In this recent article on AOL Defense, Frank Hoffman discusses hybrid warfare and AirSea Battle. In the course of the article, he seems to say that the major defect in the US military is a lack of communications connectivity or a “network.”
"Warfare's all about asymmetries, trying to find a competitive advantage, hopefully enduring," said Hoffman. For the US, that edge may be the ability to link its own forces together in an all-service network of systems – especially unmanned ones, not just in the air but on the water and the ground – while attacking the enemy's less-sophisticated network with both new cyber-weapons and traditional electronic warfare tools like jamming.
Today, "it's definitely networks and linkages that are missing," said Hoffman, especially between the services and between such traditionally unconnected combat arms as aircraft and submarines. In the future, "we're going to probably have fewer platforms" – ships, planes, tanks – "but they're going to be better networked, better integrated," Hoffman said. "That's where the greatest investment should probably go."
I’m skeptical that the lack of a network, in the physical, communications infrastructure sense is that big of an advantage or disadvantage for the US military. We’ve had communication infrastructure in place for decades, and I personally have never had a technological problem with communicating with other branches. There are other problems though. Time for a story.
In 2008 in Diyala, I was involved in the planning and post-operation AAR of a small scale helo assault operation. The operation involved Army rotary wing assets, Army infantry forces, Iraqi Army infantry forces with Marine advisors, and Air Force rotary assets. The helo assault went smoothly and the objective was reached. Subsequently, seven “squirters” left the objective, a small village, and hunkered down outside it. The Army ground forces were sent to investigate the seven men and were talked on to their position by an Air Force helo pilot who had eyes on their position. The soldiers approached the seven men in a column formation. When the Army squad reached the seven men, they pulled small arms from underneath their bodies and ambushed them, causing two KIA and pinning down the squad. The Army squad alerted the Iraqi forces through the Marine advisors, and the IA forces maneuvered on the rear of the enemy ambush, killing some and causing the rest to flee. Subsequent viewing of the aerial footage revealed that the seven enemy were arrayed along a road in a classic linear ambush formation. Any of the ground forces involved, if they had seen the footage, would have instantly recognized it as such. The Air Force pilot, unfortunately, did not and walked the infantry squad right into the kill zone of the ambush.
I tell this story not to knock the Air Force or the pilot, who was never trained in small unit tactics and could not have recognized the ambush. Rather, it illustrates that what is missing from our “network” may not be the technology necessary to communicate with each other, but rather the context needed to understand each other. Information could easily be passed between the Air Force pilot and the Army infantryman in real time. What was missing was a common frame of reference to match the pilot’s interpretation with the infantryman’s knowledge to produce recognition of the situation. The pilot probably said something like, “Seven suspicious men to your Northeast.” If the pilot instead had said, “Seven men in a linear ambush formation along the road to your Northeast” that would have triggered, in the infantryman’s mind, a different course of action. If the Army squad had reached the enemy in a squad online or squad V formation, the result would have been drastically different. Basically, two US personnel were speaking different languages which led to tragedy.
Theories like Network-Centric Warfare that have a heavy focus “networking” US forces make two false assumptions. One is that networked forces will have access to all the required information needed to operate. Perfect information is, of course, impossible. Second, they assume that information will be interpreted the same way between units. As long as wars are fought by humans, this will never be true. While a highly advanced network that integrates all US military forces would certainly be beneficial, it is not THE answer and will not necessarily lead to superiority over enemy forces. Increased information would also have drawbacks. In this instance, if the squad had a screen where he could view the aerial footage from the helo, he would have had better situational awareness and certainly would have changed his approach. However, while he was focused on watching a screen, he would lose focus on his immediate surroundings. The trade off would have been beneficial in this case where the area was secure accept for the seven enemy in question, but that would not be the case in every situation. Getting more information to the troops on the ground can lead to information overload or distraction and an internal focus vice an external focus.
A truly networked force would not just have the means to communicate with any other unit, but would also need a common operating picture with which to process the information that it receives. Our individual frames of reference are influenced by experience, training, service doctrine, education, culture, and a myriad of other sources. Since those influences will never be the same for any two people, we should not put too much hope in advanced networks as a guarantor of victory.