Time to Revive Joint Concept Development and Experimentation

Angevine 1

Close air support has saved countless lives. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it has provided cover for American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, often enabling them to emerge victorious against overwhelming odds.

The key to effective close air support is not the aircraft. It is the communication and coordination between controllers, deployed alongside soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines on the ground, and pilots from all four services in the air. In other words, it is the American military’s ability to conduct joint combat operations. How effective would close air support be if controllers were not embedded with troops on the ground? What if they were unable to communicate with aircraft from different services? What if they had to work out procedures to coordinate aerial attacks on the fly while under fire? What if the principles of jointness were less well established in the U.S. military?



Jointness — the integration of service capabilities, doctrine, and operations — has made the U.S. military more effective. Yet in one critical area, concept development and experimentation, the Department of Defense has become less joint. Since the dissolution of Joint Forces Command in 2011, the emphasis on joint concept development and experimentation has declined, and responsibility for its coordination and conduct has become increasingly vague. The shift away from jointness has produced a process segmented by theater and service. In a crisis, future warfighters may have to scramble to lace together newly developed service capabilities. Unifying concept development and experimentation from the start would ensure that a joint perspective informs the creative process and that joint capabilities are explored in force development.

Jointness and Military Effectiveness

The U.S. military’s operational success during the last 30 years has stemmed in part from the growing influence of jointness. After the Persian Gulf War ended, Adm. Harry Train observed, “The success story in Desert Storm/Desert Shield was the application of ‘jointness’ to the organization and conduct of operations on the battlefield.” Although more recent observers have expressed doubts about the extent to which jointness contributed to victory in the Persian Gulf War — the Iraqi armed forces proved to be a grossly incompetent adversary — their reservations are based on the belief that it was insufficiently advanced in 1991 to be the decisive factor in the coalition’s victory over Iraq, not that it was unimportant.

Throughout the 1990s, jointness became a key metric and a determinant of resource allocation. The benefits of jointness became apparent when U.S. forces engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. Gen. Tommy Franks described jointness as one of the “very clear winners during Operation Enduring Freedom.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that one of the key lessons of the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom was “the importance of jointness, and the ability of U.S. forces to fight, not as individual de-conflicted Services but as a truly joint force—maximizing the power and lethality they bring to bear.”

The 2018 National Defense Strategy seeks to sustain and expand the advantages the U.S. military gains from jointness. It stresses the need to build a joint force that will “out-think, out-maneuver, out-partner, and out-innovate revisionist powers, rogue regimes, terrorists, and other threat actors.” Central to that effort will be adapting the Department’s “organizational structures to best support the Joint Force.” Assigning clear responsibility for joint concept development and experimentation is one step the Department of Defense could take to better support the joint force.

The Birth and Death of Joint Concept Development and Experimentation

The emphasis on jointness over the last three decades was the direct result of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Military operations such as the Iran hostage rescue and the invasion of Grenada demonstrated confused chains of command and poorly coordinated operations. The legislation placed responsibility on the commanders of combatant commands for accomplishing missions assigned to their commands, and ensured that their authority was commensurate with that responsibility.

In the decade after Goldwater-Nichols, the end of the Cold War and rapid technological advance presented new military challenges. Adapting to an evolving security environment would require a process of joint concept development and experimentation in order to integrate advances in technology with changes in organizational structure. Joint experimentation would also help identify and assess the interdependent aspects of joint warfare in order to develop joint operational concepts that would effectively combat future threats.

By the end of the 1990s, the Defense Department sought to create an organization dedicated to designing and conducting joint warfighting experimentation by re-designating U.S. Atlantic Command as U.S. Joint Forces Command. The goal was to explore, demonstrate, and evaluate new joint warfighting concepts and capabilities. The 1999 Unified Command Plan specified Joint Forces Command as the executive agent for joint concept development and experimentation. In the 2004 Unified Command Plan, Joint Forces Command’s responsibility expanded to include coordinating all concept development and experimentation efforts of the services and combatant commands.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, further focused Joint Forces Command on providing military support to homeland defense even as it worked to improve joint force integration. The tensions between Joint Forces Command’s homeland security responsibilities and its joint integration and experimentation roles proved problematic. In 2002, Joint Forces Command was relieved of all remaining geographic responsibilities and became a purely functional command focused on transforming the U.S. military.

