate MDC2 capabilities from wasteful rabbit holes. Begin educating and training MDC2 professionals with the goal of making multi-domain thinking the standard among all warriors. Prioritize IT and cyber security development and place it at the forefront – MDC2 will be easily exploited if we don’t. And finally, as we vigorously pursue MDC2 we must be mindful, a half-hearted effort will commit us to foolishly spending billions on a potential concept that will never be achieved. However, an ‘All In’ attitude will usher in the MDC2 Revolution in Military Affairs and maintain C2 dominance for decades to come.
We will never be able to completely remove the ‘fog’ and ‘uncertainty’ Carl von Clausewitz wrote about; however, with a well-thought out and implemented MDC2 system, our commanders will operate with a clearer picture and transfer the fog and uncertainly to our adversaries.
1. Daniel Goure’s article is available at: https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/12/06/the_next_revolution_in_military_affairs_multi-domain_command_and_control_112741.html
2. Goldfien, Gen David L., Chief of Staff Focus Area, Enhancing Multi-Domain Command and Control, Tying it All Together, USAF, Mar. 2017.
3. Expect the formal release this spring.
4. US Army release occurred in Oct. 2017. Available at: http://www.arcic.army.mil/App_Documents/Multi-Domain-Battle-Evolution-of-Combined-Arms.pdf
5. McCullough, Amy, Air Force Magazine, 24 Jan. 2018. Available at: http://airforcemag.com/Features/Pages/2018/January%202018/The-Future-Fight-Must-Be-Truly-Joint.aspx.
6. Under the concept of Mission Command, field commanders are tasked to ‘conduct military operations through decentralized execution based upon issued mission-type orders’. These nest under the commander’s intent and provide field commanders with the latitude necessary to accomplish the mission. See US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mission Command White Paper, 3 April 2012. Online at: http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Publications/missioncommandwhitepaper2012.pdf
7. Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, Assess.
8. ‘OODA Loop’ refers to the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop is a model developed by US Air Force Col John Boyd to describe to military operational decision-making. It applies to all levels of war and has non-military applications in the commercial sector.
9. Clark, Collin, ‘Rolling The Marble’: BG Saltzman On Air Force’s Multi-Domain C2 System, Breaking Defense, 8 Aug. 2017. Available at: https://breakingdefense.com/2017/08/rolling-the-marble-bg-saltzman-on-air-forces-multi-domain-c2-system/
10. Whittle, Richard, ACC Intel Head Seeks ‘Combat Cloud’, Breaking Defence, 28 Oct. 2015. Available at: https://breakingdefense.com/2015/10/acc-intel-head-seeks-help-creating-the-combat-cloud/
Major General Timothy M. Zadalis
retired from the US Air Force in 2017 after nearly 34 years of distinguished service. His diverse career includes a wide variety of joint assignments including tours at US Transportation Command, Central Command in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, Southern Command in support of Haiti earthquake relief, he is a Northern Command ‘Plank Holder’, an Airborne Emergency Action Officer for Strategic Command, and served as ISAF Joint Command Director of Air Plans/Programs in Kabul, Afghanistan during the 2010–2011 operational surge. His Air Force career culminated as Vice Commander of US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa. General Zadalis has expertise in air mobility, nuclear, world-wide airpower command and control, contingency operations, humanitarian relief, leadership development, and training and education. He is a Command Pilot with over 4,400 flight hours and qualified in 10 training and operational aircraft. General Zadalis’ active duty biography is available on the US Air Force website.