Artist rendering of a B-21 Raider concept in a hangar at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, one of the future bases to host the new airframe. Photo: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman via USAF.
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Editorial: True Jointness Requires Hard Choices on Roles and Missions, Trusting Commanders

April 23, 2021

The most important characteristics of those we entrust with our nation’s most lethal weapons are trust and candor. Our military leaders must be willing to speak truth to power and to share their best military advice whether or not it is popular

Air Force Gen. Timothy M. Ray, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and the Air Force component commander at U.S. Strategic Command, made waves earlier this month when he called out the Army’s drive to develop hypersonic land-based missiles as a wasteful, misguided investment. 

“I completely struggle with the reality check that’s required here,” he said. “I kind of get it in Europe, I kind of get it in CENTCOM. But, I completely don’t get it in the Pacific. I mean, I genuinely struggle with the credibility of that entire [Army] plan. … Why in the world would we entertain a brutally expensive idea when we don’t, as a Department [of Defense], have the money to go do that?” 

Jointness is about making the hard choices on roles and missions—and then sticking with them. 

If you’re not quite sure where Ray stood, he left no room for doubt as he continued: “Honestly, I think it’s stupid. I just think it’s a stupid idea to go invest that kind of money to recreate something that this service [the Air Force] has mastered.” 

We might not hear a lot from General Ray in public forums in the weeks to come, but his point is made. Defense Department and congressional leadership take heed: One of our most capable, experienced, and seasoned military leaders just spoke truth to power.  

Who is Tim Ray? A 1985 Air Force Academy grad, he flew B-52 and B-1 bombers and commanded the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. He’s got two master of science degrees and 36 years of professional military experience, including time in combat zones. He’s flown more than 4,000 hours on behalf of his country and endured a lifetime of the special scrutiny reserved for that small cadre of Americans entrusted with nuclear weapons. 

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville is pressing hard for a new Army role in “long-range fires,” what the Air Force typically calls deep-strike missions. He argues that U.S. land forces occupying ground within 1,000 miles or so from an adversary can help clear the way for air and maritime forces, though it’s hard to imagine that any nation would risk provoking an adversary by hosting such weapons. 

Ray, by contrast, argues that aircraft flying high and without need for foreign permission are a more effective, less costly, and less provocative way to achieve the same effect. He’s right. 

The long-range strike mission is well in hand. Both the Air Force and the Navy have honed the skills and developed flexible weapons and platforms to strike deep into adversaries’ territory. America need not reinvent that wheel. In a face-off with China in the Pacific, the Air Force and Navy, not the Army, will be the deep-strike forces of choice. No less an Army expert than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, has made that point. 

Yet the Army is persisting, standing up a “multi-domain task force” in Europe, two in the Pacific, one in the Arctic, and another for contingencies. It envisions having short-, medium-, and long-range hypersonic weapons. More striking still is the Army’s plan to create a new headquarters element dubbed, “Theater Fires Command.” Once again, the Army misses the joint picture: This is the role of a Joint Force Air Component Command, or JFACC. The Army need not replicate this capability; it should  operate within the already established joint construct. 

Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act 35 years ago to capitalize on the strengths of each of the armed services, rather than leave them to compete with one another. During actual conflict, a joint force commander is designated to determine which elements of each of the services to use to best accomplish desired mission objectives. By exposing officers to joint operations, planning, and service throughout their careers, its architects reasoned, by the time they reached the top of their profession, officers would possess a solid understanding of how each military component complements the others.  

Unfortunately, however, Goldwater-Nichols never fully delivered on its promise. Capabilities overlaps remain in every domain. Some missions, such as the Army’s role in air base defense, are left unfulfilled. Others, like long-range strike, are coveted by those without a piece of the action. The Army justifies its mission creep by singing from the Marine Corps playbook, arguing for “organic” resources to ensure they can control those forces without interference by the joint force commander. The Army used that argument to justify acquiring its own fleet of Gray Eagle drones—replicating the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper capability. They got away with that move, so why not replicate Air Force deep strike, as well? 

McConville claims the Army is “an all-domain force.” Of course it is. So is the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force. There is nothing unique in that assertion. No military force operates exclusively in one domain. All are involved in cyber, all are capable of flight. Yet each service is uniquely responsible for organizing, training, and equipping component forces to master their specific domain, be it air, land, sea, space, or cyber. Organizing “multi-domain forces” is the role of joint force and combatant commanders, not an individual service chief. 

Jointness is not about ensuring every service gets a piece of every mission. That’s a waste of money and resources. 

Jointness is about using the right service component forces—at the right places at the right times. It’s about making hard choices on roles and missions and then sticking to them, trusting the joint force commanders to combine the individual service components to best meet the needs of a particular contingency. The objective: To deter and dissuade rival forces such that no foe on Earth would risk challenging the combined power and prowess of the world’s most effective armed forces. 

There is power in jointness, but only if the services are capable of exploiting operations in their respective domains. Diluting those capabilities by seeking to assume the roles and missions of the other services undermines the entire joint concept.