4 February 2010

On the Threshold of Digital Battlefields

The renowned military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz is probably best known for his quote, “War is merely a continuation of politics by other means.” This statement reflects the relationship between military strategy, agency and politics. Armies have always acted as an agent of national will throughout history, with evolving weapons and tactics. George S. Patton, the famous American World War II general once said, “Battles maybe fought with weapons, but they are won with men.” This very true statement may be said to be evolving into something like, “Battles maybe fought with weapons, but they are won with information.”

Information, in fact, has always been an essential tool for military maneuvers. The very basic questions of self and situational awareness have remained the same: “Where are friendly units?”, “Where is the enemy?”, “What are the properties of the environment?”, and so on. What has changed, or developed, are the means and systems that answer these questions and communicate the responses to the army as a whole.

One proverb says, “It is much more easier to fight a hundred individuals than it is to fight an army of a hundred men.” To function as a unified entity an army must move, act and react in coordination with itself, which requires close communication and coordination between its sub-units. This very basic problem of communication and coordination was solved by messengers, smoke, flags and trumpets in ancient times, but now there are computers, satellite communication systems, high power radios and sophisticated sensors.

Since the end of the Cold War, military systems, tactics and strategies have been evolving rapidly, reflecting a vision in which the conventional vertical chain of command is replaced by a spherical network of individuals, “a system of systems,” in which each unit bilaterally exchanges information with others and distributes it to other assets. This evolution, or “transformation,” as most military circles prefer to call it, was enabled by developments in Information Technologies (IT). Advances in computer, communication, data storage and handling systems have geometrically increased the capability to generate, process, analyze, distribute and store information. This dramatic increase in information processing capability presents both advantages and challenges to defense and security strategists and decision makers. Described as “Network Centric Warfare” (NCW) or “Network Enabled Capability” and a number of other phrases, almost all of which contain the word “network,” a new approach has been developed to overcome to this challenge.

To understand the true nature of the paradigm shift that defense and security decision makers face, the developments that led to this inevitable situation and their roots in the first decades of the twentieth century must be examined. This very transformation is going to shape the defense systems, technologies and strategies of the coming decade.

The Past: Evolution

The First World War reflected the effects of industrialization and mass production on societies, economies and eventually, militaries. Battles were mostly fought in the fields, in trenches. However, both sides discovered that, unlike the massive field battles of the previous centuries, the decisive outcome was to be obtained by neutralizing, paralyzing or destroying the enemy’s industrial capability to produce and supply more weapons. With the introduction of long range artillery and especially aircraft, armies’ effective range extended far beyond the field where the armies’ fought. Cities contained facilities, factories, railways, and roads. Cities also contained people who were fit for fighting, fit for working in factories, and fit for supplying the front. And cities were well within range.

The Second World War saw the triumph of mechanization on the battlefield. This triumph is symbolized by the German tactic known as “Blitzkrieg,” or “Lightning War,” the successful coordination of air and ground, or and air and sea assets often resulted in quick and decisive victories with minimal losses on both sides. The shocking battles over Poland, the Low Countries, France and the first stages of the war on the Russian front proved without question that effective communication and coordination between all of an army’s assets produced effective power projection and fire concentration. This conclusion led to the development of more and more complex weapons, sensor and communication systems, introducing the term “Human Machine Interface,” the medium through which the pilot, the driver, the gunner, i.e., the “operator,” communicated with and controlled his/her system. An aircraft no longer was a machine to fly, but a system of systems that was equipped with navigation and communication instruments, target acquisition, flight control, weapons and life support systems, all of which required more time, training and skill to operate and maintain than their predecessors.

During the Cold War era, all defense and security ideas were based on the interminable rivalry between the Atlantic and Soviet Blocs. Europe, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans remained the areas with the most potential for the outbreak of hostilities. Both sides’ military strategy, tactics and system requirements depended on the other’s corresponding assets. NATO and the Warsaw Pact armies prepared for a battle which never took place. Except for the threat of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, both parties seemed to continue to expand on the developments made and lessons learned in World War II, namely, mechanized warfare, communications and long range guided weapon systems. Both sides were at least partially aware of the weapons, aims, tactics and strategy of the other.

