Army-Air Force Talks: A Strategic Dialogue Between Two Obscure Field Grade Officers

This paper, by Dave “Sugar” Lyle (USAF) and Dan Sukman (USA), was originally published on The Strategy Bridge and is shared here by the courtesy of its editors. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not reflect those of the US Army, the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.


Prologue: Dan and Dave, no relation to the famous Olympic decathletes, began a dialogue following a workshop on the development of an Air Force Operating Concept. At the conclusion of day 1 of the workshop, Dan and Dave had a discussion on the future of the military; to include the direction our respective services are headed. The idea popped up that these deep discussions should be published, for others to read and debate. The richness and value of discussions on the future of warfare is worthless if left between two people.


Sukman: Hey Dave, it was fun working with the Air Force this past week. It is eye opening to see the different perspectives of a sister service. How the Air Force will operate 20–30 years in the future is significant to how the Army will operate. Ultimately, the Army can generate thoughts on how we will do things, but if the Air Force and Navy are not on board, then we are not writing concepts we are writing fantasy novellas.

To me, the Air Force and the Army face a similar operating environment 20 years from now, albeit our efforts will be focused in different (but not exclusive) domains. For example, as we wrote in our 2014 Army Operating Concepts, enemies and adversaries will look to emulate our capabilities, avoid our strengths, disrupt our communications, space and other high tech advantages, and expand their operations to the homeland. In my view, this outlook applies to all the services, how we overcome them to maintain overmatch in each domain at a time and location of our choosing will be somewhat different.

I am also pleased to discover that when it comes to decisions on what platforms the Air Force will purchase for future war will focus on three missions. Close Air Support, Close air Support, and more Close Air Support. We might need you to actually transport us to the fight, but we can do that with legacy systems right? After all, if we are still using Abrams Tanks in 20 or 30 years, I imagine C-130s, and C-17s will still get us there. And when I say there, probably to Iraq.


Lyle: Thanks for working with us at the Future Operating Concept Workshop, and it was great to finally met you in person after corresponding for so long in the strategists social media forums. As a few recent articles have captured, it’s easy to see the huge benefits of those forums when you can show up somewhere, and already know guys in the other service at a personal level, with degrees of trust in both the professional and the person already established. I remember one time I was at a big meeting for Air Force exercise planning, and I said that one of our measures of effectiveness for a joint exercise should be how many Facebook friends from the other services that we leave with. The PhD running the discussion just looked at me as if I had suggested that we start collecting and comparing nose rings …But the proof was in the pudding in my last deployment to Afghanistan as a strategist. When I showed up in Kabul, I already had a foot in the door with five of the Army strategists I would end up spending the next year with, planning RESOLUTE SUPPORT, and vice versa…and nary a nose ring in sight. But then, I never got to see those guys off duty…

You’re right that we need to plan for the future together, and there are many benefits in doing so. When change is required, it’s often difficult to be the first one out the door, but when we all see the common need for change, the actions of one can encourage those hesitant to take the risk in the other services. For example, the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy all see the need to recruit, train, educate, and develop leaders who can deal with the complex challenges of the future, but that implies that the system that we grew up in, and more importantly, the one that our leaders grew up in and now lead, are not up to the task. And they probably aren’t, especially when you consider our common interests in addressing change in our human capital plans. So who changes first, who takes the risk, who’s going to jump before the wind drift indicator hits the dropzone? Maybe we all should jump at the same time…

While I’d agree that the basic human problems behind conflict will be the same in twenty years, just as they have been for millennia, I’d have to say that my read of the tea leaves suggest a very different reality than the one we see today — given technologies that are already present or are rapidly emerging, I don’t see the future as being like today only more so. Depending on which ones emerge in which order, I’m very concerned that many of the things we take for granted today will no longer be viable — we’ve built a lot of capability on fragile infrastructures in the last couple of decades, and we’re going to have to deal with the fact that the cost of disrupting those systems is getting cheaper and cheaper, and that our legacy systems, and even the ones we think will be our future now, may not be as disruptive innovations seek to exploit vulnerabilities we’re barely willing to acknowledge now. We’re going to have to adjust, become more resilient, and become faster on the draw when it comes to innovating on the fly.

