By Mike Benitez
During an address nearly five years ago, General Martin Dempsey, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff posed the prophetic question, “What’s after joint?” General Dempsey’s remark was meant to spur critical thought about the approaches to joint warfighting and domain superiority in the future — but little changed. In October 2015, shortly after General Joseph Dunford took over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he issued a message to the joint force wherein he listed the first of his three priorities as “restore joint readiness.” Achieving this is going to be difficult, but not for the obvious reasons. Despite improvements in joint interoperability, history calls into question whether “jointness” was ever achieved in the first place, and demands fundamental changes to organizing, training, and equipping the joint force to meet combatant commander multi-domain requirements.
The History of “Get Along to Go Along”
After World War II, the Department of War was reorganized into the Department of Defense, and the Air Force was split from the Army. Following the division of duties mandated in the National Security Act of 1947, bureaucracy exploded and the Services appeared to slowly drift apart. By Vietnam, this was readily apparent in the disunity of command and segregated air war between the Navy’s Task Force 77 and the Seventh Air Force.
The recognition of declining readiness and training shortfalls from Vietnam spawned several initiatives to improve training that operators take for granted— namely the establishment of TOP GUN in 1969, aggressor squadrons in 1972, Red Flag in 1975, the development of the designed operational capability (DOC) statement to fix the problems with the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP), and the enhancement of foreign military exploitation through programs such as Constant Peg. However, “jointness”— that is, stitching the seams of the individual Services into a military singularity — remained an afterthought. In 1980, the lack of joint training in preparation for the Iran hostage rescue mission (Operation Eagle Claw) culminated in disaster at the Desert One staging area.
But, 1983’s Operation Urgent Fury was the final straw. The Grenada operation had no joint headquarters to plan, the Navy’s radios did not use the Army’s encryption, Army helicopter pilots were learning to land on Navy ships on-the-fly without formal training, and the logistical failure resulted in US forces pillaging local businesses for food and fuel. The official historical record from the Joint Chiefs of Staff summed up the result: “Combined for the first time, such an amalgam inevitably experienced problems with command and control, communications, and combat support.” There was a systemic problem of interoperability that needed to be fixed.
As the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 was being drafted, the Air Force and Navy received praise for attacking targets in Libya during Operation El Dorado Canyon. However, it was soon revealed the perceived jointness may have been forced and the Services were operating in parallel, just like Vietnam.
The first small test of the new defense model occurred in 1989 during Operation Just Cause. With months of preparation and a hand-picked general plucked from retirement to lead the invasion, topped off by the deployment of nearly 26,000 troops to Panama — a country with a population akin to Houston, Texas — this was an operation that simply could not fail. As an anonymous Marine on the ground eloquently stated, “a superpower whipped the poop out of 10 percent of the police force of a third world nation. You are supposed to be able to do that.”
Readiness was recovering and joint interoperability was increasing. Little did anyone know it would be showcased just two years later.
From Iraq to Iraq
The investments in training quantity and quality, coupled with recapitalization efforts during a ten-year span of the 1980s — which produced the E-8 JSTARS, F-4G, F-15E, F-16, F-18, F-117, KC-10, new anti-radiation missiles, and improved air-launched decoys — played a key role in the success of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Even with the vast improvements in hardware, it overshadowed equally important changes in doctrine. For the first time, Air Force and naval aviation assets were unified under a joint forces air component commander and synchronized though a single air tasking order (ATO). Despite the fact that the ATO could not be sent electronically to ships in the Gulf — it had to be printed and flown in daily by helicopter — the unity of effort was lauded as not only a success for airpower, but also in joint interoperability.
However, despite the laurels, the Goldwater-Nichols legislation and subsequent re-organization did not make as much headway in integrating the Services below the level of the component commander — tactical and operational integration remained elusive. For example, on two separate occasions during the war, A-10s mistook British and American armored vehicles for Iraqi armor columns and were attacked, leading to the death of 17 soldiers.
After the war, the Navy and the Air Force still operated as separate air elements, but training started to merge. By the mid-90s, side-by-side training between Air Force, Navy, and Marine aviators had evolved from what was previously an anomaly. Still, scarcity of resources from the fictitious Cold War peace dividend was felt and left unsewn seams between the Services.
In yet another example where Services failed to communicate, on April 14, 1994, a formation of F-15Cs shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters during Operation Provide Comfort over northern Iraq — all 26 on board were killed. One of the contributing factors: the failure between the Air Force and Army to integrate operations.
Additionally, at the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001, Navy aircraft were still using coordinates formatted in “degrees.minutes.seconds” whereas Air Force aircraft were programmed for “degrees.minutes.minutes” (a deficiency still not corrected from 1991). Even more importantly, not all aircraft software could use the Army’s preferred military grid reference system and at the time very few aviators outside of the A-10 community were proficient with the ground-based location system.
Even worse, the fratricides in the opening months of OEF from an F-18 and B-52 were eerily forecasted the year prior. In October 2000, a joint report revealed that in 22 reviewed exercises involving 218 close air support missions, there were “major problems in planning, coordination, training, and equipment…Fewer than half of all ground-control teams conducted realistic training with ground troops present.” Reports from the test community and Congress that reviewed the fratricides validated this research and spurned the standardized close air support training that persists today.
