Write to
Stephen Morrill

  • Nonfiction Writing

  • Fiction Writing

Site Navigation

Sample Book Chapter
Appeared in a special publication Wings of Glory

FROM c2 TO c4i2

by Stephen Morrill

The largest and most sophisticated air force is useless without experienced commanders at all levels able to make decisions based upon adequate information received, and able to issue instructions that they know will reach the men and women who fly the aircraft or launch the missiles. This is command and control.

Throughout fifty years of Air Force development of C2, those functions have grown more complicated. Communications was incorporated into the formula (c3) early on and, after the Vietnam War, computers became small enough to have forward-based and battlefield use and intelligence capabilities had made possible much swifter battlefield threat assessment, battle-damage assessment, and more and we soon had C4I.

Alas, all that information began to jam up the commander's decision-making process. It was too much of a good thing. It became necessary to process the information itself to make it more useful to the commander and today we talk about C4I2 or command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and information. The game remains the same: put steel on the target. But things happen a lot faster today and military doctrine says that the commander who can get inside the other guy's information processing loop has a significant advantage. If you can shoot faster or more accurately, you have an advantage, and we call that added speed or accuracy a 'force multiplier'. If you can rearm and refuel a strike aircraft and get it back into the air while your opponent is still on the ground, that's a force multiplier. And if you can make decisions and move your forces around the battlefield faster and with better results than your opponent, that's an enormous force multiplier.

By the time the Air Force separated from the U.S. Army in 1947, it had already learned valuable lessons in C2 during the Second World War. In that war, Britain had been able to defend itself against a far more numerous German bomber attack by using radar coupled with an extremely efficient C2 network to vector its few fighters to meet the enemy.

The Battle of Britain was one of the finest examples of the use of command and control as a 'force multiplier': you didn't need a lot of airplanes, so long as you could put just enough fighters just where they were most needed.

But sometimes numbers counted, and the U.S. Army Air Corps had become the finest organization in the world at coordinating massed numbers of bombers, fighters, troop transports and cargo aircraft. These often attacked the same areas at differing speeds and altitudes and after flying in from different bases. That experience contributes today to our ability to ferry aircraft to bases around the world, or even to refuel in-flight a large long-distance attack.

C3 during the Korean War took advantage of the lessons learned just a half-decade earlier. The aircraft were a mixture of WWII holdovers and new jet-powered fighters. There were no massed bombing missions; small flights of fighters performed ground-support while B-29s bombed stationary targets. Air Force officers slogged through the mud beside the GIs, using radios to direct air strikes. Radar coverage of the battlefield was spotty and short-ranged; pilots often flew their fighters to a pre-set area and waited to be vectored to a target of opportunity by a ground or aerial spotter.

The Vietnam war, like the war in Korea, was one of small strikes, some down-in-the-dirt flying and some high-flying B-52s playing the strategic-strike mission the B-29s had done in Korea. Intelligence, and particularly weather intelligence was much improved, thanks to some of the early satellite systems. Some would argue that command and control got out of hand, with President Johnson personally picking targets to be attacked.

One of the first tasks of the newly-created Air Force was to pose a deterrence to the Soviet Union, and the formation of the Strategic Air Command reflected a new reality: for the first time, a bomber could fly from one continent to another and deliver a payload. But if communications had been crucial in all previous wars, being able to communicate at extremely long range with an aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon was essential.

But SAC also controlled America's land-based ICBMs and a missile, once launched, could not be recalled (an argument long advanced for retaining the manned-bomber alternative). The Air Force developed a complex command and control system that made it impossible for any one person to launch a missile.

All this was backed by the most comprehensive computer systems and intelligence-gathering networks ever devised. Satellites and high-flying aircraft looked down on the earth. Radar nets on the ground watched for incoming missiles.This input arrived at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) headquarters in an underground bunker in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado where computers processed it and people interpreted the results. There were occasional computer glitches and on several occasions the system reported impending attacks. Each time, the human commander overrode the system.

C2 had always had to claw for every dollar in development and implementation cost. Bombs, and new aircraft to deliver them, were tangible symbols of the Air Force's ability to perform missions. Computer networks, improved radio communication, wider "bandwidth" to process signals and, worst of all, people who sat in little rooms and thought of new ways to think, were given polite lip-service and little more. But then President Carter, fearing that current command/control systems were inadequate to the needs of a thermonuclear-war age, ordered 'hardening' of missile command-posts against nuclear attack and instituted a program of redundancy in communications. President Reagan continued the improvements to command and control. Satellites were coming into their own and soon the Air Force was lofting even more satellites carrying a variety of missile-launch detectors, military communications equipment, and the now-famous Global Positioning Satellites, or GPS. The Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars were upgraded. Another system could detect cruise missiles approaching the United States.

Tactical command was enhanced too, with improvements to existing AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control) aircraft and development of JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System). JSTARS aircraft could detect&emdash;using on-board and remote sensors&emdash;and analyze ground targets. Now the Air Force command staff could detect airborne threats and vector fighters to the defense, while also directing strike missions against ground targets independently of any ground observer.

About this time, an ad-hoc 'military reform movement' included combat theorists who said the route to victory, be it tactical or strategic, lay in "getting inside" your enemy's decision-making cycle. With the cost of aircraft making the large air fleets of the past prohibitively expensive, the Air Force seized on concepts and equipment that would make fighters and bombers more efficient.

