Networking to Win: Mission Prioritization for Wartime Command and Control

U.S. defense planning has long been undergirded by a sense of technological optimism. This is nowhere more evident than in official statements concerning command and control networks, which inevitably assert that this or that new network will make the joint force “greater than the sum of its parts.” In response, the Chinese government has spent nearly two decades developing the ability to target U.S. military networks as part of its doctrine of “systems destruction warfare,” with which it hopes to induce operational paralysis resulting in a loss of U.S. and allied “will and ability to resist” in the event Beijing chooses to compel reunification with Taiwan by force.

With the 2019 advent of combined joint all-domain command and control — now known by the unwieldy acronym CJADC2 — the Department of Defense kickstarted efforts to overcome China’s counternetwork threat, aiming to provide commanders with the “capability to sense, make sense, and act at all levels and phases of war, across all domains, and with partners, to deliver information advantage at the speed of relevance.” But after nearly four years of development, according to a 2023 report by the Government Accountability Office, “DoD has not yet defined the details, such as which existing systems will contribute to [combined joint all-domain command and control] and what future capabilities need to be developed.” Moreover, combined joint all-domain command and control is a conceptual framework, not a program; as such, there is no official clearly accountable for delivering measurable, deadline-driven capabilities. In short, there is reason for serious concern about the department’s progress in addressing China’s counternetwork threat.

Recognizing these challenges, Department of Defense leaders have instilled a laudable sense of urgency in the network development effort. What is still lacking, however, is a clear mission focus: operational priorities for the most critical “kill chains” that battle networks should enable, with deadlines to match. The purpose of command and control is, after all, to achieve battlefield outcomes — not just to maximize the number of humans and machines that can communicate with one another.

This lack of mission focus is manifest in implicit internal Department of Defense critiques. The Air Force’s program executive officer for command and control, for example, still finds a need to push his network team to “address specific operational need[s].” Other circumstantial evidence paints a similar picture — such as a recent article on the Army’s top-priority “unified network” that conspicuously fails to mention combined joint all-domain command and control at all. 

Absent a more concrete, mission-centric plan of action and milestones, then, the Department of Defense’s far-reaching “all sensors, all shooters” ambition could in fact undermine the basic goal of networking the right sensors and the right shooters when and where it matters most. In short, the United States military runs the risk of “networking to network” instead of networking to win.

What is needed, therefore, is a concise list of no-fail missions to shape the minimum requirements for wartime networks — bounding the expansive long-term vision with explicit, measurable near-term goals. The following missions provide a starting point: first, protecting the United States from air and missile attack; second, defending and maintaining lines of communication and forward bases necessary for offensive operations; and finally, conducting long-range strike operations to disrupt the enemy’s ability to achieve its strategic objectives while the United States and its allies mobilize their full offensive power. These missions are critical when considering the Department of Defense’s “pacing scenario” of Chinese aggression against Taiwan and reinforce what should be clear Pentagon priorities to gain the upper hand in a potential war with China.

Homeland Air and Missile Defense

China’s and Russia’s ability to conduct air and missile attacks on the U.S. homeland poses a growing threat to America’s ability to mount and sustain a major war effort. The commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, testified to Congress in March 2023 that “disruptions of military and civilian transportation infrastructure in North America could impede the ability of the United States and Canada to project combat power.” Similarly, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander Adm. John Aquilino has called the development of “360-degree, integrated air and missile defense on Guam” his top priority. 

The Department of Defense currently lacks the sensors and weapons to deal effectively with the proliferation of threats from the air, ranging from ballistic and cruise missile attack to high-altitude balloons and weaponized off-the-shelf drones such as those used by Ukraine in its war with Russia (some of the latter produced, ironically, in China). In his 2023 testimony, Gen. VanHerck argues that he “lacks domain awareness” and has “limited timely access to forces.” This points to gaps in radar coverage of the United States and its approaches, as well as a limited inventory of air defense weapons, from manned fighters to surface-to-air missiles. The surveillance shortfalls illuminated by the February 2023 Chinese spy balloon incident, combined with the use of a $143 million fifth-generation fighter to down the balloon, does not bode well for a future conflict in which an adversary might flood U.S. airspace with cheap, expendable decoys while zeroing in on critical targets with high-end weapons.

