Air University Review , January-February 1979

The Viability of Centralized Command and Control (C2)

Lieutenant Colonel Phillip K. Heacock

During the relatively short history of the Air Force as a separate service, the concept of centralized command and control has been an integral part of its doctrine-and for good reason. The loss of efficiency and effectiveness that would occur if centralized command and control did not exist would be devastating. Our ability to use the formidable array of aerospace forces in our inventory in a coordinated and decisive fashion would be lost. Thus, there is no question that the centralized concept is a valid one. Whether the concept is a viable one is a question that has long been ignored.

The doctrine of centralized command and control (C2) has many origins--some rational, some emotional, some historical, and some based on technology. Not only is the doctrine logical and supportable from any number of standpoints but also it has been used successfully in many military encounters. One need look only as far as the nearest doctrinal manual to find the rationale for strong centralized C2, normally with the proviso that the concept include decentralized execution. These same directives are intentionally vague, however, as to the level at which centralization should take place, saying only that it should take place at the lowest level where all information is available to make timely and accurate decisions on force employment. This provision is logical, albeit a bit ambiguous, if the full potential of the concentration of flexible aerospace forces is to be realized and exploited to the greatest advantage.

Historical and emotional antecedents of centralized C2 doctrine parallel each other closely. As the capability of air power began to be realized during World War II, it was seen that single and separate control of air forces was necessary to use them most effectively—usually against strategic targets. From the lessons learned in North Africa in 1943, it was clearly no longer effective to tie air power inextricably to Army ground forces commanders. At the same time proponents of a separate air service saw strong centralization as an effective tactic in facilitating the eventual break from the Army. Centralization was a part of the revolution of independence that the advocates of a separate air arm waged during World War II. So, while the logical historical elements of the argument were able to stand on their own merits, the emotional elements were equally operative.

Technology has had its most compelling impact on the centralization philosophy in the last two decades and can be most closely associated with the advent of nuclear weapons, the computer, and high-speed data communications. With these latter two developments it is possible, with relative ease, to transfer, store, and manipulate large quantities of data at the speed of light. It is this capability that has enabled the complete disestablishment of entire levels of organization--trading off people for electronics--and further centralizing decisions that can more effectively be made at the higher echelon. Even the menus for the dining hall are handled centrally, not to mention pay and supply.

The attributes of a centralized C2 system have been touted widely. There are, however, arguments for and against extremely high levels of centralization, including concerns that highly placed commanders may not be able to have an accurate feel for a situation, notwithstanding the very elaborate command, control, and communications (C3) systems which they might employ. There are also considerations that would transcend these apparent difficulties, which would argue for high centralization even with some loss of effectiveness. President Kennedy’s strong personal control of the Cuban crisis is a good case in point, where there was real concern that we might blunder into a nuclear war. This kind of situation is not atypical. There have been and will continue to be other instances of crisis management where extreme centralization will be required at the highest level. However, these cases do not prove the rule, and a workable alternative is necessary under a broad range of options.

There are two fundamental reasons for exploring alternatives. The first and most significant is that in many more instances than anyone would like to admit, the communications to support the centralized C2 concept are just not going to be available, especially in a conventional war such as might be fought by NATO. The second and equally compelling reason is to provide the necessary flexibility to exploit the situation should it occur.

A fair differentiation can be made at this point between what is classically referred to as the strategic side of the problem versus the tactical side. Much attention and significant amounts of resources have been applied to provide for relatively survivable systems in the strategic arena. These will certainly be available in sufficient quantity and quality to support our objectives in the preattack, probably well into the transattack, and possibly even into the postattack phases of a general war. In the strategic area there has been much attention paid to hardening; and the post attack command control system (PACCS), emergency rocket communications system (ERCS), very low frequency (VLF), and extremely low frequency (ELF) systems are designed with one primary purpose in mind—survivability.

In a limited or conventional war, however, look out! Not only will communication systems of the various services not play well together, they are anything but survivable, they can scarcely be integrated into a coalition war situation, they are targeted, and they will be jammed extensively.

