On Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, a Navy Poseidon P-8, left, waits for an Air Force E-8 Joint STARS to take off during Valiant Shield on Sept. 17, 2018. Valiant Shield is a biennial field training exercise focusing on joint training in a blue-water environment. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Darienne Slack/USN
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Time to Rethink Roles and Missions?

Sept. 1, 2020

Some see a need for revisions, but leaders aren’t there—yet.

Military roles and missions are largely defined by domain: the Army handles ground combat, the Air Force and Space Force manage air and space operations, and the Navy and Marine Corps run sea and amphibious missions. But, it’s hardly clear-cut in reality. Each of the services own manned and unmanned aircraft, play offense and defense in cyberspace, and interface with space assets. The Army owns ships, the Navy operates land-based aircraft, and everyone has their own logistics. Overlap is almost everywhere.

The 1948 Key West Agreement, which defined roles and missions in the aftermath of World War II, and the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which redefined the service chiefs as responsible for training, manning, and equipping their forces and the regional combatant commanders for warfighting in their theaters, provide the guidelines under which the modern defense enterprise operates. But as the concept of jointness is shaped by ongoing operations, emerging technologies, and evolving threats, roles and missions have not necessarily kept pace. 

In particular, space and cyber operations have spread across the services, which is one reason why Congress and the Pentagon elected to establish the Space Force as an independent service within the Department of the Air Force nearly one year ago. 

As the Pentagon budget hovers around $700 billion, the services lament they lack the resources to handle their workload. Is DOD now stretched too thin to maintain so many duplicative efforts?

“Now is the time to reconsider our approaches to air power,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown  Jr. said during his Senate confirmation hearing in May. “I am ready to participate in a meaningful discourse to rethink prior assumptions and take steps toward consolidating and reducing redundancies.”

It has been said that the United States has four air forces, and while that’s ironic, it also shows the value of the air to modern combat operations.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.

There have been several prior attempts to rethink roles and missions. The 1993 Bottom-Up Review was intended to be a no-holds-barred review designed—in the wake of the Cold War— to shake loose a “peace dividend” to taxpayers by casting aside duplicative investment. That was followed by an independent, yearlong Roles and Missions Commission that began its work in 1994. Subsequent Quadrennial Defense Reviews also debated roles and missions, with particularly heated debate regarding overlap in space, close air support, and base defense. In all three cases, little changed. 

Now current and former Pentagon officials are again arguing a reboot is warranted and that another bipartisan Commission on Roles and Missions is needed. Others prefer an informal debate. What both sides agree on, however, is that it should matter less which service owns a given mission than how to best accomplish it.

Brown, the newest member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said some overlap is necessary, but not all. 

“It has been said that the United States has [at least] four air forces, and while that’s ironic, it also shows the value of the air to modern combat operations,” Brown said. “Some redundancies make sense given the strategic environment, but I agree that there are redundancies that detract from both efficiency and effectiveness of the joint force.”

Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, now Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, objected to another roles and missions review in an Air Force Magazine interview (See “Q&A: The Joint Focus,” p. 14). “Each service is going to develop the capability to defend themselves with missile defense capabilities, air defense capabilities, and also develop the capabilities to conduct long-range strike if required,” he said. “The key will be, in the command and control structure … to be able to integrate all those together so the battlefield is seamless. We’ve never done that before except by drawing lines, but the lines are going to go away. This is the big challenge as we go forward.”

A full-scale review scares people because of the daunting breadth of what it could yield: altering specialized training enterprises, disrupting service cultures, losing control of certain operations, and more. Smaller steps are more easily achieved. 

“What we could review is a thorough look at each of the services’ core competencies and make sure that we’re aligned with those,” offered retired Gen. John P. Jumper, who was Air Force Chief of Staff from 2001 to 2005. “There have been some adjustments suggested over the years that we could take in sort of baby steps, rather than trying to separate the ingredients from the cake and try to bake the cake again.”

Joint Thinking 

Roles and missions have not remained static since 1947. New commands and new technologies have emerged over time, spawning new capabilities and debates over missions and requirements. New, joint operational commands created in recent years include U.S. Northern Command, responsible for protecting the domestic United States; U.S. Cyber Command, responsible for operations in cyberspace; and U.S. Space Command, responsible for joint space operations. In each case, the services all contribute people and capabilities to the mission. 

Conceptually, these joint commands are built on a model where commanders select the best capability for accomplishing any given combat objective—regardless of which service provides it. In practice, however, interservice rivalries, lack of communication and understanding across services, and reliance on the tried and familiar make it hard to break long-established patterns. 