I’m with you on close air support, and there’s been nothing in my personal experience more rewarding than hearing “Good hits” from a JTAC after a pass. But I’m naturally trying to find ways to keep the enemy from even getting close to you in the first place…never fight fair.


Sukman: I will leave CAS where it is, there are three things that officers should never discuss in public, religion, politics, and the future of the A-10.

I have never heard the facebook analogy before, but it makes total sense. I do worry that there is still a significant percentage of senior leaders who do not have facebook, twitter or other types of social media accounts, but in turn talk about how social media will impact the future operating environment. But social media as a tool to enhance professional discourse, yeah, it’s the new Officer’s Club, only I don’t have to call a taxi when I write in my house after downing three whiskeys; and I’m not worried about saying the wrong thing in front of the Base Commander’s spouse. Moreover, the ability to form a JTF staff, is certainly enhanced if those showing up have built a level of trust through professional discourse. Our Operating Concept speaks to the “Four Multiples”…internally, the ability to build trust among Multiple Partners outside conventional means of exercises and formal education is a capability we should take advantage of. When we think of our strategic and operational advantages over likely adversaries, the ability to fight jointly, and with a coalition makes the top five. Most nation’s envy our ability to synchronize the actions in all domains, and readings of history from Thucydides to Napoleon can teach us the value of operating within a coalition.

Innovating on the fly is certainly necessary, although I would ask if that is more adaptation than innovation. That being said, our innovation must go beyond technology solutions to the wicked problems we may face. Innovation begins with the human, above the neck so to speak. What worries me is not how our Soldiers, or Airmen can adapt and innovate in combat, or more broadly in the operational force, rather, how our institutional organizations can innovate is the broader question. Army commanders and air force pilots will develop new tactics, and the needs of the fighting force will be met in terms of material solutions. For America, war tends to provide us near unlimited means to solve the problems we face, quantity becomes a quality all its own. The real challenge of innovation come in times of relative peace. Institutionally, during times of peace, our means are limited, and our ends can be ill defined. When you have an enemy or adversary, there is purpose to innovation. Say what you want about the cold war, having a Soviet Enemy provided purpose to the space race, instantaneous communications and DARPA’s work on the internet. When you don’t know who your enemy is, or when and where you will fight in the future, innovation for the sake of innovation becomes a harder sell. Moreover, choosing to innovate for high end or lower end conflict becomes a constraint on innovation. Matching institutional efforts with operational efforts is critical to strategy, but can be as elusive as the white rabbit without conflict.

Paramount to innovation is identifying and overcoming barriers to innovation. As we move forward, leaders in each service need to ensure service parochialisms do not interfere. It’s not Army or Air Force innovation we need, rather its joint innovation. The risk of the Air Force innovating for high end conflict, and the Army innovating for low end conflict could create services that are incompatible. The ends of innovation are easy with a defined enemy, less so when facing an uncertain future. Joint Innovation will mitigate this risk, and I will take credit for inventing the term.


Lyle: While I wholeheartedly agree with you about the need to prevent parochialism from determining our respective future force paths, I disagree with your initial statement; I think we should be talking MORE about potentially volatile topics like CAS. It’s very unfortunate that the current debate over the retirement of the A-10 is in many ways destroying much of the goodwill that we’ve built since the last time we had a serious falling out over differing perceptions regarding the Air Force’s support to ground forces during Operation Anaconda in 2002. In that case, the accusations and counterfactuals hurled back and forth created conditions in which we almost couldn’t talk about what happened there at all for a time. But despite that, we gradually evolved a system of liaison and coordination together that brought close air support to unprecedented levels of anticipation and responsiveness. Now, it’s like we’re going back to 2002 all over again for some, and you really can’t blame soldiers for being suspicious of the Air Force’s intentions on CAS, given some of the reports out there about what may have been said within Air Force circles.