Outright capability gaps may call for new sensor systems, such as the over-the-horizon radars featured in Northern Command’s modernization plans, or new weapon systems capable of engaging hypersonic glide vehicles. But detection gaps might also be filled, in part, by incorporating as-yet-untapped civil, commercial, and scientific air sensors — from air traffic control radars to exquisitely capable meteorological radar systems capable of “detecting the shape of a 6-millimeter raindrop from more than 8 miles away.” As for destroying inbound threats, the Department of Defense could get more bang for the buck from its limited inventory of missile batteries by more rapidly and effectively pairing shooters and targets using the latest artificial intelligence tools — but tailored for employment by specific, mission-relevant shooters, not all shooters.

Key networking objectives for homeland air and missile defense should therefore include a more comprehensive, real-time air picture that enables rapid and effective detection and evaluation of threats to help cue defenses as quickly as possible. The first and most important step will be to identify what relevant threat information current military and civilian sensors can provide (e.g., altitude, course, speed, and physical characteristics), and with what fidelity. This will inform the baseline network information requirements but, just as important, will also serve as an “appetite suppressant” against overreach. There is no need to wait for the ability to implement high-fidelity information transfer, such as the exchange of raw sensor data, if current systems are simply incapable of producing or using such information.

The second step will be to develop and deploy the hardware and software necessary to enable information transfer from civilian sensors to military shooters — for example, from a commercial aviation radar to a Patriot missile battery. These networks should leverage existing highly capable combat data links such as the U.S. Army’s integrated air and missile defense battle command system, but not (yet) try to assimilate civilian sensors with the same level of fidelity. While exquisite targeting input from nonmilitary sensors is a valid long-term objective, in the near term it will suffice to simply provide cueing that a threat is approaching from outside a shooter’s organic radar range and to effect a smooth, automated electronic handoff of the inbound threat track. 

To that end, the networking focus should be on extracting the essential useful data for shared awareness and engagement — for example, latitude, longitude, altitude, course, and speed — and ensuring that it gets to the right shooter as expeditiously as possible. Given inter-service and intra-alliance variance in equipment parameters, this will be a challenging technical task in its own right, as will the construction of a network that is able to link together, monitor, and communicate with U.S. air defense systems in a more automated and resilient fashion than legacy data links can afford.

Wartime Logistics

After decades of largely uncontested global access, the Department of Defense now finds itself trying to prop up a weighty power projection flower with an increasingly flimsy logistical stem. Cold War–era logistics ships and aircraft are aging and too few and will no doubt be among the first targets in a war with China. The Department of Defense and its industry partners face well-known challenges in ramping up munitions production; less well-known but equally concerning are the physical limitations of U.S. petroleum storage, distribution, and refinery systems. As security analyst Andrea Orlowski warns, this could result in U.S. forces “running out of gas” in a war in the Pacific. Taken together, these considerations have two broad implications: first, that the Pentagon should squeeze every drop of utility out of the logistics assets that it has; and second, that it must take all possible measures to reduce the vulnerability of its logistics system in wartime. Network innovations could make strides in both areas of concern.

By electronically linking U.S. military logistics systems and then automating the extraction of executive-level insights from them, the department could increase commanders’ and logisticians’ situational awareness of the location and availability of critical supplies, enabling them to make the best use of available resources. Just as importantly, this would allow commanders to craft operational plans that do not outpace the capacity of the supply system. Electronically incorporating this network into combat-oriented battle networks might be useful in the long run, but even a single-purpose network providing real-time situational awareness to logisticians at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels could mean the difference between success and failure in protracted war. The Department of Defense must take care to avoid complete reliance on such a network, which would inevitably become a prime target, but this risk could be mitigated with backup communications paths — for example, management of mobilization logistics, petroleum products, and so forth within the continental United States could be conducted over dedicated buried landlines, or even extemporized using civil telecommunications infrastructure combined with advanced cryptographic techniques. 