The rise in interest in joint all-domain command and control (JADC2), an Air Force concept that has caught on across the services, may spill over into the roles and missions debate as it matures into a real-life means of waging war. Under JADC2,the entire Defense Department would be connected through a massive new data network that could share information in real time and use automation to help route target data and solutions to whatever platform is best suited to the given strike. Theoretically, the Pentagon’s entire inventory could be wielded more broadly.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Brock, USAF Master Sgt. Anamelie Salvador, and USMC Staff Sgt. Brian Day review sensor data from the Theater Watch Chief console within the Combined Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Maj. Cody Chiles

If the idea works, it could move the armed forces away from their territorial tendencies and eliminate some bureaucratic bumps from combat. 

Gen. David L. Goldfein, who retired as Air Force Chief of Staff in August after four years in the post, recently noted the Air Force is leading JADC2 networking development while the Navy is working on global strike concepts and the Army handles logistics.

“Joint command and control is an emerging mission area that has not been well-defined or assigned to the services,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “To make real progress on building a joint architecture that allows forces to share ISR and C2 resources in a contested environment, a lead service needs to be assigned that owns this mission area.”

JADC2 could help define not only warfare, but a whole new approach to weapons development. By focusing on the enabling technologies used to unleash and coordinate weapons, rather than the weapons themselves, it points to a more flexible approach to warfare.  The Pentagon and Congress should get away from their “fixation on weapon systems,” Jumper said—echoing other current leaders—and instead shape truly joint warfighting plans tailored to specific theaters and potential contingencies. 

“If you haven’t decided how you’re going to fight,” Jumper said, “how do you know what to go buy to fight with? That leads to this mentality of, ‘Let’s just go out and replace what we have right now.’” 

That approach gets incremental improvements rather than revolutionary change. “What you tend to get is sort of a Block 50 improvement to the Block 40,” according to Jumper. “There’s no incentives out there to create a whole new way of doing missions.” 

For example, Jumper questioned why the Air Force isn’t pursuing stealthier or perhaps unmanned tankers, in order to reduce tanker vulnerability close to enemy territory. The Navy, meanwhile, has made progress with the Boeing-built MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker. While still in development, Boeing is under contract to build seven of the stealthy UAVs.

Jumper acknowledged that the pressure to make do through constant combat operations can make it hard to invoke such changes, but also noted that operations provide an ideal evolving laboratory for demonstrating new capabilities and testing new ideas. As JADC2 moves ahead, commanders will have the opportunity to put new tools to the test and see which emerging capabilities are most useful before buying.

Meanwhile, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC), chaired by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remains the central shaping organization with authority to sort out weapons programs that help fulfill the services’ roles-and-missions obligations. The JROC will be responsible for greenlighting those programs that easily connect to each other and to flag those programs that seem out of sync with the rest. 

Space Dominance

Space operations present a particular opportunity, given the launch of the new Space Force. Carving out space from the Air Force without also extracting the space components from the other services won’t achieve the objectives Congress had for creating the new force in the first place. But as DOD and Space Force officials wrestle with the issue, they’re also concerned about unintended consequences and breaking parts that are working well now. 

For example, the Army could turn over its ballistic missile tracking work, and the Navy could hand off its own satellite communications operations. But Harrison said the Space Force must take the bulk of space activities. 

“The other services can certainly keep some forces that specialize in supporting space operations to help integrate space with terrestrial operations, but space missions should be the exclusive domain of the Space Force,” Harrison said. “We should not make the mistakes we made when the Air Force was created that left us with four air forces.”

Harrison argues it might be time for the Air Force to hand off its nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles to the Army, spreading the nuclear triad across all three service departments. ICBMs would fit into the Army’s long-range fires portfolio, he said, as well as technology designed to protect against ballistic missile attacks. The Army could likewise fold Air Force missileers into its own missile career field. 

“In the 1950s, it made sense because space launch was closely tied to ICBM development, but that is no longer true,” Harrison noted. “The closest other mission we have to the ICBM mission is Ground-Based Midcourse Defense [anti-missile system], which resides in the Army. That system has silo-based missiles that operate on a constant 24-hour alert status.”

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, worked on multiple roles and missions reviews while on Active duty. He told Congress in 2015 that creating a Space Force could eventually spell an end to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), as well.

“The promise of a Space Force that consolidates functions that predominantly involve operations in space is fundamental to the rationale for the Space Force in the first place,” he said in a July 2020 interview. “The responsibilities of the MDA would seem to fall in that job jar.”

Similarly, lawmakers have raised concerns about potential conflict between the Space Development Agency  (SDA), which will eventually move into the Space Force, and the Missile Defense Agency, as both pursue a varety of space-based missile tracking and warning tools. 

Those closer to these agencies see them as complementary, rather than competitive, with SDA focused on moving faster with input from commercial industry and MDA focused on longer-term projects. But critics counter—that bureaucracy will only stifle the innovation promised by SDA and the Space Force.

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM during a developmental test on Feb. 5 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The advent of Space Force has made roles and missions questions more urgent. Senior Airman Clayton Wear

Goldfein recently endorsed the idea that long-range strike could be an area where budget constraints could force the Defense Department to limit investments from services other than the Air Force. 

