Air Marshal Richard Knighton CB, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Capability), Ministry of Defence, reflected on the Royal Air Force’s contribution to UK defence.
He also discussed the need for maintaining and enhancing military capability across defence in an ever-changing operational environment.
Air Marshal Richard Knighton CB joined the RAF in 1988 as a University Cadet and studied at Clare College, Cambridge. He spent his early career working as an engineer officer in a range of operational and staff appointments on Nimrod, Tornado and Harrier. After completing the Advanced Command and Staff Course in 2004 he held appointments as a Wing Commander in the Harrier Integrated Project Team and as the Military Assistant to the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Equipment Capability).
Apart from a happy period as the RAF’s Logistics Force Commander and Station Commander at RAF Wittering from 2009 to 2011, and time at the Royal College of Defence Studies in 2009, his career since he was promoted to Group Captain in 2007 has been spent in strategic and capability planning roles at Air Command and in the Ministry of Defence. He was appointed to his current role as Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Capability) in December 2018.
[Transcript as delivered]
It is a great privilege to be asked to give the Trenchard memorial lecture. Indeed, I have reminded myself of this several times over the past few months as I have sweated to prepare for today!
But in all seriousness, I am extremely proud to be the first airman without a brevet to be asked to give this lecture in its more than 20-year history. I hope that you won’t conclude it was a horrible mistake!
But it is also a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute, at least a little, to the conceptual development of the Royal Air Force, at a time when we face considerable change and challenges. In the centenary year Trenchard lecture last year Air Marshal Edward Stringer implored us to think more strategically about the role air power can play.
He reflected on what an independent air force can achieve and how it allows new ways in war. He lamented the focus on how an air force contributes to warfare and chided us over our temptation to ‘settle for steady work’, urging us to focus more on what to do rather than the management of what we are doing. Fundamentally he argued for us to rethink our doctrine not in terms of how air power contributes to tactical effects on the battlefield, but on how it sets conditions to ensure that we are able to compete and deter in the modern operating environment.
I agree with Edward’s argument. Over recent decades air forces have become focused on tactical mission excellence perhaps at the expense of thinking at the operational and strategic levels. But I would also argue, as Edward hinted at last year, that the emergence of space and cyberspace as ubiquitous operational domains of warfare, alongside the changing character of conflict, are making the operational and strategic levels harder to understand and influence. This environment and these challenges are demanding that we think not about what air power can do on its own, but what it can do in concert with military capability in the land, sea, space and cyberspace domains.
References to multi-domain operations are everywhere. Speeches, literature, videos and the blogosphere are full of it. The RAF’s 2019 Air and Space Power Conference and its sister publication shared the subtitle ‘Multi-Domain Operations for the Next Generation Air Force’. The hyperbole is remarkable. General Goldfein – the Chief of the US Air Force says: MDO is an operational imperative to achieving our security priorities. And that: Achieving prowess in MDO … is the central imperative for the modern air force.
It is taken as an article of faith that MDO is the answer, no matter what the problem. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that a revolution in military affairs is in the air. But it is far from clear, to me at least, that there is a common and consistent view of the concept of Multi-Domain Operations. Nor is it clear to me what the theory of winning that underpins it is or what the central idea at the core of the concept is.
Today I want to look behind the hyperbole and try to get at a more fundamental idea to underpin the ‘why’ of multi-domain operations. I will also explore what this might mean for our commanders, our operational art and our people and their education. These will all, I think, be important implications for the RAF in its second century and particularly as we prepare for the launch of the refreshed RAF Strategy and the Astra Initiative that will support us as we build the Next Generation Air Force.
To look behind the hyperbole, I think we need to look at the story of the evolution of multi-domain operational thinking. But as good military men and women, we should probably start with the doctrine to find out where we are.
In the UK, our doctrine and concepts are maturing rapidly, fuelled by CDS’ dynamism and the demands of the changing character of conflict. The UK’s integrated operating concept is still in draft, but it describes how Joint Force 25 should operate. It is a good document and it builds on the principle of joint action, but it is still light on how we will integrate, or indeed, what we even mean by integration.
