Northrop Grumman demonstrates its Distributed Autonomy/Responsive Control, or DA/RC, a prototype battle management and command-and-control system.

Northrop Grumman demonstrates its Distributed Autonomy/Responsive Control, or DA/RC, a prototype battle management and command-and-control system. Northrop Grumman

War on Autopilot? It Will Be Harder Than the Pentagon Thinks

Despite defense contractors’ glittering demonstrations, difficult realities are challenging the military’s race to network everything.

MCLEAN, Virginia — Everything is new about Northrop Grumman’s attempt to help the military link everything it can on the battlefield. One day, as planners imagine it, commanders will be able to do things like send autonomous drones into battle, change attack plans midcourse, and find other ways to remove humans and their limitations from decision chains that increasingly seem to require quantum speed. Northrop’s Innovation Center in McLean, Virginia, looks so new it could have sprung up in a simulation. Its Washington metro rail stop doesn’t even appear on many maps yet.

Northrop is hardly alone. Over the last few months, various weapons makers have begun showing off all sorts of capabilities to reporters, while military officials detail their own efforts to link up jets, tanks, ships, and soldiers. As they describe it, it’s a technological race to out-automate America’s potential adversaries. 

But real questions remain about the Pentagon’s re-imagining of networked warfare. Will it ever become more than glitzy simulations? And have military leaders thought through the implications if it does?

Today, the military’s ability to run a battlefield — its command-and-control doctrine and gear — depends partly on large-crewed, non-stealthy planes like the 1980s-designed E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, and other aircraft, ships, and ground facilities. In the modern era, the Pentagon worries that these airborne control centers have become giant, fragile targets. An advanced adversary will aim to blind and blunt a U.S. attack by neutralizing these planes, or perhaps just their on-board communications. The military is also too dependent on aging network links that differ across planes, sensors, and weapons; and that don’t offer the bandwidth that modern combat demands. 

Military officials think that the idea of a networked arsenal will materialize into a whole new command-and-control regime across the services by 2028. Along the way, there will be incremental improvements and new conversations between individual pieces of hardware, like what Northrop is developing nine miles west of the Pentagon.

Northrop has dubbed their next-gen platform Distributed Autonomy/Responsive Control, or DA/RC. Although it’s a new program, company officials say they’ve been working on the problem for 15 years. They realized that using unmanned planes for combat would require ground crews and sensor data analysts would take up too much precious space on nearby aircraft carriers. That would limit what role unmanned planes would play in missions, said Scott Winship, vice president for Advanced Programs at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. Northrop’s work on the Navy’s X-47B project — an effort to build an autonomous drone for attack or air defense — showed that the path to autonomy was allowing drones to “see” the battlespace by sharing data. That, in turn, would enable one person to control a lot more weapons, and do so, potentially, from positions inside of the range of enemy air defenses. 

Northrop believes DA/RC can underpin another project called the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, a proposed digital architecture to connect a wide variety of weapons, not just aircraft. The Pentagon’s budget request released this week seeks $302 million for the project in 2021, up from the $144 million enacted this year. ABMS is part of a broader Pentagon vision called Joint All-Domain Command & Control. JADC2 represents an effort to create a networked nervous system for warfare. It aims to link every ship, soldier, and jet, so that ground, air, sea, space, and cyber assets can share the exact same data and can be used almost interchangeably to take out targets, even in environments where communication is being heavily jammed or where adversaries have advanced air defenses. 

It’s more than just hype. JADC2 is essentially the military’s recipe for defeating a highly advanced adversary like Russia or China. Many of the military’s big new spending priorities — autonomy, advanced AI, hypersonics, etc. — are in service to the idea.

More than three years ago, Northrop began to conduct experiments toward this new battlefield web. First, they connected unmanned submarines to manned ships. They began work on a command-and-control dashboard to enable commanders to see every vehicle, aircraft, and other weapon in their arsenal, as well as all the threats on the battlefield between planes and their targets, based on sensed data from those weapons. They programmed it to automatically update when circumstances on the ground change, and even to adjust battle plans — either offering the commander recommendations or, if set to do so, sending out new tasking orders, dispatching jets to strike targets and drones to escort them to jam defenses along the way.

It's a picture of war on autopilot. 

That concept worries some watchdogs. Northrop officials emphasized that commanders will be able to direct every piece on the battlefield to comply with military doctrine, rules of combat, and laws of war. But, ultimately, the commander will be able to decide which rules and doctrine he or she wishes to follow. Want to tell a drone to strike a target even if the communications are cut off? The JADC2 could allow a commander to give a drone a mission and send it on its way. Missiles, of course, are used in this fashion, but drones, with the ability to send imagery of the target area back to humans for review and approval, are generally not. The notion cuts close to the Pentagon’s central rule for the robot age: that humans will never be removed from decisions to kill. 

Northrop’s concept appeared very similar to a software suite that Lockheed Martin showed reporters in November. Winship says Northrop aims less to tell the Air Force what its new ABMS system should look like than to engineer more autonomy into things that service officials are already buying. 

ABMS is a massive project made up of smaller projects that bear fruit incrementally. The Air Force plans to continue testing every four months to demonstrate new links between different weapons and vehicles; the next one planned for April. Officials hope to bring new capabilities into operation as fast as they emerge, said Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force, on Monday. “Now it’s just a matter of going to individual combatant commanders and figuring out what are the next things they want to test.”

Can One Service Connect Them All? 

Last May, the Pentagon began to organize around the JADC2 concept at the insistence of Gen. Paul Selva, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Staff stood up a cross-functional team, basically a group of people with varied expertise, under the J6 (the Joint Staff’s branch for advising all things related to command, control and cyber.) Their role is to bring all the military services together in one big data loop, according to Army Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, director of the Futures Concepts Center at Army Futures Command. The Air Force is doing much of the initial work, but in January, they invited leader from the Army and other services to a classified JADC2 conference at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. 

