Shooter and I were Sword 52, the wingman in Sword, a flight of two F-15Es over Macedonia on 18 April 1999. Cyrano was a French E-3A airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft. We were in a defensive combat air patrol south of Kosovo, interposed between a (presumed) Serbian air threat and the vulnerable tanker aircraft supporting NATO air operations. That radio call let everyone on frequency know we had multiple radar contacts, where they were, and who they weren’t. And they weren’t NATO.
This combat air patrol normally was six hours flying a race-track pattern waiting for an air contact. On that day, however, Sword 52 had a well-tuned radar giving us a pair of air contacts. The LANTIRN targeting pod showed bright motes glowing in infrared. They were not squawking a friendly identification code. They were flying a ground-attack profile, almost certainly engaging ground targets in Kosovo—attacking the folks for whom NATO had kicked off the largest combat operation in the organization’s history.
Our air contacts were over areas where Serbian forces were engaged in ethnic cleansing. We had four air-to-air missiles each and 510 rounds for the gun. And we couldn’t touch them. We couldn’t even go for a closer look. Our authority to leave our orbit to investigate an air contact was limited to fast movers, and these aircraft were flying at airspeeds too slow to put them in that category. For anything else, we had to call home.
“Cyrano, picture clear.”
The French AWACS couldn’t see them. To this day, I’m unsure if the Serbian aircraft were in a radar shadow or if the French radar system just didn’t work. It’s certain the French aircrew were undertrained for the mission they were executing. But according to the prevailing rules of engagement, our flight could not “commit” out of our orbit without approval from the combined air operations center, 450 miles distant in Vicenza, because the radar contact was not at “fighter airspeeds.” Some genius had determined that aircraft below a certain airspeed were not a threat to anyone. That meant we had to call AWACS and ask for clearance, and it had to call Vicenza.
This ungainly telephone game was a leftover set of rules of engagement from the no-fly zones, inappropriate for full combat operations.
What the French AWACS should have been saying was “scope clean,” denoting nothing on its radar. “Picture clear,” on the other hand, means nothing of note in the air (except NATO), which was false. So the only people with an accurate air picture were those on Sword’s radio frequency. Everybody else receiving Cyrano’s broadcast, including the air operations center, was dealing with faulty data.
“Cyrano, picture clear.”
“Cyrano, Sword 52. I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. Group, bullseye two one two for 39, outlaw, spades, slow.”
The F-15C and F-15E crews on the frequency recognized my voice and knew I had something, and they shut up, because Sword 52 was now the only game in town. But our requests for permission from Cyrano to leave the combat air patrol and investigate went unanswered. Not denied, simply unanswered. The Serbian aircraft left. We finished the mission not knowing if the combined air operations center had ever received our request. The outcome? Crickets. We’ll never know how many people, if any, were killed or injured that day—their stories lost in the general brutality of Serbian ethnic cleansing.
The problem was that we could not connect the dots required to make the rules of engagement work. And there were only three dots: our flight, Cyrano (which had the satellite communications we lacked), and the NATO air operations center 450 miles away.
The idea that a NATO general, looking at a big-screen TV in air-conditioned comfort, could make a better decision than we could was insane. The guys with a jet strapped on, with the radar scope 18 inches from their eyeballs, with 60,000 pounds of thrust at their command and long-range instruments of fiery destruction at their fingertips were the “right” people with the right information at the right time to make the right decisions. We were the right folks because it was our job, and we were well trained to do it. What we lacked, by design, was authority. This is a recipe for failure.
Seeds of Failure
I recount this story as a first-person example of how U.S. warfighters have been handicapped by a lack of appreciation for the appropriate match of authority and information in modern warfare. The Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) default position is that we could solve all our military problems if we just had more and better hardware intended to move decisions further to the rear. But this neglects our traditional strengths, which revolve around American initiative, flexibility, and ingenuity.
I wish that I could say the Air Force, and DoD, learned from incidents like this and course corrected. That didn’t happen. Instead, the department doubled down in an attempt to link distant parts of the command-and-control structure with expensive, high-bandwidth links intended to allow officers with no discernable connection to tactical execution to try and exercise tactical control.
When NATO defeated the Soviets in the Cold War, the victors immediately adopted the command-and-control strategy of the losers: centralizing decision-making at the tactical level.
The fundamentally flawed assumption at the center of this concept is that, somehow, the senior officer at the operations center is better positioned to make tactical decisions than the folks staring the problem in the eye. That is ridiculous on its face. There is no way an individual relying on an electronic feed has better local situational awareness than the individual at the pointy end.
At the operations level, the officer may have a more expanded picture, but the tactical picture is incomplete and late when viewed from a distance. And that officer is not proficient at tactical execution. It takes dedicated and sustained training (or sustained combat operations) to maintain proficiency on the front lines.
DoD is prepared to reinforce failure by dumping billions of dollars into the idea that technology will allow free movement of information back and forth so that the “right” individuals have the right information at the right time to make the right decisions. People honestly believe this will work in a combat environment. Putting aside the fact that DoD can neither protect nor guarantee its information systems in peacetime, the technical hurdles are significant. But they should not matter, because the premise is faulty. We will never reach information nirvana, and trying to do so is symptomatic of a pernicious undercurrent that elevates technology over people.
Enabling “better decisions” makes sense. What is missing is the realization that better decisions are possible only when the decision authority is located at the point of action, with the individual charged with executing the action the one making the decision.
The United States is blessed with educated and talented personnel. Many are capable of thriving in the fog and friction inherent to warfare—if they are allowed to do so. DoD should be spending more effort in training people to deal with fog and friction rather than trying to wish it away.