There’s an app to win wars, or so Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently explained, writing that “future wars will be won by the side with the most relevant apps and a network to link all its weapons.” This technological determinism flies in the face of the most popular staff college answer after “it depends”: the enemy gets a vote. It also exemplifies the excessive emphasis on means (the relevant apps) and ways (the network) at the expense of ends, or how airpower will have strategic effect in future warfare. The result is that enablers have begun to supersede effects.
The emphasis Gen. Goldfein has placed on networks is noteworthy in light of historical precedent. For much of its experience, the US Air Force stressed kinetic effect, primarily through bombardment, above all else. Regardless of whether it had bomber or fighter generals at the helm, it continued this tradition through recent conflicts—although there has been a shift over the last few years toward a far better balance of kinetic and non-kinetic effects.
Recently, however, the Air Force increasingly has stressed command and control achieved via networks as its primary mission, marking a significant departure. In doing so, it possibly stresses command and control from a technology-centric perspective at the expense of a more human-centric one.
The US military defines command and control as the “exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of the mission.” The Air Force borrowed its understanding of command and control in part from British defensive efforts during the Battle of Britain, which was largely a battle for air superiority. The Battle of Kasserine Pass further cemented command and control’s importance, but as an enabler of effects on the ground from the air domain. In other words, command and control was an organizing principle designed to enable the most effective application of airpower by centralizing it under a theater commander rather than distributing it in small packets to Army commanders. As all effects require information, it is sensible to keep this role as an enabling one rather than a core one.
With the onset of the Cold War and the birth of the independent Air Force, the service naturally assumed a role in protecting the US homeland, needing an efficient way to control its interceptor aircraft. Over the last several decades, command and control has acquired increasing prominence, especially with its most recent mutation into multi-domain command and control. In 2017, Gen. Goldfein defined multi-domain command and control as far more than a “bunch of computer screens in a place.” Rather, it should be thought of as a “way of thinking,” to include everything from pressuring the enemy with resilience and operating in multiple domains to integrating with other services and leveraging systems optimized for coalitions. Thus what began as a way to vector limited numbers of aircraft to counter airpower’s offensive advantages has now become a philosophical approach to applying airpower at the essence of the service’s way of warfare, which merits more attention and interrogation.
The Air Force is shifting its way of warfare without much public discussion of ramifications, including command and control superseding air superiority, a role that has received almost as much attention as bombardment over the course of its history. The Air Force first made this suggestion in 2016 in its Air Force Future Operating Concept, in which it suggested that command and control, which had held the last-place spot on the list of its five key roles, now comes first. In doing so, it bumped air and space superiority down to second place.
Because the Air Force departed from a tradition of providing yearly strategic documents for public consumption beginning in 2016, even as other services continue to publish their future warfighting visions, the best source for understanding how the Air Force plans to fight are interviews with and articles by Gen. Goldfein.
The Air Force views command and control as essential to linking all of its capabilities into the multi-domain fight. As Gen. Goldfein explains, “Hypersonics are important. Artificial intelligence is important. Quantum [computing] is important. Directed energy is important. . . . But they’re all slices of the pie. They don’t do what you need them to do unless you pull it all together.” This perspective privileges how the US Air Force organizes, connects, and communicates as its most essential role, while also stressing the operational level of war. The Air Force, in other words, has begun emphasizing how it provides the operational glue; but that does not necessarily enable the translation of intended effects into changing an opponent’s behavior in the desired way. As such, while the Air Force can lay claim to the best command-and-control infrastructure of the services, it is more uncertain that this is the Air Force’s primary intended role.
This shift may make some practical sense given the importance of communication to multi-domain operations, or it may be a blatant power grab. Or this change might be a response to a short-term existential crisis for the Air Force, which in 2019 has limited bomber and fifth-generation fighter capabilities. Some other capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, similarly have dubious survivability in peer competition.
The Air Force is not alone in this shift to information. As Frederick W. Kagan compellingly argues, over the last few decades the US military has stressed the importance of “finding the target” and then destroying it above all else. This emphasis on lethality represents a highly tactical viewpoint that ignores serious reflection about how one translates the kinetic effect into desired strategic ends, which is one of the most challenging aspects of using force. By contrast, before the Air Force became independent, the Army’s Air Corps Tactical School theorized on future air warfare, developing a doctrine of high-altitude precision bombardment. In some ways, it missed key elements of how to translate “ways” into “ends” but it certainly wrestled during the interwar period with the kind of effects it intended to have on an opponent.
