After failing to deliver on its early ambitions of connecting every sensor with every shooter, the Pentagon’s Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2, initiative is making progress by flipping its original playbook and building a new team to run it. Rather than relying on top-down standards and requirements to produce a more interoperable and interchangeable force—an effort that could take decades—CJADC2 is knitting together specific systems needed to solve the real-world operational problems of today.
CJADC2 spent the last few years in the wilderness, suffering under a Joint Staff-led process that emphasized universal standards and requirements to drive jointness in the future force. Recently the Joint Staff added more process, mandating interchangeability with allies and partners and absorbing communications and computers under CJADC2’s purview. The growing breadth of CJADC2 threatened to render it a meaningless catch-all instead of a warfighting capability.
By stripping CJADC2 back down to its original purpose, the DoD appears to be regaining forward momentum. At its core, CJADC2 involves two functions: joint command and control (C2) and integration. Joint C2 formulates and executes plans, which against peer adversaries will increasingly depend on new concepts that orchestrate widely distributed units across domains. Joint integration composes systems from multiple services into the effects chains or mission threads needed to implement plans.
Building instead of directing CJADC2
Seeing CJADC2 groan under the weight of process and top-down mandates, DoD leaders formed new organizations over the last two years to solve the concrete problems of joint C2 and integration. Pentagon office reshufflings normally produce little tangible change, but not in this case. The US Congress is formalizing the roles and authorities of these new offices in pending legislation that pushes the technical implementation of CJADC2 toward a faster bottom-up approach reflecting lessons from the war in Ukraine and the world of commercial technology.
In its direction on CJADC2, the US Senate’s version of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act orders the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Mission Capabilities to prototype concepts and systems of systems that can address combatant commanders’ most pressing challenges. The bill also directs the Executive Director for Acquisition Integration and Interoperability to acquire elements needed for new systems of systems but missing from today’s force. And the legislation charges the Chief Data and Artificial Intelligence Officer (CDAO) with integrating the resulting combinations of hardware and software.
By reorienting CJADC2 from long-term interoperability to near-term problem solving, Congress recognized that the strategic environment and technological opportunities have both changed since the DoD conducted its first CJADC2 exercises in 2020. The challenges posed by China, Russia, and Iran are both obvious and urgent. And as the war in Ukraine shows, available uncrewed systems, software, and sensors can be rapidly combined with traditional forces to create new tactics and force packages that accomplish friendly commanders’ missions while creating new problems for enemies. Far from a one-off initiative, the latest legislation builds on last year’s defense authorization that told the DoD to focus CJADC2 on developing mission threads that tackle high-priority challenges identified by Indo-Pacific Command.
The shifting focus of CJADC2 from networks to integration highlights a similar trend in commercial technology. Radios and datalinks are receding as an interoperability roadblock with the advent of software-defined radios and networks. The challenge is increasingly harnessing data produced by disparate sensors into a computable form that can be used to target an advertisement or—in the military case—conduct an attack.
The defense industry can promote digital integration by complying with laws around exposing their system’s digital interfaces and participating in software factories that deliver continuously updated code to military system. Ultimately, this approach will federate the achievement of interoperability and allow program offices to tap into a wide variety of vendors rather than betting on a single prime contractor.
Budgets are Strategy
The most significant roadblock to CJADC2 is funding. Assembling a new system of systems 20 years ago mostly required training operators. Today it demands machine-to-machine integration established through myriad network interfaces, data environments, and command and control tools that often fall in between the portfolios of program sponsors that are used to building ships, aircraft, armored vehicles, or weapons. These orphaned capabilities are the glue that can either make or break a new system of systems. Individual services have begun to find homes for them through the Navy’s Project Overmatch, Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, and Army’s Project Convergence, but no one is responsible for sponsoring or managing capabilities needed to achieve joint integration.
To give orphaned joint interoperability a home, the Senate reassigned in its appropriations bill a variety of software, networking, and integration funding lines to the CDAO. This change implements a recommendation of the Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution Reform by aligning budget line items to organizations that can best manage their use. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this matrixed budget line is that its end product is integration rather than a gadget or service.
To fulfill the vision of Congressional appropriators, the Pentagon’s execution of its new CJADC2 funding will need to mirror the architecture of CJADC2 itself. Success should be defined in terms of integrating forces to achieve prioritized outcomes for commanders, but execution will be federated. Even as CDAO remains accountable for the responsible use of funds, program offices in the services and Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering will need to manage their contributions to delivering integrated mission threads or a planned Joint Fires Network.
If this all seems like gritty detail, it is. But gritty detail is usually missing from Pentagon innovation schemes, which typically consist of buzz-worthy jargon from the tech world, new reporting relationships in the Pentagon’s C-suite, and money to buy gadgets. All too often, they lack the analytic support to assess what solutions might work against specific threats, the funding to make sure all the pieces can talk to one another and be managed by an operator, and a repeatable process that might enable a campaign to present continued challenges to adversaries instead of one-off science projects. The DoD’s recent organizational changes and Congress’ ongoing legislative efforts begin to fill in these gaps.
It is also encouraging that the renewed energy behind CJADC2 is focused at the joint and DoD level. Combatant commanders need to combine units from multiple services and domains to accomplish their missions and they don’t have an army of engineers and contractors like the services. CJADC2 should provide that infrastructure.
While the path to CJADC2 has changed, the overall goal has not—to make the US joint force more resilient and adaptable and present a greater array of challenges to enemies. By integrating solutions for its customers, the combatant commanders, CJADC2 can accomplish those objectives and make the most of the Pentagon’s hardware, software, and people.