Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2021

Delivering NATO Air & Space Power at the Speed of Relevance

Conference Read Ahead

Dynamic C2 Synchronized Across Domains

Senior Leader Perspective

By Lt Gen Fernando De la Cruz Caravaca, SP Air Force, Commander, NATO Combined Air Operation Centre Torrejón


The Current Environment

Since the end of the last century, we have witnessed new forms of crises appearing around the world both close to, and sometimes within, NATO territory. These events have the potential to rapidly evolve and escalate with little warning, making them difficult to predict and prepare for as an Alliance. The scope of these non-traditional threats can be broad and include the use of unsophisticated weaponry, such as dirty bombs, and non-kinetic capabilities, such as cyberattacks, which requires us to be perpetually prepared. In these scenarios, it is our ability to promptly recognize indications and generate warnings that allows us to effectively respond to a potential problem, risk, or adversary.

In addition, the pace and scope of technological advancements and the use of new forms of communication have changed the societal mindset and altered the military’s approach to conflicts, affecting the way operations are planned and executed. Other factors are increasingly fundamental in the planning of current military operations such as Rules of Engagement (ROE) and the use of non-kinetic capabilities in the so-called ‘grey zone’ which plays into the broader strategic communications concept. Furthermore, we must consider new domains in addition to traditional ones, such as Space or Cyberspace. These complex operational domains are becoming increasingly contested and congested and can have a significant impact on military operations.

More so than ever before, actions carried out in one domain have the potential to affect the others, so it is necessary to plan and act across all of them. The planning and conduct of military operations must be coherent and carried out from the point of view of the multi-domain concept. Therefore, to achieve positive results, it is important to work in a synchronized and coordinated manner in all domains, unifying all efforts and being able to adapt to changes as they appear. In this way, we can prevent activities in one domain from interfering negatively with those in another and hence we must be able to work effectively in a multi-domain Command and Control (C2) structure. To do so, it is necessary to have the right tools, training, and the mentality to act in dynamic, challenging scenarios. Only in this way can we address the ever-increasing complexity of current crises or conflicts.

New Technologies, New Threats

Rapid technological advancements have created new possibilities for operations across all domains. Additionally, the development of new weapons systems (unmanned vehicles, fifth-generation aircraft, precision-guided munitions, hypersonic armament, non-kinetic weaponry, etc.) along with sophisticated tools for command and control (satellites, radar, communication systems, and secure, high-speed data links) have brought increased risks and challenges for which we must be prepared.

The impressive progress in processors, computer systems, and data management allows an immense amount of data to be processed automatically, analysed in record time, and converted into useful information (Big Data). The increased use of 5G will also improve the capability of systems to handle greater data processing, which will increase the ability to exploit Big Data and to disseminate information to optimize decision-making.

Advancements in the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) necessitate new skill-sets and will create new specializations. Processes will become either fully automated and performed by machines or robots (Human Out of the Loop (HOOTL)) or will continue to require human input and decision-making (Human in the LOOP (HITL)), or at least Human approval of decisions (Human On the Loop (HOTL)). For example, the management and analysis of intelligence data collected consumes a great deal of time and human resources to process all the available information. Technology can provide a system capable of merging the different formats in which the data is collected, facilitating the integration of multi-domain intelligence tools from different sources (electro-optical, infrared, radar, acoustic, and signal) and from different domains (Land, Sea, Air, Cyberspace, or Space).

Thanks to emerging technologies, the potential role of the autonomous robot on the future battlefield is increasing. For example, cyber-bots can be used to target enemy information systems and autonomous vehicles can conduct minefield clearance to facilitate logistics convoys, thus removing humans from danger zones. Those activities that are functional, repetitive, and life-threatening could be more automated, thereby freeing up capacity for the human element to be prioritized elsewhere.

Technology also offers the potential to use tools such as ‘Federated Mission Networking’ or to expedite the Process Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) of information between domains. These characteristics underpin a secure C2 network which protects the integrity of our information and preserves the ability to effectively process, share and exploit data on the battlefield. This can help us address some of our most important operational challenges such as defeating ‘Anti-Access/Aerial Denial’ systems.

Big Data and AI can automate many of these processes, accurately streamline the analysis of the data obtained and assist in rapid decision-making. This, in turn, saves ever more scarce human resources and allows them to be dedicated to other activities. Also, simulation processes across all domains can facilitate effective decision-making and for that reason they are very useful tools for C2.

However, we must be wary of an over-reliance on all these tools as they can make us very much dependant on technology; this could leave our systems, and hence our operations, susceptible to cyber-attacks. Therefore, it is imperative to develop a cybersecurity strategy that protects our key vulnerabilities and ensures our resilience.

Multi-Domain C2 and Dynamic Synchronization

An effective C2 structure must be able to synchronize activities across all domains in order to deal with evolving threats. It must be able to exploit the full range of capabilities and yet decision-makers must remain aware of the potential effects that an action taken in one domain may have on another. At the same time, a C2 structure must be dynamic enough to respond to any changes in the operational environment (multi-domain) and the movements of the adversary. Operating in this manner ensures that the transition from peacetime to crisis or conflict is managed as effectively as possible.

