From sense to sense-making to actionable intelligence: Data convergence is at the center of the DoD’s new warfighting concept, but far from industry’s minds.
Even for an industry that revolves around acronyms, the number of new ones coming out of the Pentagon lately is disorienting. A2/AD, JADC2, ABMS, DMO, LOCE, MDO, ADO … the list goes on. Even the well-established term ‘C4ISR’ (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) seems to be a bunch of letters.
To add to the confusion when breaking down C5 (or C6) ISRT it is a crazy grouping of things unlike each other. Command is a position given authority at any level – a necessary activity at all levels of organization and all facets of operations. Control is an extension of command — managing battlespace within a warfighting domain. Computers are objects – in some cases weapons but completely inanimate. Communications are the ways different nodes and entities connect. Cyber is a warfighting domain. Intelligence is a military discipline that uses information collection and analysis approaches to provide options and direction to assist commanders in their decisions. Surveillance and reconnaissance are operational activities. The systematic observation of a particular named area of interest by visual, electronic, photographic, or other means and the exploration of an area by military forces to obtain information about the enemy. Finally Targeting is a process – selecting objects, locations, and installations to be attacked, taken, neutralized, or destroyed in warfare. It is completely understandable for those inside and outside the Pentagon to be completely confused by what this alphabet salad is trying to capture…
‘Cyber’ has been added to reflect the growing prominence of network-based operations, bringing the acronym to C5ISR. Other statements add ‘Combat Systems’ into the mix to make ‘C6ISR.’ Now, the addition of ‘Targeting’ tacks on a ‘T’ at the end, bringing the already jumbled C4ISR to C5ISRT. So long has the term become, in fact, that it is prompting resistance from senior DoD officials; Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael Groen, head of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, recently deemed ‘C5ISRT’ the “most grotesque acronym” he had ever encountered. In grouping together multiple different systems, he argued, a term like C5ISRT diminished the role of its component technologies and amounted to nothing more than meaningless, confusing jargon.
The General has a point. This dizzying array of new terminology mirrors the internal upheaval underway in the Pentagon, where military leaders are attempting to articulate the rapidly evolving nature of warfare. Encapsulating all these acronyms is the big one: The Joint Warfighting Concept, or JWC. With its emphasis on networks, data sharing, and integrated fires, the Joint Warfighting Concept heralds a convergence of sensors, systems, and services, and ultimately, a convergence of mission areas. This is not the way the military has typically thought about warfare. Nor does it align with the prerogatives of the defense industry, which remains focused on the sensors and shooters rather than the digital tissue connecting them.
The Joint Warfighting Concept is a fundamental break from traditional operations and military doctrine. JWC has by its nature has created friction between new ways of thinking and old ways of operating. Where doctrine is sanctioned, codified, and informed by experience, JWC concepts are nascent, informal, and oriented towards future scenarios. JWC is a direct response to an unprecedented and rapidly evolving geopolitical and technological environment. A resurgence of great power competition with an increasingly emboldened China and Russia is disrupting the strategic dynamics that have informed U.S. military doctrine for decades. Additionally, the proliferation of new capabilities such as hypersonic weapons, long-range fires, space-based assets, and sophisticated electronic and cyber effects are eroding America’s military advantage and introducing new vulnerabilities. On top of it all, the speed at which technology is evolving – reflected in the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, data processing, and telecommunications – dramatically expands the realm of the possible — for both America and its adversaries.
Making matters even more complicated is that the “Data” Domain also is even more clogged with non-military and civilian activity. In the same space where countries are at war with one another is crowded personal correspondence, ecommerce, logistics activity, and on and on… Those conflicts are for another paper but suffice to say that the JWC cannot stand up or exist in a vacuum with regard to the “battlefield” it operates on. Thus, even the boundaries of this warfighting activity are murky.
