- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By “Jess DeFacks-Mamm”
Best Defense guest columnist
Consider this idea: In the 20th century, air superiority and air dominance became prerequisites for military freedom of action on land and at sea. In this century, information superiority and information dominance are predicates for both civil and military action of all types.
When we failed to apprehend the rise of airpower’s significance, we got Pearl Harbor. When we learned the significance but failed to understand how to wield it, the Luftwaffe gave us feedback at the Kasserine Pass — we distributed control of our airplanes to Army units, and the Germans made no such mistake. We did learn, and Army Field Manual 100-20 effectively gave airmen their autonomy, but only after we paid for the lessons in blood. It took recognition and then reorganization to tune our forces to succeed in the new fighting environment.
The importance of superior intelligence is as old as warfare, but the idea that massive, civilization-wide consequences would follow from even one missing or mis-prioritized piece of information was not apparent… until 9/11. That espionage could be democratized was not apparent either… until WikiLeaks. The notion that a contractor’s flawed computer security could jeopardize the most expensive weapon ever designed seemed hypothetical… until Chinese hackers stole massive amounts of data on the F-35. And even after that (and other episodes), we recognized but were not organized to deal with the problem… and got feedback in the form of a hack on personnel records at OPM, putting intelligence agents and military personnel at risk.
Our performance at hacking and counter-hacking is symptomatic, not the root cause of the problem. Instead, we’re generally not very good at gaining and maintaining information superiority overall… because our national security apparatus is not organized to succeed in this fighting environment. This is not to say that the intelligence community hasn’t advanced incredibly in the wake of 9/11. No one doubts the power of the NSA, for example. In fact they’re so good that in 2013 we had to take a moment to discuss balancing capabilities vs. American ethics. The problem is that in a digitally-connected world we cannot break down the spectrum of tasks cleanly: espionage, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), cyber-attacks, command and control, and even launching weapons at individual targets, all blend into a single narrative of how the nation performed as an entity.
Enter your Air Force. When you’re dealing with globalized conflicts — and we are — you need precisely what it purports to deliver: air, space, and cyberspace capabilities. More importantly, you need them organized to deal with the fighting environment… and they’re not. General Mark Welsh just endorsed the idea of a major command combining cyber and ISR… “In about 10 to 12 years,” despite the fact that it’s exactly 14 years late already. Today’s Air Force is roughly organized around systems, not capabilities, and its power structure follows a dysfunctional, almost childish pecking order: fighters are supposedly the coolest planes, so their people are first class citizens (though it’s hemorrhaging those, too); cargo folks get their own lane (somewhat), as do special forces (sometimes); bombers are somewhere below fighters (always); nuclear forces got neglected (echoes of Strategic Air Command, whose “air atomic” thinkers treated today’s fighter generals like second class citizens when they were growing up); and ISR forces (like RPA/UAV/drone/whatever-you-call-it) are held somewhere between neglect and contempt—the true “rented mule” of the Air Force. Welsh’s thought for a Cyber-ISR command is a good one, and sounds suspiciously like a suggestion published in an article you just discussed. Unfortunately, it can’t wait another decade, and transformation is going to massively upset the balance of power in the service.
That future Air Force — the one properly tuned to fight in the 21st century — keeps information dominance at the center of its workflow and holds strike capabilities in adjunct roles called upon when there’s a need for firepower… based on a quality decision stemming from quality information. Fighter sweeps and strategic bombing might be called for, but the service should no longer be organized to worship those moments in war. Centering on information dominance is an idea that’s scalable from “small” wars to major theater conflicts. It’s also the kind of adult maturity needed when you’re orchestrating the moves of the most powerful war machine the human race has ever created, but it means the juvenile attitudes have to go.
“Jess DeFacks-Mamm” is a fan of Sgt. Joe Friday (LAPD, ret.) and an active duty Air Force officer. If you ask him, he will say this is not him.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons