Back to the Future

The Danger of Overconfidence in the #FutureOfWar

J.E. Curtis
Mar 16, 2015 · 10 min read

LCDR Jack Curtis is a graduate of the University of Florida and the Naval War College. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

From Operation Desert Storm to Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States Navy has enjoyed an asymmetric technological advantage over its adversaries.[i] Uncontested command and control dominance allowed American commanders to synchronize efforts across broad theaters and deliver catastrophic effects upon the nation’s enemies. These years of uncontested command and control dominance birthed a generation of commanders who now expect accurate, timely, and actionable information. High levels of situational awareness have become the rule, not the exception. The Navy and its strike groups now stand in danger of becoming victims of their own technological success. An overreliance on highly networked command and control structures has left carrier strike groups unprepared to operate effectively against future near-peer adversaries.

Data-Links Are Our Achilles’ Heel

Conceptual image shows the inter-relationships between sea, land and air forces in a Network Centric Warfare environment. (via RAAF/BAE Systems Australia)

The concept of Network Centric Warfare (NCW) was birthed from the realization that integrating many of these systems would “create higher [situational] awareness,” for commanders.[ii] Forecasting the looming dependence on NCW, the now defunct Office of Force Transformation claimed, “…Forces that are networked together outfight forces that are not.”[iii] Merging vast amounts of information together into one common operating picture is the most challenging element in NCW, and tactical data-links serve as the means for accomplishing this task.

The future of strike group warfare is a concept named Naval Integrated Fire Control (NIFC). Recently NIFC was rebranded NIFC-CA, accounting for additional counter air capabilities. NIFC-CA doubles down on data-links, particularly Link-16. A January 2014 United States Naval Institute News article boasted, “Every unit within the carrier strike group — in the air, on the surface, or under water — would be networked through a series of existing and planned data-links so the carrier strike group commander has as clear a picture as possible of the battle-space.”[iv] Read Admiral Manazir, Director of Air Warfare added, “We’ll be able to show a common picture to everybody. And now the decision-maker can be in more places than before.” In spite of his enthusiasm for NIFC-CA, Rear Admiral Manazir reveals a serious problem. “We need to have that link capability that the enemy can’t find and then it can’t jam. The links are our Achilles’ heel, and they always have been. And so protection of links is one of our key attributes” (emphasis added). What Rear Admiral Manazir calls a “key attribute,” most professional military education students would instead call a critical vulnerability.

Strike group commanders now rely heavily on information shared across data-links, specifically Link-16, to build their situational awareness. This information sharing enables impressive capabilities: rapid decision-making, massing of force, and very quick after-action assessments. It is unfair to criticize any commander for wanting more of this informational power. But what happens when this information is threatened, degraded, or denied? This question is important, because despite ongoing efforts to harden tactical data-links against attack, eliminating the threat is impossible.

Unjustified Overconfidence

Today we know potential adversaries are developing cyber-space and electronic warfare capabilities to neutralize, disrupt and degrade our communications systems. The challenge is in balancing the benefits and advantages derived from using high-tech communications with the vulnerabilities inherent in becoming overly dependent upon them. — Christine Fox, Former Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense.[v]

The message Ms. Fox delivered is clear: we must not allow a fascination with technology to stand in the way of executing basic war-fighting functions. She went on to state that Cold War-era U.S. naval forces planned to lose communication capabilities against the Soviets, then asked what has changed? Why would the Navy not share that concern about other potential adversaries?

At 22:26 GMT, 11 January 2007, China slammed a kill vehicle into one of its dead metrological satellites, proving to the world that they were part of the small but unfortunately growing club of countries that can accomplish the difficult task of hypervelocity interceptions in space. As a signal to the world, this test highlighted both China’s technological prowess and the fact that China will not quietly stand by while the United States tries to expand its influence in the region with new measures such as the US-India nuclear deal. We have analyzed the orbits of the debris from this interception and from that put limits on the properties of the interceptor. We find that not only can China threaten low Earth orbit satellites, but, by mounting the same interceptor on one of its rockets capable of lofting a satellite into geostationary orbit, all of the US communications satellites. (via MIT Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group)

In 2007 China successfully destroyed a satellite in orbit. In January 2014, the commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, General William Shelton, stated, “direct attack weapons, like the Chinese anti-satellite system, can destroy our space systems.”[vi] He added that the most critical targets are those satellites providing “survivable communications and missile warning.” Clearly, U.S. forces can no longer remain complacent. An enemy attack on Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites would severely affect a strike group’s ability to accomplish the most basic tasks to the most complex.