The 'decision-making cycle' algorithm dovetailed nicely with the fast-developing information technology. An excellent example was the ability of Patriot missiles to intercept Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf war. Scud missiles took less than 7 minutes from launch to impact on Dharan, Saudi Arabia or Tel Aviv, Israel. In those 400 seconds, satellites overhead detected the launches and flashed a warning to NORAD's headquarters near Colorado Springs. At NORAD, computers and analysts calculated both the forward and backward tracks of the missiles and flashed that information to the Middle East. Even as Patriot crews were engaging the incoming Scuds, Air Force commanders were plotting strikes against the launchers, sometimes diverting aircraft already in the air.

It was the Gulf war that astounded the world with the prowess of the Air Force, and C4I2 made that incredible performance possible. Early attacks focused on Iraq's own C2 facilities (Iraq couldn't be said to have a true C4I2 capability). In the first hours, radar installations, anti-air defenses, communications facilities, electricity-generating plants and telephone switching centers, even the Iraqi air command headquarters, were obliterated. Follow-on raids methodically destroyed bridges and highway traffic, making even hand-delivered messages from Baghdad to the front suicidal. Saddam Hussein took to riding around Baghdad in a city bus communicating--when it was possible--by cellular telephone. His staff relied on CNN for news from the front. Allied air forces proceeded to seize air superiority and then to attack Iraqi ground positions virtually unhindered by resistance.

Air Force planners know that today we live in an era of information overload. Military commanders run the risk of having too much data from too many sensors&emdash;data that needs to be processed to be meaningful. During the Gulf war the communications systems of the day were so overloaded that even priority messages took as long as four days to be delivered. It took a small army of data-processing clerks two or three days to make up the attack orders for one day's worth of flights.

The Air Force is developing filter and fusion systems to deal with this glut. A filter system screens data by its immediate importance. A fusion system "crunches" all available data into a condensed form. Alas, this gives the decision-maker either the 'Cliff Notes outline' version or the 'Reader's Digest condensed' version. Air Force command staff fear that early systems will be prone to leaving out important data that the computers were never programmed to consider relevant.

The Gulf war was a brilliant victory, but the Air Force cannot count, in the future, on fighting only small countries armed with second-class weapons and led by third-class leaders. At the time of that war Iraq was only a year or two from developing a nuclear weapon, and it did have chemical weapons. The next war may see an Air Force facing 'a Saddam Hussein with 'nukes' or other weapons of mass destruction. And that enemy may not be content to sit and watch as the United States spends six months building up a logistics infrastructure, shipping in equipment to nearby ports, and flying in troops and aircraft to newly-constructed airfields. If the enemy could lob in the occasional nuke or warhead full of anthrax virus or nerve gas, no such buildup could occur without horrific casualties. Theater missile defense is considered essential for future conflicts, but no defensive missile system to date has proved 100% reliable.

Future command and control scenarios run the gamut. Some see Iraq-like opening attacks, but this time using thousands of aircraft and other weapons to hit the enemy in one cataclysmic hour intended to paralyze him before he can bring his weapons of mass destructions into use. Others suggest the more traditional 'peeling the onion' type of attack&emdash;much as the U.S. did with Iraq&emdash;but launching the attacks from continental U.S. bases or from other bases far-distant from the battlefield. This latter would avoid placing many U.S. personnel in harm's way on the ground near or in the battlefield.

It will be necessary too to keep U.S. commanders out of harm's way and to protect the command and control structure from weapons of mass destruction. To this end, the Air Force has developed a flying command post, code-named Speckled Trout, from which a theater commander can communicate with troops, naval units, aircraft, and his president.

The Gulf war was the first test of the 'unified command' concept. In the Gulf war command and control by USCENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) was very smooth. So too, was CENTCOM's relations with allied forces, both European and Arab.

Unified commands and multi-national commands are almost certainly the way future wars will be handled. So even as the Air Force is struggling to stay ahead of the technology curve and the information glut, even as it works hard to mesh its operations with the other services and with intelligence input from outside sources, it will also have to learn to speak in tongues and to mesh with troops who may not have vast banks of computers to process data and spit out maps, target data, and recommendations. C4I2 has never been more complex, but never before has it been taken so seriously, either. end main article

Two Sidebars:

In 1960 a new, more powerful NORAD radar accidentally bounced its signal off the moon&emdash;something no one had realized would happen&emdash;and reported a massive incoming missile attack. An officer present happened to know that the Soviet premier was in New York at the time, and NORAD commanders assumed the Soviets would not have launched an attack that would kill their own commander-in-chief. Another time intelligence reports mistook a routine fighter escort for the Syrian president for a Soviet air force attack on the Persian Gulf region. There were other instances of bad information or computer failures but each time it was a brain, not a diode, that made the final decision. There does not appear to be any move toward giving a computer any command, or even very much control, authority.

During the Gulf war one American fighter pilot happened to witness a Scud launch. At first he assumed it to be a SAM (surface-to-air missile) directed at him and dodged away. When he realized that he was actually seeing a Scud in its 'boost' phase, he fired a Sidewinder air-to-air missile at it. His attack failed only because the Scud was already moving too fast, and today "capping" or positioning fighter aircraft over possible missile-launch positions is a seriously-considered first line of defense.

— end —

Copyright, Stephen Morrill


Cord Macintosh private eye mystery series: coming soon!

Sorcet Chronicles:
the heroic fantasy series

Mangrove Bayou:
the mystery series


Fun with the Family: Florida

Our Latest Florida travel guide, Click here to read more.


Notice - Links: We appreciate any links to our site from yours. We have a links page to use to link back to appropriate sites.

Notice - Copyright: All material on this web site is copyrighted. Reproduction without specific and written consent is prohibited.

Notice - Privacy: We are supposed to have this privacy notice. Consider it done. Since we don't collect anyone's personal information, phones or email we don't think this is much of an issue. If you see something you think is a problem, let us know and we'll take a look at it.

back to top