During the decade that followed, Joint Forces Command narrowed its focus on concept development and experimentation, although its efforts were not entirely successful. The command’s relationships with the services were ill-defined. Its views of possible future operational scenarios and requirements competed with projections by the services, industry, academia, other nations, and independent think tanks. Consensus on the future operating environment and the resultant prioritization of joint concept development and experimentation efforts proved elusive. The pathway from concepts and experimental results to decisions on capabilities was similarly unclear. The command’s concept development and experimentation efforts culminated with its largest, most expensive, and most elaborate experiment, Millennium Challenge 2002. Critics claimed that the results were rigged, and Joint Forces Command later conceded that significant elements were scripted in order to ensure that the experiment’s many objectives were met. The ensuing controversy may have had some salutary effects. Effective red teaming received a boost, some senior military officials recognized that the realities of combat were likely to be messier than they appeared in futuristic scenarios, and concept developers and experimenters identified potential pitfalls to avoid in the future.

By 2010, Joint Forces Command was apparently so successful that its continued existence was no longer necessary: in August, the Department of Defense announced its dissolution. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained the decision by noting that over the previous decade, the U.S. military had, out of necessity, “embraced jointness as a matter of culture and practice.” Whatever one’s opinion regarding the command’s achievements, the Department of Defense was clearly no longer willing to bear its operating costs. Closing it would, according to Gates, yield efficiencies in the defense enterprise without endangering joint capabilities.

When Joint Forces Command was disestablished in 2011, the command examined all of its functions and identified 53 that should be retained and transferred to other Department of Defense entities. Many of the core functions returned to the Joint Staff, the same location from which they had been transferred nearly a decade earlier. Joint Forces Command’s role leading joint concept development and experimentation was transferred, along with other functions, to the Joint Staff J-7 under the deputy director, J-7, for joint and coalition warfighting.

Lessons Learned from Joint Forces Command

As the Department of Defense seeks to reinvigorate military experimentation and ensure that it informs force development, learning from the past is imperative. Joint Forces Command was by no means the final answer for concept development and experimentation. Yet, its rise and fall suggest several lessons that may help the Joint Staff avoid a similar fate.

First, the Joint Staff should not mix concept development and experimentation with other functions. Second, officials should ensure that there is a common vision of the future operating environment and a clear pathway from concepts and experimental results to decisions on capabilities. Third, the effort needs to be kept small and the costs low. Finally, and most importantly, concept development and experimentation should be kept joint from the start by making it the responsibility of a joint organization and by clearly defining the relationships between that organization and the services and combatant commands.

From Joint to Sponsor-Led Concept Development and Experimentation

The lessons from the experience of Joint Forces Command were not immediately obvious. As a result, the Department of Defense moved away from joint concept development and experimentation after its demise. A 2013 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction eliminated the role of the director for joint force development, Joint Staff, as the lead for joint experimentation, leaving unclear the responsibility for joint experimentation and the role of experimentation in the concept development process. A rewrite of the instruction in 2016 abandoned joint concept development entirely in favor of a sponsor-led process. Any defense organization can become a concept sponsor by submitting a prospectus. According to the instruction, “the concept sponsor is responsible for all aspects of joint concept development and transition,” including planning, writing, resourcing, and evaluation, while the director, joint force development, Joint Staff, is now responsible for supporting sponsors in developing, evaluating, and transitioning joint concepts.

The revised instruction also deleted virtually all mention of experimentation. Instead of a joint experiment to assess the feasibility and utility of a concept, a sponsor-led “in-stride evaluation provides a review of the concept’s central and supporting ideas, required capabilities, implications, and risks, and provides the concept sponsor feedback on the draft concept’s viability.” Among the techniques suggested for in-stride evaluations are seminar wargames and table-top exercises. Concept sponsors are also advised to leverage other related assessment activities, such as joint training exercises, service wargames, and/or operational studies. Experimentation is reserved for the transition phase, when sponsors are maturing and refining their concepts to construct joint capability development recommendations.

The Effects of Declining Jointness

The shift away from jointness embodied in the current sponsor-led approach has produced a concept development and experimentation process that is segmented by theater and service. The organizations that sponsor concepts inevitably seek to employ what they believe are their most effective capabilities to solve their most difficult problems. They devote little attention to the capabilities other organizations can provide or the challenges they face. There is no common starting point or destination. The result, as defense analysts Kevin Woods and Tom Greenwood have noted, is that at present, there are distinct theater versions of the multi-domain operations concept intended to respond to the challenges presented by different potential adversaries. Similarly, Greenwood and Pat Savage have described how each service’s concept relies on unique assumptions and focuses on disparate aspects of multi-domain operations. They argue, “While the concepts may comply with Defense Department guidance, they are hardly joint.”

The switch from joint experimentation to sponsor-led, in-stride evaluations has also weakened experimentation’s contribution to joint military effectiveness. Concept sponsors — whether they are services, combatant commands, or other organizations — rarely have the budgets or the authority to ensure that other organizations participate in their evaluations. Since experimentation typically does not begin until after concept development, the joint implications of concepts are often not examined until late in the process. If experimentation happens, concept sponsors lack the authority to ensure that the results have any impact on the Defense Department as a whole.