I haven’t been privy to those conversations myself, but I can tell you this: I’ve never personally heard another Air Force officer say “Screw those guys on the ground” or “I hate doing CAS”. And as the guy who designed the initial B-52 schoolhouse CAS qualification course after performing 19 CAS missions in OEF, I can tell you that for those who have performed the mission, it’s usually quite the opposite. Hearing “Good hits!” on the radio from JTACS will always be one of my greatest sources of professional satisfaction, no matter what else I do or don’t accomplish in my precious remaining time wearing Air Force blue. And despite some of the accusations that have been made recently, I have a really hard time believing that my current Chief of Staff, who has flown the A-10 and has a son in the US Marines, is not committed to the CAS mission. But it’s also clear that while CAS is a mission, and not an aircraft, there are tradeoffs between the various platforms, and there are always difficult decisions to be made that will not yield answers that satisfy everyone equally. As a planner in Afghanistan working the drawdown and enduring presence air support for RESOLUTE SUPPORT, constrained by very tight force management level restrictions, I actually recommended to leadership that we keep F-16s over A-10s, not having enough forces to keep both and still have sufficient US numbers left to do the train, advise, and assist mission. It wasn’t because I didn’t have the utmost respect for the A-10 community, the teams that have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the CAS mission, and the tailored skills and culture that allow them to achieve detailed integration in ways that other CAS weapons systems cannot — I’m fiercely proud of what the A-10 community has achieved, and continues to achieve on the battlefield in combat as I type this. It was because earnestly believed that the F-16s, which would need to stay primarily on ground alert to provide widest coverage with the footprint we would have left, would ultimately save more lives with their superior speed and reach, and offer more comprehensive coverage over areas where our ground forces would be performing their train, advise, and assist missions in remote areas. As these difficult and emotional discussions continue, I can only advocate that those in my service will maintain our first core value of “Integrity First” as we discuss the tradeoffs and risks associated with current and potential future force options, remembering that “bad news doesn’t get better with age” if the choices we’ve committed ourselves to aren’t panning out like we thought they would. On the flip side, I hope the other services will not judge all of us by the alleged narrow opinions of a few. We need to be discussing various future force options with clarity and honesty, concentrating on tradeoffs and risks in the finest degree of analytical granularity that we can provide, and as “open kimono” as we can possibly make the discussions. We’re all Americans on the same team — we can get through this. The more we talk, the less often we’ll stereotype each other, or make caricatures of each others’ positions. It’s about making informed choices between tradeoffs, with the full awareness that “All of the easy decisions have already been made”, as I recently heard a senior DoD official describe it.

My compliments on your recent “Asymmetric Offsets” piece on the Strategy Bridge! I thought you’d appreciate this analysis from a friend and fellow Air Force officer, the Constant Strategist in his online forum:


“From The Strategy Bridge, this is a brilliant and necessary addition to the offset discussion ongoing in the Department of Defense, less because of the particular elements covered (though excellent) than because it deliberately and correctly broadens the approach questions of asymmetry beyond the narrow scope of material technologies. Technology more properly refers to the totality of methods and processes used in securing our objectives. These include social technologies such as language, governments, educational processes and paradigms, etc., that may be enabled by (or enable) technical means. But a technology need not be a collection of plastic, metal, glass, and wires, and the most fundamental asymmetries available are not necessarily these narrowly considered technologies. For example, jointness is a social technology with the instrumental purpose of creating synergies (and therefore advantage) in the military realm. And all technologies are by definition instrumental and therefore characteristically human. So education (professional military and otherwise) is a technology for creating asymmetries in human capital that enable maximum impact and adaptive value of other technologies (and the creation of new technologies). It is a frightening mistake to limit our offset thinking to the narrow frame of tubes and wires and metal and glass. We must seek offset in the social technologies as well, and this short article makes that case as well as anyone has.”

Maybe we’re not so far apart on joint innovation after all, huh?

But I do want to make some points, based on your article and comments above. The “reduced dependence on close-in theater land and sea bases” that CSBA is predicting may not be due to our own choices in the end, but rather due to the degree of reduced access that may be politically available in the future as the influence of competitors rises. So while we should seek to maintain ties to regional allies who may grant us access as you advocate for, I think that we need to plan that still may not get it, especially if countries who we’re friends with opt for neutrality as tensions rise. You wrote that “Whatever material an adversary puts on the battlefield, the US can produce more of it, at better quality, for our warfighter on the battlefield.” That may not be true in the future in areas where we’ve traditionally enjoyed advantages; peer competitors are quickly achieving parity or their own offsets against our traditionally unchallenged competencies in the Air Force core mission areas of air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control.