The situation in the US is not necessarily clearer. The US Air Force paints multi-domain operations as the integration of air, space and cyberspace. General Goldfein speaks passionately and compellingly about the implications for Command and Control in trying to orchestrate effects across these 3 domains. His video describing the implications for US Air Force command and control to deal with a missile launched from South Korea is arguably only a problem that the US Air Force faces with its global presence, responsibilities and technology. There is no mention of the Land or maritime environment, never mind how capabilities in these domains should be integrated to deliver the joint mission.
The US Navy on the other hand has so far refused to jump on the MDO band wagon at all, arguing instead that it conducts multi-domain operations every day, so why should they buy into a concept that isn’t new to them?
Perhaps most advanced in its thinking are the US Army and US Marine Corps. Almost exactly 2 years ago the US Army published its Multi-Domain Battle concept. A year later in 2018 the US Army published its Multi-Domain Operations concept. It describes how the US Army, as part of the Joint Force, will penetrate, then dis-integrate, and then exploit our adversaries in the future.
I can’t fault the US Army’s energy or ability to produce large and high quality volumes of work on this topic. We are even promised a further version later this year. In fact, I actually rather admire General Milley and the US Army’s willingness to publish work that they know is not complete and is still evolving – perhaps recognising that the conceptual journey is just as important, if not more so, than the doctrinal destination.
But these multiple publications and different interpretations reinforce my sense that there is, as yet, no common or complete understanding or articulation of a concept for multi-domain operations.
Some even argue that there is nothing new in the idea: describing MDO as simply new wine in old bottles. Those who take this stance argue that we have known for years that a military force is more effective if it is able to combine military capabilities in multiple domains. As General Eisenhower said in 1946:
separate ground, sea, and air warfare is gone forever. If we ever again should be involved in war, we will fight with all elements, with all services as one single concentrated effort.
We have integrated action across 2 or 3 domains for decades. But the hyperbole and energy around MDO suggest there is something more going on.
So while the story of evolution of multi-domain thinking can be traced back through the second world war and beyond, the key evolutionary step – the emergence of homo erectus if you like – in current MDO conceptual thinking is the AirLand Battle concept of the 1970s.
After the end of the Vietnam war, US spending on defence began to decline. The US and NATO forces in Europe faced numerically superior and increasingly sophisticated Warsaw Pact forces. The AirLand Battle concept was developed to address these challenges. Among the concept’s key characteristics were the ideas of Integrated Battle and the Extended Battlefield. Integrated Battle required every asset of the air-ground team at a commander’s disposal be employed together to defeat the enemy. The Extended Battlefield idea demanded that all echelons of the enemy’s formations should be attacked simultaneously. I think we can see more than faint echoes of these ideas in most recent MDO doctrine.
The AirLand Battle concept was also closely aligned with what became known as the US’s second offset strategy. This strategy sought to offset the Warsaw Pact’s 3 to 1 numerical advantage through the use of technology. Core to this was investment in technologies that generated greater understanding of the battlefield, improved connectivity and increased precision; principles that have guided the development of the force structure we have today.
Although the capabilities, doctrine and organisations built to deliver the AirLand Battle were never directly tested against the forces of the Warsaw Pact, the US and its allies did successfully apply the thinking and technology against several lesser opponents throughout the 1990s.
The remarkable efficiency and military success of these operations was striking. From Desert Storm in 1991 to Iraq in 2003, the Western – principally US – military machine was unstoppable.
But, as General David Perkins the former boss of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command puts it, over this period our potential adversaries went ‘to school on us’. They have analysed the way Western militaries deployed and employed military capability and have spent almost 3 decades working out how to counter these advantages. And, at the same time - so the argument runs - we have been distracted by more than a decade of focus on counter-insurgency campaigns in the Middle-East and Afghanistan.
The consequence, General Mattis said while he was US Defense Secretary, is that … ‘our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare, air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, and it is continuing to erode."
Significantly, US military thinkers in particular have focused on the doctrine and capability our adversaries have developed to challenge our advantage by preventing forces from gaining access to theatres of operations and fixing our forces by limiting our freedom of manoeuvre – the so-called anti-access and area denial, or A2AD, doctrine.