Pentagon leaders should also prioritize development of automated networks to improve logistics survivability in wartime. For example, the Department of Defense could divide key supplies such as fuel and munitions among multiple, autonomous delivery platforms, which would be coordinated via an operational logistics network. Indeed, the department’s new Replicator effort, which aims to produce thousands of unmanned systems by 2025, provides a golden opportunity for such a move. For example, the Navy has already conducted autonomous sea trials of an optionally manned fast transport craft. Replicator could fast-track this vision and procure a fleet of small to medium unmanned ships and aircraft that could move critical supplies between and within combat theaters — especially the “last tactical mile” in a combat zone — with less vulnerability to single points of failure. In addition to making wartime logistics less of an all-or-nothing proposition, such a fleet would enable more dynamic reallocation of supplies based on evolving tactical and operational circumstances.

Long-Range Strike

A third key mission in a Taiwan conflict is, of course, long-range strikes against Chinese invasion forces. As with wartime logistics, advanced networks and autonomous systems provide a clear opportunity to boost U.S. combat capability and degrade China’s local military advantage.

From a target detection and evaluation perspective, recent research suggests that with only a modest bill for operating costs — perhaps as little as $700 million per year in current dollars — and without any new basing infrastructure, the Department of Defense’s existing unmanned aerial system fleet could substantially bolster real-time monitoring of Chinese military and naval activity all along the Chinese coast, including the Taiwan Strait. Adding hundreds or even thousands of low-cost, attritable unmanned systems via Replicator could increase that coverage by orders of magnitude. 

One obvious challenge to this approach is that unmanned systems such as the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-4 Triton are typically monitored and controlled via satellite links, affording exquisite collection capability and finely grained operator control but creating vulnerability to Chinese counterspace capabilities. However, innovative combinations of new and old technologies could circumvent the counterspace problem entirely, strengthening deterrence and complicating Chinese planning. The venerable high-frequency radio, for instance, has been successfully used to control the MQ-9, with a nominal range of up to 8,000 miles. Incorporating such tried-and-true technology alongside the latest innovations may well be a high-payoff networking approach.

Conclusion

During the Cold War, the United States achieved rapid military innovation when it was necessary to solve specific operational problems. For example, in response to the urgent need to surveil Soviet nuclear weapons deployments in the presatellite era, the U-2 spy plane rocketed from paper requirement to operational deployment within a single year. Conceptually driven “systems of systems,” however, have tended to implode under their own weight: the Army’s Future Combat System, for instance, has been eulogized as “a textbook example of roughly $18 billion in taxpayer money wasted” that “single-handedly set the Army back a generation in vehicle technology.” To avoid a similar fate for combined joint all-domain command and control, the Department of Defense must clearly specify the operational problems that new networks need to solve.

Early success in fielding mission-focused networks could snowball into ever-greater and more sustainable advantages. If the Department of Defense tempers its networking goals with a laser focus on solving the most pressing operational problems first, while keeping one eye on the long-term prize by nurturing tomorrow’s game-changing systems — and building backward-compatibility into them as a first principle — the battle network architecture of the future could rocket past China’s countermeasures and ultimately achieve a leap ahead in information dominance. 

China is reportedly aiming for the capability to take Taiwan by 2027. Whether this turns out to be true or not, the United States’ strategic objective — quite apart from its technical and operational objectives — must be to undermine that deadline. Whatever the future may hold for visionary, all-encompassing command and control concepts, the Department of Defense needs to secure its ability to defend the United States and project sustained combat power using mission-focused networks as soon as possible. The time to act is now.

Thane C. Clare is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Image: Allied Joint Force Command Naples

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Thane C. Clare