In 2003, the initial invasion of Iraq once again brought joint interoperability to the forefront. Two of only three coalition fixed-wing aircraft shot down in the war were done so by US Patriot missiles, not the enemy. On the flip-side, one Patriot system — inside the friendly line of troops — was attacked by an F-16. Once again, the drums of “jointness” began to beat and it became the vogue term for the new American Way of War.
The rampant emphasis was comically seen in acquisitions, where slapping the “joint” connotation onto something guaranteed it sacred cow status — even if it was not actually used in joint missions. The AGM-154 joint standoff weapon is almost entirely a Navy program after being abandoned by the Air Force during low rate initial production in 2004. The Air Force FMU-152 joint programmable fuze failed to consider ship-board storage requirements so the Navy never adopted it, the AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff missile was unilaterally used by the Air Force for 15 years, and the Navy has the joint high speed vessel — a ship — which finally dropped the “joint” tag 2015 when it was re-dubbed the Expeditionary Fast Transport.
While on-going operations in Iraq and Syria have limited ground presence, rest assured: interoperability concerns remain. As but one simple example, Air Force tactical aircraft often rely on satellite communication — something Navy aircraft lack. Instead, the Navy invested in voice-over data-link…which the Air Force never embraced. To integrate with the Navy, the Air Force commits an orbiting RQ-4 BACN to convert the Navy radio transmissions and retransmits the signal to satellites to enable beyond line-of-sight communications.
Unraveling this one step further, why do Air Force A-10, F-15E, and F-16 have satellite communication in the first place? This capability gap was identified in 2004 as operations expanded in northeastern Afghanistan — the rugged terrain inhibited the effectiveness of line-of-sight communication to Army ground elements. The effort to increase interoperability between two Services failed to carry over into all Services at a critical communication juncture, reducing overall joint effectiveness and requiring the aid of another platform.
Back to General Dempsey’s opening question “what’s after joint?” the answer is simple — nothing. Achieving joint interoperability is not a high water mark or an objective; it is a never-ending pursuit achieving the profession of arms’ equivalent of Maslow’s self-actualization. Thus, in the context of General Dunford’s priority there isn’t anything to be restored because the US military arguably never achieved joint readiness in the first place. With the recent re-revelation that the whole should be more than the sum of its parts, the Army’s multi-domain battle concept seeks to address this. For the multi-domain battle concept to realize the vision of jointness, it must be intrinsically tied to readiness and viewed from the bottom up—not from the top down like most concepts.
A large part of readiness should account for the three “I’s” — interoperability, interdependence, and integration. When these are achieved, it will be apparent: combined-arms fusion that spans the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of conflict to harmonize and synergize the various domains of the military instrument of power. Not surprisingly, a force that expects to operate in cross-domain synergy should likewise be expected to be organized, trained, and equipped to do so. Unfortunately, this type of readiness is not measured or reported today on any slideshow or reflected in any reporting system — it is simply assumed.
Readiness is broadly defined in doctrine as “the ability of military forces to fight and meet the demands of assigned missions.” There are a myriad of processes to capture readiness, and even a guide to the Chairman’s readiness system to navigate the dizzying amount of acronyms and charts. Buried in this guide, not doctrine, lies the definition of joint readiness:
The combatant commanders’ ability to integrate and synchronize ready combat and support forces to execute the assigned missions.
Herein lays the conundrum: The combatant commander is a consumer of the product provided to them by the Services. The assumption that those units are combat-ready for multi-domain operations is written into the joint readiness definition — and that is a huge assumption, built on several other assumptions.
Today, joint interoperability has stagnated relative to the increasing complexity of cross-domain abilities of the individual Services. As a result, integration challenges continue to unfold on the battlefield. This is not so much as a surprise as it is an expectation — there is something disturbingly out of balance when less than five percent of training today is joint, but 95 percent of operations in the past 25 years have required joint interoperability. If training truly begets readiness, what is the logical outcome of this model if the next conflict is a war of necessity and the military has no room for the integration growing pains to which we have become accustomed over the past generation of conflict?
Joint interoperability implies teamwork. A successful team, and teamwork, is forged through a comprehensive training routine that enables them to perform at the highest levels when it counts — not by virtue of just showing up on the same field on game day and not running into each other. Without consistently organizing, training, and equipping as a joint team, the Services will be ill-prepared to provide multi-domain capable forces to combatant commanders, continuing history’s trend of falling short of the vision of jointness.
General Dunford’s strategic shift — namely classifying a new and meaningful national military strategy — provides a break from the norms that have defined this status quo and could be the impetus of change. It seems fitting given that the current readiness reporting system was initially created to measure readiness at a broader level in order to synthesize unit and joint force readiness to meet the national military strategy.
Without change, conditions are ripe for the next conflict to result in the declaration: “Combined for the first time, such an amalgam inevitably experienced problems with command and control, communications, and combat support” — Grenada déjà vu. Time will tell if interoperability and joint readiness evolve at the pace the force demands and multi-domain battle aspires, but history is not on our side.
Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments spanning 20 years in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) Fellow.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US government.