The response to this challenge was the 2012 US Joint Operational Access Concept and the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations. At the heart of these concepts was the idea that Cross-domain integration could address the A2AD problem.
Both of these documents set the context for the arrival of Bob Work as the Deputy Secretary of Defense in 2014. Bob Work had spent a lifetime in the defence sector and he recognised the erosion of military superiority and the imperative to develop a new or, as he called it, a third offset strategy to regain the advantage.
Bob Work’s speech at the US Army War College in April 2015 marked a key moment in the most recent evolution of Multi-Domain thinking. In that speech he charged the Army with developing AirLand Battle 2.0. He set out the challenges that a land force would face in the future operating environment, particularly around an Army’s need to break in to a denied environment, and asked: what does AirLand Battle 2.0 look like?
He admitted that he didn’t know, but that the Army needed to work it out. This demand led directly to the Army’s 2017 Multi-Domain Battle concept and the 2018 multi-domain operations concept I described earlier.
So, this story of the last 3 or 4 decades tells us that the key drivers have been the desire to find a solution for the most pressing military problems, whether that be the Warsaw Pact’s numerical overmatch or the more recent erosion of the West’s military superiority. The story also tells us that the exploitation of new technology and the centrality of the land battle are key themes that have guided the thinking as it has evolved.
Given this history, the recurring themes in the blogosphere commentary on MDO should not be a surprise.
One of these is this idea that ground forces should move from being net consumers of the joint force to being net suppliers. In the past, they say, ground forces have been limited in what they can do and have relied heavily on support provided by air and maritime forces. Multi-domain operations, it is argued, will give ground forces the ability to influence other domains. Associated with this argument is a long list of new kit that ground forces will need, including long range fires, Electronic Warfare systems and third-offset capabilities such as artificial intelligence and tactical cyber.
Commentators also emphasise the persistence of ground forces. Where aircraft might come and go, ground forces can be kept in place, they argue, which allows them to seize and hold things that an enemy values as well as supporting other domains that will be constrained by the A2AD threat. Some go further and argue that in-place ground forces can support the air environment by opening up windows of temporary superiority – in the way the Israeli army did by destroying the Arab ground-based air defence capability in 1973.
There is an unmistakable whiff of single-Service politics in some of the writing. Describing Ground Forces as a net contributor to the joint force implies a sort of pre-eminence for the Army. Emphasising the persistence of ground forces exposes the impermanence of the air force or navy. There might also be a sense of an organisation looking for a role in the most demanding operational scenarios that the US will face.
And as the Israeli commentator Shmuel Shmuel points out, there is also ‘no lack of horses harnessed to the multi-domain wagon’. MDO has become conflated with new, third offset technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine-learning, man-machine teaming, machine-speed decision-making and combat cloud, to name just a few. It is easy to get a full house in the game of MDO buzzword bingo.
With so many trees associated with multi-domain operations, it is easy to lose sight of the wood. Its genesis means that MDO thinking is confused, involving a mish-mash of ideas and new technology, it risks being focused on meeting only the most high-end warfighting challenges and tries to accommodate different perspectives in each of the 3 services.
In trying to make out the size and shape of this wood I want to turn for help to one of the most remarkable and unsung heroes of modern military history – Colonel John Boyd.
In his excellent 2002 biography of Boyd, Robert Coram described him as loud, abrasive and profane. In fact, he said that like many fighter pilots, he took a certain pride in his profanity and coarseness and crude sense of humour!
He was not, I am sure, an easy man to live with or work with. I sometimes wonder whether today we would tolerate someone of his character long enough to allow him to reach sqn ldr, never mind gp capt.
Before he became a strategist and military philosopher he was a fighter pilot of remarkable talent and thoughtfulness, whose elegant theory of energy-manoeuvrability had a profound and far-reaching influence over the design of US fighter aircraft. While he would argue that too many compromises were made, the incredible success of the F-16 in particular, but also the A-10 owe much to Boyd’s theory and thinking.