There are two reasons why we have been lulled into a false sense of security on this issue. Our Southeast Asia experience did not teach us about degraded communications generally. For reasons that will not be discussed here, the enemy never attacked them. Second, actual or even simulated degradation of communication systems under exercise conditions is not allowed to any extent even approximating realism. Why? Because to do so would preclude elements of our forces from practicing other aspects of the exercise. These two factors taken together have seriously deluded out thinking. To a large extent the communications part of C3 just is not going to be there. This brings us to the second fundamental reason for looking at alternatives to highly centralized C2 in a tactical theater of operations.

There is an old expression that "forewarned is forearmed." Given that there is a general realization that the concept of centralized command and control may not be viable under all circumstances, then it logically follows that we should prepare for that eventuality. There are probably a number of horror stories to show how a highly centralized structure has been less than effective, but these might be difficult to prove because normally every effort is made to hide mistakes and support higher authority’s decisions. Certainly this consideration is present when doing post mortems on incidents when doing post mortems on incidents such as the Pueblo and the EC-121 shoot down. There are others, but none makes the point very convincingly. Suffice it to say that out experience does not teach us what situation we are likely to find ourselves in should we get involved in a tough conventional war like that postulated in NATO scenarios.

So what should be done? We should clearly recognize this contingency in our doctrine. We should provide for each echelon a set of continually updated guidelines to follow should the systems that provide centralized C3 be lost: not just who a commander should try to contact but what he should do with the forces he has at his disposal until effective communications can be restored. The way the system is now structured, there are probably a number of win commanders who would do nothing until they could receive instructions, and thus would be of no value. As it stands now, it would be based largely on the personality of the particular commander. I for one have a lot of faith in these hand-picked people, but they need to know that they are supposed to do something, and they should know generally what action would contribute most to the war effort at the time communications are lost.

This concept will require some careful planning and continuous updating, but it does not cost much and can be done immediately. Training on the options, especially at lower echelons, should be extensive, and simulation of "communications out" procedures should be exercised. This proposal does not deny in any way the desirability of the centralized doctrine developed and successfully used over many years. It does, however, exploit a degraded situation which will likely exist, and therefore ensures the use of resources that would presently be lost.

Although there has been--normally reluctant--recognition that command and control systems are tenuous, the corrective thrust has been much lip service and breast beating about enhanced survivability, redundancy, mobility, and the like. Basic joint as well as Air Force doctrine has always taken this approach. And since a fairly high degree of centralization is obviously preferred, attempts to attain improved survivability should never be rejected unless they prove not to be cost-effective. Unfortunately, there are just not enough resources to provide for the degree of survivability necessary to ensure continuous centralized C2.

These facts of life are apparently only now being recognized in the new draft of AFM 1-1, which is being worked at the Air Staff. For the first time, this basic doctrinal manual asserts that "Command and Control procedures must be set up for use in the event the Communications systems fails [sic]."1 This is a welcome change to the directive for reasons which should be apparent by now. Hopefully, planners will start thinking about what those procedures should be.

Although these thoughts may be considered heresy by some, I believe they need to be considered. Attempts have been made to avoid extreme emotional notions to make the case a plausible one and worthy of further study. In my view we must develop a new mind set based on a recognition of reality and a confidence in well-educated, well-trained, and resourceful low-echelon commanders. We will probably have to depend on them anyway. Why not anticipate this eventuality and give them techniques and plans to assist them? Let's not allow our preference for the clear advantages of centralization to blind us to the fact that we may not be able to support it with necessary communications in a conflict. We must face this issue squarely and plan accordingly--now!

Air War College


1. Functions and Basic Doctrine of the USAF (draft), AFM 1-1, Department of the Air Force, attached to AWC (EDRS) letter dated 12 December 1977, p. 2-21.


Lieutenant Colonel Philip K. Heacock (M.B.A., George Washington University) is Chief of the Systems Planning Branch on the CINCPACJ-6 staff. His previous experience includes positions as the Commander, 1913th Communications Squadron, Langley AFB, Virginia; Executive Officer for Air Force Communications Service headquarters; and air staff action officer in the Plans and Doctrine Branch, directorate of command Control and communications, Hq USAF. Colonel Heacock is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air War College and ahs completed the Industrial College of the Armed Forces Course.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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