Saturday, October 25, 2014

Kill Chains or Mistake Chains?

One of the recent buzzword bingo entries that has caught on is “kill chain”.  In simple terms it’s the sequence of events that lead to ordnance on target.  The simplest kill chain is,

see the target
pull the trigger

Simple.  Easy to understand.  Reliable.

A more common kill chain as envisioned by today’s Navy is,

sense the target via multiple sensors
transfer the data to a common data processing location
fuse the sensor data into a common tactical picture
assess the tactical picture against overall objectives
obtain Command and Control (C2) guidance and approval
assign a specific weapon
transfer targeting data to the shooting platform
hand off mid-course guidance to another platform

Think I’m making up a complex chain like that just to make a point?

Consider the recently discussed kill chain involving the LRASM guided by a chain of F-35s transmitting and retransmitting data back to a central fused tactical data center, then to the shooting platform and back out to the F-35 for guidance and possible re-programming.  The chain might also include data relay stations in the form of satellites or other aircraft.

Still not sure this is realistic?

Consider the Navy’s Co-operative Engagement Capability (CEC).  Multiple platforms share data to assemble a common tactical picture which is evaluated by the air defense command function which then assigns weapons and launch platforms.  Mid-course guidance may come from any platform.  That’s an actual, existing chain.  How well it works is unknown.

Want one more example for the future? 

USNI website has an article discussing the Virginia class SSN replacement and a 200 nm range replacement torpedo.  See if you can discern the kill chain in the following description of torpedo usage from the article.

“… to employ a 200-mile torpedo …  Connor [ed. VAdm. Mike Connor, COMSUBLANT] said that while an attack boat like the Virginia or SSN(X) might launch a torpedo, the targeting data might come from another platform.

Those other platforms could include an aircraft like an unmanned aerial vehicle launched from the submarine or something like a Boeing P-8 Poseidon. In fact,  the submarine might not even guide the weapon to its target in the terminal phase of the engagement, Connor said.”

OK, so kill chains are getting longer and more complex.  What’s the point?

We stated in a previous post that

Complexity = Unreliability

Consider a kill chain as a series of events, each with its own probability of failure.  It stands to reason that the more links in the chain, the greater the chance of one of them failing.  If a single link in the chain fails, the entire chain fails.  It turns out that there is a mathematical description of such a chain.  Briefly, the probability of success for the entire chain is the multiplicative product of the probabilities of the individual events (links).  If you didn’t follow that, don’t worry.  What it means is you multiply the individual probabilities.  For example, if there are two steps in a chain and each has a 95% probability of success, the total probability of success is,

.95 x .95 = .90   or  90%

In the example I offered at the start of the post, there are nine steps (links).  If each step has a 98% chance of success, the total chance of success is only 83%. 

Of course, each step is not uniform in its probability of success.  Some will be very high and some will be less so.  Regardless, the point is that the greater the number of steps (links) in the chain, the less likely the entire chain is to function correctly.  Hence, again,

Complexity = Unreliability

The other aspect to a kill chain composed of high value units, as in this example, is that the units are tied up performing routine, mundane tasks.  In the F-35 example, only the first one or two F-35s need stealth.  After that, each F-35 is a colossal waste of resources.  Of course, if the target is of sufficiently high value then the use of multiple F-35s performing nothing more than communications relay functions may well be worth it.  However, for general surveillance the F-35s would mostly be wasted.

This doesn’t even begin to address the issue of maintenance as a function of complexity.

Back to the main point of unreliability as a function of complexity.  We’ve looked at a simplistic example of a chain.  Now, throw in the added complexity of the networks, nodes, displays, and software, all of which have to work correctly to receive the data, reduce it to an understandable tactical picture, and retransmit both the data/images and resulting actionable commands and we’ve added many more steps to the chain, each with their own failure rates.

Everything we’ve discussed so far has been idealized and the individual step (link) failure probabilities are those inherent to the step.  Now layer on the effects of deliberate enemy disruption in the form of electronic countermeasures, jamming, false signals, etc. and many of the step failure probabilities increase significantly.