The lack of a coherent joint concept and a joint experimentation campaign to explore its implications may force future warfighters to scramble when a conflict arises. One purpose of experimentation is to reduce risk when acquiring new military capabilities or developing new tactics, techniques, and procedures with existing capabilities. In the absence of an effective joint experimentation program, future Combatant Commands will most likely face the task of figuring out on the fly how newly developed service capabilities are stitched together at the operational level to achieve effective unified action.

The Need for Joint Concept Development and Experimentation

A single joint concept integrator is imperative to be able to conduct multi-domain operations at scale. The elimination of Joint Forces Command did not obviate the requirement for joint concept development and experimentation. Since 2011, the need has only increased. Long-term, strategic competition with revisionist powers has reemerged as the central national security challenge. The traditional warfare domains of air, land, and sea have expanded to include space, cyber, and the electromagnetic spectrum.

Warfighters may well figure out how to integrate service-developed capabilities effectively in the midst of a fight. Robert Rubel has observed that “jointness tends to increase in the face of an enemy on the lower echelons of command.” Yet as Rubel explains, “It would be better to have proactive jointness — the ability to achieve effective cooperation prior to a fight.” Improvisation on the battlefield is key, but relying on it is a mistake. Planning ahead would facilitate the integration of concepts and capabilities across services and domains before combat begins.

The services appear to recognize the need for joint concept development and experimentation. Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, head of the Army’s Futures and Concepts Center, has noted that the Army is working to refine its multi-domain operations concept and turn it into a joint concept. Still, some are reluctant to infringe on service prerogatives. Wesley has commented, “We don’t want to presuppose what the other services will do. What we’re saying in our document is what we think the Army has to do, leaving open-ended the plugs for the other services.”

Making concept development and experimentation joint midway through the process by creating plug-in opportunities for other services is insufficient. Waiting until the middle (or really the end) of concept development to consider the other team members’ perspectives and capabilities decreases the probability of reaching a truly joint solution. It is also inefficient. When a service develops a concept on its own, it likely increases costs by missing opportunities to leverage the capabilities of the other services. To ensure that a joint perspective informs the creative process and that joint capabilities are explored during the force development process, concept development and experimentation must be joint from the start.

Assign Joint Concept Development and Experimentation to the Joint Staff

The formulation of joint concept development and experimentation policies is, according to Title 10, the responsibility of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yet the current system leaves the actual development of joint concepts and the conduct of experiments to concept sponsors. The chairman should assign clear responsibility for joint concept development and experimentation to the Joint Staff. As then-Maj. Gen. James M. Dubik, director of the Joint Forces Command Joint Experimentation Directorate, noted in 2004, “Capabilities that are meant to be fundamentally joint are best conceived jointly.” Joint concept development and experimentation allows partners to learn together and enables concept developers to leverage the full range of experimental opportunities — combatant command exercises, service wargames, lessons learned from ongoing operations, multinational experiments — to evaluate their concepts. It also reduces the number of experiments required as well as the cost and likelihood of duplication.

The Joint Staff J-7 recently completed its inaugural Global Integrated War Game (GIWG) — the culmination of several months of establishing objectives, scenarios, potential innovative technologies, and force management criteria in order to explore global competition and conflict against great power rivals. The insights from GIWG are supposed to establish baseline areas that J-7 will explore further in a campaign of analysis, experimentation, exercise, and additional wargaming. It remains to be seen whether the GIWG will simply harmonize efforts within the Pentagon to align requirements to resources more closely, or produce a joint warfighting concept that is tested via field experimentation and then adopted by the combatant commands in their respective theaters.


Jointness has contributed to U.S. military success for the past thirty years. Deterring and defeating great-power aggression in the future will likely require even greater integration of service capabilities, doctrine, and operations across multiple domains. Ensuring that integration requires concept development and experimentation that is joint from the start. The Department of Defense had an organization charged with joint concept development and experimentation, Joint Forces Command, but disbanded it, albeit for legitimate reasons. This is not a call to recreate Joint Forces Command but to learn from the experience and revive its mission by assigning clear responsibility for joint concept development and experimentation to the Joint Staff.



Robert G. Angevine is a research staff member with the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, VA. He has written extensively on the history of military experimentation and innovation. The views, opinions, and findings expressed in this paper should not be construed as representing the official position of either the Institute for Defense Analyses or the Department of Defense. He would like to thank Tom Greenwood, Jim Kurtz, Mark Phillips, and Kevin Woods for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Image: Joint Chiefs of Staff (Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)