Monday, September 25, 2017

Technology Or Firepower?

Western militaries are caught up in a technology craze:  networks, unmanned, remote, cyber, open architecture, data sharing, software, integration. 

The belief, I guess, is that floods of data, data sharing, networking, etc. will allow us to know where every enemy asset is and then we can use the wonders of our distributed, light, mobile, flexible, adaptable forces to destroy the enemy. 

Of course, all the Aegis radar, navigational radars, EO/IR sensors, satellite monitoring, aerial surveillance, and “big picture” data sharing in the fleet hasn’t prevented us from completely losing track of where giant, slow moving cargo/tanker ships are and colliding with them or running aground so one can’t help but question the very foundation of the entire technology push. 

Unfortunately, the UK’s Royal Navy is now getting in on the technology craze, as described by First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Adm. Sir Philip Jones and reported by USNI News website (1).  Here are some snippets from the First Sea Lord’s vision.

“autonomous systems operating in squads”
“artificial intelligence-assisted decision making”
“3D printing”
“novel weaponry”
“power of data” 
“ultra-modern communications”
“information exploitation”
“lightweight deployable IT system”
“vertical lift unmanned air system “
open architectures”
“augmented reality
“…bandwidth acceleration technology, which slashed the time for chest x-rays to pass through a handheld SATCOM terminal from half an hour to under five minutes.”
“drones that dissolve on demand”
“algae electric propulsion systems”

What do all those technologies have in common?  With the possible exception of the vague, buzzword-ish “novel weaponry”, whatever that might mean, none go “BOOM”.  None produce a bigger explosion.  None make the RN more lethal.  None increase the combat resilience of the RN.  None allow the RN to take more hits and keep fighting.  None increase the number of ships, aircraft, or personnel in the fleet.

They’re mostly technology for the sake of technology.

And all depend on the enemy cooperating by allowing us to send and receive data and to network systems without hindrance.  Think about it.  We’re putting all our eggs in the data basket.  A basket which is easily upset by enemy electronic warfare, cyber warfare, jamming, etc.  Would you buy a rifle that only works if the enemy doesn’t jam it?  Of course not!  And yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing with the whole data and networking movement.

Meanwhile, China and Russia are steadily producing bigger, heavier, better armed and armored tanks, more artillery, more cruise and ballistic missiles, bigger mortars, and better cluster munitions. 

Consider a few more detailed statements from the First Sea Lord.

“…integration of all weapon systems, engineering sensors and off-board logistics in the future, we have specified that the new Type 31e general purpose frigate should be designed with open architecture from the outset.”

Open architecture sounds appealing, doesn’t it?  It allows us to easily upgrade, incorporate third party and commercial software, and make it so that many, many people and companies can support our efforts.  Of course, all that openness also means that the systems are vulnerable to hacking and cyber attack!  Recall the U.S. software attack on Iran’s centrifuges?

Here’s another interesting statement from the First Sea Lord.

“We proved, for example, that a drug smuggler is no longer a bobbing needle in an oceanic haystack but has an identifiable algorithmic fingerprint. In the engineering world, we can predict, and therefore prevent, component failures.”

It’s a dubious leap from finding a drug smuggler to predicting and preventing component failures.  A relevant example is the U.S. LCS which has mammoth amounts of automated monitoring of its machinery intended to predict component failures, minimize maintenance down times, reduce the number of people needed for maintenance, and save untold amounts of maintenance money.  Of course, the reality is that the maintenance aspect of the LCS has been an abysmal failure.  Every LCS has suffered major engineering breakdowns, most ships having suffered multiple failures – all unforeseen, maintenance down times have almost exceeded operation times, and maintenance personnel requirements and maintenance costs have far exceeded expectations.  Of course, perhaps the RN will be the organization to make this all work.

Another good example is the state of the art (I use that phrase laughingly) ALIS comprehensive and predictive maintenance software that runs the F-35.  Far from streamlining maintenance, reducing costs, and predicting component failures, the F-35’s ALIS program has been an abject failure with aircraft unable to get off the ground without substantial workarounds to the software interlocks.  Aircraft have caught fire with no prediction whatsoever!  Of course, perhaps the RN will be the organization to make this all work.

The First Sea Lord goes on.

“As modern warfare becomes ever faster, and ever more data driven, our greatest asset will be the ability to cut through the deluge of information to think and act decisively.”