Lastly, top it off with natural disruptions such as weather effects, atmospheric ionization, solar flares, curvature of the earth, and whatnot and the failure probabilities further increase.

So, what is ComNavOps suggesting?  Simply that we need to carefully balance complexity against reliability.  Further, I’m suggesting that we’ve gone too far down the path of complexity.

Consider the F-35 targeting chain.  Someone, on day one of conceptual design of the F-35, should have said, “Hey, we don’t want to set up a chain of multiple F-35s just to handle communications.  Instead, let’s make a longer ranged communications capability an inherent part of the design so that a single F-35 can communicate with the controlling station.  In fact, while we’re at it, why don’t we make sure that the F-35 can communicate directly with other platforms, like the Hornet or Hawkeye, without needing a conversion step.”

In combat, confusion will reign.  The simpler our weapons and systems are, the more likely they are to work.  It’s as simple as that.

See the target.  Pull the trigger

USNI, “Navy Starting Work on New SSN(X) Nuclear Attack Submarine”, Dave Majumdar, October 23, 2014,


  1. once upon a time there was a benevolent dictator who grab other countries's land and resources for the sake of building his one thousand years empire..

    he instruct his military and researchers to create complex and superior weapon platforms on land, on sea and on air.. Because of it's complexity and materials needed to create , they can only create a few of these wonder weapons..

    meanwhile his army gloriously facing a race of sub humans that so primitive and using such low tech weapons but so numerous that even by killing these animals by the thousands they kept coming..

    The wonder weapons works perfectly raking victory upon victory but because of maintenance time not every weapon can be used everytime , and the enemy swarm tactic sometimes outnumbers the wonder weapons and defeated it.

    but the leaders was assured that given the right situation and using the right tactics , the wonder weapons works everytime...

    and when the enemy now at the gates of his capital, the dear leader still cant understand why the supposedly sub human race defeated his mighty pure bred race...

  2. look at how the allied pilots defeated the ME262 jet fighters.. they ambushed it when it is most vurnerable, landing phase..

    look at how the soviet T34 defeated the massive monster Tiger II (King Tiger) , they ambushed it with side shots in a wooded terrain..

    these complex weapons works only of the enemy did what the weapon makers think they will.. but the unexpected, thats the killer..

    A mere RPG destroyed a might Merkava mark 4 because the guerilla aimed the RPG right into the rear escape door..

  3. You paint a simple a simple picture, but does it reflect reality?

    Surely the decision whether to shoot or not to shoot has to be represented in the kill chain somewhere? Especially when it is more likely that we are talking about a target outside the visual range.

    My question is this: Are our modern systems simply reflecting a complex reality which has always existed in one form or another or have we really added extra steps in the kill chain?


    1. Mark, I fear you've missed the point of the post. The point was to keep the chain as simple as possible. When we start adding networks and data sharing just because we can and because it looks good on a Powerpoint presentation, we're not adding capability, we're adding opportunities for mistakes.

      Here's another, fairly simple example. The NLOS missile system that was supposed to have been the mainstay of the LCS ASuW package attempted to produce "brilliant" munitions that would spontaneously and dynamically create a mini-network among themselves after they were launched to prioritize and allocate targets. That's right, the individual warheads covering an area would talk to each other and decide what to do. Of course, the idea was a total failure. Alternatively, they could have simply treated the targeting as an area munition exercise, like a cluster bomb, and destroyed every target in the area without needing to go through the pointless step of creating a network. Had we done that, the LCS would have an effective ASuW weapon and might have been deemed a success (or at least less of a failure!).

      Do you see the point? Keep the chain as simple as possible. If there is absolutely no other way to achieve a kill than to utilize a many-step, multi-node, networked chain, then do so. But, if the task can be accomplished with a simpler chain, then that's the preferred approach.

      You've undoubtedly read the same things I have where you get Admirals talking about subs guiding AAW missiles launched from surface ships cued from aircraft and so on. That's ridiculous complexity for the sake of complexity and offers no improvement over existing methods - it's just more likely to fail.

