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Fighting With No Net, Comms

The realities of fighting shadowy enemies in the urban canyons of Baghdad and the mountains of Afghanistan have not been terribly kind to the “network-centric warfare” concept. It has rapidly gone from driving some of the Pentagon’s costliest systems to something of a pejorative. Now, those charged with crafting the military’s new battlefield concepts and future force are trying to find out how well troops fight when they have no network or comms.

This week, Joint Forces Command is running high-level war games to test its new Capstone Concept for Joint Operations in three potential future scenarios: battling a regional power; fighting in and simultaneously trying to stabilize a failed or failing state; and combating a widely dispersed global terrorist network.

In all three scenarios, “blue teams” are forced to operate in a “network challenged environment,” where they lose radio communications and digital connectivity either because of cyber attack or the network is otherwise not available, said Rear Admiral Dan Davenport, concept director at JFCOM, speaking on a conference call yesterday with reporters. In such environments, decentralized operations with small units may be the only way to remain effective, he said.

“We’re taking the [small units] off the net completely. What do you do then? Did you have the right education and training in place, the right commanders intent, did you have those tools in place so they can operate effectively when we lose those nets,” said deputy JFCOM commander Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward. The war game is also looking at the need for backup systems that would allow troops to switch to alternate networks that may not be compromised. “Have we developed that backbone of C2 so it’s not just based on satellites so you have an air leg or a ground leg so that triad of communications is in place?”

JFCOM is pushing hard on that small unit concept. In a fascinating speech this week at CSIS, Joint Forces Command’s Gen. James Mattis repeated his call for a radical reorganization of the Army and Marine Corps into smaller, “high performing” units, along the special forces model. Whether conducting precision commando raids and strikes in Baghdad or advising Afghan army battalions, small teams have punched far above their weight on the decentralized modern battlefield where the enemy is widely dispersed. “Its going to be more important what individuals brings to the battlefield than their numbers,” he said. JFCOM is working with Special Operations command to infuse lessons learned from small commando teams in Iraq and Afghanistan into regular units.

When battling hybrid threats, well armed adversaries fighting in a fluid and decentralized way, the versatility and flexibility of small units is a “significant game changer,” Harward said. It will demand a shift in mindset, particularly among senior leaders, so they are willing to push authority down to the NCO level.

In the face of vulnerable digital networks, Mattis emphasized the need to disaggregate authority and decision making to much lower levels and to “restore initiative” among small unit leaders. While network connectivity has increased troops’ abilities to communicate and improved their situational awareness with everything from GPS to live video feed, it has also led to an “over-centralization” of command. “Operations in the future will occur at the speed of trust,” he said, generalized instructions, “commander’s intent,” will replace detailed orders.

Harking back to Cold War days, Mattis said troops were trained to stay off the communications net because an enemy’s sensors could locate a unit through its radio emissions, “to press that handset meant you were going to get 36 rounds of Russian artillery on top of your head.” He fears a generation of combat experienced troops may have learned the wrong lessons. “We have not, as best as I can determine, turned off a radio once in the last 8 years of active operations.”

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