Thus, as we look to the future, and the emergence of technologies and competencies that will increasingly challenge our traditional dominance in these areas, we’re not as confident in your assertion that “Superiority in the air and maritime domain has been and will remain a given for the US — what is and will be continued to be challenged is the US advantages in the land domain.” We think we’ll be challenged in all of these areas, by adversaries who have carefully studied our methods, read our doctrine and articles, and are actively working now to expose and exploit our vulnerabilities. This may help to explain the difference in priorities that my leadership is being taken to task for on the Hill, and in some cases, we can’t talk about everything that concerns us in such open forums.

I’d also like to disavow an implication that I read in your comments — perhaps incorrectly, reflecting my own biases from personal experience. It’s a belief I’ve encountered in various ground force tactical operations centers across Afghanistan during my first trips there as a planner in ’06 and ’07. As I worked to help mostly ground centric future ops and plans staffs to harness the best joint effects using airpower in support of the counterinsurgency effort, one of the challenges we had as air planners was the attitude amongst ground planners that felt if the Air Force was not acting together with ground forces in the same battlespace, we were not acting jointly. I disagree with this assertion as a general statement, and as we sought to create complementary effects with air operations in places that ground forces couldn’t reach, we had specifically describe what we were doing as “air operations in areas where ground forces aren’t present” , avoiding the discussion ending descriptor “independent air operations” at all costs. In many ways, I think people had the same opinion of Air Sea Battle, which has recently been incorporated in the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, or GAM-GC. The effects we seek to create with such operations, both then and now, are designed to enhance or support the overall joint plan. In some ways, we’re failing ground forces if we’re not actively looking for ways to prevent them from being required in great numbers in the first place — there are potentially more ways to save ground troops lives with strategic attack and interdiction capabilities than we can with CAS in some situations when you apply a systemic approach. That said, in most cases, air operations will usually not be sufficient unto themselves to create all of the effects you need to achieve. For the record, I firmly believe that we all maximize each others’ psychological and physical effects the most when we work together to place the enemy on the horns of multiple dilemmas. We saw in Kosovo when we had very little effect on Serbian ground forces with air attacks before the Kosovo Liberation Army forced them to defend themselves from ground attack, making them more vulnerable to airstrikes, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence that Milosevic’s capitulation coincided with a planned meeting between President Clinton and Gen Shelton to discuss ground options in the late summer. But also for the record, not every effect that we’ll need to achieve should necessarily require all of the services working in the same area, and not all may need to be “decisive” to still be valuable options for our leadership in a game of maintaining continuing advantage. Some situations that do not lend themselves to “decisive” resolution, especially when we’re talking about sustaining deterrence and assurance. If we can get the effects we need to achieve without risking any boots on the ground, we should consider those options. But admittedly, these kinds of options are probably few and far between — just don’t think that we don’t care if we try to develop them, because it’s quite the opposite. But by all means, keep us honest, as you did during the Future Operating Concept workshop recently. If we’re doing this joint thing right, we’ll eventually end up being the guardians of each others’ core competencies.


Sukman: Your point on adaptation following Operation ANACONDA is an important one nothing builds teamwork and jointness per say as combat. In my humble opinion, this occurs due to necessity, and the availability of resources, specifically money. Over the past decade and a half we had an open fire hydrant (OCO), not so much as Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn down. How we maintain jointness in periods of relative peace becomes a challenge of our generation of leaders. As Constant Strategist deftly noted, even with reduced resources, we can maintain jointness in areas other than warfighting platforms.

Certainly, we should plan for scenarios where close in access is denied by friendly or neutral nations. As some famous guy once said, “nations don’t have friends or enemies, they have interests” (according to my Facebook feed it was Abraham Lincoln). We saw that with Turkey in 2003. That being said, the military’s support to diplomacy through our foreign area officers at the action officer level, and through COCOM Commander to foreign general officer engagements at the GOFO level are a paramount competency of all services. We often take engagements for granted at our schools, and by means of multi-national exercises. These actions are a significant contribution to national security, but barely mentioned in our institutional strategic documents. Global engagement is a competency of our military I think most nations could only dream of. If you ever read other nation’s security strategies, they will mention other nations in their immediate region and specifically call out their relationship with the United States.

