In a three-part series on the development of Western operational-level air power command and control arrangements, Wing Commander Chris McInnes looks at the interplay of ideas, technology, and people, as well as making some observations on the implications for Australian air power. In this first post, he looks at the ideas of air power unity, equivalency with surface forces, and the pursuit of responsive air power.

I recently finished drafting a chapter examining the development of Western operational-level air power command and control (C2) into its contemporary form. In this post, I’ll summarise some of my conclusions about the impact of ideas these developments and make some observations about Australian air power. In later posts, I will look at the roles of technology and people in shaping C2.

I found that the quests for air power unity, equivalency in status to surface forces, and responsiveness have been central, but often contested and competing, ideas in air power C2.

ACM Sir Arthur Tedder, the principal architect of unified Allied air power during WWII [Public domain]

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, the principal architect of unified Allied air power during WWII [Public domain]

The pursuit of unity has been the single biggest influence on the development of air power C2. As Sir Arthur Tedder said in 1946, “Air power in penny packets is worse than useless. It fritters away and achieves nothing. The old fable of the bundle of faggots compared with the individual stick is abundantly true of air power. Its strength lies in unity.” Tedder pioneered Western forces’ adoption of a single controller for air power in the North African desert during 1942 but although the model was widely adopted, resistance to unification continued throughout the war – particularly from strategic bombing advocates.

But Western air power unity diminished between the Second World War and Desert Storm in 1991, principally due to recurring disputes between America’s several air forces and the absence of a compelling air threat. These disputes reached their nadir in Vietnam where dizzyingly complicated C2 arrangements – epitomised by the infamous route packages over North Vietnam – ensured each branch and area essentially fought its own air war.  However, lessons were learned and Tedder’s single controller model was revived and rejuvenated for Desert Storm and has served as the template for Western air operations ever since.

US route packages during Operation Rolling Thunder. [United States Military Academy]

US route packages during Operation Rolling Thunder. [Image credit: United States Military Academy]

This single controller is usually called a combined or joint force air component commander (C/JFACC) but that is a misnomer. In fact, the C/JFACC usually only has command of a selection of the assets that they control. For example, most American JFACC are USAF officers. Thus, they have command – ownership – and control – authority to direct within agreed parameters – of USAF units but only control of USN and USMC that remain under command of their parent Services.

The same applies to multi-national operations. Even NATO adheres to a philosophy of “national command, Alliance control.” The single controller provides unity of effort without unity of command. The focus on control rather than command is a pragmatic realisation that unifying command of air power is abrasive from an inter-Service perspective and untenable from a multi-national perspective.

Airmen have successfully sought to establish unified C2 of air power at a level equivalent to surface forces. Equivalency ensured that air power’s needs were afforded due consideration and not simply subordinated to surface force requirements. The first half of the Second World War is littered with stories of Allied catastrophes in the air – from France in 1940 to Kasserine in 1942 – that were at least partially attributable to subordinating air power to surface force requirements. From these experiences came an acknowledgement that air and surface power were, in the words of the US Army in 1943: “co-equal and interdependent.”

But equivalency is contextual and air power C2 must apply this principle flexibly. Much friction between US Central Command’s air component and surface forces in Afghanistan, particularly, over the last fifteen years has been due to the USAF’s adherence to a theatre-level JFACC construct when operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were being run by discrete multi-national forces. After experimenting with various forms of liaison arrangements, the USAF ultimately established an empowered command echelon in Afghanistan in 2010.

Airmen have always sought to be responsive but this has often been in tension with pursuits of unity and equivalency. A particular challenge in this regard is the legacy 72-hour air operations cycle. In 1990, the USAF chief of staff felt that using this cycle for air operations was akin to “hitching a fast jet to a hot air balloon” because it “forfeits much of the combat edge we know accrues to air power due to its flexibility and speed of response.” Even during Desert Storm in 1991, the 72-hour tasking cycle’s utility was highly questionable, with “brute force” necessary to overcome procedural shortfalls. Initiatives to enhance responsiveness, such as dynamic targeting processes, have improved the situation but these circumvent rather than reform the basic process. Almost 30 years later, the fast jet has not escaped the balloon.

As an advanced Western air force, the RAAF’s contemporary C2 system is a product of these developments. The single AOC within JOC supports the unified control of air power but is analogous to the USAF’s theatre-level JFACC construct that was found to be insufficiently flexible for recent operations. Moreover, the 72-hour ATO cycle remains central to the RAAF’s thinking on C2 even though adherence to the 72-hour process is typically the exception rather than the norm.

RAAF doctrine acknowledges the need for adaptable C2 arrangements but it is not apparent how this flexibility, particularly for expeditionary operations, might be achieved from within limited resources. Plan Jericho’s program of work highlights the need for C2 concepts to evolve as part of the RAAF’s transformation into the world’s first fifth-generation air force.

Wing Commander Chris ‘Guiness’ McInnes is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.