Technology Alone Cannot Win

By Captain Harold R. Van Opdorp Jr., U.S. Marine Corps

In his introduction to Dominant Battlespace Knowledge: The Winning Edge, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Owens states,

Merging our increasing capacity to gather real-time, all-weather information continuously with our increasing capacity to process and make sense of this voluminous data builds the realm of dominant battlespace knowledge (DBK). DBK involves everything from automated target recognition to knowledge of an opponent's operational scheme and the networks relied on to pursue that scheme. The result will be an increasing gap between U.S. military forces and any opponent in awareness and understanding of everything of military significance in any arena in which we may be engaged.

With DBK, Admiral Owens believes, the joint force commander (JFC) will be able to assign the right force to the right mission, assess the results of friendly force actions, and develop subsequent missions with even greater effectiveness and clarity. Essentially, the JFC will be operating within the enemy's decision cycle.

Which view one subscribes to does not matter; both ideas maintain that future command-and-control technology will provide the joint force commander with a current, accurate, and "certain" picture of the battlespace. This, in turn, will allow that commander to choose the correct course of action. Using precision-guided munitions and the exact force necessary, he then attacks the enemy, while placing friendly forces at little risk. Once the enemy is destroyed, the JFC correctly evaluates the new situation and starts the process all over again-at a much faster pace than the enemy. In other words, DBA removes uncertainty from the commander's decision-making process.

How Do We Achieve It?

The key to dominant battlefield awareness lies in the development of sensors, data-management capabilities, and improved communications. When commanders link these tools together, proponents anticipate that DBA will emerge as the sum of their parts. Dr. Martin C. Libicki, a senior fellow of the Advanced Command Technologies program, Institute for National Strategic Studies, states, "As computer, communications, and associated sensor technologies improve in power, speed, and acuity, the ability to see everything within a given area continues to improve.... If it improves enough, even perfect situational awareness may understate what U.S. forces can see."

  • Sensors. The first step in achieving DBA is building the battlespace picture. Visionaries claim that the United States will be able to create a picture of a 200 nautical mile by 200 nautical mile box using a multilayered sensor network. The top layer will be composed of large global sensors, mounted on satellites, aircraft, and high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Developers believe that this layer will provide a theater-sized view of the battlespace. The middle layer, consisting of medium-altitude sensors, will focus on actions within the theater of operations. Medium-altitude-endurance UAVs are proposed as the primary platforms for these sensors. Low-altitude airborne sensors on UAVs and advanced air vehicles will provide the close-in picture of the battlespace for the commander. Developers hope that ground troops will have direct control over what these sensors track. Ground sensors, placed throughout the battlespace, will cover gaps or focus additional effort on a specific target area.5
  • Data Management. Data management promises to be a significant challenge, as this multilayered sensor system promises to generate a tremendous amount of data. Recognizing this, the Defense Science Board explains,

The real-time management of this theater sensor suite, coordinated with external national sensor systems, will become a critical and challenging task for future commanders. The theater commander will need at his disposal a Battlespace Integration and Management Capability (BIMC) that correlates, fuses, sorts, and distributes relevant information to his distributed elements, including the combat cells.

BIMC is to provide a merged picture of the battlespace, integrating all relevant information collected. As more detail is gathered and future capabilities are exploited, the picture will evolve into a three-dimensional representation of the battlefield.

  • Communications. Before DBA becomes a reality, communications capabilities must evolve from service-specific stovepipe architectures to one that offers vertical and horizontal interoperability. Not only could subordinates see what their commander sees, but the higher commander also could see what his subordinates see. A communications network that works with a common operating environment-which facilitates sharing information among commanders at different levels and in different servicesis the foundation on which this future network will be built. Using improved satellite communication assets, commanders also will have access to national-level special purpose systems that will further enhance this shared battlespace picture. Creators of this new architecture hope that a shared understanding will result.

Improvements in radio spectrum management must match improvements in computer processing and storage or the idea of a common battlespace picture proliferated throughout the battlespace will never materialize. Dr. Libicki has written that "the raw data required to resolve down to even 0.1 meter over such a large terrain are daunting.... Advances in processing speed and storage notwithstanding, the communications bandwidth necessary to transmit these data for analysis runs into fundamental limits on radio spectrum."

As we levy increasing requirements on a finite source, we will have to find a more effective use of available bandwidth. Dr. Libicki mentions laser-based technology and cue-filter-pinpoint systems as two potential solutions.


Dominant battlefield awareness is a desirable but unattainable condition. If U.S. forces assume that technology will solve all command-and-control challenges in future combat, we risk dramatic failure. In Command and Control for War and Peace, Thomas Coakley makes this same point: "Command and control involves more than technology, and efforts to improve [it] will fail if we limit them to technical fixes." Believing that a system of systems can provide a commander with a clear, real-time picture of the battlespace disregards several undeniable facts about warfare and the people who conduct it.

