‘Information is only of value if you give it to people who have the ability to do something with it.’1
General Stanley McChrystal
Military success rests on effective Command and Control (C2). It enables the conversion of a commander’s vision and intent into operational action.2 In the background of developing both the vision and the plan for execution is Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). ISR is the act of gathering information on the positions and circumstances of enemy (and friendly) forces and their disposition relative to friendly forces and non-combatants.3 A military force that seamlessly merges timely, accurate, and actionable ISR results with C2 can not only greatly increase the probability of military and operational success, but also correspondingly secure a strategic advantage.
As seen in recent near-peer deployments to Ukraine and Syria, current threats possess the capability to conduct a full spectrum of warfare, establish Anti-Access Area-Denial (A2/AD) environments, employ modern precision strikes, and conduct operations in multiple domains (land, air, maritime, space, and cyber).4 For the Alliance, which enjoyed success in previous conflicts through the monopoly of air dominance, the change in today’s war tapestry necessitates a new, asymmetric approach. Articulating a new strategy and embracing a Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) capability affords the Alliance the capacity to create multiple dilemmas for the adversary across the broad spectrum of domains at any time.5 If fused correctly with timely ISR results, tactical, operational, and strategic leaders would increase their potential for an asymmetric decision advantage across the multi-domain battlespace. The combined effects delivered from C2 and ISR weapon systems provide a good starting point toward a complete MDC2 construct. Within the context of sharing situational awareness (SA), to promulgate rapid decision-making and direct applicable forces, a recent NATO E-3A and Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) interoperability trial took a small step towards the direction of this concept. Lessons from it identify considerations for further advancement as well as underline the importance of intelligence fusion and rapid information sharing for a more complete MDC2 approach.
Combining Effects from NATO E-3A and AGS Interoperability
During the Unified Vision 2016 (UV16) Trial, the NATO Joint Capability Group on ISR (JCGISR) provided the first proof of concept for a federation of Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (PED) capability.6 It allowed geographically dispersed PED units to share the burden of ISR data exploitation and intelligence dissemination at all levels of command – conceptually, to the right person, at the right time, in the right format. Secondly, UV16 facilitated the examination and optimization of J2 (Intelligence) and J3 (Operations) interaction to improve operational decision-making and support targeting. Most significantly, the Trial provided an inaugural demonstration of Command, Control, and ISR (C2ISR) interoperability between the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control (NAEW&C) Force E-3A and NATO AGS. The Warrior Preparation Center (WPC), located in Einsiedlerhof, Germany, served as the central Trial node and mock Air Operations Centre (AOC) in the Live, Virtual, and Constructive (LVC) environment. The E-3A Mission Training Centre (MTC) simulator operated from Geilenkirchen, Germany, while the AGS participated from the NATO AGS Capability Testbed (NACT), Den Haag, Netherlands.
During multiple UV16 operational vignettes over the span of two weeks, the E-3A and AGS produced reputable results in demonstrating the capacity to a) provide commanders a shared and enhanced SA of the air, land, and maritime domains, and b) effectively combine C2 and ISR capabilities in a rapid sensor-to-shooter construct to support a wide range of mission sets. AGS operators exploited Maritime/Ground Moving Target Indicator (M/GMTI) radar and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery to provide Near Real-Time (NRT) Surveillance and Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) information of the ground and maritime domains to E-3A and UV16 participants. Complementing the AGS’ contributions, the E-3A delivered air and maritime surveillance, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), and Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) of strike aircraft. NRT ISR feeds from air, land, and sea domains were shared and cross-cued amongst platforms, UV16 participants, and the AOC via Link-16 and Internet Protocol (IP) Chat. AGS also fed a newly developed Coalition Shared Data (CSD) server architecture which enabled NATO assets with similar CSD structures to query and pull ISR PED products. Additional PED nodes fused (notional) ISR results from single collection disciplines such as Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Communications Intelligence (COMINT), and Human Intelligence (HUMINT). The NRT synchronization of C2 and ISR functions enabled E-3A and AGS operators to perform Land and Maritime Interdiction, Time Sensitive/Dynamic Targeting (TST/DT), and Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD/DEAD).
Many initial challenges stemmed from AGS design limitations (system still in development), latency in information exchange rates, and doctrinal differences between C2 and ISR communities. While UV16 offered a first ‘hands-on’ experience for AGS operators to manipulate their workstations, man-machine interface learning curves became apparent, especially when exposed to real-world scenarios. Experimentation in sharing GMTI information via Link-16 datalinks suffered from delays inflicted by AGS system design and virtual relays rendering it inadequate to effectively support a few vignettes. Layered SIGINT and COMINT datalink information assisted in corroborating GMTI positions; however, with much variation. Additionally, while CSDs enabled UV16 participants to upload, query, and download ISR information, they were based upon traditional J2 (Intelligence) frameworks supporting longer PED timeframes. Although GMTI has historically complemented lengthier PED cycles in the past (such as the identifying patterns of life or IED backtracking)7, current CSD configurations fall short of effectively supporting dynamic and kinetic events real-time (i.e. Interdiction, TST, and Strike). Supplemented by SIGINT and COMINT datalink data, IP Chat served as the best medium to quickly share land and maritime mover information between AGS to E-3A operators during the trial. ELINT, IMINT, and Maritime cross-cues enhanced data fidelity. Given the reactionary demands of real-world scenarios, the importance of NRT ISR sharing was quickly realized and initial operator ‘man-machine-man’ workflows evolved into multiple cross-platform complementary processes.
Lessons Identified and MDC2 Considerations
With recent, significant, technological advancements, information velocity has exponentially increased the potential to cut the targeting cycle from days to minutes.8 However, without interoperable NRT technical solutions and human processes, it becomes extremely difficult to expeditiously share critical data, manoeuvre strike assets, or provide immediate threat warnings. In the case of E-3A and AGS interoperability, CSD-like concepts and system design must progress to enable NRT information sharing to harness the data’s full potential. GMTI information, fleeting in nature, loses value and utility if not rapidly circulated amongst C2 and Strike assets. Compatible systems providing faster information synthesis and seamless integration between both platforms will lead to higher combat effectiveness. Furthermore, with a rapid influx of actionable intelligence between ISR PED and C2 nodes, new paradigms are presented and current doctrine must be revisited. For the J2 side of the house, the community must break away from traditional ‘stove-pipe’ ISR collection frameworks (technical and cultural) and develop new Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) to cross-cue and share ISR data with increasing velocity.9,10 As General (retired) Franc Gorenc11 adamantly said: ‘Amateurs concentrate only on ISR collection; professionals concentrate on PED and fusion to make sense of the data. The ability to share data, machine-to-machine, will define the effectiveness of our alliance.’12 As for the J3 and more specifically the C2 community, an operator’s tactical and operational aperture must evolve to accept all forms of actionable ISR data (from all domains) with the creation of new TTPs to integrate it. In championing these critical elements, a more rapid and lethal ‘kill-chain’ or Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA) process can be obtained.13
Given these lessons identified from UV16, it is important to emphasize the wealth of interoperability opportunities between NATO’s only two organic airborne assets: the NRT PED as well as intelligence fusion across domains and its rapid delivery to assets with the capability to produce desired effects. This agile operational ‘sensor-to-shooter’ framework is leveraged by the combined effects of a C2 and ISR capability capturing the full spectrum of the F2T2EA concept. While other Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) missions, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, demonstrate the effectiveness of a single platform ‘F2T2EA’ practice (in a permissive environment against a discreet target set), the E-3A and AGS proof of concept takes a bilateral approach, enabling a cross-domain synergy in a broader battlespace, where the complementary employment of C2 and ISR capabilities enhances effectiveness and each compensates for the shortcomings of the other system. Real-world E-3A interoperability successes with US RC-135 Rivet Joint, RQ-4 Global Hawk, and NATO Control and Reporting Centres (CRCs), reinforce this same concept by demonstrating cross-platform benefits in cross-cued intelligence and threat warnings. Additionally, in a more recent exercise called Formidable Shield, E-3A interaction with US Navy P-8 Poseidon and NATO’s first Integrated Air & Missile Defense (IAMD & BMD) Task Group demonstrated further potential in collaborative capabilities to include the Space domain.
