The US Navy and Marine Corps has grandiose plans for future combat based on sterile, clean, carefully orchestrated concepts of networks, sensors, and data all seamlessly and flawlessly linked to every unit and individual on the battlefield. Our forces will have perfect situational awareness, perfect synchronicity, and a degree of omniscience almost unimaginable, all carefully controlled by massive artificial intelligence-aided command and control software.
Let’s set aside the fantasy aspects of the preceding vision and just ask ourselves one simple question: what if we find ourselves in a position where our assumptions are not valid? What if? … What then?
Here’s a highly relevant quote from retired Marine Gen. Charles Krulak,
“Where were we weak? We were weak in any kind of close terrain. If we got into urban environments, if we got into woods, if we got into any place where our systems, our overhead systems, couldn’t see, if they were able to get us dispersed, if we weren’t able to bring together our combat power, if we were dumb enough to continue to drive down the same roads, to walk like we did in Vietnam or drive like we did in Iraq, they would blow us up.” (1)
There it is; the key assumption and key weakness in today’s vision of battlefield omniscience: if we get into a situation where our systems can’t see. If we get into a situation where our sensors can’t see or, seeing, can’t communicate their data or the data can’t be disseminated over the network. If that happens, our entire concept of battlefield dominance breaks down and we lose.
Why might our systems not be able to ‘see’? The list of possible reasons is long and, in the aggregate, quite likely:
Weather – Bad weather is still a reality and still negatively impacts sensor performance. Clouds obscure and degrade lasers and satellites. Rain impacts radar, infra-red (IR), lasers, and electro-optical (EO). Fog impacts electro-optical, laser, and IR. Waves degrade radar. Wave clutter obscures targets.
Attrition – The enemy is going to do everything they can to destroy our sensors and platforms like the P-8 Poseidon, MQ-9 Reaper and similar large, slow, non-stealthy UAVs, MQ-8 Fire Scouts, etc. are going to have battlefield lifetimes measured in minutes, at best.
Obscurants – Multi-spectral chemical obscurant clouds hinder all forms of surveillance.
Cyber – China, NKorea, Russia, and Iran have repeatedly proven their competence at conducting cyber warfare right now, during supposed peacetime, so one can only assume that the degree of cyber attacks will increase dramatically in a real war. Those attacks will degrade and negate our communications, command and control, sensor nets, unmanned control systems, and many other aspects that we haven’t even thought of yet. Won’t we be surprised when our F-35s are cyber attacked through their vaunted APG-81 AESA radar (if it can receive signals, it can be cyber attacked) and we lose control of various aircraft functions? Also, if we go to war with any one of those enemies, you can be sure that the rest will drastically ramp up their cyber attacks against us in support of whoever we’re fighting. We’ll be fighting a 4-front cyber war.
Jamming – Old fashioned and highly effective. Jamming has evolved to become a computer controlled, frequency hopping weapon and, of course, there’s always good old, reliable, broad spectrum, high power jamming. We’ll find our communications and signal links degraded or eliminated.
Fog of War – Since time immemorial, combatants have understood that nothing ever goes as planned and confusion reigns supreme on the battlefield. To this day, despite all our vaunted technology, we constantly suffer confusion, often with fatal results, during our daily, peacetime operations. We suffer friendly fire, ship collisions, uncertainty about whether we were actually attacked by anti-ship missiles (the Yemen affair), and so on. In war, our UAVs will be shot down, our comm links will be disrupted, our networks will fail, and we’ll be completely confused. Confusion is the normal state of affairs on the battlefield and all of our technology can do nothing to change that.
Cover – Buildings, foliage, caves, tunnels, camouflage netting, etc. all provide cover, to a greater or lesser extent, from radar, IR, EO, lasers, and satellites.
Decoys – Decoys don’t hide anything but they degrade sensor performance by presenting false targets, adding to the previously discussed confusion.
What if any, many, or all of these mitigating conditions exist on a battlefield (and they will ! )? Our omniscient sensing will be suddenly rendered suspect or useless. What then? Our entire foundation of future battle is based on a concept whose failings and vulnerabilities are readily anticipatable. What then?
What if our sensors, networks, communications, and artificial intelligence command and control systems are degraded or rendered useless? What do we actually have to fall back on? Frighteningly, the answer is … nothing. We have no fall back mode of operation. No alternatives. No safety net.
What should be the ‘what if’ solution? What do you fall back on when everything else falls apart? Why, firepower, of course … broad area, high explosive, non-precision, erase entire grid squares, raw firepower. Firepower makes up for a whole lot of mistakes, capability gaps, sensor failures, and intelligence shortcomings. Not sure exactly where the enemy is? No problem … blanket any suspect areas with high explosives and you’ve solved the problem. You can figure out later which area they were actually in … if you can find any pieces of them large enough to identify.
The problem is that we’ve been eliminating firepower. The Marines have shed all their tanks and much of their artillery. We’ve allowed our anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, to become obsolete with only the possibility of the LRASM to replace it and budget constraints make that a dubious proposition. We’re dropping thousands of VLS cells as we begin retiring Ticonderogas and Burkes and replacing them with small, weak, unmanned vessels. We’re dropping the already weak 5” gun in favor of the 57mm overgrown machine gun. We’ve got a looming submarine shortfall. We’ve significantly cut back our SSBN deterrence in terms of both numbers of subs and numbers of missile tubes. The Marines have eliminated their large 120 mm mortars. Our offensive mine inventory is almost non-existent. The SSGN is being retired without replacement. The Perry class frigates were replaced by the non-combat LCS. And the list goes on.
Any good battle operation planner routinely plans for failure scenarios, for the the things that can go wrong. Contingency plans are drawn up to account for and compensate for the unexpected and for the things that go wrong because … things always go wrong. This is just good, solid, battle planning and yet, we have no such contingency plan for when our entire future combat model falls apart – and it will. The only question is to what extent it will fail and considering the sheer number of failure modes, the extent of failure is likely to be significant. The contingency plan should be pure, raw firepower and yet we’re divesting ourselves of firepower. We need to reverse this trend and begin emphasizing firepower as we always have in the past.
What’s the downside to building our firepower back up? There isn’t one! Worst case – meaning if it turns out that our networks work flawlessly – we’re left with excess firepower that didn’t get used. Nothing wrong with that.
(1)Defense One website, “Want to Understand the Future of War? Talk to Chuck Krulak”, Tobias Naegele, 3-Feb-2018,