      I paint a simple picture because war is confusing enough and the simpler one's doctrine, tactics, and protocols, the more likely they are to succeed.

      During peacetime, people create all kinds of complex stuff. Once combat starts, things get greatly simplified in a hurry.

      Does that make sense to you?

    2. ComNavOps,

      I get your point that kill chains, should be kept as simple as possible, totally agree.

      Also agree with you that with complexity you get greater opportunity for errors. In an environment that those errors can be paid for in currency of sailors lives.

      My point is that computerized processes can be beneficial or harmful depending on how they are implemented.

      Example you have always had admirals making decisions events while being remote from those events.

      When a computerized process, say a data link enabling that admiral to see the same sensor information as they personal on the seen, replacing the verbal communication of the strategic environment, I would argue you are not adding a new step in the kill chain, you are trying to manage that step in the most efficient and error free way possible.

      On the other hand when we say because we now have a data link giving live updates to a HQ on the other side of the world, and we then say we should take away the authority of the local admiral to make those decisions, now we are adding new steps into the kill chain. Changes which may or may not work in a genuine combat environment.

      Same technology, still the very best of intentions, but two different purposes, and two very different outcomes. My fear is that we may well be starting to second the later.

      One reports re SAM's being guided by Subs, that is actually a new one to me, but I have seen the reports AJF is referring to re the networking of AWD's.

      The problem is of course that you have a procurement system where the industry has simply too much political power. Too often Defense programs are job creation programs first, defense programs second. This leads to a lot of programs that start out with "how to I keep this business unit in business", so we dream up all sorts of wonderful ideas like those you are talking about so we can justify funding our pet team. Sometimes we care if they work, sometimes we do not.

      I am not saying that these people are not hard working individuals, they are, but we do just don't always end up funding what is in the best interest of the navy, instead the navy ends up trying make do with what was in the best interests of those who supply it.


  4. CNO ... 100% onboard with your keep it simple premise, as well, as complexity equals unreliability. I know DoD is aware of this, but does get enamored with technology and exotic weapons.

    I look at it like this, we are testing the waters wrt functionality and the art of the possible given advances in technology, think about the revolutionary change in the way we prosecute ground targets with the advent of PGMs.

    DoD is making great strides to put reality into Kill Chains that take advantage of multiple sensors and alternative guidance, for example:

    Having capability like this will allow new targeting solutions and does not restrict us from one asset having to control/own the entire kill chain.

    Much effort is taking place in the System commands to make sure that these Kill chains make sense, have the correct technology and are realistic. It starts at the very top level with an integrated capability framework (ICF). The next level down is a mission technical baseline (MTB), which is a CONOPS [concept of operations] driven explanation of how the capability will be executed. The MTB is consistent with the warfighter’s functional perspective. Right below the MTB is the integrated capability technical baseline (ICTB). The ICTB puts the platforms, weapons, networks and sensors into the MTB and provides a technical view that supports the functional view.

    In short, can we provide the war fighting capability with the right technology to the warfighter. Can we also do it economically and without having to execute "seven consecutive miracles". Although it does not seem this way, there are people who firmly beat down the complex solutions and strive for fiscally responsible and executable.

    Summary: I vote for and believe in simplicity and economical. But, I do support the art of the possible and pursuing novel ways to maximize fire power and war fighting. Like anything else, a Kill Chain on steroids that requires consecutive miracles to execute needs a lot of scrutiny and is ripe for failure. But it is also innovative and pushes the edge of the envelope out there where we need it to be. Let's just not rely to heavily on these exotic solutions, KISS.


  5. Kill chains now are phenomenally complex. But then they have been for a while. Just in your gun analogy, the aiming process is cyclic. “Is gun pointed towards target, left a bit [repeat] etc. “ and that’s not going into the 20 odd things that happen when you pull the trigger of your average automatic rifle.

    If you’re going to strive to keep the kill chains simple, you’re going to have to put down your M4’s and start on a “rock vs. head” analogy.

