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Research Question

  1. How can air operations across the boundaries between geographic combatant commands be improved?

In December 2017, the RAND Corporation conducted a tabletop exercise, OCEANS 17, with 50 subject-matter experts from U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, and select Department of Defense entities on air operations across the boundaries between geographic combatant commands. The objective of the exercise was to develop innovative approaches to maximize operational effectiveness when using limited numbers of personnel recovery; close air support; and airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets against transregional adversaries across theater boundaries. This report describes the tabletop exercise design, key insights from our analysis of the discussion, and recommendations.

Key Findings

Theater boundaries create friction

  • The primary operational effect of theater boundaries is the creation of "boundary friction," diminishing operational effectiveness near boundaries.
  • Approaches and techniques to allow air assets to be shared across boundaries could be developed, but they would require additional command and staff energy to plan and execute.
  • Boundary frictions vary across mission areas.
  • Modifying the execute order (EXORD) process to emphasize boundary cooperation has potential value, as does improving connectivity among key command and control air nodes.


  • The Joint Chiefs of Staff J8 should establish a working group associated to examine opportunities for EXORD and deployment order language on sharing authorities, mechanisms, procedures, and priorities.
  • Guidance should be adopted to enable universal sharing (with combatant command and service concurrence).
  • The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) should initiate a policy and legal review of options for innovative EXORD language authorizing and specifying sharing authorities, mechanisms, procedures, and priorities at the individual-operation level.
  • The combatant commands and the JCS should conduct additional tabletop exercises to further experiment with approaches to mitigating cross-boundary frictions.
  • U.S. Africa Command should request that the JCS establish or adapt an existing JCS exercise series to focus on cross-boundary operations in the eastern Mediterranean and further develop the approaches and mechanisms explored in OCEANS 17.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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