But the collapse of the Iron Curtain and subsequent events changed all this.

Iraq’s 1991 invasion of neighboring Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War represent a major turning point in military technology and defense strategy. A number of new, innovative and complex technologies and tactics were employed on a large scale for the first time: Radar evading aircraft, the deployment of sophisticated C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) systems, widespread use of guided weapon systems against high value targets such as communications nodes, infrastructure and logistics systems, the execution of combined air/ sea/ground operations and the intensive use of elite special operations forces showed that a force with maximum levels of training, coordination and mobility can outperform its opponent even if it is relatively small in size.

After the Gulf War came another shock, one that would affect the defense and security of the entire world.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the Atlantic Block and NATO no longer had an opponent. NATO’s very raison d'être ceased to be. This change of situation eventually affected defense and security planning, especially in terms of budget allocation and governments’ willingness to develop new warfare technologies. Most countries were freed from the burden of maintaining huge armies, supporting large numbers of sophisticated, and thus expensive to operate and maintain, weapon systems. Defense budgets began to be cropped, lots of equipment was sent to depots and scrapyards, and units were disbanded. No more MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), no more SDI (Space Defense Initiative), no more proxy wars in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.

Then came 9/11.

The Present: Transformation

The terrorist attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon marked the beginning of a new era, shaped by asymmetry, decentralization and unpredictability. Terrorism, piracy, smuggling, large scale natural disasters and ethnic conflicts have emerged as the prime threats to national security. Militaries had do adapt to this changing threat environment. Multinational operations, including peacemaking and peacekeeping missions, became routine. These types of missions require “interoperability” among participant militaries, which can be described as the ability of diverse units and platforms to operate jointly. Interoperability requires a vast array of sophisticated C4ISR systems with differing makes, models and specifications to communicate with each other. Thus it also requires common standards in the design, development, maintenance and operation of these systems.

The other factor that required military transformation were advances in communications and information technologies. Processors, sensors and electronics became more capable and yet cheaper to acquire, develop and operate. This resulted in platforms able to acquire, process, distribute and store more information. The eventual outcome of this increase in capability enabled effective downsizing, i.e., the ability of a single platform to perform more tasks than a given larger number of predecessor platforms. Being “cost effective” has become the prime objective of military Research and Development (R&D), since it has become much more expensive to develop and manufacture platforms, as well as to train the personnel needed to operate them.

The Future: Asymmetry

Just as conventional armies were transformed in order to face the challenges, threats and requirements of the twenty-first century battlefield, the nature of these very threats is transforming. The counterpart of an army is no longer necessarily another similar army. With the help of technology, small groups of determined individuals can easily harm economies, societies and government services. Unlike the standard twentieth century guerilla armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, asymmetric threats in the twenty-first century are diverse in form, motives, tools and tactics. Even a couple of personal computers with an internet connection may very well pose a threat to national security, regardless of the astonishing asymmetry between the attacker and the target.
Since the last decade of twentieth century, internet and multimedia technologies have been developing at an ever increasing rate. The number of internet users has been rising geometrically and audio, video and textual materials can now be shared much more easily. Now every individual is able to act as a freelance journalist, photographer, reporter and publisher on blogs, forums and social networks. On the other side of the coin, every individual also has an even greater range of tools at their disposal for stalling, damaging or destroying the “information highway.” The terms “hacker” and “hacking a site” have become constant variables in daily life. From personal relations to government services, each entity connected to the internet is subject to a constant threat, be it a computer virus, a trojan or a determined hacker, or even worse, hacker groups.
The cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 was a major warning for decision makers who had been reluctant to take the necessary steps. Followed by the political tension between Estonia and Russia, Russian computer hackers began a well planned and coordinated cyber assault on Estonian internet infrastructure, focusing mainly on government and social services. Since Estonia is a country in which almost all of the legal and governmental services are provided over the internet, the nation’s entire economic and administrative system collapsed. Immediately after the incident, Estonia opened the Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence and began providing training and services in cyber warfare to NATO countries, in the light of lessons learned from 2007 experience.
Cyber warfare was also used in 2008, again by the Russians, but this time to support its own troops in the field. During the conflict with Georgia in August 2008, Russian hacker groups quickly organized and started a coordinated cyber attack on Georgian internet sites. What makes this incident interesting is the fact that a huge number of “volunteers” also participated in the assault. Several easy-to-use program files were distributed in Russian discussion forums and web sites for the use of less experienced and less skilled computer users. This “recruitment” effort proved successful and a cyber volunteer army was quickly formed.