    I’m not going to argue with your general axiom. Its sound. If you can find a way to have 15 steps instead of the 20 in your rifle ( see UZI vs M4 ) then you’re likely to do better, BUT you can also make each of the actions much more likely to go right and much less likely to go wrong ( see AK vs M4 ).

    Your Maths is impeccable, but you’re starting from an assumption that the universe is ever going to give you 100%. It’s not. SO let’s just say anything in the universe is only ever going to be 98% reliable and be done with it.

    So average “universal” 4 stage kill chain 92%

    But if you are an AK and each of you links is just a 1% better. 96%.

    Your times DOWN, is actually a times UP.

    The Key IS SIMPLICITY, but not necessarily just in terms of removing links, and given that technological superiority has been the key to NATO victory, I don’t think we should be going back to the rock head thing just yet.


    P.S. I actually agree with you I just thought we needed an opposing view 

    1. Ben, you recognize that I'm not arguing against technology. I'm cautioning against UNNECESSARY complexity. For example, the entire F-35 comm problem was unnecessary complexity that could have been much more simply dealt with early in the design process. Or, asking for a system that will allow a sub to control a cruiser-launched Standard missile is an absolutely idiotic requirement that has a 1 in a bilion chance of ever being needed but adds unnecessary complexity (and cost!) to the overall system.

      Nothing you wrote opposes my view. In fact, it reinforces it!

    2. I think the F35 F22 comms issue is a necessary complexity when it comes to providing stealth aircraft a way to use their radar and comms without giving away their position. The issue here is that other platforms haven’t been upgraded in time for IOC of these 2 fighters.
      I don’t think that’s a kill chain issue, it’s a lack of planning issue.


    See it works great!

    The SM-6 is a Net Enabled Weapon (NEW) which is a fancy way of saying, the weapon itself can get on Link 16 and recieve updates just like everyone else. Once it closes in the SM-6 turns on it's own radar for terminal guidance.

    The far bigger issue is turning this system on fully and trusting it. When a supersonic missile is inbound on the battle group there is not time to sit around and second guess your equipment. The downside is that if everything is not working right you can blast something out of the sky that you did not want to.

    Despite all of of our technology the end result can still be that you join the ranks of the INS Hanit because the technology is never turned on.

    1. There's also the ranks of the Vincennes, when the kill chain completely broke down in a functional but tragic way (yes, a kill chain has stop points as well as go points and the link failures can fail either way!).

  7. Fellow Bloggers ... Try to remember that these netted weapons and associated Kill Chains are generally not the only way to deploy these weapons. A SM-6 shooter can still Find-Fix-Track-Target-Engage-Access all on their own ... What the netted options gives you is this ... Options. Your one in a billion chance really isn't, if a sub can pass targeting info to a shooter and the engagement is successful, Bingo! Why should we care how it got done, we should care that it can be done.

    There appears to be a fair amount of cynicism regarding the ability of our RDT&E folks (Govt and/or KTR) to make these Kill Chains successful, but I will tell you that there are extremely talented people who can do tremendous things. At the end of the day, it is figuring out the right balance of Performance, Risk and Price. It is about
    War fighting capability that is cost-effective and executable by the war fighter; it is about war fighters being able to engage extremely difficult and highly defended targets. Long gone are the days of a division of A-6s dropping “dumb-bombs” and weaving through AAA. Long gone are a division going of F-14s going to the merge and engage in ACM with Mig-29s; like it or not (believe it or not) our fight is way different and way more challenging that it was even 10 yrs. ago. So these “complicated” Kill Chains exist and are being vetted so we can figure out if they are affordable, executable and provide the correct amount of war fighting advantage. Remember, simple (simpler) Kill chains are the majority of most engagements but we need the “game changing” technology that gives us that war fighting edge when and if we need it, and yes, sometimes this is complicated and carries more risk; nature of the business we are in.

    So, try not to be a naysayer every time you hear about something that appears to be unconventional and/or unnecessary, ask questions and try to have an open mind, odds are it probably is not as unconventional or unnecessary as you think.


    1. AJF, a few points. As stated in the post, I'm not against technology. I'm cautioning against kill chains that contain UNNECESSARY complexity.