  • Uncertainty. In 1787, Thomas Paine wrote that "war involves in its progress such a train of unforeseen and unsupposed circumstances that no human wisdom can calculate its end." This was true in 1787, is true today, and will be true in perpetuity. A commander is never going to know as much as he would like before he has to make a decision in the battlespace. He will not be able to read the mind of the enemy commander; he will not know the fear stirring in his own troops' hearts; and he will not know the determination of his adversary.

Technology will help-computer applications are available that can put unit status at a commander's fingertips, provide near-real-time locations of friendly and enemy units in the battlespace, and develop ship loading plans for an amphibious operation-but the commander will never overcome uncertainty. Martin Van Creveld notes,

Though modern technical means undoubtedly enable present-day command systems to transmit and process more information faster than ever before, regardless of distance, movement, or weather, their ability to approach certainty has not improved to any marked extent. Nor . . . does there appear to be much hope of achieving it in the foreseeable future.

  • Shared Picture Does Not Mean Shared Understanding. DBA will provide a common battlespace picture throughout the different command layers. What we are to infer from this is that different commanders, seeing the same picture, will arrive automatically at the same understanding of the situation. This is a dangerous assumption.

Look at Figure 1. You might see a young woman with a plume in her hair looking over her right shoulder. Someone else, however, might see an older woman wearing a hood and wrapped in a big coat (the tip of the young woman's chin is the tip of the older woman's nose; her choker is the older woman's mouth). The image that a viewer first sees varies from person to person, much in the same way that the understanding gleaned from a battlespace picture will vary from commander to commander.

A study conducted by Dr. Gary Klein at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, further illustrates this point. Dr. Klein presented a tactical decision game to the operations officers of several regiments in 2d Marine Division and tasked them to develop a plan to solve the dilemma. After 45 minutes, they still were struggling. Dr. Klein gave the same task to the regimental commanders of those regiments. Because of their education and experience, the commanders were able to identify the problem and develop a plan in about five minutes. As this example shows, an individual's understanding of a picture and the speed with which he or she is able to act depend on that person's experience, education, expertise, and confidence, among other factors. The likelihood of achieving shared understanding throughout the battlespace, therefore, is remote.

  • Enemy Work Arounds. Faced with any innovation on the battlefield, even a primitive enemy will develop the ability to work around it. In Firepower in Limited War, Colonel Robert Scales describes one such example: the U.S. application of firepower to defeat the Viet Cong.

One of the advantages U.S. forces enjoyed during the Vietnam War was the ability to mass firepower against enemy forces. Nowhere was this more clear than during the 1965 Ia Drang Valley campaign-an attempt to destroy retreating Viet Cong forces through search and destroy missions using air assault forces to draw out the enemy and artillery and air support to strike the decisive blow. During one such battle, the 66th North Viet Cong Regiment attacked the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harold A. Moore, as the battalion arrived at Landing Zone X-Ray. Using artillery, attack helicopters, Air Force fighter bombers, and B-52 strikes, Colonel Moore's battalion withstood intense and persistent assaults. After three days of fighting and more than 1,000 casualties, the commander of the 33d Viet Cong Division, Senior Colonel Ha, ordered the withdrawal of the 66th Regiment. According to Colonel Scales, "Firepower had once again prevented [Colonel Ha's] victory."

Colonel Ha's fortunes changed, however, when the 66th Regiment ambushed the 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry en route to Landing Zone Columbus. Using surprise, Colonel Ha's forces negated the U.S. Army's decisive advantage in supporting arms. In less than a day of fighting, 157 U.S. soldiers were killed-"two-thirds of all those lost by the 1st Cavalry Division during the campaign. To Senior Colonel Ha, the lesson was clear: surprise the Americans and separate them from their firepower and the battle becomes an even match."

We have to expect that the enemy will find ways to work around DBA. Becoming complacent in this regard will make us our own worst enemy.


When determining what role technology will play in future command and control, we must be honest in assessing its capabilities. Advances in sensors, data management, and communications will enhance the JFC's command-and-control capability. More powerful sensors with higher resolution, for example, will provide a commander with better data on the enemy and the environment, and thus allow him to form better assumptions on the enemy's intent and actions. These better assumptions facilitate the commander's decision cycle. But technology starts to lose its value when we ignore its limitations. Because the battlespace still is influenced by human factors, machines will never provide a complete and accurate picture.

Warfare will always be a "clash between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other." To succeed, our forces should expect to fight an unpredictable enemy with an independent spirit as strong as our own. DBA technology can help in this endeavor, but it is not the sole answer. To think otherwise, to think that technology can remove all the complexities of warfare, targets our warriors for defeat.


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