The Air Force has long been the primary provider of long-range strike options, complemented by the Navy’s sea-based ballistic and cruise missiles and tactical aviation. Traditionally, the Army’s range is short, inside a few hundred miles, and Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles are good only to about 1,500 miles. For longer-range targets, the Air Force is best-equipped to strike targets from afar. Yet with the National Defense Strategy highlighting the need to counter China across the vast Indo-Pacific theater, as well as Russia in Europe, the Pacific and the Arctic, both the Navy and Army are investing in longer-range capabilities. New weapons such as the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and Precision Strike Missiles are under development.

Jumper argues long-range strike should remain an Air Force mission, urging defense officials to take a closer look at whether the Navy and Army weapons now under development are truly necessary.

The military has 100 ways to kill a fixed target, he argues. Where it needs to improve is finding the best way to rapidly find, track, and take out mobile and fleeting targets, whether incoming ballistic missiles, enemy aircraft, or insurgent forces. 

“Why don’t we do a [concept of operations] that talks about deep strike and the various ways that we are able to do it right now, and see what capabilities we’re missing?” Jumper asked. “If we are missing capabilities, that’s when you turn around and look at things like hypersonics.”

The Defense Department plans to invest about $2.9 billion developing hypersonic weapons technology in fiscal 2021, Breaking Defense reported in April. More than $1 billion of that is for the Navy’s submarine-launched Conventional Prompt Strike weapon.

“Hypersonics offer new opportunities, but have we ever asked ourselves the question, where does it fit?” Jumper said. “Is it just another way to hit fixed targets? Is it able to deal with the most difficult situations we have out there, like mobile targets? What do hypersonics actually do for us?” 

Hypersonics are an answer to a problem, not a mission unto themselves, Jumper said. “It’s a question we owe ourselves before we dive into trying to say something which I think is not very smart, like ‘Who’s got the hypersonics mission?’ There’s no such thing. Because hypersonics is a means to an end.”


While convincing the services to do away with overlapping legacy aircraft may be harder than assigning new weapons to one of the armed forces, the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance portfolio could be an easy place to start.

For example, the Air Force, Navy, NATO, and other foreign countries all have platforms similar to the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Perhaps, as Brown suggested earlier this year, the Air Force no longer needs to provide that capability. Or perhaps, as Harrison suggests, the Navy could cede its MQ-4 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance mission to the Air Force, which along with the Navy owns other comparable assets: The Air Force’s E-8C Joint STARS tracks targets on the ground, while the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon does the same job at sea.

Jumper recalled trying to reach agreement with the Navy in the early 2000s to deconflict overlap in signals intelligence. USAF RC-135 Rivet Joint planes were starting to get old, and the Navy was developing the P-8s to replace its P-3 Orions. The Air Force tracked signals on the ground and the Navy tracked signals from ships and submarines, but the underlying objectives were the same. 

“If you went around to the bases around the globe, you’d see Navy P-3s and Air Force Rivet Joints sitting side by side on the same ramp, doing the same mission,” Jumper said. “We were going to have—as far as I was concerned—U.S. Air Force painted on one side of the airplane and U.S. Navy on the other, and mixed crews inside.”

The two services never overcame their differences, and the idea fell through.

“I thought we could probably reduce the fleet required to do that mission by 15 or 20 percent, in order to get the job done in a joint way,” Jumper said. 

Base Defense 

The Iranian missile attack on Iraq’s al Asad Air Base in January highlighted another issue of pressing concern to Airmen: Who’s responsible for defending air bases from attack? The Air Force is in charge of defending its own installations overseas, after ending an agreement with the Army to protect USAF facilities.

Last year, Brown suggested mounting a new roles and missions study to look at whether the Air Force should take on base defense. Handing the issue to USAF could “better defend the fence line against all threats from small [unmanned aerial systems], all the way through hypersonics,” he said.

Each of the armed forces is now pursuing technologies to defend against small drones and swarms of drones using lasers, microwave weapons, and kinetic solutions like guns. While the Army has the lead for countering small unmanned systems, the Air Force is pursuing more powerful variants to defend against incoming cruise missiles. 

For these more advanced threats, the Mitchell Institute’s Deptula argues it may be time to transfer the Army’s Patriot air defense system to the Air Force.

“It is time for a review of which service has the greatest [assets] at stake [and] is reliant on the Patriot for protection,” Deptula said in July. “Since the Army has abrogated their Key West Agreement-assigned role of the air base defense mission, it may also be an appropriate time to reconsider at least a shared responsibility and ownership of Patriot missile systems.”

Meaningful mission reform won’t come from the bottom- up, however. For that to happen, it will require a concerted push from leadership, Harrison said, perhaps with a strong nudge from Congress.

“To make this work, it needs to be the priority of the SecDef,” he said. “Without the personal involvement and leadership of the Secretary, the services will continue to stifle this conversation and protect the status quo.”