space command report

Air Force Space Command General John E. Hyten has announced the release of a new “Commander’s Strategic Intent” document (Commander’s Strategic Intent), which is a 17-page PDF file. Once you take away the front and back covers, and subtract for the photographs inside, there are only a few pages of content. Much of this content, moreover, is the worst kind of contemporary management-speak (the sort of writing that Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times takes a particular delight in skewering). In terms of strategic content, the document is rather thin, but with a few interesting hints here and there. In a strange way, reading this strategic document from the Air Force Space Command is not unlike the Taliban annual statements formerly issued under Mullah Omar’s name (cf. 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015). One must read between the lines and past the rhetoric in an attempt to discern the reality beneath and behind the appearances. But strategic thought has always been like this.

After a one page Forward by General Hyten, there follows a page each on a summary of the contemporary strategic situation, priorities, mission, vision, Commander’s Intent, Strategy — Four Lines of Effort, and two and a half pages on “Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness,” then several pages with bureaucratic titles but interesting strategic content, “Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations,” “Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace,” and “Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments,” eith a final page on “You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow.”

Strategic Situation

This section rapidly reviews the improving capabilities of adversaries, who are responding to technological and tactical innovations continually introduced by US armed forces in the field. While the document never explicitly mentions hybrid warfare, this is the threat that is clearly on the minds of those formulating this document. While noting the continued dominance of US forces in the global arena, the document mentions that this is, “an era marked by the rapid proliferation of game-changing technologies and growing opportunities to use them,” which is a central problem that will be further discussed below, and for which the document offers no strategic or systematic response (other than the commander’s overall strategic intent).

This survey of the strategic situation also mentions, “new international norms,” which I assume is an internal reference to the central strategic idea of this document discussed below in terms of norms of behavior intended to discourage adventurism that could compromise the global flow of commerce and information. If any new idea about norms of behavior are intended to be a part of the commander’s strategic intent, they are not formulated in this document. I would have left out these references to norms of behavior unless the idea were further developed in an independent section of the document.


The priorities listed are three:

Win today’s fight

Prepare for tomorrow’s fight

Take care of our Airmen and our Families

A paragraph is devoted to each priority. The first two are sufficiently obvious. The last introduces a theme that is dominant in this document: the social context of the soldier. One way to look at this is that, in a political context in which it is not possible to raise the wages of soldiers to equal those of the professional class, one benefit that the institutional military can confer on the solider in lieu of higher pay is institutional support for the soldier and his family. An equally plausible interpretation, and perhaps an equally valid explanation, is that, given the technological focus of the Air Force, and especially Space Command, it would be easy to prioritize machinery over soldiers, or to give the impression that machinery has been prioritized over soldiers. Sending the explicit message that, “Airmen — not machines — deliver effects,” is to unambiguously prioritize the soldier over the machinery. (All of this is delivered in the nauseating language of social science and management-speak, but the meaning is clear enough regardless.) And with suicides among returning veterans as high as they are, the military knows that it must do better or it risks losing the trust of its warfighters.


The mission statement is predictable and uninspiring:

Provide Resilient and Affordable Space and Cyberspace Capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.

There is, however, one interesting thing on this page, which is the idea that “Resilience Capacity” is to be used as a metric for combat power. I have written about similar matters in Combat Power and Battle Ecology and Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated, especially as these concerns relate to the social context of the soldier (in the present case, the airman). One hint is given for how this is to be quantified: “Any capability that cannot survive when facing the threats of today and the future is worthless in conflict.” Certainly this is true, but how rigorously this principle can be applied in practice is another question. If everything that failed when exposed to actual combat conditions were to be ruthlessly rooted out, the military would be radically different institution than it is today. Is the Space Command ready for radical application of resilience capacity? I doubt it; it cannot alone defy the weight of institutional inertia possessed by all bureaucracies.


The vision statement is as lackluster as the mission statement:

One Team—Innovative Airmen Fighting and Delivering Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects across the Globe.

