Forging the Future Force: Empowering Airmen & Guardians for 5-D Warfare

  • Published
  • By Col. Gregory M. Kuzma, 419th Mission Support Group Commander
  • 419th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

In World War II, the Manhattan Project harnessed cutting-edge science to develop the atomic bomb, a weapon that ultimately helped end the war. Today, the Air Force faces a different kind of existential threat, and innovation is once again the key. But this time, the weapons won't just be physical; they'll be the minds and ideas of our greatest asset - our Airmen and Guardians.

Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, has called for Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition. This plan aims to make the Air Force more adaptable, effective, and powerful. The main goals are to invest in people with better training, keep forces ready to fight quickly, deter conflicts and win wars through new technology and global presence with our allies, and improve how different Air Force capabilities work together across all battlefields.

To succeed in the complex environment of five domain (5-D) warfare, Airmen and Guardians must not only be proficient in their traditional war fighting domains but also be comfortable operating across all five – Air, Land, Sea, Cyber, and Space. They must be empowered to experiment, take calculated risks, and develop solutions that leverage the interconnectedness of these domains.

The Air Force's adoption of Mission Command principles is a crucial component to this success. By fostering trust, shared awareness, and agile decision-making, Mission Command empowers Airmen and Guardians to take initiative and adapt to rapidly changing situations. This is crucial for developing leaders who can effectively navigate the complexities of 5-D warfare.

A Call for Innovation  

Throughout history, Airmen & Guardians have been at the forefront of innovation. From the Wright Brothers taking flight to pioneering cyberspace operations, our people have consistently pushed boundaries. Even during World War II, aggressive, out-of-the-box thinking was pursued to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. That experimental approach will be key to victory with a peer competitor.

In addition to meeting basic readiness and training standards to meet today’s Great Power Competition challenge, Mission Ready Airmen & Guardians must be empowered to experiment, take calculated risks, and develop solutions that leverage the interconnectedness of a multi-domain battle space. As Air Force Chief of Staff General David Allvin recently stated at the AFA Warfare Symposium, “this is a time of consequence.” Which means, Airmen and Guardians at all levels must be empowered to “solve for agility” and experiment rapidly with new ideas and develop new capabilities. Failure should be anticipated and embraced as long as we pivot quickly and learn from it.  

The Interconnectedness of 5-D Warfare

The five domains of warfare are like a complex web. Operations in one domain can have a ripple effect across the others. For example, airpower provides crucial support for ground forces, while cyber operations can defend critical space-based systems. Through the lens of 5-D warfare, capability assessments, support interdependencies, and defending vulnerabilities become paramount.

This interconnectedness necessitates an integrated approach across the full spectrum of engagement. Airmen and Guardians from all disciplines must work together to develop a deep understanding of how these capabilities can be combined to achieve operational objectives. This means training for both kinetic (direct) and non-kinetic (indirect) operations, acknowledging the disruptive potential of cyberattacks, information campaigns, and social media manipulation on an adversary's infrastructure, population, and military capabilities.

Also, the swift pace of warfare, particularly in the cyber domain, is significantly faster than in traditional domains. Airmen and Guardians must “solve for agility” by adapting their tactics and techniques rapidly to stay ahead of the adversary. This requires making quick decisions through faster sensing and sense-making while operating within a constantly tightening "OODA Loop" (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). Only by prioritizing agility can the Air Force stay ahead of its adversaries.

Develop Future Leaders in 5-D Warfare Today 

The dynamic and interconnected nature of 5-D warfare demands a new breed of leader to break through the silos of operations in each of the five domains.

  • Cultivate a learning culture. While formal education, on-the-job training, and experiential events contribute to growth, leaders must also focus on commonalities, invite disagreement, and leverage integrative negotiation to enhance creativity, imagination, and inclusion. By promoting a learning environment with a constant feedback loop, our people can rapidly adapt and innovate.  
  • Foster quality interactions. Open dialogue, healthy debate of ideas, and a willingness to experiment are crucial for success for a constructive conflict culture. Organizational leaders must encourage their people to question the status quo and explore unconventional approaches based on evidence-based learning. Lessons learned from historical and current conflicts like World War II, the Persian Gulf War, the Ukraine-Russia war, and the Israel-Gaza conflict showcase the power of innovation and adaptation.  
  • Move beyond incremental change. Incremental improvements are valuable, but the complexities of 5-D warfare necessitate a shift from industrial-age thinking to embrace the new realities of war. Leaders must be comfortable with taking calculated risks and fostering a culture that encourages rapid, transformative change, not just marginal progress alone. Having a bias for action for massive change (such as with the SECAF’s Great Power Competition vision), is one way to retool the force to be more effective in the high-end fight.
  • Empower people to learn agility and adaptability. The pace of warfare, particularly in the cyber domain, is relentless. Leaders must be agile and adaptable, capable of making quick decisions based on incomplete information. Mission Command principles empower Airmen and Guardians at all levels to take the initiative with clear intent, further accelerating this agility. One way to do this is through scenario-based leadership exercises to practice Mission Command situations with team members taking turns problem solving through various challenges in the five domains.

The Way Forward  

The Air Force faces a critical turning point. By prioritizing the development of leaders who can navigate the complexities of 5-D warfare, we can ensure continued success. These leaders will be instrumental in driving innovation, leveraging the interconnectedness of the different domains (Air, Land, Sea, Cyber, and Space), and overcoming evolving threats. This success hinges on embracing a culture of innovation, investing in our people as the architects of change, and mastering the intricacies of 5-D warfare.

Col. Kuzma is the 419th Mission Support Group Commander at Hill AFB, Utah and is a recent graduate of the Joint & Combined Warfare School-Hybrid. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.