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It is folly to plan to fight the information age war using contemporary technologies fixed to industrial age CONOPS and platforms. We need new Information age thinking, CONOPS and architectures to fight information age wars.
The military transformational pivot towards Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) contains a dangerous flaw. It is based on old paradigms grounded in ‘yesterday’s logic’ obstinately constructed on a re-run of the last war of platforms assisted by some new novel upgrades.1 It is based on legacy Industrial age doctrine, concepts and models, all perfectly honed to fight a perfect industrial age war.
“More of the same will not be good enough.
We must fundamentally change our thinking if we are not to be overwhelmed”2
If our mission is to hold information advantage, decision dominance and cognitive superiority in the future hyper-speed, global and political Information-age influence war, then we need new data-centric thinking. We also need a slew of new Information age doctrine, concepts and models. As directed by CDS ‘We must chart a direction of travel from an industrial age of platforms to an information age of systems’. Without this we just generate splendid islands of digital capability connected by legacy analogue string, delivering great photo-ops but little if any battlefield effect.
“We must come to terms with the fact that following yesterday’s rules of war will not lead to today’s (or tomorrow’s) successes.” General McChrystal in ‘The New Rules of War’3
The weakness of current architecture
Our legacy ICT architecture is unable to cope with the tempo of a future information age war, especially considering the accelerating trajectory of global technological advancements. Nor was this architecture ever designed to repel a sustained virtual/cyber-assault from a determined cyber-state adversary using modern cyber-weapons. Furthermore, our Science and Technology Strategy directs us towards ‘generation-after-next capabilities.’
The conclusion is that current legacy architecture on its incremental refresh trajectory is incapable of providing information, narrative, decision or cognitive superiority over a near-peer adversary. A fundamental step-change in whole-force digital literacy, evergreening and information warfare thinking is urgently required.
‘An army that is out-thought will almost always be out-fought,
no matter how bravely or skilfully its soldiers perform on the battlefield’ (British Army Doctrine Primer)
Operating Concepts, Capstones and JADOs
The Network Centric Warfare (NCW) model, OODA Loop and linear kill chain model (Figure 1) that have traditionally underpinned modern military operations, have changed little since their inception in the 1950s. But the advancements in modern technologies that now pervade the contemporary operating environment are all-embracing.
As war spreads from the physical battlefield into the virtual and cognitive battlespace, the UK MOD recently published its Integrated Operating Concept 2025. This sets out the UK government’s future strategy on the utility of armed forces in today’s era of Political Warfare. It is an inflection point between the industrial age platforms military and the information age systems enterprise. It is also the first conceptual paper on how the asymmetric army for the digital age will be deployed.
The new NATO Warfighting Capstone and US Joint All-Domain Operations concept have also signalled a pivot away from traditional industrial age ‘total war’ to a new state of ‘persistent competition’. Russia has done the same, giving primacy to ‘non-kinetic’ means.4 China has reorganised its space, cyber and electro-magnetic capabilities to overcome its ‘peace disease’ so it too can join Russia and Iran in the top triumvirate of nation-state cyber-attackers.
The recent conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh have illustrated just how much modern technology and information warfare has triumphed over industrial age heavy-metal. In the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war Paul Mason detailed how within six weeks, over 185 upgraded T-72 tanks of the Russian backed Armenian Army were destroyed by Azerbaijan controlled UAVs. He concludes that these exquisite industrial age war machines are now no more than lumbering metal-box targets in a lethal game of ‘hide and seek’. These metal sunset capabilities are now finally relics of a past industrial age Cold War. Outwardly it appeared that UAVs and missiles seemed to have dominated this war. It was not until the details were analysed more closer that it was actually the speed 5 multi-domain integrated operations and synchronised kill-chains that made this modern war so swift, lethal and absolute.
So what is the model for an information age battle?
The doctrine of observe, orient, decide and act, based on Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop from 1956, is still the foundation of contemporary kill-chains and decision making. The current underlying architecture is now unable to cope with the speed of an information age battle, that moves at machine-speed through multiple domains, dimensions and environments. Command and control of multiple-domains (MDC2)’not only new technologies but new concepts’ explained General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The processing of vast amounts of data in real-time, enabling automation and autonomy, will be increasing controlled by AI. This will also require a review and update of underlying assumptions, variables and concepts.
Following this trajectory forward, the solution in the 2020s can’t be the traditional incremental ‘slightly faster horse’. Persistent competition is already here and is hyper-connected, hyper-speed and hyper-lethal. It is being fought today in and across all domains, dimensions and environments. Current concepts, models and doctrine never conceived of this battlespace are largely unable to cope with this machine-speed, technology-based manoeuvre. UK Joint Concept Note (JCN) 1/20 Multi-Domain Integration (MDI) direct that ‘A new model that takes account of the need to compete’. But what is the model for an information age battle?
“In the Information Age, wars are as much Cognitive as Kinetic. In the twenty-first century, war is about winning the information, the decision space either before or during the conflict. This will be the deciding factor”
(Lt Gen Stewart USMC, Director US USCYBERCOM)
The Transition to a Kill-Web
Researchers at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) first announced the concept of a kill-web at the C4ISRNET conference in May 2018. Instead of closed linear single-service kill-chains, they sought to aggregate these chains to formulate an adaptive mesh, referred to as a ‘kill-web’. The solution proposed by DARPA is to digitalise and integrate all the kill chains into a master warfare model. This would be achieved by building ICT architectures based on enabling concepts like sensor-to-shooter, cross-domain fires and multi-domain integration (MDI) overlapping the different linear kill-chains.