The complexity and speed at which the operational situation changes, coupled with the impact of multi-domain capabilities (such as electronic warfare and Intelligence) have driven an ever-increasing need for real-time information processing and data analysis. This has inevitably led to a greater reliance on automation (HOTL) to help expedite the analytical process to ensure that opportunities are not missed.

As previously discussed, in the multi-domain C2 process, the use of tools such as Big Data and AI are considered especially vital due to their ability to analyse and prioritize according to algorithms without human involvement in the process. Systems that can perform multiple simulations and decide the best courses of action are essential as complex scenarios can quickly saturate human analysis capabilities. This can cause coordination and synchronization to be more difficult and responses may not be fast enough to fully exploit advantages. AI reduces information overload, improves situational awareness and supports the decision-making process. All this shortens the C2 cycle.

The targeting cycle is a good example. The entire process from track detection, analysis, prioritization (tasking and re-tasking) right through to re-attack, can be automated based on a number of pre-programmed parameters that reduce the timescales involved.

Presently, AI cannot completely replace the requirement to have human input in the decision-making process of a multi-domain C2 network. In modern warfare, intuition and common sense are always necessary and good judgment is fundamental. The HITL applies judgement, knowledge, and reason to new situations that do not resemble previous experiences. It is in these scenarios that AI is truly challenged, because it is not easy for AI to analyse situations and environments that it has not encountered before. To mitigate this problem, a form of ML programme is required that can adapt to changes. However, once the decision to take military action has been made, many additional factors must be considered that can heavily influence the use of force. More intuitive, ‘softer’ factors such as legal and ethical considerations are far harder to program. All of these aspects must be considered in a comprehensive C2 system to facilitate timely decision making; both in the planning and execution of an operation.

Multi-domain C2 is of particular importance for Air forces. The key Air Power attributes of height, speed, and reach require a high degree of pan-domain mission prioritization and synchronization. In addition, Air Power’s strong dependence on technology makes it especially vulnerable to attacks in the domains of Cyberspace and Space. Our requirement to use Space for a wide range of activities (communications between aircraft and C2 systems, accuracy and guidance of our weaponry) will inevitably increase and become more critical in the future due to technological advancements in next-generation aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and for real-time intelligence information.

For these reasons, it is necessary that all activities in all domains be synchronized in the C2 process to ensure that competing requirements are managed as effectively as possible. In addition, it must be done dynamically, adapting to the changes that occur as the situation evolves during operations.

The requirement for rapid data analysis requires us to maintain well-trained, experienced operators during peacetime who can be relied upon during crisis or conflict to calculate risks quickly and provide accurate advice and recommendations to inform a Commander’s decision-making.

The proper distribution and dissemination of information to those who need it is also essential so that action can be prioritized and reaction times shortened as much as possible, which is vital for Air activity.

In NATO, any new C2 system must coexist with legacy systems as all allies may not update their technologies at the same rate. It is important that such systems are able to interoperate with one another and that the operators using legacy systems can connect and work with those using newer ones (and vice-versa). A degree of standardization at the developmental stage is essential, so that the Alliance can continue to work together. Only in this way can we preserve unity of command. However, we must also ensure that any move towards a less-federated C2 system does not come at the cost of resilience or integrity.


New geopolitical scenarios and the development of technology in multiple fields make it necessary to adapt the process of planning and executing military operations. We will continue to face challenges that inevitably appear with little warning, particularly within the aerospace domain.

Technological advancements are driving the development of new weapons systems in all domains (unmanned vehicles on Land, Sea, and Air with automatic targeting; hypersonic and radar directed weapons; lasers) and new operating procedures must be developed at a similar pace. These new weapons systems and the new possibilities they offer require modern C2 systems that are capable of harmonizing and working in a synchronized manner across domains. For these reasons it is necessary to work more on the concept ‘Joint All Domain C2’. This means that all personnel who operate as part of a C2 system, from the operators (employing AI or Big Data) to the commanders, have to be trained and able to harness all the tools available (HITL, HOTL and HOOTL) in order to refine the decisionmaking process.

NATO must continue to adapt and modernize to consistently analyse current and future risks in peacetime and be able to respond dynamically to protect allied nations.

To this end, NATO is promoting a culture of continuous improvement among all allied countries regarding weapon systems, C2 means and collective learning. Of course, not everyone can evolve at the same rate; therefore we must use legacy systems together with the most advanced ones and make them truly interoperable.

Lieutenant General Fernando De La Cruz Caravaca (SP Air Force)  is the  Commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operation Centre at  Torrejón Air Base, Spain. He holds a Master’s Degree in Security and Defence from Complutense University in Madrid, Spain. He is a graduate of the Spanish National Defence War College and the NATO Defence  College.

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