      Would these extremely talented R&D folks be the same ones who couldn't design a simple arresting hook for the F-35, or the ones who designed the NLOS which was to be the cornerstone of the LCS ASuW package and has now been completely abandoned, or the ones who designed an LCS ASW module that the Navy cancelled and started completely over on, or the ones who have thus far failed to make a working helmet for the F-35 after only two decades of development, or the ones who spent years designing the EFV only to have the entire thing cancelled, or the ones who designed an EMALS that acts like a giant electromagnetic beacon for enemies, or the ones ... Well, I think you get the point. There is more than enough reasons to exercise a healthy degree of cynicism.

      The sad reality is that much (most?) of what the military is acquiring and developing today is unnecessary or unsuited to any tactical or operational purpose. It's the unquestioning acceptance of those acquisitions that has created our current problems. I, for one, am happy to cast a wide net of doubt. The vast majority of the time that doubt turns out to be well-founded.

  8. CNO ... I am sure that no one in good faith adds to the complexity of these Kill Chains for the sake of adding unnecessary complexity; why would they do that? Would you drive 10 extra miles to work unnecessarily? My experience is that much thought and effort goes in to remove complexity and make sure each link to the chain is value added. But this is generally not something reported on, most reporting is on the problems and failures; people love to throw peanuts from the cheap seats.

    Does the Navy take on challenges, absolutely; it has to. In hindsight, was there a better way to take on these challenges, almost always, hindsight 20/20 ring a bell ... Risky endeavors, yes, unnecessary, hardly ever. To either keep pace or preserve tactical/technical advantage, risk is involved. Not whimsical risk, but risk no less.

    You are making it seem like all the failures you state were trivial engineering challenges, simple arresting hook is an oxymoron; no such animal exists. Much time and effort is put into each one of these efforts, but until metal is bent and product developed, no one can predict with 100% certainty how it will perform. Remember that the best materials are not always available or affordable, the best engineering team is not always on call to solve a problem; the A-Team is not omnipresent. Are folks do the best they can with the hand they are dealt, but they are far from perfect or perfectly equipped to develop solutions or solve problems; it is a challenge … Should we demand better, sure … But, it is a balance of manpower, talent, cost, schedule and performance; we have to manage programs with constraints. Everyone involved in the failures you mention did not design and engineer on a whim expecting failure. I am not here to defend and counter each and every mis-step or failure, but you make it seem as if all things should have been perfectly understood. If every phenomena was understood and everything worked as predicted, we would not have need for Test and Evaluation, we would not need process improvement, we would design something, build it and install it; next ... Not as easy as you make it seem.

    The news paints a grim picture and definitely can leave one jaded. I for one and not pleased with our acquisition process and cringe every time a report of failure is reported. But I do know that people are trying and have very good intentions. Somehow, we do pull it together and deliver incredible war fighting capability, look at the Super Hornet and Growler programs, look at the development of JDAM, look at the AIM-120 program, E-2D has reached IOC. All extremely, extremely complicated and complex programs ... But somehow, we figure out how to make these programs work and then launch these airplanes and associated weapons off aircraft carriers; not everything is a failure. I have witnessed both success and failure as an acquisition professional, nature of the business. My responsibility is to minimize failure and waste while being a good steward of taxpayer money; my goal each day is to do my best to provide the best war fighting capability at a fair price and with the lowest risk, but it is a balancing act on a grand scale.

    So, what should we do, give up? Never be innovative? Always be risk adverse? I think you would say, no, but looking for a more reasonable approach with more mature technology that minimizes the complexity required; agree.

    Our system is far from perfect, and a lot of these mistakes should and could be avoided, I believe you and I will agree on that.


    1. Agreed!

      I would point out, however, that many of the problems I cite in this blog are not ones that were evident only in hindsight. Many were evident from the begining. Take the LCS, for example. Every one of its problems were pointed out and discussed before the first vessel hit water.