This lack of clarity defining what this new warfighting activity actually is, let alone experience fighting in such an environment, renders existing doctrine incomplete. Nonetheless, most services and Departments try to figure out how to jam this new and completely different warfighting doctrine and Tactics Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) into existing process and terminology. Thus emerges the Joint Warfighting Concept, first articulated last year by Gen. John Hyten, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The concept aims to redefine the U.S.’s future warfighting approach and modernize acquisition processes to facilitate the rapid development, testing, and fielding of new capabilities. At its core, the JWC envisions a multi-layered approach to warfare in which “fires come from all domains and services” enabled by a seamless fusion of intelligence from a range of ISR sensors. Central to this strategy is data – its extraction, its processing, its transmission, and its protection. This data-centricity is just one of the ways in which the JWC is a departure from existing military doctrine, which has typically revolved around the platform.
The JWC also takes the revolutionary step of including the “domains” of space and cyber as core operational activities – not just support into its calculations. To achieve joint firepower capability, Hyten asserts, “space and cyberspace must be both protected and utilized — or else the data crucial to winning on the ground, in the air and at sea will be unobtainable.” As incubators and vehicles for data, the cyber and space domains will be critical to U.S. military superiority, and the services must be able to maneuver in these domains as easily as they do in the air, at sea, and on land. New approaches to multi-domain operations – Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control, the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations, and the Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force – reflect a widespread understanding that future peer-on-peer conflicts will be waged across air, sea, land, space, and cyber, requiring the services to work together in a way they never have before. Not only that, but the pace of technological development guarantees that tomorrow’s battles will occur at hyper-speed, leveraging artificial intelligence, edge computing, and advanced communications to accelerate the detect-to-engage cycle.
Like any developing concept, the JWC is experiencing growing pains. Its realization is hindered by the siloed and traditionalist approaches to its implementation, highlighting the challenge of knitting together multiple disparate organizations and systems into a single coherent network. Further, only recently has the DoD budget and activity begun to include the core concepts of JWC/JADC2 into its calculations.
This integration is difficult enough at the service level. Currently, each of the branches are pursuing their own, parallel and not always synchronized efforts to implement the JWC. Project Convergence, Project Overmatch, and the Advanced Battle Management System represent respective initiatives by the Army, Navy, and Air Force better connect their own internal systems and platforms as well as integrate them with the broader joint force. But, for the most part these initiatives remain in the services.
These efforts, however, remain fragmented and slow. Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, director of Command, Control, Communications and Computers/Cyber and chief information officer of the Joint Staff (J-6), remarked that “no clear leader” had emerged from within the services’ individual initiatives. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Work, took a more sober tone and criticized program officers and the broader DoD leadership for failing to enforce data standards in the acquisition process, further hindering interoperability between platforms, systems, and services.
More worryingly still is the fact that the vast majority of national data repositories – the intelligence community as well as the web of government agencies – remain outside of the JWC’s framework. Imagining a dense “data fabric” like the kind envisioned by Lt. Gen. Crall seems impossible without the full integration of all the nation’s intelligence streams. A national security concept that does not leverage the full breadth of national intelligence is hardly living up to its name.
The second major implication of the JWC is that it requires not only organizational convergence, but also data convergence which by its very definition means common data structures and architectures. In a peer-to-peer conflict in which both sides are technologically and numerically matched, speed – not size or strength – will be the decisive element. This means that the timeline between target detection and target engagement – which today can take between hours and even days – must be whittled down to mere minutes or even seconds. Accelerating this kill chain requires U.S. forces to be able to sense, identify, and target in near-real-time. Critically, they will need to do this even while disconnected from the rest of the force, a situation that appears increasingly likely given Chinese and Russian advancements in network disruption and electromagnetic interference.
Complicating this further is the fact that this data convergence must occur not only at the Joint and allied levels, but also at the tactical edge. Taking it even a step further all data (as in every bit and byte) will likely collapse to a common structure – whether government/military or civilian/commerce. To truly realize a lethal, Joint force, actionable data must be made available to assets deployed far forward as well as those disconnected from the grid. From a capability perspective, this means increased space exploitation, expanded edge computing, improved data analysis, and enhanced cyber hardening. Only when combatants share the same picture of the battlefield – a picture that is comprehensive, clear, and accurate – can the kill chain shorten, and the illusive “all-domain fires” achieved. All-domain targeting will require C2 systems, communications pathways, computing technologies, cyber capabilities, and ISR data to be interoperable and accessible across the Joint force in a way it never has before.