What I am trying to say is that Boyd was one of us. He was an airman, a quite remarkable one, but an airman nonetheless.
Yet at his funeral at Arlington cemetery in 1997, the US Air Force was conspicuous by its absence. In contrast, the US Marine Corps was conspicuous by its presence. Boyd was buried with the symbol of the US Marine Corps on his grave. It is the highest honour a Marine can bestow.
Boyd earned this accolade because of the contribution he made to manoeuvre warfare and thinking inside the US Marine Corps
In his eulogy to Boyd General Charles Krulak, then the commandant of the US Marine Corps said of Boyd:
The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition Forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory.
One of the difficulties scholars have in understanding Boyd’s teachings is that he wrote almost nothing down. His Patterns of Conflict brief contained the logic and fundamentals of his philosophy and was his most important work. It was 185 slides long and took 6 hours to give. He gave it 100s of times, but he always saw it as a work in progress.
Before and after he left the USAF Boyd immersed himself completely in the history of warfare. The bibliography for his Patterns of Confilct briefing ran to 323 entries. He was particularly interested in the general theories of war, the Blitzkrieg, guerrilla warfare, and the use of deception by great commanders. From the campaigns of Alexander the Great through to Hannibal, Genghis Khan and Napoleon and on to WW1 and WW2 he studied battle after battle, campaign after campaign.
He was fascinated by examples of numerically superior forces losing to weaker inferior ones. The common thread he found in these battles was that none of the victorious commanders threw their forces head-to-head against the enemy. Instead they used deception, speed, fluidity of action and strength against weakness. They used tactics that disorientated and confused – tactics that, to use Boyd’s own words – caused the enemy to unravel before the fight.
Central to his thinking was the idea of the 2-way relationship between observer and observed, and the chaos that could ensue if the rate of change in the outside world was faster than the observer’s ability to adapt.
This idea was at the heart of Boyd’s most famous and probably least understood legacy from his work which was his Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop. The OODA loop is often portrayed as a simple one-dimensional cycle. There is a strong tendency to simplify the cycle and to turn it in to a mechanical process, and focus only the speed of going round the loop – indeed that is largely what is taught at staff college. But this is not what Boyd had in mind, and it misses the subtlety and importance of the most important part of the cycle – the orientation phase.
The key thing to understand about the cycle is the need to execute it in a way that gets inside the mind and decision cycle of the adversary. In this way an adversary is dealing with outdated or irrelevant information which leads to confusion, disorientation and ultimately the unravelling of the enemy. Speed comes from a deep intuitive understanding of one’s relationship to the rapidly changing environment.
Boyd’s thinking provides the philosophical and historical underpinnings of the manoeuvrist approach. Boyd showed that manoeuvre tactics brought victory. Tactics that include deception, speed, fluidity of action and applying strength against weakness. Most importantly he showed that it was imperative to attack the mind of the opponent, to unravel the commander before an attritional battle begins or before an enemy can bring his strength to bear.
Machines don’t fight wars, he would say, terrain doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get in to the minds of humans. That’s where battles are won.
Boyd offers us a theory of winning and philosophy of war that transcends the ages and evolution of technology. I would also argue that it is applicable to the full spectrum of conflict, from the most demanding high-end warfighting against the most sophisticated enemies to the persistent sub-threshold competition we face today.
For me, it offers a basis for understanding why multi-domain operations are important and what we should be trying to achieve.
My plea today is for us to use this philosophy and thinking as the basis of the development of a British concept of multi-domain operations. I would rather, in fact, call it 5-domain manoeuvre.
I recognise this will be challenging. Political scientists and scholars such as Barry Posen, Stephen Rosen and more recently Theo Farrell and his co-authors have analysed the factors that drive and constrain change and innovation in military thinking. It is clear that the UK has a strong tendency for incrementalism in the development of its way of war and we are, in part, driven by a strong desire to emulate our most important allies.
These approaches have, arguably, served the UK well over a number of years. But if we simply slip-stream the US as it continues to evolve its concept for multi-domain operations along the current vector, we will simply be perpetuating our decades old model of componency. When we say multi-domain operations, what we will really mean is our compenent – whichever that is - supported by action in space and cyberspace. More pejoratively, we are saying air power with a bit of space and cyber sprinkled on top.
