Cover: Distributed Operations in a Contested Environment

Distributed Operations in a Contested Environment

Implications for USAF Force Presentation

Published Jul 17, 2019

by Miranda Priebe, Alan J. Vick, Jacob L. Heim, Meagan L. Smith


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Research Questions

  1. What capabilities does the USAF need to carry out distributed operations in a contested environment?
  2. Can the current FPM for fighter forces provide these capabilities?
  3. What trade-offs would the USAF face in implementing changes to the current FPM?

The 2018 National Defense Strategy instructed the services to prioritize capabilities for conflict with another great power. This gave new urgency to ongoing initiatives within the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to prepare for growing air and missile threats to bases and a contested communications environment. There are a wide range of possible counters to the particular problem of air base vulnerability, including greater reliance on long-range systems, active defenses, hardening of bases, and on-base dispersal of assets. The authors of this report focus on a particular set of emerging concepts for distributed operations that call for using a larger number of air bases to complicate enemy targeting and employing a more decentralized command and control approach. The USAF asked RAND to consider whether it needs to change its force presentation model (FPM), the way it organizes to employ airpower as part of a joint operation, to implement these concepts.

Since the USAF has not developed a single, detailed concept for distributed operations, in this report the authors synthesize and extend the logic of emerging concepts. They then identify an initial list of capabilities the USAF may need in order to protect, command and control, and sustain fighter forces at a larger number of operating locations. Finally, the authors assess whether the current USAF FPM for fighter forces provides these capabilities and identify the trade-offs associated with force presentation changes.

Key Findings

The USAF FPM and operating concepts are based on assumptions that are incompatible with a contested environment

  • A conflict with a great power will overturn two assumptions that have prevailed during counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and stability operations in recent decades: that air bases are sanctuaries and communications reliable.
  • In this setting, wing-sized units at main operating bases and centralized planning at the joint air operations center mean that the enemy could disrupt air operations with attacks on a few high-payoff targets.

The contested environment will force the USAF to trade efficiency for survivability

  • If the USAF pursues distributed operations, it will need more resources to support a greater number of operating locations and enable distributed control.
  • Alternatives to distributed operations, such as employing airpower from more-distant bases, would also come with inefficiencies and higher costs — for example, increased flying time, new acquisition programs, and lower sortie rates.

Gaining and maintaining political access is a precondition for distributed operations

  • Distributed operations call for a larger number of air bases in partner countries than in the past.
  • Partner decisions to allow access will likely be contingent on the political relationship between the United States and each host country.
  • The USAF can prepare for this uncertainty by developing contingency plans and having processes for dynamic changes in posture during wartime.


  • Determine resource and access requirements for distributed operations.
  • Simulate heavy air, missile, and ground attacks in home station training and exercises.
  • Consider creating integrated base defense units.
  • Hold regular exercises that include communication disruptions.
  • Cross-train airmen to reduce the personnel demands of distributed operations.
  • Consider the possible role of the group in distributed operations before eliminating the peacetime group echelon.
  • Use exercises and additional analysis to explore the force presentation implications of distributed operations.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was commissioned by Maj Gen Brian Killough, Director of Strategic Plans, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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