Evolve Air Force Command and Control Doctrine to include Centralised Command, Distributed Control

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ADVANCED AIR POWER COURSE — Air Power Development Centre Australia


‘Centralised control and decentralised execution’ has been a proven tenet of airpower employment. Discuss whether this tenet remains suitable for the Fifth Gen Air Force, specifically, the merits of evolving it into ‘centralised command, distributed control, decentralised execution’. 3,059 words from Introduction to Conclusion

by Flight Lieutenant Dana Pham

We were once told that the aeroplane had ‘abolished frontiers’; actually
it is only since the aeroplane became a serious weapon that
frontiers have become definitely impassable.
- George Orwell


In providing a strategic framework for Air Force transformation, Plan Jericho has been encouraging Ideas Worth Thinking About within the organisation. Indeed, the Plan Jericho Program of Work 2016 mandates 16 projects in a concerted, grassroots effort to achieve the Jericho Vision, that is, “to develop a future force that is agile and adaptive, fully immersed in the information age, and truly joint”. The aim of the essay is to critique the increasingly irrelevant air power command and control (C2) tenet of centralised control, decentralised execution (CCDE), and explore the merits of the alternative tenet that includes centralised command, distributed control.

It is no surprise that Project 4 of Plan Jericho is “Enhance Air Force’s C4 Capability”. Historical air power lessons have been seemingly misunderstood, in that it appears to have manifested into dogmatic adherence to the simplistic phrase of CCDE. However, it has been increasingly recognised that CCDE is inadequate in guiding the business of Air Force to overcome the revival of adversarial anti-access/anti-denial (A2/AD) in the Pacific Rim. Air Force cannot risk chance in remaining unprepared for the execution of adversarial A2/AD in future conflict. The introduction of Fifth-Generation platforms provides a vehicle for Air Force to rise to the renewed challenge.

As a result of more than two decades of irregular warfare distraction, the airman/woman’s autonomous operational instincts have been dulled. Incoming Fifth-Gen platforms can serve as a catalyst to rekindle the airman/woman’s resilience, under more suitable doctrinal guidance, namely centralised command, distributed control, decentralised execution (CCDCDE). Doctrinal revision, however, is only a start. To ensure CCDCDE is a cultural reality for Air Force as a whole, the airman/woman will require enduring re-education and retraining of the air power mindset. It is hoped that Project 4 will steer Air Force into this direction.


Air Force’s extant doctrinal authority on C2 articulates CCDE as the air power C2 tenet of choice (RAAF, 2009, pp1–3). Indeed, Air Force continues to accept that history repeats itself in demonstrating that demand for airpower effects exceeds available assets despite technological enhancements (RAAF, 2013, p56).

Accordingly, it has been inculcated since the North African air campaign experience that appointing a single air commander to plan, coordinate, and control air power actions in theatre, leads to holistic planning. Specifically, the commander’s theatre-wide perspective allows him/her to exploit the speed, flexibility, and mass of air power in capitalising unplanned opportunities and vulnerabilities, within resource limitation (Docauer, 2014, p25).

However, historical lessons highlight the need for understanding the principles of command, and flexible application to ensure air power supports higher intent, not dogmatic adherence to a single doctrinal tenet. Since, commanders face numerous and varied challenges on operations, it is not realistic for them to adhere to one or two “master principles” governing the business of war (van Creveld, 1985, p261). For example, during the Second Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force opted for flexible application over CCDE by means of establishing Forward Air Operation Centres (AOCs) subordinate to the parent AOC (Hallen, 2012, p12).

Each Forward AOC was established to foster localised battlespace control and coordination, thereby reducing the span of the main AOC’s direct control without reducing effective control, thus freeing up main AOC resources for planning the strategic campaign. Here, air power was employed flexibly, and the prerogative to reassign assets back to main AOC control as and when required was retained (Hallen, 2012, p12). Israeli air power application was considered a success, if not the air operation itself, which indicates that CCDE may be the product of historical misinterpretation, rather than a proven tenet in its own right.

This misunderstanding of the nature of air control may lend itself to explain why since the Second World War, CCDE has been promulgated as the primary doctrinal tenet of Air Force. This is despite historical events demonstrating centralised execution of air operations arising from strategic civilian control (Ankerstar, 2005, pvii). Naturally, in a democracy, this strategic downreach tendency is subject to political ambition and circumstances. Indeed, the technological advancements of Plan Jericho platforms offer even more capability to closely control tactical operations to satisfy political requirements.

