Saturday, September 5, 2015

Combat In The Information Age

Proceedings has an interesting article about combat in the “Information Age”, as the authors put it (1).  The article is an odd combination of the authors “getting it” and “missing it”.  Let’s take a closer look and see what they have to say that we might learn from.

First, it should be noted that the authors are two active duty Lieutenant Commanders, one a Surface Warfare Officer selected for command and the other an Intelligence officer.  As such, they ought to represent a doorway into current naval thought and for this reason, if no other, their writing is worthy of consideration.

The authors discuss the recognition that weapons are becoming more lethal and that, as a result, there is a need to try to cut the kill chain further upstream.  They state that the implication of this is the need to manage our electromagnetic (EM) signatures “as never before”.  Of course, EM silence (EMCON) was the default state of naval units during the Cold War so the “as never before” statement rings a bit hollow and, to be fair, the authors point that out.  As they put it,

“In practice this means, among other things, controlling our EM signature while conducting any type of operations, with EM silence as our default posture.”

Again, this warrants a huge, “Duh!”, but at least they’re saying it.  They go on to say,

“While we became fairly proficient at emissions control during the Cold War, the lack of a meaningful blue-water threat since the fall of the Soviet Union and our vast accumulation of new EM systems have allowed us to forget.  Today, naval vessels and aircraft operate by default with multiple active radar, identification, datalink, and communication systems radiating.  Rarely are we forced to operate in a silent (or reduced) mode for any sort of extended period or while conducting complex operations.”

And there it is.  The authors summed up the entire EM issue.  We knew it.  We forgot it.  We don’t practice it.  You’ve heard me say this on a regular basis and now you’re hearing active duty, ranking officers saying it.

Could we even operate in an EMCON mode if we had to?  The authors, and ComNavOps, do not believe so.

“Similarly, in air defense, we so infrequently practice single-ship or group-restricted radiation operations in tactical scenarios that it is questionable whether we are proficient enough to use them in wartime.”

The lack of realistic training – another pet peeve of ComNavOps. 

The authors bring up another great point concerning the global, universally networked, all-seeing, infinitely datalinked, battle management system that the Navy is so enamored with and that is the awareness of what’s happening at the tactical level.  Allowing, for the moment, that this kind of mythical network can even work (it can’t), the authors point out a tactical level awareness problem.

“Much of the disruption effort will be executed by joint forces or at the operational level, so how will tactical-level Navy decision-makers know what is going on and how or when to exploit success?  For example, if the Air Force disables a sector of the adversary’s passive electronic-surveillance network, how will the officer commanding a surface action group 1,000 miles away know he is now in an advantageous position where his ship’s radars can be energized to locate and destroy an enemy platform in his vicinity?”

An excellent question and it again points to the need for realistic training so that these types of unforeseen problems can be identified and worked out.  Some might casually employ the hand wave and confidently assert that all levels of operation will seamlessly and flawlessly communicate to each other.  They might, or they might not, as suggested by the authors.

“We pay a lot of lip service to seamless joint integration, but it is specious to believe communications between operational and tactical-level commanders in a joint environment are either as fast or as thorough as required.”

Again, these are active duty, ranking officers saying this!

The flip side of the EM coin is also noted.  The enemy will be doing their best to control the EM spectrum and we must anticipate the loss or, at best, intermittent use of our comms, networks, and datalinks.  The implication is that we will be faced with fighting with a lack of higher level command and control – the opposite of what we have now where the movements and actions of individual soldiers can be monitored and ordered from the White House.  As the authors point out,

“In the Navy we are fortunate to be the heirs to a strong tradition of command-by-negation, distributed execution, and autonomous decision-making.  However, with the increase in volume of communications our ability to fight complicated scenarios with minimal or intermittent communications has almost certainly weakened.  We can regain it only with realistic and challenging training at all levels from fleet to unit and individual watchstander.”

Again, straight from the annals of this blog!

Well, so much for the “get it” portion.  Unfortunately, the authors still generally believe that the modern battlefield will be electronic, networked, datalinked, and comm’ed though, to their credit, not to the degree or with the effortlessness that the Navy thinks.  They fail to grasp the reality that modern combat against a peer will see all the magic devices on both sides come up well short due to a combination of countermeasures and the 100% certainty of weapons and systems being vastly overrated.  As a result, the combatants will quickly fall back on simpler, brute force weapons and systems with the resulting combat being closer to WWII than Star Wars.  Complexity is great for wargaming and public relations but when combat starts, simplicity will quickly become king.

We need to begin developing weapons and systems that can function without external inputs and we need to begin training for a state of degraded and lost external inputs.

(1) USNI Proceedings, “The Face of Battle in the Information Age”, Crooks & Robertaccio, July 2015


  1. If in a real-world combat engagement, the concept of Information Dominance does not live up to current expectations, and if some number of other 21st Century warfighting concepts such as Distributed Lethality also do not live up to current expectations under actual combat conditions, there will be a natural temptation to compensate with larger volumes of fire, placing added stress on the end-to-end logistical supply train, with the result that control of the battlespace cannot be firmly established before stocks of ammunition either run low or else run out altogether.

  2. Its been years since I was in the Navy but when I was on a DDG-51 class a significant problem with EMCON was that there was no easy way to set it due to the need to send personnel to unmanned equipment rooms to start up or shut down the emitting equipment and the high probability of equipment failure if you just shut it down without following procedures.

    We had EMCON procedures and we practiced it, but executing it was clumsy due to the fact that the ships equipment was not installed with an eye to coordinated execution of EM silence. The Captain could give the order but it would take minutes before word came back that everything was shut down and a similar delay in starting it all back up. When you have missiles incoming at over Mach speed that might not be fast enough.

    And the Navy is still using the SLQ-32, which while modernized, is getting very long in the tooth

    Don’t know what the situation is now but I doubt if it has improved much.

    1. One of the major sources of electromagnetic emissions is the EMALS catapult. The massive electric motors are apparently not shielded and for a giant electronic beacon. That's just inconceivable to me that we would design our most important surface ship to be an electronic beacon.

      The Slick 32 is being upgraded by the SEWIP but it's taking some time. I also don't know the degree of improvement or effectiveness of the SEWIP.

      Good point about the inability to remotely and instantaneously establish EMCON.

      Good comment.

    2. People under about 35 have been used to communications everywhere, all the time, and have never seen peer enemies at sea. For people under 30, going personally uncommunicative is a serious social failing. We've created a society where EMCON isn't allowed. We didn't do this deliberately, but that makes it harder to change.

    3. John, an interesting observation. The military should be instilling the idea of EMCON almost from boot camp on.

    4. That makes me wonder if USMC Recruit Training does that. I presume recruits are not allowed phones or Internet access?


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