Nearly 100 years ago, William “Billy” Mitchell, aka the “Father of the Air Force,” was court-martialed over harsh public statements about the Navy and War departments for not developing technology to meet growing national security threats.

Since he commanded American air power over France during World War I as part of the Army, Mitchell saw the future. The influential son of Sen. John Mitchell, D-Wis., he bashed zeppelins, pushed for bombers over battleships and advocated for an Air Force.

Despite sharp rhetoric, history proved him right with the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 and lessons from World War II such as Pearl Harbor and Midway.

Unlike those days, the United States does not have 20 years to prepare for developing threats. If Mitchell was alive today, what he would worry about?

For starters, he would likely agree with Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall who recently noted, “We’re the dominant military power until you get within 1,000 miles of China, and that starts to change.”    

Indeed, Pentagon war games show America could be defeated by China — and even lose network access at the outset. With China continually expanding its power, a military invasion of Taiwan seems less aspirational and more an eventual fait accompli.

Russia, while mostly thwarted in Europe by the U.S. and NATO allies, is expanding its influence into Syria, North Africa and once again Latin America.

The Kim dynasty of North Korea continues to refine missile delivery systems and has exploded nuclear devices underground. As the former director of information operations for U.S. Forces Korea based in Seoul, I lived that threat up close and personal.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to sponsor terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Afghanistan, now back under Taliban control, will once again become a global sanctuary for Sunni Muslim extremists.

America’s next war will be a “come as you are” event.

And if we’ve learned anything the past few years, it’s that hackers operating from China, Russia and North Korea have accelerated cyber operations and are directing them against America. Collectively, they not only target our military, they’ve gone after soft targets like in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, our oil pipelines and even meat packing plants.

Billy Mitchell would demand more protection against these attacks, while also staying ahead of the game in command and control. 

A major step in the right direction is the Department of Defense’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) strategy.

Future wars, in which multiple unconnected enemies can be expected to exploit both existing and developing U.S. vulnerabilities, will require an integrated response. The creation of U.S. Cyber Command ended the inter-service arguing about which branch had the battle-domain lead in cyberspace. It also proved the value of central coordination.

Congress needs to fully provide the funding, and all service chiefs need to unite their forces behind JADC2. Of the $715 billion in the 2022 defense budget, just over one billion is dedicated to all aspects of JADC2. This must be considered an initial investment. Earmarking it as direct funding will prevent siphoning the money off for other projects.

Since Mitchell was an Army general, he’d likely agree with the decision to field a prototype for TITAN, aka Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node, which will form a vital piece of JADC2. Described as an “all-purpose mobile ground station,” it will connect sensors in the air, land, sea, space and cyberspace to shooters for real time targeting solutions. 

As the man who pushed to carve an Air Force out of the Army, Mitchell would probably also applaud carving out the Space Force from the Air Force. Yet he’d also likely bemuse the new-fangled billionaire space race between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, their respective Blue Origin and SpaceX, plus civilian space tourists.

A combat tested warfighter, he’d most likely be alarmed by flashy tech startups and their capability to protect data. He’d have a good point considering increased major cyber hacks from overseas. In 2020, the Solar Winds breach allowed malicious code to target 18,000 customers -- impacting a hundred companies and roughly a dozen government agencies, including the Pentagon. In 2014, Yahoo was hacked and compromised 500 million accounts. Earlier this year, 14 million alleged Amazon and eBay account details were advertised for sale online.

As much as Mitchell trashed old technology a hundred years ago, he’d probably trash new technology from Silicon Valley companies that is similarly unsuitable for modern warfare.

Rather than fight the reality of what is coming, or turn to untested service providers promising the stars, American leaders need to focus on realistic solutions to keep us safe. And that starts with enhancing command and control like with JADC2, followed by further developing and fielding technology in which our adversaries cannot realistically compete.  

Wes Martin, a retired U.S. Army colonel, served as senior Antiterrorism Officer in Iraq and as Headquarters, Department of Army Chief of Information Operations.

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