This is the kind of management-speak rhetoric that brings documents like this into ill repute, and deservedly so. Moreover, this page makes the claim that, “The three strategic effects of Airpower — Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power — have not changed.” This is exactly backward. Global vigilance, global reach, and global power are not effects of airpower, but causes of airpower. Such an elementary conceptual failure is inexcusable, but in this context I think it stems more from a desire to employ management-speak in a military context than from pure conceptual confusion. Despite these problems, this page introduces the phrase “aerospace nation,” which is a way to collectively refer to the soldiers and support staff who make aerospace operations possible (presumably also private contractors), and again drives home the message of the social context of the soldier and the institutional support for this social context.

Commander’s Intent

It is a little surprising to read here about the need to, “reconnect with our profession of arms,” which is as much as to admit that there has been a failure to maintain a robust connection with the profession of arms. This is a theme that connects with the support for the social context of the soldier. Part of this social context is home and family, part of this is support staff, and part of it is those directly involved in the profession of arms (i.e., the human ecology of the soldier). Reconnecting with the profession of arms is one method of strengthening the social context of the soldier and therefore the whole of the “aerospace nation.”

Strategy — Four Lines of Effort

So here are the four lines of effort:

• Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness

• Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations

• Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from, and through Space and Cyberspace

• Fight through Contested, Degraded, and Operationally-Limited Environments

These themes occur throughout the document, but one can’t call this a strategy. It does, however, qualify as guidance for shaping the policy of Air Force Space Command. But policy must not be mistaken for strategy. Any bureaucrat can make policy, but bureaucrats don’t fight and win wars.

Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness

Now “airmindedness” is an awkward neologism, but it does represent an attempt to represent the qualities needed for the “aerospace nation.” These qualities are difficult to define; this document defines them awkwardly (like its neologisms), but at least it makes an attempt to define them. That is to say, this document makes an attempt to define the distinctive institutional culture of the Air Force Space Command. There is a value in this effort. This is what, if anything, distinguishes the Air Force Space Command from the other branches of the armed services. The need to reconnect with the profession of arms and at the same time to foster the distinctive qualities necessary to aerospace operations, which means pushing the boundaries of technology, constitute a unique challenge for a large, bureaucratic institution (which is what the peacetime military is).

If I had written this I would emphasized the need to continually update and revise any conception of what it means to engage in aerospace operations, hence “airmindedness.” This document focuses on “airmindedness” by emphasizing “shared core values,” innovation, the self-image of the airman as a combatant, development of expertise, resilience capacity (which in this context seems to mean taking care of the individual airman), and supporting the families of airmen while the latter are deployed. While these are all admirable aims, even essential aims, it is astonishing how many of these strategic statements read like social science documents of a Carl Rogers person-centered kind. I would have aimed at conceptually surprising the target audience of this document so that they could see these challenges in a new light, rather than through the lens of boilerplate management-speak.

Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations

Strategically, this is perhaps the most important part of the document. In four admirably short paragraphs, this page systematically lays out the the large-scale vision of deterring the outbreak of war, or triumphing in the event that war breaks out. Here, finally, we have a strategy: free flow of commerce and information, deterring adventurism that would compromise the free flow of commerce and information, influencing international norms of behavior in order to deter adventurism, “dissuade and deter conflict” by fielding “forces and capabilities that deny our adversaries the ability to achieve their objectives by imposing costs and/or denying the benefits of hostile actions…” I would have put this section front and center in the document, and connected all the other themes to this central strategy.

Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace

This section of the document addresses the technological underpinnings of the strategy announced in the previous section, and so can be considered its tactical implementation on a technological level. Such an emphasis fits in well with the idea of “airmindedness” as a distinctively innovative approach to combat power. But hiding this on page 12 under a section title that is all but incomprehensible is not helpful. The reference to “agility of thought” is belied by the management-speak of the entire document. This agility of thought should extend to the conceptual formulation of what is being done, and how it is being presented.

Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments

This section of the document specifies “four critical activities” that would allow the Air Force Space Command to fight in “Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments.” In other words, this is the contemporary approach taken by Space Command to the perennial problem of warfighting that Clausewitz called the “fog of war” (“Nebel des Krieges” — Clausewitz himself used the term “friction,” but this has popularly come to be know as “fog of war”). The document defines these four critical activities intended to mitigate the fog of war as follows:

1. Train to threat scenarios — endeavor to discover the boundaries of our capabilities and constantly reassess those boundaries as threats and blue force capabilities evolve.

2. Identify the timelines and authorities required to successfully defend, fight, and provide effects in today’s and tomorrow’s environments with Operations Centers capable of executing them.

3. Establish the right authorities. For those authorities we control, push the right authorities as far down as possible to ensure timely response.

4. Establish and foster a joint, combined, and multidomain warrior culture that embraces pushing and breaking our operational boundaries and adapting and innovating new doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P) solutions.

The friction of combat environments is a real and serious problem for the contemporary technologically-sophisticated warfighting effort — perhaps more of a problem than in the pre-technological age of war. The most sophisticated uses of technology are networked, and sophisticated technology requires continual maintenance and repair. If the first thing that happens in the battlespace is for the network to fail, any battle plan based upon that network will have become irrelevant. How to take advantage of networked information flow while not being captive to the vulnerabilities of such a network is a central problem for warfighting in the technological era. In so far as the Air Force Space Command presents itself as being a uniquely technological capable and competent, this is perhaps the overwhelming challenge to this branch of the military.

Given the centrality of the problem, not surprisingly the document details another seven explicit steps toward attaining the goal of mitigating friction in the technological battlespace. Prefatory to these seven principles the document states, “Our Space Enterprise Vision will capture the key principles needed to guide how we will design and build a space architecture suitable for operations in a contested environment.” No doubt volumes of study have been devoted to this problem internally, and it is admirable that this has been condensed down into seven principles.

As this is intended to be strategic document, I would go a bit farther into the high concept aspect of this problem, and how it could be tackled on the strategic level. What we have seen in recent history is that domains of human endeavor (including warfighting) are utterly transformed when technology becomes cheap and widely available. Adversaries have used this fact asymmetrically against institutionalized armed forces. The strategic approach to being wrong-footed in this way, it seems to me, would be to turn precisely this emerging historical dynamic against asymmetrical forces exploiting this opportunity. How can this be done? A strategy is needed. None is enunciated.

You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow

The document closes with a directive to carefully re-read the document and to discuss and to think critically about carrying out the commander’s intent formulated in this statement of principles. There is even an assurance that those who act most fully and faithfully in carrying out this intent will not be punished or put their careers in jeopardy by getting too far out ahead. This observation points to the fundamental tension between the continuous innovation required to keep up with the pace of technological innovation and the inherent friction of any bureaucratic institution. This, too, like the problem of friction in the technological battlespace, is a central problem for the Air Force Space Command, and deserves close and careful study. The definitive strategy to address these two central problems has not yet been formulated.

If I had written this document, I would have had a one paragraph introduction from the general, put the last sections of crucial strategic content first, and reformulated the initial sections so that each section was shown to contribute to and to derive from the central strategic ideas. Beyond that, I would suggest that the institutional challenges faced by Air Force Space Command, recognized in the phase “agility of thought,” points to the need for continual conceptual innovation in parallel with continual technological innovation. The Air Force needs to hire some philosophers.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 August 2005) defines “combat power” as follows:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can apply against the opponent at a given time.”

Strangely, this definition does not appear in the online DOD Dictionary of Military Terms.