      If a problem crops up that no one has ever heard of, I have no problem with that. On the other hand, the Navy has designed tailhooks into every aircraft it's ever built. The materials, stresses, locations, performance, etc. are well understood. Someone simply screwed up.

      Consider the galvanic corrosion problem on the LCS. Galvanic corrosion has been thoroughly understood since Nelson's time. That was easily foreseeable.

      Consider the LCS modules. Each one, as initially described and contracted, required several brand new technologies to succeed concurrently. Everyone, except the Navy, pointed out ahead of time that that was extremely unlikely to occur. Foresight, not hindsight!

      Again, I can go on but you get the point. The vast majority of problems I cite were easily foreseeable and were, in fact, pointed out early on.

      An example of a problem that could not, and was not, easily foreseen was the F-22 pilot blackout. The cause of that is still not totally understood. No one could have anticipated that and, appropriately, I have no blame or criticism to offer.

      One of things missing from our acquisition system (and by acquisition, I mean the entire process of definition of requirements, development, production, testing, and acceptance) is accountability. Who has paid the price for the LCS? Who has paid the price for the LPD-17 debacle? Who has paid the price for the JSF? And so on. The answer, as you well know, is no one. Because we fail to hold people accountable, the problems not only persist but worsen.

      I think you're being too lenient on this.

    2. AJF, a couple of your comments have shown up in the spam folder of the blog rather than being immediately published. I have no control over this and I don't know why it's happening. I transfer them to published as soon as I see them but there is a delay since I'm not continuously on the blog. Rest assured, your comments are not being moderated or edited and that they will appear as soon as I spot them. Sorry! Thanks for writing!

  9. Commy , what's the existing SOP for US navy to avoid another Cole Incident ? a clever enemy will use deception and trickery to get close and IED'ed a US naval vessel at anchor.. in a 3rd world port , how do US navy secure it's ships ?

  10. CNO ... Copy all on the spam folder, not sure either, but probably a browser thing on my end.

    Regarding Kill Chains and the avoidable and foreseeable mis-steps/failures ... One man's opinion regarding how any or all of these things could have been avoided. Tail hooks are just one example, and although we have been in the business of building hooks for a while, it is not an exact science. Different materials, different loads, different geometries, etc ... Truly; tail hooks are not simple science. Regardless, we can and should do a better job on everything from tail hooks to LCS mission modules.

    The point I am trying to make, but not an excuse, is that these things really are complex and difficult. Where you call me too lenient, I would say you are oversimplifying and generalizing; again, one man's opinion and certainly does not mean I am correct. I spent 28 years in the Navy, 16 of which were in T&E, Program Management and Engineering and I ran a Major Program and a Research facility. RDT&E is not a simple endeavor and there truly are very dedicated people who work tirelessly to deliver the best product to our war fighters, but ... there are also some knuckleheads who should be nowhere near any government procurement or development. The challenge is managing all the moving parts and keeping good intentioned, although not entirely competent or qualified folks from going down the wrong path or selecting a poor design. I found it very challenging to keep track of all the work being done and the decisions being made, yes … It was my job to do so, and I tried as hard as I could to “keep the ship upright”, just ran out of daylight and time in the day. For me, the successes far outnumbered the mis-steps and failures, but there were failures. I did we did our best to learn from these mistakes and not make them again.

    I can not, nor am I trying to argue a side that says, “you are wrong or misinformed,” you are not. You hit the nail on the head in your last post; accountability is a shortfall on both the Govt and KTR side of the house. When a mistake is made, it needs to be addressed and corrected, there has to be consequences for actions. Removing people from positions of responsibility and authority sometimes happens, but what usually follows is they are transferred somewhere else and as time goes by, find a way back into the decision maker role. Seen this on both Govt and KTR side. We have also discussed in other blogs about KTR award fees and CPARs; fortitude to tell the truth and give a honest assessment is required to make these work.

    So, in closing … RDT&E has room for improvement and all of us in the business need to do a better job managing the risks and have the fortitude to make tough decisions. No different than any other profession or business, we get what we accept and if we are not willing to change, or put change in place, then we have no room to complain.

    Tough problem, good discussion.