Now, perhaps frustrated by how the application of kinetic effect has been difficult to parlay into positive strategic effect over the last several decades, the military as a whole increasingly has stressed the enabler of information. There is no doubt that the possession of relevant and timely information is critical. And developments in artificial intelligence also highlight some of the reasons for information’s increasing importance. It also makes sense given the current asymmetric advantage in information that the US military maintains. But this advantage may be on the verge of evening out against potential opponents.
The shift more toward enablers is problematic in part because the US military focuses so much attention on “ways” that are divorced from larger discussions of how they can contribute to “ends.” The assumptions surrounding this process have become so deeply engrained that the US military appears to believe it is thinking agilely and creatively when, really, it is just rehashing the same tired rhetoric. Problematically, this tendency has resulted in the US military exerting most of its energy on, as Kagan describes it, “changing the way the military [does] business” rather than exploring new ways of “changing the business” it does. Multi-domain operations exemplifies this approach by focusing on how the US military connects and exchanges information to deploy capabilities from across domains in a way that concentrates on “killing people and blowing things up rather than using purposeful violence to achieve a political goal.” In preparing for future warfare, the US military concerns itself above all else with how it organizes and coordinates at the operational level of war.
And, in doing so, the Air Force in particular touts one platform above all others: the F-35. Many discussions centered on the F-35 tend to discuss cost and its kinetic capabilities, or its lack thereof, including whether it carries enough ordnance, can dogfight, and can provide effective close air support. A secondary discussion centers on the question of how long stealth will remain a game-changing technology for penetrating opponents’ defensive capabilities. Yet the Air Force keeps stating that everyone is missing the bigger picture, insisting that “when we talk about fifth-generation, stealth is actually only a small part of that. . . . It’s about information fusion.” Ironically, then, this emphasis has the greatest continuity with airpower’s original role: providing information, particularly to the Army.
Yet airmen quickly eschewed this early role, instead gravitating toward a new role that greatly privileged offensive effects. In this vein, Gen. Goldfein vaguely claims the F-35 will “wreak havoc, and there’s nothing [adversaries] can do about it.” Gen. Goldfein thus appears to stand on the shoulders of generations of offensive-minded airmen who insisted that airpower could not be stopped. His statement also ignores the reality that the enemy does get a vote. As he further explains, moreover, “there’s one weapon system that we’ve designed to quarterback, to call the audibles inside enemy airspace, and that’s the F-35. It fuses information, it fuses data. For me, we are not going to integrate the F-35 into the joint team, we are going to integrate the penetrating joint team into the F-35.” The F-35’s primary purpose, then, is not kinetic effect—it seems the quarterback might not be able to score many touchdowns itself—but the enabling of effects through information, with the entire joint fight revolving around it.
The primacy of information is not new; indeed, it is airpower’s most historic role, enabling ground forces to benefit from intelligence regarding troop movement in World War I. In this, the F-35 functions as a kind of vintage throwback. And there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, what gets lost in many airpower discussions is that—removing technology from the equation—there is far more continuity than change in the domain’s history.
This continuity may include a return to mass, even after developments in precision capabilities had seemed to make this concept obsolete in the air domain. Likewise, Goldfein may consider “attrition warfare” to be old-fashioned, but this assumption also could be a costly misstep.
Often, these kinds of discussions occur in a vacuum where the enemy does not get a vote and there is little real discussion of how one actually convinces the enemy to stop fighting by affecting will. Even in times of peace, discussions must begin and end with careful thought about how one translates kinetic and non-kinetic effects into enemy decision making. In other words, the strategic level of war must influence and dominate, not the operational level.
These are both very different views than the Air Force has taken since the interwar period, when it came to view bombardment as its primary contribution to the joint fight. Now, however, the joint fight, in Gen. Goldfein’s vision, centers around a relatively short-legged fighter with little kinetic capability that might struggle greatly in a cyber-aggressive environment. As such, the Air Force possibly has shifted multi-domain command and control to prominence for a number of reasons, including its desire to control information. Yet other services make reasonable claims to providing information, as well.
But, as Clausewitz reminds us, there is nothing that can cut through the fog of war, not even artificial intelligence, quantum computers, and the F-35. In World War I, airpower supplied the Army with information to affect the ground war. It is less certain what effect today’s quest for information results in with such a small current stable of aircraft.
The F-35 might be a game-changing enabler, but what effects is it enabling and how will those meet political objectives beyond destroying targets? Information, like air superiority, always has been a critical enabler. But the focus on information misses the connective tissue of warfare, that between one’s actions and one’s opponent’s reactions. Apps, networks, and even F-35s don’t win wars, they just enable us to have a fighting chance.
Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the US Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, US Army, US Air Force, Department of Defense, or US government.
Image credit: R. Nial Bradshaw, US Air Force