The U.S. Army, Field Manual 100-5, 1994, sometimes subtitled “Fighting Future Wars,” and frequently characterized as the US Army’s central doctrinal statement, has this to say about combat power:

“Overwhelming combat power is the ability to focus sufficient force to ensure success and deny the enemy any chance of escape or effective retaliation. … Overwhelming combat power is achieved when all combat elements are violently brought to bear quickly, giving the enemy no opportunity to respond with coordinated or effective opposition. … Four primary elements — maneuver, firepower, protection, and leadership — combine to create combat power — the ability to fight. Their effective application and sustainment, in concert with one another, will decide the outcome of campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements. Leaders integrate maneuver, firepower, and protection capabilities in a variety of combinations appropriate to the situation.”

I don’t have my own copy of Field Manual 100-5 (clearly my library is inadequate) so I had to rely on an edited text available on the internet; I don’t know how well this text I consulted represents the complete text, so I offer this above quote with this caution. In any case, the above quote gives the intuitively accessible formulation of combat power as “the ability to fight,” which is clear enough, but also probably tautological.

Returning to the definition in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 August 2005), it seems to me that the total destructive force that can be brought to bear is only half of the equation of the ability to fight. The other half of the equation of the ability to fight is being able to continue fighting as one’s adversary is applying his total destructive force against oneself. In fact, the “sustainment” mentioned in Fighting Future Wars is predicated upon just this.

Thus we might formulate this other half of combat power as follows:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can withstand from opponent at a given time.”

Which together with the earlier definition gives the following:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can apply against the opponent at a given time and place while resisting the total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which the adversary of that same military unit/formation can apply at the same time and place.”

I think that this is a little more comprehensive conception of combat power, and while we all know from the first principle of war that an objective must be established and from the second principle of war that one must take the offensive, because only an offensive achieves decisive results, it nevertheless remains true that even in undertaking offensive action to attain an objective, one’s forces must resist the destructive power of the enemy as much as it must bring its own destructive force to bear on that same enemy. Sustaining combat means surviving combat (including surviving defensive action undertaken to counter one’s offensive actions) so that one can continue to fight.

I can appeal again to the definition of combat power (cited above) in Field Manual 100-5 for a parallel definition of combat survival power, which is to say, combat resiliency. If combat power is to, “deny the enemy any chance of escape or effective retaliation… giving the enemy no opportunity to respond with coordinated or effective opposition,” then combat resiliency is the power to escape and conduct effective retaliation, responding to attack with coordinated and effective opposition.

It would be misleading to call this defensive combat power, in contradistinction to offensive combat power, as the two are indissolubly linked, although there is a certain temptation to employ this obvious formulation. Nevertheless, the temptation must be overcome: in taking the initiative, closing in an engagement, one brings one’s force to bear, and one’s opponent must survive this initial onslaught in order to make use of combat resiliency to respond effectively. However, that effective response can take no other form than bringing one’s force to bear, and this bringing of one’s force to bear is indistinguishable from that action of the force with the initiative.

There is, however, a legitimate distinction to be made here, so I will distinguish in what follows between internal combat power (or internal combat resiliency) and external combat power (or external combat resiliency). Whatever the philosophical compromises entailed by the internal/external distinction, in the present context of military affairs the philosophical baggage is to be preferred to the military baggage, which latter is more freighted with potentially misleading meanings. This distinction will be useful in what follows in the development of battle ecology.

It could be argued that, since a military objective must be defined and offensive action undertaken to secure the objective (because only offensive action can obtain a decisive result), that the temporal order of taking the initiative to close and engage is definitive. In an ideal combat environment, in which an initial onslaught might annihilate the enemy constituting a purely offensive action with no defensive component, the temporal order distinguishing offensive and defensive action (side A attacks; side B responds with defense) might allow us to make a clear distinction between offensive and defensive combat power. No combat environment is ideal, however. Any engagement will involve the reciprocity of combat power, so that temporal order of the initiative or the venerable offense/defense distinction is less relevant than might be supposed. There may be a psychological efficacy in first blood and that gives disproportionate power to the initiative, but any initiative must be sustained through combat resiliency or the decision will go to the opposition if it possesses superior combat resiliency, regardless of which side took the initiative.