However, this essay makes no case for doctrinalising centralised execution due to the revival of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) by potential adversaries. Accordingly, Australia’s evolving strategic environment will require Air Force to “look for new and better ways of staying ahead of our adversaries”, including a rethink of CCDE (Brown, 2015, p3). In shifting focus from the Middle East to the Pacific Rim, the United States Air Force is coming to terms with the inadequate simplicity of CCDE in addressing the rising A2/AD challenges in the Pacific Rim (Theriault, 2015, p100). Thus, so should the Royal Australian Air Force in the spirit of the 2016 Defence White Paper.


Anti-access (A2) challenges friendly entry into the area of operations (AO), potentially pushing force posturing to areas outside the AO, whilst area-denial (AD) limits friendly manoeuvre (Yalinalp, 2016). For over two decades, Australia and her allies have been distracted by counterinsurgency operations, whilst enjoying an unfettered battlespace where networks, datalinks, and communications operate uncontested (Hostage and Broadwell, 2014). Inadvertently, this has become a centre of gravity in the eyes of potential future adversaries, who continue to expand netcentric A2/AD capability in response. Most notable in this respect is a China with coercive intentions for her United States (US)-friendly region (Weems, 2014).

For now at least, China appears to prefer not to directly provoke a confrontation it cannot win yet — China’s recent force posturing in her regional waters and arguably the wider Pacific plays to nationalistic elements of their post-economic miracle audience (Gladman, 20145, p17). However, merely hoping potential adversaries will not wage conflict or decline in power would not be prudent. Indeed, China’s expanding A2/AD capability can destroy or degrade low-earth orbit ISR, infrared-system sensors, and communications satellites using direct-energy weaponry, anti-satellite weaponry, and terrestrial jamming, combined with cyberwarfare (van Tol et al, 2010). This recipe to disrupt situational awareness (SA) and information sharing epitomises a deadly Clausewitzian fog, friction and chance.

Stated explicity, it is with certainty that asymmetric threats, and the potential of air domain saturation to follow, will contest the resilience of our networks, datalinks, and communications and that of our Allies on operations in the Pacific Rim (Hostage and Broadwell, 2014). The Australian Government is making a significant investment into Fifth-Generation platforms, and this calls for capitalising on the new agile and responsive capabilities they provide (Brown, 2015, p3). To do this in the face of A2/AD revival, Air Force needs to secure distributable-SA capability via rebuilding resilience, technological solutions, and air power re-education and retraining.


Whilst those in the joint environment have historically embraced empowering forward commanders (FCs) with operational responsibility, Air Force has practised CCDE instead due to the uniqueness of air power, including range, speed, mass, and simultaneity of multi-level war effects (Theriault, 2015, p100). This long-term doctrinal dependence, however, has dulled the airman/woman’s ability to flex back and forth between centralised control (CC) and distributed control (DC), whilst supporting higher intent. Of course, the default setting at present, is CC, and puts the airman/woman at odds with the Air Force Value of Agility, referring to both adaptability and resilience (Personnel Branch — Air Force, 2017).

Complicating the rigidity of CC is the advent of new sensor capabilities that have enabled the proliferation of data repositories far more than our Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems can process. Here, CC struggles to convert massive data into usable information, and the solution lies in a C2 architecture that enables data discovery, dissemination, and determination of authoritative data sources (Northrop Grumman, 2015, p9). The solution Fifth-Gen platforms can provide is waiting to be capitalised upon. However, it should be noted that sufficient personnel will be required to process such big data.

DC is the delegation of control via predetermined contingency to synchronise operations, maintain the initiative, and achieve higher intent (Hostage and Broadwell, 2014). Under DC operations, responsibility for executing operational design, not command, is delegated to the FC, who would be more immersed in the immediate battlespace than his/her theatre command or the AOC (Theriault, 2015, p107). Of course, this assumes that FCs have the acumen (via re-education) to execute operations beyond their tactical remit.

Nevertheless, DC somewhat empowers FCs to look beyond their sphere of influence and coordinate with relevant C2 nodes to achieve theatre-wide effects more efficiently, especially during A2/AD fog (Theriault, 2015, p109). It is apparent that the lack of control flex culture calls for Air Force to move beyond inward-looking CCDE to rekindle resilience. The technological advents of Air Force’s Fifth-Gen platforms supports this proposed move.