This is OK as far as it goes. Integrating action in air, space and cyberspace has a force multiplying effect. This is practiced routinely in the combined air operations centres in the Middle East and around the world today.
But my argument is that it is not enough to simply be better at delivering tactical air power effects. The new operating domains of space and cyberspace offer new opportunities to probe, test, shape, disorientate and ultimately unravel our adversaries. Our adversaries are doing this to us now.
We should start from the presumption that we want to manoeuvre and fight across all 5 domains and at all 3 levels of war – tactical, operational and strategic. This should be the foundation stone of our thinking.
At best, our ambition today is to integrate space and cyberspace with the 3 physical components. British concepts are starting to talk about 5 domain integration. This is a good first step, but we should be setting our sights on more than coordination and synchronisation of activity in each of the 5 domains.
To harness the true power of manoeuvre across 5 domains we must learn to understand our adversaries – or in John Boyd’s word to orientate ourselves – through a lens that sees all 5 domains as a system and not as a series of components.
The operational artists of the future will need to think not only of how airpower can be employed – as Edward Stringer urged – to deliver strategic effect in conflict, but also how action across all 5 domains can seek to bring about chaos and confusion in the minds or our enemies.
This is not an easy task. After 25 years of joint education and joint doctrine we are still learning how to command joint operations effectively.
There will also inevitably be a technology component to the solution. We will need to value our networks and data much more highly than we do today, and we will need to devote more resources to understanding our adversaries and learning how to target their weaknesses, particularly as we develop our capability in space and cyberspace.
But perhaps the most important enablers will be the education, development and organisation of our people. These implications should, I think, be core considerations of the Astra Initiative and our thinking about the next generation air force.
So, to finish, I want to draw out some of those potential implications and challenges we must address.
First, we must start by fighting our tendency to emulate the USAF too closely. Interoperability will remain a vital consideration in developing our capability, but we should be bold and frame our version of multi-domain operations as more than simply integrating space and cyber in to the air domain.
We must grow commanders that can integrate air and space power in to multi-domain planning, but we also need to grow joint commanders that can exploit this new operational landscape and new capabilities to outmanoeuvre, out-think and ultimately unravel our enemies.
We have traditionally demanded that our joint commanders are masters of their own environments first. Our commanders spend the first half of their careers in cockpits learning their trade – delivering airpower at the sharp end. The top tier become qualified weapons instructors. They know how to lead combined air operations and become good targeteers. This then qualifies them for roles in combined air operations centres or joint headquarters. And so the pyramid of opportunity begins to narrow quickly.
We need to ask ourselves whether this is the right way to grow the leaders we will need to command multi-domain operations in the future. Can we imagine a future in which the intelligence officer who has spent her career understanding our adversaries, conducting network assessments and generating operational and strategic insights being better suited to command multi-domain operations than an F-35 pilot?
We need to educate and train our future commanders so that they are ready to exploit these opportunities. At the very least, we need to develop the equivalent of John Reilly’s MDO Strategy course that he runs at Maxwell. We also need to develop ways for our commanders to train and practice these skills and experiment with new ideas. This will inevitably require much greater use of synthetic environments, but we must also work out how we involve and engage capabilities and skills that sit in the Navy, the Army and Joint Forces Command.
How we command and control future operations will also require some hard thinking. As General Stanley McChrystal points out in his book Team of Teams, the structures and processes we use to command and control operations were forged in the industrial age and designed to organise and manage the scale that came with industrial-age warfare. The complexity, pace and overlapping nature of the problems we face on today’s battlefields will require different C2 constructs. McChrystal’s experience taught him that multi-disciplinary teams are far better at dealing with this complexity than our traditional hierarchical structures. It’s instructive, I think that McChrystal emphasises the need for trust between a commander and his subordinates and a broad and universal understanding of the context and intent to be successful. Both of which are fundamental tenets of the manoeuvrist approach and Boyd’s teaching.