This latter observation is particularly obvious when we consider an assault upon a fixed position, as in a siege, a trench raid, or the taking of a hill, when an offensive action can be utterly dissipated by defensive action so that nothing remains of the combat power of the attacking unit and the objective is not attained. The point here is that resisting the combat power of the enemy is not strictly or exclusively a concern of defense, but is equally integral to offensive action.

I want to here consider combat power in the context of battle ecology. In Metaphysical Ecology and Bottlenecks as Vulnerability and as Opportunity I began to sketch the concept of battle ecology. In the former I suggested that battle ecology is a more comprehensive concept that the now common “battlespace,” while in the latter I suggested that:

“A fully developed battle ecology would, in the best ecological fashion, demonstrate the inter-action of these cases, showing a kind of combat panarchy in which the greatest movements of strategy are revealed on the ground to the frontline soldier (either as an asset or a liability), and equally the actions of an individual frontline soldier are seen to travel upward through the strategico-tactical nexus until they echo at the highest levels of strategic opportunity and vulnerability.”

The “cases” mentioned above are divisions within the strategico-tactical nexus that I have formulated — constrained and unconstrained tactics, operations, and strategy — and I further developed the idea of the strategico-tactical nexus in Addendum on the Strategico-Tactical Nexus, in which I introduced the strategico-tactical continuum and strategico-tactical permutations.

strategico-tactical nexus

Battle ecology gives us a theoretical framework for understanding both aspects of combat power — bringing one’s destructive force to bear while resisting the destructive force that the enemy brings to bear. Battle, like an ecosystem, is a complex adaptive system, and we can model battle along ecological principles. This is the central idea of battle ecology. The theoretical framework of battle ecology makes it possible to understand combat power in terms of ecological resiliency.

strategico-tactical Continuum

The Wikipedia article on ecological resilience cites four properties of resilience in complex adaptive systems:

Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover (before crossing a threshold which, if breached, makes recovery difficult or impossible).
Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how “resistant” it is to being changed.
Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or “threshold.”
Panarchy: the degree to which a certain hierarchical level of an ecosystem is influenced by other levels.

A military unit is a complex adaptive system, and a battle between two or more military units is in turn a complex adaptive system that can be described in the terminology of resilience. The two aspects of combat power delineated above suggest two perspectives on each property of resilience, which I will call internal resilience and external resilience, as follows:

Internal Latitude: augmenting one’s own latitude so as to maximize the amount one can change before losing the ability to recover

External Latitude: compromising the enemy’s latitude in order to force the enemy past a threshold beyond which recovery is impossible

Internal Resistance: augmenting one’s own resistance to a change of one’s internal systems imposed by the enemy

External Resistance: compromising the enemy’s internal system; imposing involuntary change upon the enemy despite attempts to resist this change

Internal Precariousness: safeguarding against precariousness of one’s own forces; finding innovative way to increase the limits of one’s own threshold of precariousness

External Precariousness: precipitating the precariousness of enemy forces; finding ways to decrease the enemy’s limits and to force the enemy to and beyond the threshold of precariousness

Internal Panarchy: promoting the seamless integration of panarchy among one’s own strategico-tactical nexus

External Panarchy: forcing ruptures in the panarchy of the enemy’s strategico-tactical nexus, or exploiting any such discontinuities as manifest themselves

Combat is all about resiliency. In a fully developed combat ecology it would be possible to distinguish while noting the integration of bringing one’s force to bear tactically (tactical resiliency), bringing one’s force to bear operationally (operational resiliency), and bringing one’s force to bear strategically (strategic resiliency). Bringing one’s force to bear in an ecologically coordinated action, so that tactical, operational, and strategic forces act in concert to reinforce each other constitutes resiliency across the strategico-tactical nexus. This is precisely the sense of internal panarchy mentioned above, namely, “promoting the seamless integration of panarchy among one’s own strategico-tactical nexus.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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