Aboard the LHA, the Marine assault commander studied his composite screen which displayed the overall situation. Initially, the screen had shown nothing other than the handful of known, fixed structures which were scattered around the assault site. As the assault fleet had approached the target, UAV recon drones had been launched to begin filling in the picture. This was an opposed landing and UAV attrition had been quite high but that was expected.
The bigger problem was that no single UAV could survive long enough to provide anything remotely resembling the total awareness that misguided military planners of the early 2000’s and 2010’s had assumed and promised would be available. The large scale Navy Fleet Exercises that had been re-introduced beginning in 2020 had shattered that delusion. When the opposing fleet forces in the exercises had finally been allowed to utilize their full electronic warfare (EW) and defensive (anti-UAV) capabilities in an exercise, it had become instantly evident that the earlier concept of a few UAVs leisurely circling the battlefield and providing total situational awareness with all ships and aircraft seamlessly connected by a flawless network had been just a fantasy of wishful thinking.
Based on those shocking, eye-opening exercise results, the entire surveillance/recon/network concept had been reworked. The revised concept had been exercised and refined and was now being put to its first actual combat test. No one expected it to work perfectly and, in fact, that was one of the foundational assumptions of the system – failure was inevitable, anticipated, and built in!
The assault commander noted that the display was showing that the first assault wave was hitting the beach just about now. Taking in the entire display picture, he noted the various areas (most of the assault area!) that were largely unknown. Turning to his Recon Coordinator, he quickly designated and prioritized specific areas for additional, more intensive recon based on the assault plan. The coordinator contacted the UAV carrier which shortly began launching swarms of small UAVs to the designated areas.
As the recon UAVs approached their target areas they were greeted by enemy laser, EW, missiles, and projectile weapons. UAVs rained out of the sky or simply vanished in brilliant explosions of light and thunder. Each UAV was lucky to survive long enough to transmit just a momentary, fragmentary sensor view. That was perfectly normal in the new recon scheme and was the reason why recon UAVs were as small as possible, simple, dirt-cheap, and deployed in swarms. As each UAV transmitted its fragmentary data before dying, the central recon data collection center on the UAV carrier began assembling the fragments of data into a cohesive picture. It wasn’t necessary that any single UAV be able to surveil and transmit the entire battlefield. It was only necessary that enough UAVs be able to transmit enough fragmentary scans to allow the central computer to assemble a pieced together picture. Targets were updated and displayed in colors which indicated how old the data point was. Brilliant red points were newly acquired targets and the color faded to duller red and, eventually, black as the target ‘aged’. Thus, the operators viewing the data were able to instantly see and comprehend the newness or ‘value’ of the data.
It was inevitable that many areas were not scanned at all when the designated UAVs were destroyed before being able to acquire and transmit usable data. Those areas were displayed in patches of gray, letting operators know that the areas were un-scouted. The Recon Coordinator noted the unknown patches and began designating additional swarms to the areas.
One of the problems was that some (many?) UAVs managed to collect data but the enemy’s EW efforts were disrupting the data transmissions. Again, this failure was expected and built into the system. The enemy’s EW disruption and jamming efforts were not, of course, 100% continuous and effective. The UAVs, assault vehicles, and ships employed various techniques such as frequency hopping to try to shake off the effects of the enemy’s EW. When momentary (often microsecond bursts) clearances occurred the communications/network computers prioritized which assets to communicate with instead of attempting to talk continuously to every asset. Communications occurred in microsecond bursts rather than attempting to maintain continuous connections which required massively large broadband channels with unachievably high data rates and network stability. As the exercises had shown, network stability in a combat zone was a laughable fantasy.
Thus, the display of the Marine Colonel acting as the shore commander in his specialized Command and Control variant Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), now sheltered behind a rock outcropping a short ways inland from the beach, was able to receive frequent, fragmentary bursts of data updates. His situational display was, therefore, never complete and real time in quality but it was alive and functioning. Noting a couple of areas that were especially lacking on his display but vital to his immediate operations, he designated the areas on the display for priority updates. The controlling computers back on the UAV carrier adjusted their priorities and the Colonel’s display began filling in the requested areas more frequently at the expense of the lower priority areas.
