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While modernizing command and control architecture certainly affects all aspects of the defense department, the special operations forces enterprise, which operates at the forward-most stages of conflict, needs this capability as much as any component. Special Operations should vector away from the counter-terror paradigm of warfighting and re-align itself for great powers competition, which requires a command and control capability that enables both the initial introduction of special operations, as well as supports the facilitation of mass conventional forces into denied operational environments and the broader strategic defense architecture.

The U.S. Air Force has spearheaded critical efforts to upgrade the archaic dinosaur of the Department of Defense’s command and control systems. These efforts are better known as the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) under Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). In short, the Advanced Battle Management System aims to fuse information sharing across the full spectrum of warfighting, from the fighter pilot’s cockpit to the echelons of maneuver commanders, matriculating down to the tactical-level operators.

The reality is that this endeavor to create a centralized, data-sharing command and control system that supports a joint, decentralized fighting force (to include coalition partners) may fall victim to the same flaws of predecessor command and control systems. This is inevitable if the systems requirements' determination remains at the strategic level, without end-user input in the system capability development process. Despite the recent on-ramp successes, highlighted by sensor-linking and simulated hypersonic missile intercepts, developing a command and control system driven by top-down strategic requirements will not serve the end-users who will rely on its capabilities most in the next conflict.

Myopically, comprehensive information sharing, communication channels, and real-time mission data sharing up and down the chain of command is the warfighter’s ideal. However, operating beyond the bubble of battlespace supremacy will undoubtedly be the construct of a great power conflagration. The department of defense has grown accustomed to battlespace dominance in all domains during the war on terror, and the next conflict is all but guaranteed to feature denied battlefields. The United States will not determine the time, place, or speed of the next conflict, and it certainly will not enjoy the battlefield supremacy of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Expecting a command and control infrastructure to meet such a myopic ideal as the uncontested battlespaces of Afghanistan is all but certain to drag the outcome of any Joint All-Domain Command and Control into the depths of services-driven proprietary requirements. Attempts at bending these capabilities to the will of the war on terror battlefield realities have inevitably fostered an increased dependence on technology, as then-Joint Force Commander General Jim Mattis said in 2010: “[officers] grasping for more certainty [instead of] comfort operating in uncertainty.” Command and control systems should not dictate or inhibit warfighting. Such systems should serve as a tool for decision making and enable decentralization.

By the induced artificiality of command and control seen in the previous 18 years of counter-insurgency, in the words of Mattis, the enterprise became inherently technologically centralized. As such, any effort to create a command and control system that replicates this technological dependence will place the defense department well behind the curve in any future conflict. The Advanced Battle Management System needs to function as a tactical resource that fuses tactical components in a denied battlespace while providing comprehensive situational awareness at operational and strategic levels of command. It must do this without curtailing the battlefield flexibility of the tactical actors. In short, the small-scale connection bubbles of data-sharing for command and control are far more critical than the top-down, reach back data sharing, and the ABMS architecture should develop in this manner.

End-user requirements development

Even if they have not yet begun, the special operations enterprise is already married to potential conflict with power competitors. Whether the command and control systems are prepared now is irrelevant, which is why determining requirements for the Advanced Battle Management System belongs in the hands of those who will need it soonest.

When escalatory incidents, liminal confrontation, or the potential for open conflict emerge from the theoretical and draw the United States into the fray, special operations will be the first to close with whoever the enemy might be. The battlespace will be a denied environment, and the piecemeal, individual-service driven hodge-podge of command and control systems will fail in the attempt to curb the potential for global conflagration. In a similar vein, a command and control system built around strategic networks that fails to support the lowest-level, end user components of warfighting in a denied environment will be equally unsuited to the task of conflict in power competition.

In order for the Advanced Battle Management System to realize its potential as the all-domain control system for the future, special operations should drive the requirements for its minimum capacity. Additional capabilities and tailored, modular requirements to suit the greater defense architecture can expand the family of systems following a special operations-driven proof of concept. But to truly effect a modernized, capable command and control network that supports the defense endeavor, it needs to be driven by the end-users who will need it soonest, and certainly the most.

The Special Operations Command has a long, established history of innovating against rapidly changing battlefield requirements. The Joint Special Operations Command has not ridden luck to the top of the global crucible of warfare. Rather it has adapted to enemies, environments, available (and constrained) resources to meet threats abroad in service to the national security of the United States. The appeal of the Advanced Battle Management System as a truly user-fused (yet decentralized), secure system of systems, which enables comprehensive situational awareness, is too important of an opportunity to be squandered by the malingering of services in dictating another piecemeal solution during budgetary squabbles.

Unique capabilities for complex problem-solving

At this phase of development, the Air Force’s sibling services are either undermining roles and responsibilities in long-range, multi-domain capabilities or the program itself remains too broadly arrayed against the nebulous of what “multi-domain” is, or the ways and means of achieving it. In short, other than academically recognizing a joint all-domain, the Advanced Battle Management System is no closer to bringing the fused capability to the defense enterprise, and all of the agile approaches to funding academic thought exercises won’t prevent congressional budgetary reviews from strangling the limited progress to date. In order to ensure this endeavor is capable of reaching validity as a command and control system, the requirements generation belongs in the hands of the members who will need it to function effectively and immediately.

Special operations have exclusively lived the joint paradigm since the fatal mishap known as Operation Eagle Claw- the failed Iran hostage rescue mission on April 24, 1980. Among the lessons learned from that fateful mission, effective command and control via an established joint paradigm were crucial for the enterprise capabilities to prepare for a global arena of rapidly changing threats. Adaptation, integration, and innovation have been the special operations DNA for decades. The special operations enterprise is less about doing spectacular things commonly, but they do common things spectacularly well.

Developing a functional, user-capabilities driven, secured battlefield management system requires a common-sense approach, done spectacularly well. Through these adaptive, exhaustively rehearsed principles, no component of the department of defense is as well suited for determining how the Advanced Battle Management System can support the national security architecture, and what this system needs to be able to do.

To make the Advanced Battle Management System work for Joint All-Domain Command and Control, the Air Force needs to utilize the Joint-force expertise of end-user special operators to define baseline system requirements. While plenty of interested customers are intrigued by and committed to the program's success, scope creep within the life cycle of program development is already threatening the system that could make or break the department of defense’s success in a great powers confrontation.

The challenge of restructuring these modernization efforts lies in the overall responsibility of the program's success. Heading the Advanced Battle Management System program is Dr. Will Roper, the Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. This analysis does not suggest Dr. Roper relinquishing control of the program, nor its redux in the hands of the Joint Special Operations enterprise. This argument calls for end-user representatives from the Joint Special Operations community to become key test and evaluation participants, and given the preponderance of requirements determination to meet battlefield realities.

Simple, logical solutions most often resolve the answer to a complicated and modular problem. The nature of special operations as joint experts provides the defense department with a collection of experts who are uniquely capable of dictating what is needed now, and down the line, from a joint command and control system. Once that system is demonstrated to work at the tactical level and incorporated into secure domain architecture, it can expand to the remainder of the defense enterprise as needed on the strategic, global services scale. Development from the bottom-up prevents the failures of previous attempts at joint command and control and sets the Advanced Battle Management System up for future success across the various user levels of the department of defense.


Ethan Brown is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs, focused on Defense Strategy and National Security. He is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack Controller; he can be found on twitter @LibertyStoic.

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