The traditional C2 architecture composes of singular lines of communication to a decision node, that is, the AOC, that processes information then directs assets or elements to deliver mandated effects (Northrop Grumman, 2015, p8). This cemented sequential planning and methodical intelligence practices, that is, executing preplanned tasks based on Air Tasking Orders. Applying this construct to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for example, however, would underutilise the fleet’s potential, as the F-35 can analyse significant clusters of information as an intelligence node, to aid real-time decision-making in the battlespace (SLD, 2014).

It is not well publicised that the F-35 can operate in 360-degree space far beyond itself, and has the capability to share SA with others. Since a loss of ISR in counter A2/AD could have grave consequences, it would be remiss of Air Force to not treat the F-35s as ISR platforms. Of course, with this comes the challenge of sending data back to analysts for processing uninterrupted. In the event of loss of SA and C2 from the AOC perspective, ISR and C2 platforms, and air battle managers in theatre need to be resilient to endure together by executing the art of driving events, thus reducing the need for accurate and timely information from the AOC (Weems, 2014).

As such, the optimal operation of the F-35 fleet with supporting platforms would mean executing mission-type orders, and collaborating with other forces in the battlespace concurrently to support broader objectives, without disregarding higher intent (SLD, 2014). This model is certainly not unique as Navy doctrine favours mission-type orders due to the semi-independent nature of their forces, thus Air Force could review Navy’s model when remodelling air power C2 doctrine (Weems, 2014). There is little doubt that centralised command, distributed control, decentralised execution (CCDCDE) is a credible candidate for doctrinal remodelling.


It is not entirely true that history shows that CCDE is the proven air power C2 tenet of choice. Most recently, the Libyan Civil War saw Coalition partners delegating authority and forwarding decision-making with success. Whilst not an A2/AD conflict, poor real-time SA available to AOC personnel prompted an adaptation to ‘forward C2’ in order to shrink the targeting process from 20 minutes to seconds, thus maintaining initiative (Matlock et al, 2014, p122). We specifically see that CCDCDE here pushed authority out of the AOC and other theatre-level commands onto the battlespace, where multiple C2 nodes are used to share SA to survive and gain the initiative. Establishing a forward time-critical targeting cell would be a start to this (Weems, 2014).

If lines of communication between the AOC and Coalition battlespace were severed by A2/AD fog, it is hoped that with ‘DNA’ instinct, the airman/woman would keep operating based on a deep understanding of clearly-expressed higher intent, and pool efforts with other disconnected units until further notice. It should be noted however that revamping doctrine and training to that based merely on flexing between centralised and decentralised control does not constitute distributed control. This is because the duration of the fog may well require the self-organisation of collaborating subordinate units (Hostage and Broadwell, 2014).

A move to CCDCDE will require re-education and retraining of the airman/woman to prepare to exercise such distributed control when the time comes. This may be easier than what first impression indicates. For example, the pilot experiencing distributed control should be able to conduct the familiar Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop, only faster, due to the autonomous nature of the platforms and a reduced CoC. Accordingly, over time, he/she would attain the ability to conduct autonomous in-battlespace problem-solving on an enduring basis (Cyr, 2014, p20). Cooperation with partner nations dealing with the A2/AD reality, on an enduring basis, in order to share experience would also be valuable (Weems, 2014).

As CCDCDE cements into Air Force’s tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) in the long-run, the AOC may no longer require a large staff to maximise information integrity. Rather, a smaller staff may suffice, with greater focus more on strategy and intent synchronisation, rules-of-engagement guidance, and monitoring of other impacting events in theatre (Northrop Grumman, 2015, p11). Indeed, more decentralised control comes with it more uncertainty for the AOC. To mitigate this concern, Air Force would predetermine contingency caveats for control, and appoint contemporary-thinking 0–6 to 0–8 officers to ‘forward C2’ nodes due to their experience, education, flexibility and training (Weems, 2014).

More broadly, it is preferrable that deployed personnel operating under CCDCDE have previous postings to an AOC or theatre-level command in order to better understand the left and right of arc of higher intent. This, and the abovementioned suggestions on how to start cementing a CCDCDE culture in Air Force should contribute to the deepening of operational command relationships, thereby ensuring continuous CCDCDE education and training (Kometer, 2007, 16, 77, 102).