Wesley said Army leaders worry that their own experiments, ideas, and standards for data and hardware will be discarded under the Air Force-run effort, and that JADC2 will ultimately privilege air assets over ground ones.

“What we would argue is that within this Advanced Battle Management construct, you need to figure out all of the work and the weapon systems that we are building out within the Army into the edge portion of the framework,” he said, meaning, the front lines on the ground.

Wesley's question for the folks leading the effort is: “Am I building ABMS so that the Army can plug into it? And Army, am I building weapon systems with an ABMS backbone? Both have to accommodate that.”

He said he hopes that the Air Force was on the same page. “I think we’re at the early stages of that. And what [the event at] Nellis did was it allowed us to be very clear about what we want them to build. I think they heard us. It was a good, transparent conversation. It would be too early to say they aren’t building it because it is not built out yet.”

Wesley said the aim is to realize the vision of network-centric warfare by 2028. 

“I do think it's going to take five to 10 years to build a viable joint system on the scale that we are describing” he said. 

Linking the battlefield means linking the troops on it as well, and that's a big job, Gen. Mike Murray, head of U.S. Army Futures Command, said on Monday. 

“You can’t discount the scale that comes with the Army. This is about much more than linking 200 planes. This is about linking hundreds of thousands of sensors, especially when you get into working things like IVAS where every soldier is going to be a sensor," he said, referring to the digital goggles formally known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System. "As we look toward the future, I clearly see a day where everything on the battlefield can be a sensor and should be a sensor.”

Murray is also worried about how well NATO allies will be able to fit into the picture, especially when it comes to coordinating weapons with shared radar data. “You can’t discount the absolute necessity of having allies and partners being part of this equation. They have to be part of this architecture and have to be networked in,” he said. 

‘It Will Be Harder Than They Think’

In the military, new systems like ABMS and JACD2 require new doctrine and concepts of operation. What will machines actually be allowed to do on their own? 

More than they do now, Will Roper, assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told reporters last month. Evolving circumstances and technological improvements may force a reconsideration of the requirement to give a human veto power over every decision a machine might make in war.

“The idea of the machine taking on a lethal decision? That’s against the [Defense] Department's policy. We do have exceptions where we have automatic action for self-defense. I would imagine that if we build out ABMS, we will allow greater flushing out of that policy,” Roper said. “A lot of progress in government is really earning your way to a better problem. Right now our problem is, really: we have a lot of data and it doesn’t get to people who can make decisions based on it. We want to shed that problem and get to ‘our information now gets to people who can make decisions; do we let them?’ Or do we allow machines to make choices on their behalf?”

That might sound like taking a provocative change, but Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, or CNAS, says that it’s in keeping with current doctrine, which allows for lethal autonomy after a review process.

But Roper left that somewhat unclear. “The formal policy guidance, DOD Directive 3000.09, gives DOD leaders the option of building lethal autonomous weapons. They can choose not to exercise that option and even say that they would flat out reject any such weapon system. But it's confusing when senior DOD leaders refer to such a ‘policy.’ It's often unclear whether they're simply misstating what the directive is or they are referring to some unwritten, informal policy against lethal autonomy.”

To Scharre, what Roper is talking about makes sense. “I think the goal of getting the right information to the right people to make timely, informed decisions is the right goal for DOD," he said. “For situations where you always want a certain action in response to certain data or environmental stimuli, then automation may make sense.”

One defense contractor who is working on the JADC2 concept but whose company did not authorize him to speak on the record, said the Defense Department should probably manage its expectations. The challenge is larger than Pentagon officials are willing to acknowledge or admit. It goes beyond human control over machines. It requires rethinking the entire organizational and rules structure over who gets to be in control of any battlefield decisions. 

For example, will pilots be given the command authority to order the sorts of strikes and operations that today only high-level commanders can approve? The Air Force has already begun to change the way they talk about doctrine. Traditional themes of centralized command-and-control and decentralized execution is giving way to something else. That “something else” is not fully formed. 

“What they’ve now changed, and I’ve seen it on multiple slides, they’ve changed ‘centralized command-and-control and decentralized execution’ to ‘centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution’. So they've put a wedge between command and control,” the contractor said. “From a practical perspective, I do not know how to wrap my head around that.”

The Air Force aims to give that command-and-control function to the single pilots in stealthy F-22 and F-35 jets. But, said the contractor, that will entail specific changes that service leaders haven’t yet addressed. 

“The Air Force does not want wing commanders making these decisions; they want a one-star or a two-star [general] in the region making those decisions, even though they say they want to do it,” said the contractor.

“They have to deconflict it, and that’s just within the Air Force.” Other services are pushing back on changes, said the contractor.

“Assume you go to war in Southeast Asia. How is contested battle management really going to work? Even if we have these highly exquisite assets that can talk to one another, we still don’t have the network to put in place. Roper talks about it like it’s Uber. That’s not how war works. It’s not like there are 40 different F-35s flying overhead and I can just open my app and say, ‘You have bombs; you go get it’,” said the contractor. 

Of course, creating exactly that app is what the Air Force and defense contractors are so busy working toward. 

“I get the motivation, and you can reduce planning cycles a little bit, but there’s a physical limitation in moving shit from A to B,” said the contractor.  These sorts of problems, extending beyond technology but encompassing technology, is why “air tasking orders,” the precisely crafted orders that senior air commanders distribute to all the planes under his or her command during an operation, take days to develop. In the future, those decisions will need to occur within seconds, as Northrop was already demonstrating at its DA/RC demonstration.

Ready or not, everyone will have to adapt. Said the contractor, “They’ll be faced quickly and crudely with the realities of life.”