To maintain its position as the world’s dominant military, the U.S. needs new command-and-control technologies that can fully connect and put to use the capabilities of every asset available, regardless of service or domain. These new tools will need to be quickly upgradeable – often on the fly – and resilient enough so commanders can trust the data as it comes in and goes out to individual platforms and units.
Forward-thinking leaders are starting to get serious about this need. In a speech to the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida in February, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said, “If we are going to fight and win in wars of cognition, we’ve got to ask a different series of questions before starting an acquisition program on any platform, any sensor or any weapon. Does it connect? Good. Does it share? Better. Does it learn? Perfect.”
The services have long experimented with the ability to integrate and command platforms from across the services. The post-Vietnam AirLand Battle doctrine and changes in joint operations forced by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act broke domain stovepipes and prompted commanders to fuse the individual services into a single, warfighting whole.
But in an era when potential adversaries are catching up with and finding ways to nullify U.S. military capability, our current methods of combining air, land, and sea power — to say nothing of the electronic domain — are no longer good enough.
In order to fully connect and integrate the future force, the U.S. military must accelerate the adoption of autonomy, machine learning and artificial intelligence to increase the speed at which data is processed, information distributed and warfighting decisions made.
Fortunately, recent breakthroughs in these technologies promise to dramatically improve the ability to connect platforms and shrink the data-to-decision timeline. We are reaching a point where commercial software companies can develop tools and algorithms that allow commanders to make warfighting decisions nearly instantaneously, across every domain, and using whichever platforms can be networked into a battle management system, regardless of service or manufacturer. These software tools won’t remove commanders from the decision-making process; they will simply help them collect and make sense of data in a way that allows for fully informed decisions quicker than a room full of human planners ever could.
The wide-spread adoption of these technologies – already prevalent in the worlds of commercial manufacturing, logistics and consumer products – will require military leaders to change their mindset and develop new training and warfighting doctrine. And the adoption of any new technology always comes with obstacles.
Perhaps the largest is the current acquisition system, which more or less works as designed when the military needs to buy a missile, but not when they need to rapidly build, test, and upgrade software and algorithms as new capabilities are developed. The Department already has broad authorities to rapidly prototype and acquire cutting-edge technologies, but they’re not broadly used across the force today.
Cyber-resiliency will also need to be a key consideration when deploying networked technologies. It can’t be an after-thought; security must be built in at the earliest design phase and easily upgraded as threats mature.
The challenges don’t only lie with the military; industry, too, will need to reconsider how we develop truly open systems. In a future in which every platform needs to communicate quickly with every other platform, industry must be willing to develop fully open systems that can be upgraded or modified by the user as needs dictate, without needing to work through the original manufacturer. And we will need to redefine the way we share proprietary data and software.
Finally, success will require increased outreach, either directly or through traditional defense contractors, to the experts in Silicon Valley. Defense companies and the Department’s own DIUx office are already making great inroads into established tech companies to leverage their expertise, but both government and industry should increase the pace of this knowledge sharing by doing the things that have made American tech companies so successful, like hiring from outside traditional pathways and developing and sharing open-source software.
The military and industry must work side-by-side to overcome these obstacles and deploy these new technologies quickly in order to maintain our battlefield dominance. America’s adversaries are employing strategies to counter America’s technological edge. The most successful military commanders of the future will be the ones who can hone that edge by deploying the modern tools needed to speed decision times and break down the stovepipes between the services.