The Joint Warfighting Concept, therefore, almost necessitates a new lexicon and terminology (like C5ISRT). Its emphasis on data, speed, and open-systems architecture implicates every piece of the acronym, from ISR collection to communications to target engagement. The only way to seamlessly integrate these different systems is through open software and sophisticated data management and processing tools. Data will define the Joint Warfighting Concept, and it is what will be critical to making all the different elements of C5ISRT work as one.
This is where artificial intelligence and advanced computing will be crucial. Given the ever-multiplying number of sensing inputs available to U.S. forces (including those from commercial assets as well as the intelligence community and other agencies), sensor fusion will rely on automation if for no other reason sheer size and complexity. Only through algorithms and AI-powered computers can these huge volumes of ISR data be made into intelligence that is actionable for human operators. This was emphasized by Mary O’Brien, the recently appointed Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the J-6 Joint Staff, who called on AI and automation to “streamline the speed and accuracy of repetitive tasks to shift human cognition toward higher-level reasoning.” Advanced data processing tools housed in an enterprise data architecture will therefore be essential to achieving the kind of sensor fusion required for comprehensive battlespace awareness and targeting precision.
As an operational framework for multi-dimensional warfighting, the JWC seeks to achieve convergence of fires through convergence of data. Yet while it intends to connect any sensor to any shooter, more attention is paid to the ends of this process than the 1’s and 0’s. From a programming/budgeting perspective, traditional military planning and procurement has prioritized platforms and widgets – the sensors – rather than the real needed capability: sense-making. This is the least exciting, least tangible step in the kill chain, but it is the most critical step, since the speed at which data can be extracted, analyzed, transmitted, and acted upon defines the pace at which U.S. forces can respond to threats. This middle step, the process of data convergence, is the key to unlocking the multi-domain fires JWC seeks to deliver.
If the DoD has been slow to come to this conclusion, the defense industry has been even slower because it has become largely reactive to cues given by the Department. Large, established contractors set up to more often than not deliver objects, machines, and physical objects are watching with growing alarm as innovative upstarts and software behemoths capture a growing share of DoD contracts in this non-traditional battlespace. These non-traditional players are disrupting the defense market precisely because they offer the kind of unexciting, intangible, data-crunching capability required for JWC. Their increasing prominence reflects the changing nature of military acquisition and should be a sign to traditional industry that it needs to think differently about its customer and its business.
This is therefore where industry should be concentrating the bulk of its efforts: developing the capabilities to process, protect, and pass on data faster and more securely. More sensors and more shooters won’t create the integrated kill web America needs to fight its next war. Instead, it will be the invisible components – the algorithms and the software – that will turn lightning bolts into real firepower.
Here, again, C5ISRT provides a helpful if somewhat “alphabet-soupy” framework. General Groen’s main critique with the acronym is that is provides an easy way for officials to gloss over complex technologies that are critically important to warfare. “C5ISRT is a code word for, ‘Well, that’s all that data stuff that I don’t want to be bothered with.’” This is precisely the challenge with the Joint Warfighting Concept as a whole. It relies on intangible capabilities and highly complicated and rapidly changing technologies – such as artificial intelligence, edge computing, mesh networking, cyber encryptions – that appear more suited with IT departments than the Defense Department. A term like C5ISRT makes it easy to aggregate and dismiss these crucial capabilities.
Yet C5ISRT must not be dismissed so easily. In fact, its very existence speaks to the changing nature of warfare. The convergence desired by the JWC suggests that discrete technologies and systems will become less and less discrete and more and more interdependent, giving new relevance to terms like C5ISRT. As systems integration and data sharing become more central to military calculations, the lines between command-and-control, communications systems, computing and cyber operations, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting will become blurred. Once separate disciplines, these mission areas will come to rely increasingly on the same data tools and pathways, suggesting that “grotesque” acronyms like C5ISRT will become the standard parlance of warfighting.