No, your greatest asset will be large enough munitions inventories to keep fighting for more than a week (recall the 2011 Libyan affair when the European militaries ran out of certain munitions after just a few weeks – and that was hardly an all out war!) and sufficient numbers of aircraft, ships, and tanks to absorb the inevitable attrition losses and cover the necessary territory and missions.

“…technologies that senior officers hope will keep the RN “at the forefront of capability in the decades to come”.

What’s the point of being at the forefront of irrelevant technology if you haven’t got the firepower and numbers to actually win a war of attrition which is what a war with Russia, China, NKorea, or Iran will be.  We may not want a war of attrition but those countries will most certainly make it so.  Remember, the enemy gets a vote and when it comes to attrition, if the enemy is willing to engage in attrition warfare you won’t have much choice but to follow.  A human wave attack doesn’t care about your data sharing.

Now, how does the First Sea Lord propose paying for all these irrelevant technological advances? 

“This requires big decisions with far reaching consequences. Are we, for instance, prepared to remove existing platforms from service in order to create the financial and manpower headroom to introduce new systems …”

His solution is to drop existing platforms and further decrease numbers in an already numerically challenged military!  Let me repeat – the enemy is not going to give you a choice about attrition warfare.  In fact, given the steadily decreasing size of Western militaries, our potential enemies may well see attrition warfare as a major advantage for them. 

Decreasing numbers to pay for highly questionable technologies that do little or nothing to increase firepower and lethality is foolish.

Now, I’ve been focused on the Royal Navy and the First Sea Lord’s comments but this post is really about the U.S. Navy which is doing all these same things.  The First Sea Lord’s comments simply provided a handy platform to work from.

The technology path we’re on is insane.  We’re ceding firepower and numbers to the enemy in the desperate hope that data will make up for it. 

Let’s be objective.  Recon is incredibly important to a military and plays a huge role in who wins and data is a form of recon.  I’m not arguing against data.  I’m arguing against abandoning the pursuit of firepower in favor of data.  Data should complement firepower not replace it.  Let me repeat – because it’s vitally important – the US Navy, for all its myriad sensors, Aegis radar, electro-optical sensors, infrared sensors, satellite imagery, aerial surveillance, drones, data sharing, and networks, couldn’t see giant, slow moving, cargo/tanker ships as they collided with our warships and couldn’t keep track of their own locations to prevent running aground – and this happened during peacetime with absolutely no electronic countermeasures or stealth on the part of the commercial vessels.  Come a peer war, do we really think we’ll be able to track stealthy ships and aircraft that are intentionally “hiding” and using electronic countermeasures, cyber attacks, hacking, jamming, decoys, etc.?  Well, despite all evidence to the contrary, this is exactly what we’re betting our future military capability on.

Someday, after a monumental military disaster, people will look back and wonder why no one saw it coming.  Well, they did.  This is the warning!


(1)USNI News website, “DSEI: First Sea Lord Jones Plots High-Tech Future for U.K. Royal Navy”, Jon Rosamond, 12-Sep-2017,


  1. Well Spoken! This technology for technology's sake is an issue that rubs my nerves raw. I'm a former sailor studying naval engineering. In these classes, I'm the only one with military experience. When I bring up issues about operating in contested environment or damage control and emergency repairs, they answer with more sensors and computers. They don't get that when the ship takes combat damage, the computers and sensors will get damaged too. I'm some kind of old fart that actually believes ships need to be durable and able to deliver lots of ordinance on target, and manned with sailors trained to maintain the ship and take it into battle.


    1. In industry, fire suppression is fully automated. The problem that industry found is exactly what you point out. When the initiating incident occurs, the sensors and automated equipment is, inevitably, destroyed or rendered ineffective. Thus, the immediately affected are has no fire suppression. The value of the system is that it can maintain fire suppression around the periphery of the incident area, IF THE SYSTEM HAS BEEN PROPERLY DESIGNED TO BE RESILIENT AND ISN'T TOO BADLY DAMAGED. It always comes back to manual intervention to deal with the impact area.

      Good comment.

    2. "when the ship takes combat damage, the computers ... will get damaged too."

      I reread your comment and you make a very important observation. Our control logic for everything runs on a very few computers. Our control is centralized. Hopefully, the control resides on a few widely separated computers but, even so, it's all too easy for battle damage to affect wide areas and losing software control is certainly possible and possibly likely. This leads one to wonder if we shouldn't be distributing the control. For example, if a valve is controlled by a master program, perhaps the valve should also have local programming allowing it to operate in the event that it loses communications with the master.

      Something to think about.

