WASHINGTON — To win a future war against a major foe like China, lower-level commanders in U.S. and allied militaries need to be empowered to make decisions in the field, allied air chiefs said Friday — and not be afraid they’ll be hung out to dry if they make a mistake.

Speaking at the International Air Chiefs Conference hosted by the U.S. Air Force in Washington, top officials from the air forces of Canada and Sweden as well as U.S. defense experts agreed distributed operations and decentralized command and control will be vital when fighting in the future.

But, they said, this will require as much a cultural shift as a technological and doctrinal one — and each will be daunting.

“There’s a cultural challenge within various air forces and militaries about trying to enhance the ability of folks at lower echelons to feel empowered to make decisions, and know that they’re not going to get in trouble and find themselves, I don’t know, in the brig if they’ve chosen the wrong thing,” Becca Wasser, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank and head of its Gaming Lab, said during the panel.

Wasser said war games she has run, which today typically focus on China and the Indo-Pacific region, have consistently suggested that adversaries will move to knock out U.S. and allied communication networks in the opening moves of a conflict. This could include everything from physical strikes to cyber and electromagnetic attacks, she said.

And long-range strike capabilities developed by major adversaries like China will also make it difficult to build redundancy into command-and-control operations, Wasser said.

As a result, the panel said dispersing operations and distributing command and control will be crucial, so lower echelon commanders can keep fighting even if they’re not in direct contact with higher-level leaders.

Militaries must “embrace mistakes and learn from them” when lower-level commanders make them, said Sweden’s Maj. Gen. Carl-Johan Edström, chief of the Swedish air force.

Sweden, whose relations with nearby Russia have worsened in recent years and has been threatened by Moscow over its pursuit of NATO membership, tried to maintain this culture in its military even after the Cold War, Edström said. But, he acknowledged, it is difficult and takes time, and Sweden is still working on rebuilding that mindset.

Heather Penney, a former U.S. Air Force officer and pilot who now is a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said a decentralized command concept would hearken back to the days of the Cold War.

“It’s a little bit ‘Back to the Future,’” Penney said.

But, she said, the networking, artificial intelligence, and other technological advancements of today give militaries new ways to share battlefield data with commanders at every layer, so they can better fight their war.

This means senior commanders will have to accept greater risk when delegating decision-making authority down to lower levels, Penney said. However, it also presents opportunities for those front-line commanders to come up with creative solutions to problems, she said — ones that could take the enemy by surprise.

Penney and Edström said it will be necessary for militaries to train commanders and forces — enlisted and officer alike — in realistic scenarios using these kind of decentralized command-and-control structures.

Canadian Lt. Gen. Eric Kenny, commander of the Canadian air force, said that even before the Ukraine invasion, his nation was concerned about Russia’s designs on the Arctic, and trying to figure out how to build a command-and-control architecture that is not as vulnerable to being knocked out with a single attack.

“We have many single points of failure within our C2 system, whether that’s through space, through cyber or other avenues,” Kenny said. “So one of the focus areas that I’m looking at is a more agile command-and-control” concept.

Typically, Kenny said, allies have depended on air operations centers that collect people and IT infrastructures in one place.

“If I was to lose that in Canada, I wouldn’t have an ability to do much command and control,” Kenny said.

Allied forces need to figure out how to move and carry out “agile C2″ operations anyplace around the world, and make them resilient so they don’t rely upon a single network such as satellite communications or a 5G network, Kenny said.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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