By promulgating the above attributes into a more collaborative enterprise, incorporating additional ISR nodes with rapid information exchange rates via open architectures, a more formidable ‘combat cloud’ can be obtained, capable of yielding unparalleled SA across the air, land, sea, and space environments. Furthermore, multi-domain SA will afford C2 entities the opportunity to employ (or apply) the most appropriate available offensive and defensive capabilities from all domains in multiple environments at the Commander’s desired place and time; ultimately setting the Alliance on a path from Air C2 of Joint air assets to a more mature and complete MDC2 construct.
It is not enough to simply link together more ISR sensors to provide multi-domain SA; in order to gain an advantage, ISR data must be properly integrated, synchronized, and analysed within a specific time and parameter to conduct what US Air Force Lieutenant General VeraLinn Jamieson14 dubbed ‘fusion warfare’.15 In fusion warfare, where multiple Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loops occur simultaneously across different domains, C2 nodes, and mission sets, John Boyd’s traditional ‘fastest OODA loop wins’ concept evolves into a plural format. Jamieson further advocates that success in future conflicts may depend on harnessing the power of multiple OODA loops and converting the mass amounts of ‘big data’ in them to bring an all-encompassing battlespace picture to tactical, operational, and strategic leaders. Lastly, in order to take advantage of machine-speed data-sharing capabilities, classification, security, and automation barriers in the cyber domain must be overcome. Shifting to a network architecture that protects transported information from the current philosophy of protecting the network will allow higher security postures and the flexibility to conduct multiple missions with multiple nations.16 With more dynamic intelligent security that protects the mission with data confidentiality and availability, along with cross-domain guards to synchronize operator authorities against data classification, a smarter and more resilient network will ensure mission critical data access to customers who really need it. Furthermore, with increasing programming and algorithms to leverage automation in ‘big data’ collection and ‘activity based’ analysis, infrastructures could be optimized to allow more malleability to influence multiple environments at any time.17,18
As NATO’s strives to reinforce its core tasks of collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security by demonstrating interoperability and a rapid military response ability through multinational exercises, the Alliance must question and refine its strategic approach to confront future challenges. An aggregate of NATO’s military effective capabilities, if calibrated properly, would open the door towards unlocking the benefits of a multi-domain construct.
When combining manned and unmanned capabilities to produce C2ISR combined effects in multiple environments, NATO E-3A and AGS integration possesses the potential to provide the Alliance with an initial vector towards MDC2 operations. However, to expand on MDC2 capabilities and secure an asymmetric strategic advantage into the 21st century, NATO must gear towards a new enterprise ‘system of systems’ approach, tap into ‘combat clouds’, and leverage the competitive advantages afforded from Joint ISR fusing and rapid information sharing. Additionally, technocratic ‘stove-pipes’ of proprietary intelligence data must be freed to induce fusion warfare and allow C2 and strike assets to hastily complete the F2T2EA ‘kill-chain’. As General (retired) Herbert J. Carlisle19 stresses, ‘if you don’t have the ability to do something with it [the intelligence data], then you’re missing half the equation’.20 Subsequently, smarter network architectures with automatic processes will ensure cyber domain integrity and the fluid transfer of crucial information to the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
While NATO E-3A and AGS may have provided a small glimpse towards a multi-domain operational concept, it is up to the Alliance to ensure a new foundation is set to adopt and nurture an MDC2 capability.