Valid points on the use of airpower to strike targets beyond the range of land forces. I always argue that Air Force strike capabilities are the best form of missile defense we have, better than Patriot and THAAD. I would also mention that the Air Force, in support of ground forces does much more than providing lethality at close range and at strategic distances. Air power extends the vision of land forces just the same, both tactically and strategically.

I get the arguments on maintaining the core mission areas of the Air Force, do you think those mission areas remain the same 10, 20, or 30 years into the future? I thought that discussion was missing in the workshop. Would you add anything? Cyberspace operations? Global Engagement?


Lyle: You have to watch out for that Abraham Lincoln guy, he says all kinds of crazy things on the Internet. But the point on interests is valid, as we’re seeing now in the Middle East, and we’ll see in the future in other areas as various nations try to hedge their relationships until forced to choose between their own competing interests. And we’ll need to plan ahead for that. In some ways, we probably need to look to the past as we look to the future, and it’s definitely worth revisiting the real source of that quote from Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston’s address to the House of Commons in 1848 :

Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow. When we find other countries marching in the same course, and pursuing the same objects as ourselves, we consider them as our friends, and we think for the moment that we are on the most cordial footing; when we find other countries that take a different view, and thwart us in the object we pursue, it is our duty to make allowance for the different manner in which they may follow out the same objects. It is our duty not to pass too harsh a judgment upon others, because they do not exactly see things in the same light as we see; and it is our duty not lightly to engage this country in the frightful responsibilities of war, because from time to time we may find this or that Power disinclined to concur with us in matters where their opinion and ours may fairly differ. That has been, as far as my faculties have allowed me to act upon it, the guiding principle of my conduct.

In general, as I look across the literature on adaptive decisionmaking in complex and ambiguous situations, it becomes clear to me that the only way to really position yourself to be agile in these confusing, highly connected environments is to create networks of trust — built during whatever opportunities for engagement you can create — to help stakeholders communicate more, not less, as complex situations unfold. Thus, the partnership and engagement activities that you mention are critical as much for building the networks as they are for the specific scenarios or skills we explore with them. In the Air Force, we stay engaged with joint and combined training exercises, rotational deployments, country visits, and by including foreign exchange students in our schools. In almost all of these activities, a joint vs. single service approach is usually the natural and advantageous one — I can’t think of many single service activities these days. But we also need to consider our requirements for integration as we look forward to the future of command and control. We’ll necessarily act with allies in the future, thus we’ll need lots of flexibility in how we manage that cooperation and coordination among various countries who will not be able to match our investments in technology or human capital. We’ll also have to build capabilities to share information with others, and protect it at the right levels of classification — in my experience, one of our greatest challenges is just sharing information among our allies.

As to the future of the Air Force core missions, I think we’re going to see increased interconnectedness there as well — we’ll remain the specialists to focus our efforts on providing capabilities and options to the President and joint force commanders. We don’t expect any of these core missions to go away, even if the mixes of capabilities that we need to conduct them change significantly, or if other organizations or initiatives arise to take the interagency lead in areas like cyber. As SECAF has said, we’re going to have to look at improving our capabilities to work across our air, space and cyber domains to create effects that we typically did mostly via the air in the past., and also to better keep up with the changes that are happening outside of the Air Force. And we’re going to have to find ways to achieve more resilience in areas where we’ve been previously uncontested. And there’s no way we’ll be able to do any of these things without robust discussions within the joint force, within the US interagency, and amongst our allies and partners , as we seek to remain connected and coordinated as we push forth.

Of course, it’s easy to write all this stuff in a blog post — much harder to apply in practice. But discussions like this are a great way to work out what the “nuts and bolts” work will likely be at our level, and to prepare ourselves for it. Speaking of that, see you at the Defense Innovation Initiative Wargame this week!


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