The Future: The US Military is Constructing: a Giant, Armed Nervous System
September 26, 2017 By Patrick Tucker Read bio
Service chiefs are converging on a single strategy for military dominance: connect everything to everything.
Leaders of the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines are converging on a vision of the future military: connecting every asset on the global battlefield.
That means everything from F-35 jets overhead to the destroyers on the sea to the armor of the tanks crawling over the land to the multiplying devices in every troops’ pockets. Every weapon, vehicle, and device connected, sharing data, constantly aware of the presence and state of every other node in a truly global network. The effect: an unimaginably large cephapoloidal nervous system armed with the world’s most sophisticated weaponry.
In recent months, the Joint Chiefs of Staff put together the newest version of their National Military Strategy. Unlike previous ones, it is classified. But executing a strategy requiring buy-in and collaboration across the services. In recent months, at least two of the service chiefs talked openly about the strikingly similar direction that they are taking their forces. Standing before a sea of dark- blue uniforms at a September Air Force Association event in Maryland, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said he had “refined” his plans for the Air Force after discussions with the Joint Chiefs “as part of the creation of the classified military strategy.”
The future for the Air Force? The service needed to be more like a certain electric-car manufacturer.
“Every Tesla car is connected to every other Tesla car,” said Goldfein, referring to a presentation by Elon Musk about the ways his firm’s vehicles learn from their collective experience. “If a Tesla is headed down the road and hits a pothole, every Tesla that’s behind it that’s self-driving, it will avoid the pothole, immediately. If you’re driving the car, it automatically adjusts your shocks in case you hit it, too.”
Goldfein waxed enthusiastically about how Tesla was able to remotely increase the battery capacity of cars in the U.S. Southeast to facilitate evacuation before the recent hurricanes.
“What would the world look like if we connected what we have in that way? If we looked at the world through a lens of a network as opposed to individual platforms, electronic jamming shared immediately, avoided automatically? Every three minutes, a mobility aircraft takes off somewhere on the planet. Platforms are nodes in a network,” the Air Force chief said.
The idea borrows from the “network centric warfare” concept that seized the military imagination more than a decade ago. But what leaders are today describing is larger by orders of magnitude. It’s less a strategy for integrating multiple networks into operations more efficiently than a plan to stitch everything, networks within networks, into a single web. The purpose: better coordinated, faster, and more lethal operations in air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.
So the Air Force is making broad investments in data sharing. Maj. Gen. Kimberly A. Crider, the service’s first data officer, is setting up a series of experimental tests in the Nevada desert at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, seeking to better understand “what happens when we actually connect into this resilient and agile network” said Goldfein. The Air Force’s current experimentation with next-generation light tactical attack aircraft are as much about hardware as networks, he said. “Not only what can I buy and what can they do, but more importantly, can they connect? Can they actually share? And can we tie it to a new network that’s based on sharable information that gets me beyond the challenges I have right now in terms of security?”
The Air Force is also fielding new connected devices. The handheld “Android Tactical Assault kit” or ATAK, designed with special operations forces, provides a common operational picture of everything going on — basically, doing what a huge command-and-control station used to do a few years ago. “What we determined was that there were so many devices on the battlefield that had information that we weren’t collecting. Rather than build a system to pull that in, we actually went to a commercial entity and they created an algorithm. It’s user-defined and it pulls in whatever data you need and puts it on Google Maps,” said Goldfein.
The Air Force used the device during this year’s hurricane relief efforts, sending rescue teams to people reaching out for help on social media, Goldfein said.
The Air Force Science Board is also launching a study into how to control a constellation of objects, some in the air, some in the sea, some on land, some piloted by humans and others more autonomous. James Chow, the board’s new head, said the study would also consider how to connect to other services.
Importantly, although the study would come out of the Air Force, it wouldn’t stop at just Air Force equipment but would extend to other weapons and vehicles in the battlespace, like Navy destroyers, said Chow.
“Our scope would be in helping the Air Force to think about operations they would be conducting that would incorporate joint sensors and platforms, like destroyers, I think that has to be part of it. And that is within the charter of the study,” Chow said, adding that the study has “the highest priority level for Air Force leadership.”
The Multi-Domain Army and Marine Corps
The U.S. Army, too, is investing big dollars into figuring out how to connect everything on the battlefield. An Army Research Lab program called the Internet of Battle of Things will be led by researchers at the University of Illinois, with help from the Universities of Massachusetts, multiple California State branches, Carnegie Mellon, and SRI International.
The Army is currently revising its Operating Concept for itself the Marine Corps for 2025-2040. It basically forms the framework for writing future Army doctrine, which in turn shapes training, weapons acquisition, and operations. The final draft won’t be available until the Association of the United States Army conference in October, but sources close to the drafting process said it will focus on networked, multi-domain battle.
The Marines are already conducting experiments along these lines. In April, the Corps’ Warfighting Lab staged a beach assault, linking together robots, ships, satellites, amphibious assault vehicles to share targeting info and other situational intelligence.
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