It was inevitable that the past two decades of irregular warfare and strategic reachdown have created airman/woman dependency on centralised control (Hostage and Broadwell, 2014). To action the required paradigm shift, not only does doctrine need to be revised to champion CCDCDE, all Air Force training packages on C2 also needs to champion the same. The pinnacle of professional mastery would be applying CCDCDE education to C2 challenges, to negate said challenges and thereby deny the adversary the emergence of centre of gravity to target (Kainikara, 2009).

Robust and continuous education and training is key to creating an agile professional masterforce capable of decision superiority as per Plan Jericho’s intent (Kainikara, 2015). As such, Air Force’s C2 doctrine (and associated education) needs to reflect the C2 needs of Fifth-Gen platforms. That is, there has never been a more important time for Air Force members to learn and embrace CCDCDE. This will allow for greater speed in supporting and conducting operations without a constant need for higher-level approval. This aligns with the new speeds of activity from incoming Fifth-Gen platforms.

Air Force needs to make concerted efforts to groom, train, and exercise tactical and operational commanders to develop CCDCDE-driven operational art. Ultimately, the theatre air component commander needs to be given the confidence to trust his/her subordinates to execute the operation in a permissive or contested environment. Building that trust and understanding will take practice, patience, and time (Theriault, 2015, p108). Indeed, successful militaries thoroughly master and counter technology during exercise and simulation, not during conflict (van Creveld, 1985, p192).


Plan Jericho calls for paradigm shift as Air Force transforms in the next decade via the acquisition of F-35s, other new aircraft, and new surveillance and space systems. Plan Jericho seeks full exploitation of new platforms, which requires Air Force’s data collection, processing, distribution and protection systems, to soon be new platform-compatible (Brown, 2015, p3).

Specifically, it is only a matter of time Air Force will, like its US counterpart, need to embrace the combat cloud, which would serve to grease distributed control nodes to better organise and share proliferated data (AFA, 2014, p7). Combat cloud coordinates nodes to collect, process, file and disseminate information, thereby creating heterarchy and eliminating critical decision-making points of failure (Hostage and Broadwell, 2014).

To this end, Deputy Chief of Air Force (DCAF) and Air Commander Australia (ACAUST) have recognised that the extant C2 architecture in Air Force is in need of a doctrinal overhaul to face the challenges of the future, and directed Director General Air Command Operations (DGACOPS) in 2015 to develop new C4 systems and processes that support decision superiority in a A2/AD environment (McDonald, Turnbull, 2015, p1). A6 at Headquarters Air Command advised me via e-mail on 13 April 2016 that the Future C2 Study under this project is in the workshop phase at present. It is my hope that this Study is the starting point for Air Force to grow acceptance of distributed control as part of air power C2 doctrine.


Plan Jericho continues to translate Ideas Worth Thinking About in Air Force, into foundations laid for a future force that is agile and adaptive, fully immersed in the information age, and truly joint. It allows for room to recognise the increasing irrelevance of CCDE, and the merits of alternative doctrinal tenets, one of which has been explored in detail in this essay.

In conclusion, historical air power lessons have been misunderstood, in that it has manifested into dogmatic adherence to the simplistic phrase of CCDE. It is now apparent that CCDE is inadequate in guiding the business of Air Force to overcome the revival of A2/AD in the Pacific Rim. Air Force cannot risk chance in remaining unprepared for the execution of adversarial A2/AD in future conflict. The introduction of Fifth-Gen platforms will provide a vehicle for Air Force to rise to the renewed challenge.

As a result of more than two decades of irregular warfare distraction, the airman/woman’s autonomous operational instincts have been dulled. Incoming Fifth-Gen platforms are serving as a catalyst to rekindle the airman/woman’s resilience, under more suitable doctrinal guidance, such as CCDCDE. But to ensure CCDCDE is a cultural reality for Air Force as a whole, the airman/woman will require enduring re-education and retraining of the air power mindset. It is hoped that Project 4 will steer Air Force into this direction.

Given how big and complex the issues addressed in this essay are, this essay only serves as an introductory essay, and a continuation of Jericho Ideas Worth Thinking About.


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Disobedient larrikin — the world should be ruled by Bitcoin. Aspiring Catholic Catechist — I open cans of consensus worms to seek truth, to sanctify the world.

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