Loren Thompson , CONTRIBUTOR

I write about national security, especially its business dimensions. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

The people who brought you “military transformation” 20 years ago have a new idea. It’s called “multi-domain battle.” It isn’t a bad idea, but it isn’t really new either — it repackages some common-sense warfighting concepts for an era in which conflicts will be waged more on the electromagnetic spectrum and in cyberspace. So the armed forces need to synchronize their operations with the aim of achieving superiority across all the “domains” of warfare — not just in the air, on land and at sea, but in space, on the EM spectrum, and in the cyber realm.

If this seems kind of obvious to you, then you haven’t read the white papers circulating around the Pentagon. They make multi-domain battle sound like an intellectual breakthrough — the same way military transformation supposedly was in the 1990s, or “airland battle” in the 1970s. In reality, multi-domain battle is just the latest plea for inter-service cooperation in fighting wars. The only thing that really changes over time with these various warfighting visions is the technology — but the visions tend to be way out ahead of what is technologically do-able.

Which brings me to the Air Force’s recently disclosed move to cancel replacement of one of its most unique warfighting assets. It’s a radar plane called the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (J-Stars) that can track moving ground targets over a 20,000 square mile area, focusing in on items of particular interest and using its sensor to take pictures through clouds, dust or the dead of night that can be quickly shared with friendly forces. The information can reveal where enemy combat vehicles are, which direction they are headed, and at what speed.

It’s an invaluable tool for U.S. Army commanders; the Marines have their own version of the same kind of radar on the Navy’s new Poseidon maritime patrol plane (the radar can track ships too). But sometime later this week, the Air Force is likely to put out a position paper explaining why it doesn’t want to buy a new manned aircraft that can replace the 16 aged J-Stars in the current fleet. It will claim manned radar planes can’t survive in a world of multi-domain battles and near-peer adversaries equipped with the latest weapons.

It’s odd that this concern doesn’t seem to come up when the Air Force talks about its plans for the tanker and airlift fleets, which consist of hundreds of planes bigger than the likely successor to J-Stars. It’s also a little hard to explain how the Air Force could have conducted five different analyses to determine what kind of ground moving-target system it needed for the future that all led to the current J-Stars recapitalization plan, and then suddenly discovered it needs to do a sixth such study because the enemy might have surface-to-air missiles.

What I’m suggesting here is that the novel terminology of multi-domain battle is being invoked by Air Force planners who never much cared for J-Stars in the first place, since it exists mainly to support soldiers on the ground. In other words, the unspoken motivation for discovering a manned radar plane won’t survive in the future is to back away from the kind of inter-service cooperation that multi-domain battle is supposed to promote. If you think that’s too cynical, then consider what the Air Force will propose doing instead — relying on drones.

Drones have become highly fashionable as a result of the global war on terror, because terrorists generally don’t have air forces or air defenses. That makes operating unmanned aircraft near hostile forces far more feasible than it would be in a war with an industrialized adversary like Iran or North Korea or Russia. The kind of drone that could host a surveillance radar for tracking ground moving targets would be extremely vulnerable to enemy defenses — not just because it would lack its own defenses, but because its radar would be emitting constantly.