Bringing the Tactical Edge into the 21st Century
The focus for possible conflict has shifted to near-peer threats. Edge technologies need to be better integrated and orchestrated to maintain technological primacy.
Monday, December 12, 2022
Communication is key in any military conflict. From the semaphoric systems of ancient civilizations to colonial fifes and drums to today’s modern digital platforms, getting information to and from the field of battle has often meant the difference between victory and defeat.
Despite the dramatic advances in technology in recent decades, however, much of the battlefield communications infrastructure remains disjointed, making it expensive, resource-intensive and slow. Not only does this result in missed opportunities when trying to complete a mission or achieve an objective, it can put lives at risk when units become isolated or information or orders fail to disseminate properly.
Both the newly released US Army Field Manual 3.0 and the UK’s Defence Doctrine Publication 0-01 (UKDD) describe a shift from irregular warfare to peer and near-peer threats.
These are set alongside NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept which asserts that it is ‘pervasive instability, rising strategic competition and advancing authoritarianism’ that now challenges the international world order.
All three agree this is further complicated by the acceleration of technological development, enabling threats in new domains of cyber and space. If conflict breaks out, it is technological primacy that will influence success on the battlefield.
Changing character of war
Shifting from counter-insurgency operations to preparing for possible peer conflict requires not only a revamp of doctrine but a significant change to the methods of warfare – how nations organize the composition of their fighting arms.
In recent asymmetric conflicts such as Afghanistan, tactical forces comprised company or platoon operations which allowed them to be more responsive and agile. Combat was fast-moving, unpredictable and came in short bursts, with forces fighting close up to the enemy and often using small arms fire.
Planning was not conducted symbiotically between operational headquarters and tactical units –instead taking place in permanent compounds with access to personal computers, wired networks and large monitoring screens.
Edge technologies offer a chance to rectify these problems, but only if they can be integrated and orchestrated properly. Under a well-architected environment, the edge can aggregate and declutter information so it can be presented in ways that are easier to digest and understand.
The edge can provide seamless communication between multiple field devices regardless of whether they use high or low bandwidth frequencies. And perhaps most importantly, information flowing to and from command posts and backup resources is more fluid with higher levels of automation that reduce delays and the number of errors.
Peer and near peer conflict
By contrast the nature of peer-to-peer conflict requires not only the sharing of a common operational picture but also the ability for all echelons to have an integrated, planning ability. This involves the coordination of larger formations which tend to be more fluid than irregular war or counter-insurgency operations.
There are often significantly more troops involved in this method of warfare. Forces at the front will need to be rotated with reserves which requires detailed sharing of plans and information with staff back at the planning headquarters at brigade and battalion level.
Threats from drones and long-range precision-guided weapons also require dispersal of both headquarters and deployed units to reduce their vulnerabilities, presenting a real challenge for command and control. It is essential that personnel remain connected through a swift electronical exchange of information across all levels of command.
In these scenarios, plans must be done on the move to allow for flex in rapidly evolving situations. These need to not only be sent down the chain of command, but also up, providing information to continually inform the operational level of war. That co-ordination of movement and fire among soldiers on the ground and the supporting weaponry is essential for both successful engagement and to mitigate casualties.
While no plan survives contact with the enemy, an instant exchange of information is needed to assess how plans should be adapted before being sent out to units. Counterattacks require swift planning, coordination, and execution to be effective. This includes coordination of indirect and direct fire support.
The need to maintain technological primacy
To meet these challenges, as the new doctrine suggests, command and control (C2) comes firmly into the spotlight. Essential for all military activity, it must be done well, or it invites disaster, even against a poorly equipped enemy. To do this, considerations should include:
- The assimilation of all warfighters into the planning and information process is necessary to coordinate the movements of largescale forces. Many legacy systems are simply not equipped to do this – a C4ISR suite that integrates the strategic, operational and tactical levels enables the exchange of battle-winning information, plans and orders quickly and at scale across all echelons. The ability for mobile units to be fully armed with fresh information about the enemy and own plan of attack is imperative to peer-to-peer conflict strategy.
- Speed and accuracy are essential for all types of warfare, but especially when managing forces en masse. Maps and data need to be constantly refreshed and synchronised – even when there is little or no bandwidth. Offensive electronic warfare can severely impede the ability of a force to conduct an informed assault as they may be offline for significant periods. Solutions that are not reliant on internet bandwidth are therefore paramount.
- An ability to share a common operational picture that includes troop tracks, enemy tracks and tactical graphics is an essential means of communicating tasks, plans and orders to everyone across the battalion.
- Off the shelf solutions offer flexibility and integration – these are tried and tested, ensuring peace of mind. They come with the ability to integrate into a full suite, allowing the compilation of battlefield planning tools such as a synch matrix to produce maximum relative combat power.
- Uncomplicated systems that have the same look and feel across all products mean that soldiers and units work with an integrated system from the tactical edge to the command post right up to the operational and strategic levels. This builds trust and knowledge that is essential for operating at reach.
- Using highly specialised modern equipment in big tech, peer-to-peer conflicts means that training must be prioritised. In-app training solutions provide mobilised forces flexibility to conduct their training without spending time attending classroom training or needing a tutor.
Today’s edge technology can make all the difference. In order to support rapid, decisive action in fast-moving, chaotic conditions, nothing less than complete situational awareness across all levels of command will suffice. A single network that connects mounted, dismounted and support units all the way back to headquarters enables data access at literally the touch of a finger.
Change is Needed
While the need for a robust tactical edge is abundantly clear, most deployments to date have fallen victim to excessive cost, complexity and user-unfriendliness. What’s needed is a streamlined system that is rugged enough to handle extreme conditions but advanced enough to make the complex simple.
A single user interface across the entire chain of command, for example, does wonders to reduce training time and increase operational proficiency. At the same time, it enhances the sharing of data across the board and, perhaps most importantly, builds trust in a system that our nation’s finest are counting on for their very lives.
Like all other forms of human activity these days, digital technology is heavily influencing war. Both the speed of battlefield communications and operations has increased dramatically over the past decade, and this is likely to accelerate as the century unfolds.
But one thing has not changed: the side that can gather, digest, interpret and disseminate data most rapidly and accurately will almost certainly be the winner.
For information on how Systematic can ensure the most complete C2 at the tactical edge please click here.