  2. High tech blows up the same as low tech but costs much more.
    Never heard a grunt in a firefight wish for more technology or gizmos, but everyone in a firefight wants more fire support.

  3. You listed the 2 poster children for political wants over military needs in the LCS and F35 and the Brits should know better they lost HMS Sheffield because all the water lines were severed and there wasn't a backup system in place now we are following in the same footsteps more or less withe the automated systems and when a sensor detects a fire or some other catastrophe and the system reacts shuts everything down does it not increase the vulnerability of the platform when it may not be anything wrong at all in the first place

    1. I don't know the details of the loss of HMS Sheffield but in the US Navy we're reaching a point in terms of reduced manning that we're likely no longer capable of conducting effective damage control in a wartime setting. At that point, the functionality (or lack thereof) of the automated fire suppression systems probably doesn't matter. The crew simply needs to abandon ship. We're going to lose ships that could otherwise have been saved but that's what we've chosen to do.

  4. So true there is one other side effect of the tech craze is what happens when the sensor or sensors pick up the wrong signal or are misinterpreted I recently read where the last SM3 failure was because of wrong input or something to that effect resulting in a miss in a real,war this could be catastrophic with millions of lives lost potentially

    1. Yes, a recent SM-3 ballistic missile defense test failed because the target was misidentified by an operator as friendly rather than enemy - at least that's the story the Navy is going with.

      To be fair, though, misidentification and misentries have plagued industry and the military for years and are not necessarily a fault of technology, per se. Even with entirely mechanical systems, misidentification is a problem. For example, a soldier misidentifies a friendly soldier as an enemy and shoots him. Friendly fire is always about misidentification and probably goes back to the first caveman who threw a rock at a friend by mistake!

  5. No offense to the British comrades but as far as things are concerned the UK defense budged will be on a free fall after brexit.

    So the first sea lord can go on talking about 3D printed submarines, or whatever else that sounds futuristic and fancy but they be lucky if they can sustain even the current force structure in the next 10 years.

    1. Storm,
      This may be taking things off target, but why do you say the UK defense budget will be in "free fall" after Brexit?


    2. Well, after the UK voted itself out of the most powerful economic union for no good reason, how do you expect that the defence budget will stay the same ?
      You're gonna have pressure from other sectors, and most likely they will take some money from the defence budget.

    3. Why would the defense budget change? How is any other sector going to be negatively impacted? The U.S. is not part of the EU and doesn't seem to have any undue budget problems - at least no more than usual. UK can still trade with anyone they want. I see no reason why anything will change. Admittedly, I'm not an international economic expert so maybe I'm wrong but I would assume the UK will have no worse budget problems than before they joined the EU.

    4. "for no good reason"?
      They had plenty of good reasons. UK was one of the strong countries helping to prop up the weaker ones.


    5. -Hard Brexit could cost £66bn a year, leaked Treasury report warns, The Treasury could lose up to £66bn a year in tax revenues if the UK opts for a "hard Brexit" and fails to secure access to the single market, leaked Treasury papers have warned cabinet ministers.

      -The draft cabinet paper seen by The Times suggests leaving the single market and switching to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would cause GDP to fall by up to 9.5% within 15 years compared with if the country remained in the European Union.

    6. I'm neither an international nor UK financial expert. That said, this sounds a LOT like the doom and gloom predictions that accompany every move the US govt makes. I note that the negative impacts are accompanied by a lot of "if" statements and that there appears to exist an equal potential for benefits and gains "if" the UK makes beneficial alternate trade arrangements.

      Have you not seen any positive predictions? Because there were certainly positive predictions before their election!

    7. Yes of course they have been a lot of positive predictions before the brexit vote, and guess what was one of the most important promises by one of the main orchestrator Nigel Farage :))

      Have a laugh

  6. You are quite correct about the hacking attack possilties. Yet IOT (internet of things) wherein every device is plugged into either the internet or internal networks are some of the easiest attacks. Devices cannot of themselves have tons of security. They rely on the network.
    A smart cyberattack wouldn't fire missiles at a friendly target--that would be the system most protected. But an off the shelf temperature regulator for a turbine? Probably not. Yet you burn out the turbines on their pretty new frigate and how good will it be.

  7. “This requires big decisions with far reaching consequences. Are we, for instance, prepared to remove existing platforms from service in order to create the financial and manpower headroom to introduce new systems …”

    RN is committed to making the same mistakes we've made. First example that comes to mind (of many) is getting rid of our frigates to make room for LCS.



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