World Naval Developments: U.S. Army Goes for Big Picture

By Norman Friedman, Author, The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems

In this case, the problem was that manual plotters could not keep up with the information flow. For the Army, data overload today manifests itself in other ways. Any tactical movement entails considerable planning. Arrangements are complex, and the detailed staff work takes time; how much depends in large part on how large the unit's staff is. Staff work limits an army's agility even more than the characteristics of its vehicles or the endurance of its men. Agility, after all, means not merely the ability to get somewhere fast, but much more the ability to change plans quickly to adapt to changing and, moreover, unexpected circumstances.

In the past, agility was traded off against the sheer mass of the unit's staff, which would make movement slower. One reason the German blitzkrieg worked was that the advancing units were sufficiently self-contained that they did not need to coordinate with other—nominally supporting—units. That, too, was a way to confront the demands of agility.

Today, the Army faces two apparently conflicting requirements: It must pare down to live within a tighter budget, while becoming much more agile to adapt to the new U.S. doctrine of information dominance. The tighter budget also means that the Army's resources must be used far more efficiently.

The central problem for the United States military is how its very limited forces can fight and win without resorting to nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Our forces often will be outnumbered. We can hope that new weapons technology will offer force multipliers as dramatic as nuclear weapons, but it would be unrealistic to bet that they will work—or even that they will turn up.

We do have one potential advantage. Much of our budget already goes to various forms of surveillance. We can hope that in many cases we will go to war with good knowledge of where the enemy is and what he is doing. We also are far advanced over other countries in our use of computers and computer networks. We also have excellent precision-strike weapons. The Joint Chiefs of Staff hope is that these three advantages can somehow offset our inescapable disadvantage, that we will never be able to match the numbers that our enemies will be able to concentrate, since we are likely to be fighting much closer to their homes (or to their bases) than to ours.

The new concept is called information dominance, and the Army's new vision is one version of it.

We will spend whatever we must to improve our surveillance systems. We will be able to spot enemy movements in something close to real time. We ought then to be able to checkmate the enemy—if we have adequate agility. The idea of agility, of course, is not new. Its most recent formulation is Colonel John Boyd's observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) cycle. Beginning in the 1970s, Boyd argued that any system operates on such a cycle. When its enemy moves, the system first must sense that move. Then it must interpret what it senses. Then it must decide what to do. Only after the first three steps have been carried out can it actually react.

In some cases, the process is so quick that reaction may seem almost instantaneous, but usually there is a noticeable lag. Boyd was a fighter pilot in Korea, and he based his theory on aerial tactics. U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabre pilots were shooting down MiG-15s because the F-86s reacted faster to pilot inputs. While the MiG pilot was still reacting to one maneuver, the Sabre pilot was making the next, or the one after that. Boyd generalized the process: If one side is much faster, then its enemy soon finds itself reacting to events several cycles back. It suffers, in effect, a nervous breakdown. The conclusion is that a weak force can best win by using agility.

Boyd's agility contrasts with the classic alternative of deception. If the stronger enemy is convinced that it must concentrate forces in the wrong place, the weaker side can beat whatever weak force remains in the right place. Advocates of information dominance hope that the more detailed and complete the tactical picture, the more difficult it will be for a clever but ponderous enemy to practice effective deception.

The Army clearly hopes that its new computerized command-and-control system will give it the agility it will need during the next century. The computers will do enough of the staff work to allow units to change course much more quickly. The Army should appreciate the similarity between its vision and the Navy's lengthy experience. As yet, it is not altogether happy with the computers it has tested on its many vehicles. As rugged as the computers are, they are now experiencing probably the worst environment in the computer world. The Army also is demanding a density of radio communications far beyond its previous experience; each of the many computers and workstations it envisages must be in contact with all the others, either directly or indirectly.

The central lesson of the Navy experience is that once a force begins to computerize, it had better keep going. There is no hope of turning back, because to do so soon becomes entirely unaffordable. When the Navy started, computers were horribly expensive, so they could be installed only on board major units, such as carriers and cruisers. These computers passed information to smaller ones on other ships using specially formatted teletype messages (Link 14), which was never satisfactory because it could not handle a rapidly changing tactical situation. Within a decade of its arrival as a big-ship system, NTDS was being adapted to destroyers and even to frigates. The Army's problems are more complex than those of the Navy. An army, even a small one, often operates thousands of vehicles, each of which the system must track and identify. Situational awareness demands that enemy and non-combatants receive similar treatment. By way of contrast, early NTDS systems could handle only 64 or 128 targets in all. The mass of Army data demands powerful computers (which are readily available) but also high-capacity data links between them (which are not readily available). Software must meld known unit and vehicle positions with terrain details taken from digital maps.

Unlike the Navy, this field Army is split into echelons—and tank crews, for example, do not need anything like the scale of information required by a division headquarters. On the other hand, they need a level of detail far beyond what headquarters wants or needs. The system thus must be switchable for different scales, and capable of blanking out irrelevant data.

Security also is far more of an issue than in the fleet. Vehicles are much more subject to capture—and they don't sink when they are hit. There must be some way of ensuring that an enemy does not automatically gain access to the force's tactical picture, which includes its plans. That has been an issue, but now each computer in the net may carry much more complete information than the low-level written orders of the past.

Budgets and computerization are likely to push the Army further down its slippery slope. There probably will be irresistible pressure to rely more and more on long-range forms of fire support, particularly if supporting weapons can arrive very quickly by flying at hypersonic speed. For example, in terms of time delay from firing to arrival, there is no difference between a gun ten miles away with an average velocity of, say, 1,700 feet per second (about Mach 1.5) and a projectile launched 40 miles away that flies at Mach 6. If it can fire quickly enough and in a timely enough way, the longer-range gun can, in theory, replace numerous shorter-range ones closer to their targets. Replacement is particularly efficient if the guns generally do not all fire at once.

All of this has profound naval implications. To project power, the Army and the Marine Corps must move a mountain of materiel ashore. Anything that removes some of that mass makes power easier to project. Really fast long-range projectiles, in theory, can replace shorter-range indirect-fire guns. They need never move ashore, if they can cover sufficient areas from the sea—and respond quickly enough to calls for fire.

That is where the Army's new computers come in. If they are placed on board amphibious ships, then the ships can respond to calls for fire if they carry the right weapons. In theory, adequately-armed ships can cover the entire depth of a littoral battle area. Moreover, the Navy already has experience with software designed to select the best weapon to attack a given target, in its Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) that merges the radar pictures of all the ships of a group. Targets may be picked up only fleetingly by different ships, but the system merges that detection data to form a single track. Similarly, when the system operator decides to engage a target, the system automatically decides which missile to fire. That is exactly what the Army needs now, in a radically different context.

The Navy already is placing the Army-Marine Corps field artillery tactical direction system (AFATDS)—part of its new command-and-control system—on board some of the fleet's amphibious warfare ships.


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