The portion of the spectrum used for Link-16 communications is the ultra high frequency (UHF) band. UHF communications are line of sight. (via “Understanding Voice and Data Link Networking,” December 2013, Northrup Grumman Public Release 13–2457)

Satellite denial is not the only area for concern. Several nations are now producing aircraft, ground, and naval vessels with advanced electronic attack suites capable of contesting coveted regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. In a complex network of data and sensor sharing, each node is a contributor, and some nodes are more critical than others. In some cases, enemy electronic attack need only attack the right nodes to have debilitating effects across the entire network. China is pursuing broadband jamming and partial band interference of the Link-16 network with that objective in mind.[vii] According to Richard Fisher, an expert on China’s military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, “…taking away Link-16 makes our defensive challenge far more difficult and makes it far more expensive in terms of casualties in any future conflict with China.”[viii]

As Deputy Secretary Fox and General Shelton have pointed out, the threat is real. If we accept that strike group commanders have become overly reliant upon networked command and control structures, and that these networks are vulnerable to attack, then commanders must have a clearer understanding of what operational impacts can be expected. Fortunately, past exercises and experiences serve as a guide for the future.

Back to the Future

“It is widely recognized that a carrier task force cannot provide for its air defense under conditions likely to exist in combat in the Mediterranean.” — Admiral John H. Cassady, Commander-in-Chief U.S. Naval Forces, East Atlantic and Mediterranean, 1956[ix]

Signalman Seaman Adrian Delaney practices his semaphore aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) during an at-sea training evolution with the Royal Thai Navy tank landing ship Her Thai Majesty’s Ship (HTMS) Prathong (LST 715) during the Thailand phase of exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT). (U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 3rd Class Alicia T. Boatwright)

In 1956, Vice Admiral Cassady recognized that the U.S. Navy’s hope for unchallenged access to operationally significant waters was in jeopardy. A series of exercises, under the name HAYSTACK, demonstrated how effectively Soviet forces could use electronic emissions and direction finding equipment to find and fix American aircraft carriers. As a result, HAYSTACK gave rise to emission control. Initially, strike groups operating under strict emission control conditions struggled to command and control dispersed forces throughout their areas of responsibility.

Faced with greatly diminished electronic command and control capabilities[x], commanders developed creative and exceedingly “low tech” solutions. American sailors relearned the art of semaphore and visual Morse code. Helicopters developed methods for airdropping buoys containing written messages alongside friendly vessels.[xi]

For the remainder of the Cold War, carrier strike groups routinely practiced emission control operations, and commanders took considerable pride in their ability to make an aircraft carrier seemingly disappear. In 1986, the RANGER participated in the multinational RIMPAC exercise. Despite the opposing forces’ best efforts to locate it, RANGER went undetected for nearly fourteen days while in transit from California to Hawaii.[xii] Making this all the more impressive was the fact that RANGER continued flight operations during the transit.

Emission control training continued through the 20th century, though with less sense of urgency after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, carrier strike groups may practice emission control operations once or twice during a work-up cycle. These events are often heavily scripted and rarely involve night flight operations. Carrier air wings undergoing graduate level training at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center only recently began training in a limited GPS and Link-16 degraded environment. Anecdotal feedback from pilots who have participated in these events alludes to significant challenges.[xiii]

The similarities between preemptive emission control and anticipated command and control warfare environments are undeniable. With small modifications HAYSTACK provides strike group commanders with a solid starting point if they wish to better prepare their sailors for future wars.

Recommendations and Conclusion

“Confidence is contagious; so is overconfidence….” — Vince Lombardi

We must not assume that future conflicts will be fought against adversaries who are incapable of challenging American technological advantages. China has demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites in orbit, and they are actively pursuing electronic attack capabilities to neutralize Link-16. These facts must be understood and accepted by commanders who have dismissed the concept of command by negation while at the same time failing to demand realistic training.