The enabling IT architecture
It won’t come as a surprise that the future kill-web will not operate on yesterday’s legacy architectures – the bearers, switching and software was never built for this hyper-speed, this quantity or scale of data-flows. Engineering an ICT architecture to enable kill-webs needs to have authoritative data and near-zero latency in the decision-making at its core (Figure 3). Data-centricity is an essential principle in this ‘Decision Engineering’ to enabling a design that does not necessarily have data in the centre but which is of central prominence with the solution. The global digital backbone using common data-sharing standards to connect sensors effectors and nodes (including those of allies, partners and the rest of government) will not work as an appendage onto current heritage infrastructure.
What is needed are new greenfield solutions designs based on innovative COTS concepts such as distributed digital infrastructure, cognitive computing (AI decision making) and data-fabric standards. With the agile development of military hardened solutions, these can deliver frictionless and resilient end-to-end sharing of information at machine-speed between sensors, weapons and other battlefield nodes.
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that this future kill-web will not operate on yesterday’s legacy architectures. Building an ICT architecture to enable kill-webs needs to have authoritative data and near-zero latency in decision-making at its core (Figure 3). Data-centricity is an essential principle to the enabling design, but that does not necessarily mean having data in the centre, just that it is of central prominence with solutions. The global digital backbone using common data-sharing standards to connect sensors effectors and nodes (including those of allies, partners and the rest of government) will not work as an appendage onto current legacy systems.
Conceptual Architecture of the Kill-Web
To enable these demands a new ICT architecture is required consisting of public/private multiple clouds, edge computer processing and a hyper-fast global digital backbone. This is needed to crunch the data generated by millions of battlefield IoT sensors instantaneously at the edge, then deliver the required information to the best ‘shooter’ impervious to any power projection by adversaries. Modern Hyper-Converged Computing (HCI) nodes that scale-to-fit-demand (referred to as Hyperscaling) are essential elements to enable distributed AI-enhanced decision-making capability “‘to win this war of cognition’. This MDO battlespace is based on data-centricity, data-locality and data-sovereignty as illustrated in the US JADC2 architecture (Figure 4).
“Yesterday’s data architecture can’t meet today’s need for speed, flexibility, and innovation.
The key to a successful upgrade – and significant potential rewards – is agility” McKinsey
To ensure decision superiority software tools, machine learning and AI will process all the data in the architecture in real-time (<1ms), comprehend the outputted information in context before anticipating/predicting what will happen in the future with weighted options for the decider. The speed and quality of this decision is then down to our appetite for risk and our ethics policies regarding having a man-in-the-loop, automation or fully-autonomous.
As shown in the conceptual architectural model (Figure 3) and the US JADC2 architecture model (Figure 4), one of the foundational elements of the future MDO will be end-to-end digital connectivity backbone. This was recently cited by the UK CDS when he directed that ‘Modern warfare … will be enabled at every level by a digital backbone into which all sensors, effectors and deciders will be plugged’. Theoretically that backbone is drawn in the form of a linear backbone but when overlaid on a future battlefield using a Distributed Digital Infrastructure (DDI) topology then Figure 5 may be more illustrative of all the future digital backbone building blocks.
Distributed Digital Infrastructure (DDI)
“How do we want to fight? That’s not a question for IT people. ‘How do we want to fight’ is a question for war-fighters” Lt. Gen. Mike Groen, US Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre
In the information age, war will mean processing data at the edges of the battlespace, transmitting vast amounts of signalling/information (not data) and engineering an overmatch decision-making strategy (using AI) that will be delivered at hyper-speed. If MDO is to deliver battlespace dominance in the ‘new strategic theatres of International competition’ the unpinning technology architecture must be that enabler for these war-fighters. As we move into a blended era of intra, inter and non-state persistent competition, foundational enterprise architecture models can guide all commanders fighting this war.
The ‘direction of travel’ ordered from CDS now needs synchronizing into agile acquisition and innovative deployment of this future hyper-scale compute, end-to-end connectivity and the empowered engagement of creative young digital warriors. If we are to direct and provide technical leadership to these young hyper-connected warriors, we need to now be publishing blueprints of foundational digital compute and global communications architecture essential to enable and cohere ‘sunrise capabilities’ like AI, robotics and autonomy.
Military transformation programmes worldwide are all pivoting their armed forces from the traditional concept of ‘Total War’ to a new information age era of ‘Persistent Competition’. Whilst many are still reluctant to retire heavy metal sunset capabilities, most global militaries are enthusiastic acquiring the advantages promised by new ‘sunrise technologies’. But therein lies a problem as these complex webs of new AI, machine learning, cybersecurity meshes and un-manned sensors/shooters chains to “be enabled at every level by a digital backbone into which all sensors, effectors and deciders will be plugged”. These capabilities are coming “on-line” now; but are doing so against a dearth of much needed information age thinking, CONOPS and architectures needed to win information age wars.
To begin the discussion, I propose the model below (Figure 6), let me know your thoughts?
- Drucker, Peter (2012) The Practice of Management.
- McFate, Sean (2019) The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder.
- Mark Galeotti (2016) Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 27:2, 282-301.
- Leonhard, Robert R. Fighting by minutes: Time and the art of war. Praeger Pub Text, 1994.