Breaking Defense

The Pentagon Should Focus JADC2 on Warfighters, Not Service Equities

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
Senior Fellow, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
A soldier interacts with an unmanned ground vehicle during Project Convergence 2021. (U.S. Army/Marita Schwab)
A soldier interacts with an unmanned ground vehicle during Project Convergence 2021. (U.S. Army/Marita Schwab)

On March 17, the Pentagon rolled out a public version of its Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) strategy document. The eight-page summary — containing a graphic that was confusing even by Defense Department standards — did little to clear up the central question of whether the services are actually working towards a world where sensors and shooters can interact across domains. In a new op-ed, Bryan Clark and Dan Patt of the Hudson Institute argue a top-down approach isn’t working, and call for a new plan to get the department where it needs to go.

The Department of Defense’s new Joint All-Domain Command and Control strategy is short on details and long on the kind of vague top-down direction that exemplifies bureaucratic initiatives. DoD leaders hope JADC2’s universal standards and requirements will eventually allow every sensor and every shooter to connect, share data, and be employed by a commander. But the urgency of today’s threats and the opportunities emerging from new technologies demand that Pentagon leaders flip JADC2’s focus from what the US military services want to what warfighters need.

It is too early to draw conclusions about the future of war from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but one lesson is likely to be the surprising effectiveness of improvised battle networks using modern unmanned systems and precision weapons. Networks tying together Ukrainian TB2 and Switchblade drones, Javelin anti-tank weapons, cell phones, and Starlink terminals were not meticulously assembled over years by a requirements process led from the Ukraine MoD; they were cobbled together by fighters in the field to solve their operational problems.

Unfortunately, it took a war for this bottom-up effort to happen. And history could easily repeat, because DoD’s industrial-age capability development model reflected in JADC2 puts US warfighters in the position of also having to innovate on the fly when the shooting starts.

Like Ford’s early Model-Ts, which came only in black and offered no options, JADC2 is attempting to provide a single solution that applies across all situations and military units. Although Pentagon leaders and analysts argue this centrally-managed approach will ensure consistency, in practice the experience of organizations like the DoD’s Office of Force Transformation and attempts at net-centric warfare showed pervasive interoperability will likely take decades to emerge, if at all, and fail to field the most impactful battle network combinations.

Three fundamental flaws will prevent a top-down and centrally managed JADC2 from delivering tactically relevant interoperability in useful timeframes. First, synchronizing the US military’s hundreds of networks through updates, gateways, or software patches is a vast undertaking. Second, defining universal standards up-front worked well for simple systems like the landline telephone network, but will not accommodate the flexibility and adaptability needed in war, or even in modern 5G networks. And third, US military forces do not train and prepare for deployment as a joint force. The first time most units operate with those from another service is when they reach a combatant commander’s theater.

To address these flaws and put it on a more productive path, DoD leaders should down-scope JADC2 around a smaller set of force compositions, focused on problems facing combatant commanders and using the forces deploying to or already in theater. This bottom-up approach will lack the false promise of universality inherent in today’s JADC2 process — but is more likely to create real joint integration.

The Pentagon will soon have in place the elements to recenter JADC2 on warfighter needs. Under the mission management pilot program directed in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Indo-Pacific Command is identifying key operational challenges associated with its warfighting plans. The DoD Strategic Capabilities Office will then act as a mission manager to help assemble and integrate capabilities from government and commercial sources to solve these operational problems.

DoD leaders should leverage the mission management pilot program to change JADC2’s starting point from universal interoperability standards set in Washington to the operational challenges identified by INDOPACOM, and eventually for European and Central Commands as well. The overhauled JADC2 would build multi-domain, multi-service kill chains that address mission-critical problems facing commanders in the field today. To provide a transition partner for JADC2-developed kill chains, INDOPACOM should be funded and staffed to establish a joint force headquarters or similar organization that would manage preparations for and ongoing dissuasion of Chinese aggression. We detail this approach in a recent report.

Refocusing JADC2 on its ultimate customer, the combatant commander, would also enable the DoD to better exploit experiments under the Army’s Project Convergence, the Navy’s Project Overmatch, and the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System. Many of these demonstrations have been unfocused and largely address service priorities like fielding new systems rather than solving combatant commanders’ operational problems. The overhauled JADC2 would center service experimentation on current warfighting challenges, which should be combined with expanded combatant commander-led experimentation, as requested under last year’s Pacific and European Defense Initiatives.

The US military does not have time or money to pursue universal interoperability driven by bureaucrats in Washington. China, Russia, and regional powers are empowered by a levelled technological playing field and pose imminent challenges to US combatant commanders. The Pentagon should learn from fighters in Ukraine and use JADC2 to integrate joint forces in the field now rather than waiting for a war to drive innovation.

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