Another example of how an individual computer user with medium to minimal IT skills and experience can act as an “intelligence analyst” is the widespread use of web based terrain and satellite imagery services. Such services provide up to one meter resolution satellite imagery of the earth. Not long ago such high resolution images were only available to military and intelligence services. Casual internet users now have the ability to browse through 3D graphics of almost the entire planet. These applications make each and every user an IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) analyst. Supported by user groups, mailing lists and discussion forums, such applications have become valuable sources of OSINT (Open Source Intelligence). In the very near future, with the combination of very high speed internet connections, high performance smartphones and web based applications, every user will be an integral part of the cyber world, both user and target of massive amounts of information generated every second.
Increased bandwidth, i.e., rate of data transfer, enabled C4ISR systems to play a more important role in coordinating units on the battlefield. Complex Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems and algorithms also ease the workload of human personnel operating such systems, paving the way for Unmanned Vehicles (UV).
Found in a variety of forms according to their operating medium (Unmanned Air Vehicle, UAV; Unmanned Ground Vehicle, UGV; Unmanned Sea Vehicle, USV), UV’s are systems which have partial or full control over the course of their mission, either following a prepared plan or by employing decision making algorithms. Mainly used for intelligence gathering and surveillance missions, UV’s are beginning to be equipped with guided, long range weapon systems, supporting friendly troops while collecting mission-critical information and transferring data to command and control centers in real time by way of high capacity datalink communication systems. The trend is towards fully autonomous, armed UV’s conducting the most dangerous missions, missions for which decision makers cannot afford to risk personnel.
UV’s can also be considered the outcome of another factor, namely, the very basic element of warfare: the warfighter. Today’s warfighter is the operator of a variety of sensors and systems. Equipped with direction finding and communication systems, target detection and aiming sensors, health monitoring and life support systems, it is becoming more and more expensive and time-consuming to train and field the individual soldier. More importantly, mainly due to changing social values, the loss of each soldier hugely affects public morale and support, which are highly important to the conduct of national and/or multinational operations, given that the public’s power is boosted by mass media and communication technologies.
In addition to UV’s, another asset that decreases the risk of losing personnel is long range guided weapon systems, often referred to as “standoff weapons.” Supported by various sensor and guidance/control systems, standoff weapons furnish the ability to strike high value military and industrial targets with extremely high precision, thus they are cost-effective, and more importantly, they decrease the risk of collateral damage to civilian assets, which must be avoided if we want to win the “hearts and minds” of the public. In World War II the destruction of a building size target required about 50 bomber aircraft each with an average of ten crew members, and the probability of mission success was moderate. Now striking an equivalent target normally requires a single aircraft and risks the life of only one fighter. The probability of mission success is near one hundred percent.

The Beyond: Digital Battlefields

The basic questions a commander asks to himself have mostly remained the same throughout the centuries, but the way armies fight battles is changing rapidly. Conventional armies are becoming tools of deterrence and peacetime operations, otherwise known as “Operations Other Than War.” Economic losses and maintaining public support inhibit the will of industrialized nations to initiate and/or conduct war, especially in a world where rival blocs no longer exist. However, asymmetric threats are on the rise. Terrorism, piracy and smuggling are having more adverse effects on economies and daily lives, posing much more danger to national security than ever before. Additionally, the tools and tactics associated with these threats are also evolving. Modern armies are built for fighting wars against opponents that resemble themselves, but in the past 10 years, it has been problematic for them to define, analyze and develop countermeasures against these threats. Technology is in the service of both attacker and the defender.

Information will be the weapon and the target of modern armies. That’s why modern battles will be fought with weapons, but they will be won with information.

Arda Mevlutoglu

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