Effective command by negation demands a lucid expression of commander’s intent. Commander’s intent should focus on macro level issues and answer two questions: What is the desired end state? What will success look like?[xiv] Commander’s intent should not try to answer specific questions of weapons employment and target selection. Subordinates should be empowered and encouraged to use individual initiative towards achieving the stated objective. If strike group commanders and their staffs can relearn the art of operational design, and focus those efforts towards developing effective statements of intent, their forces stand a greater chance of success in a world without Predator feeds, Link-16, satellite communications, Internet Relay Chat, and e-mail. Failure to pursue this goal will only serve to maintain the status quo, which is to say deploying forces will remain unprepared to counter command and control warfare.

Quartermaster 3rd Class Alex Davis lowers a signal flag aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) during a flag hoist exercise on the ship’s signal bridge. George Washington, the Navy’s only permanently forward deployed aircraft carrier, is underway supporting security and stability in the western Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Marcos Vazquez)

Additionally, strike group commanders must demand realistic training that mimics a command and control warfare environment. It is not enough to conduct emission control exercises once or twice during pre-deployment training. Afloat training groups should own this training requirement and place greater emphasis on it during strike group training in their Composite Training Unit Exercise and Joint Task Force Exercise.[xv] The Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center should consider increasing the frequency and complexity of the degraded environment training it provides to carrier air wings. Individual units must be encouraged to conduct local training sorties without the aid of data-links and secure communications.[xvi] Focusing on our own capabilities and how we intend to counter command and control warfare will add a layer of complexity, and therefore value, to these training exercises. If the U.S. believes it remains the preeminent military force in the world, then why wouldn’t its forces train against realistic command and control warfare capabilities, assuming the implied result would be increased competence? Ultimately, the units charged with preparing strike groups for deployment will respond to demands from operational commanders. If strike group commanders recognize their unpreparedness and demand a solution, time, money, and resources will be allocated appropriately.

While much of the #FutureOfWar discussion has centered on technological developments and innovation, we should consider whether or not this infatuation has led us down a dangerous path. Have we become so enthralled and dependent upon what is undeniably a critical vulnerability to the extent of rendering us ineffective in its absence? This is an important question to ask because, arguably, the winner of future wars will not simply be the side with the most advanced weapon systems, but likely the side who can deftly shift “back in time.”

[i] “Our technological advantage is a key to America’s military dominance.” President Barack Obama, May 2009.

[ii] Network-Centric Warfare — Its Origins and Future. Cebrowski and Gartska, 1998.

[iii] The Implementation of Network-Centric Warfare Brochure. 2005.

[iv] “Inside the Navy’s Next Air War.” USNI News. Majumdar and LaGrone, January 2014.

[v] Transcript of speech delivered April 7, 2014.

[vi] “General: Strategic Military Satellites Vulnerable to Attack in Future Space War.” The Washington Free Beacon. Bill Gertz. 2014.

[vii] Chinese Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation publication, quoted in Gertz.

[viii] Fisher, quoted in Gertz, “Chinese Military Capable of Jamming U.S. Communications System.” The Washington Free Bacon. 2013.

[ix] Quoted in Hiding in Plain Sight, The U.S. Navy and Dispersed Operations Under EMCON, 1956–1972. Angevine. 2011.

[x] These diminished C2 capabilities mimic what should be expected during modern command and control warfare.

[xi] Angevine, p. 11.

[xii] How to Make an Aircraft Carrier Vanish. Associated Press. Norman Black. 1986.

[xiii] An F/A-18 pilot described the effects as “crushing” during an interview with this author.

[xiv] “Manage Uncertainty With Commander’s Intent.” Harvard Business Review. Chad Storlie. 2010.

[xv] Composite Training Unit Exercise and Joint Task Force Exercise are the final two training events for a strike group.

[xvi] The United States Air Force is ahead of the Navy in this pursuit. See “Pilot Shuts Off GPS, Other Tools to Train for Future Wars.” Air Force Times. Brian Everstine. 2013.

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J.E. Curtis

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Naval Aviator. Mediocre writer.