This was certainly not the all-seeing, all-knowing surveillance system that the delusional Navy leadership of earlier times had promised but that had never been a realistic promise to begin with. This was a fragmentary approach that allowed commanders to at least maintain a semblance of situation awareness in the face of intense enemy EW and defensive measures. Yes, there were risks associated with prioritizing certain areas and allowing other areas to remain less monitored but that was the nature of war.
Back aboard the LHA, the assault Commander noted that the assault area display was slowly beginning to fill in. While the surveillance picture was insufficient to give him a real-time display of the number of rounds remaining in every enemy soldier’s rifle magazine, it was adequate to provide an indication of where enemy units were and were not and in what approximate strength. With this degree of information, he could begin adjusting his own positions and start calling in fire support where he needed it.
Looking for an opportunity to flank the enemy mechanized battalion that was anchoring the central defensive works, he ordered his Recon Coordinator to concentrate on a stretch of river far to the enemy’s right. If he could slip a company of infantry in ACVs up the river, they could turn and cut into the enemy’s rear and isolate them from reinforcement. Again, dozens of small catapults on the UAV carrier launched as one and a small UAV recon swarm formed up and headed for the designated river.
It took about 30 minutes for the UAV recon swarm to reach the river whereupon they spread out and began their search. The Commander, noting the time, turned his attention to the recon swarm. As he watched, the UAV signals began disappearing. In a matter of minutes, the swarm was wiped out without a single target being detected. That, the Commander knew, could only have happened if the swarm had run into a large concentration of well equipped enemy forces. It was safe to assume there was at least an enemy company and quite possible a battalion with attached anti-air units. Sometimes, a flaming datum was as good as real data. Having been saved from a possibly disastrous flanking attempt, the Commander marked the river as a likely company/battalion location. The information would shortly be reflected on the display screens of his own units as communications processing time allowed. He also passed the information on to the naval commander for air strike and naval gun attention.
We see from this fictional snippet that effective battlefield surveillance is possible but only if we build some fundamental assumptions, based on reality, into our concept.
- Failure must be built into the concept. The system will be degraded but must operate effectively in a degraded form.
- Attrition among UAV assets will be extreme and UAV assets must be dirt cheap and plentiful – almost unlimited in available quantity.
- A dedicated UAV surveillance carrier will be required.
- The goal must be broad, general, situational awareness, not total, real time omnipotence.
- Communications will be severely degraded and must be designed to function as such. A real time network is pure fantasy. Communications and data transmissions will have to be on a ‘when possible’ basis.
What all this means is that we must drastically scale back our surveillance expectations. Exquisitely detailed, real time information is not possible in an electronically contested environment. We must learn to work with fragmentary information. It is sufficient to know that a battalion size unit is in a given area – that we don’t know how many rivets are on each vehicle is not an impediment to effective operations and, more importantly, is not a requirement for effective operations. Our surveillance goal should be to obtain the minimum information we need, not the maximum.
What all this means is that our current plans and equipment are, largely, wrong and useless. The Navy’s touted distributed lethality concept is a prime example of an idea that will not work and urgently needs to be reworked (doubtful) or abandoned (preferred). Our Triton and P-8 aircraft are unsuited for battlefield surveillance. We lack a cheap, expendable surveillance UAV. Our underwater unmanned vehicles are completely inappropriate for battle surveillance although they may play a role in the larger strategic surveillance requirements. We lack a supporting vessel (UAV carrier) for mobile, cheap, short range surveillance UAVs. We utterly lack any viable Concept of Operations (CONOPS) for naval battle surveillance.
In short, we currently have almost nothing of use for naval battle surveillance. We desperately need to begin exercising our concepts in a realistic fashion so that we can start recognizing their inherent faults and start working towards a concept that is actually viable.