Small Wars Journal

Forget about China's missiles and stealth fighter; worry instead about 'non-kinetic' combat

What's got the focus of U.S. naval intelligence? Although the first test flight of China's new J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter made the news last week, and PACOM commander Admiral Robert Willard recently declared that China's DF-21D medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile has now achieved "initial operational capability," those developments are not the most worrisome to Vice Admiral David Dorsett, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance. What's Dorsett's greatest concern? It is China's capabilities for non-kinetic combat, its potential to "develop capabilities to dominate in the electromagnetic spectrum," which Dorsett asserts could be "game-changing." Dorsett is preparing for warfare on non-kinetic battlefields, where failure would leave traditional kinetic warriors stuck in the barracks and with no way to fight.

Dorsett revealed his views during a press briefing he delivered on January 5, 2011, after photos of the J-20 appeared but before the aircraft had made its first test flight (h/t Information Dissemination). Initial news stories of Dorsett's briefing focused on his confession that the U.S. intelligence community was surprised at the rate at which Chinese weapon developers delivered the J-20 and DF-21D. The actual transcript of the briefing shines new light on the priorities and concerns of the chief of U.S. naval intelligence.

This excerpt from the briefing sums up Dorsett's concerns:

I've been concerned about Chinese game-changing capabilities in non-kinetic vice kinetic. I am concerned about the [anti-ship] ballistic missile. I am concerned about stealth fighter aircraft. But the area and the technology that I'm most concerned about is China's focus and attention on trying to develop capabilities to dominate in the electromagnetic spectrum, to conduct counter-space capabilities, and clearly to conduct cyber activities. That's a greater concern for me than some of the other hardware-driven or kinetic associated capabilities that they're delivering.

Dorsett repeated this message several times during the briefing.

Launching a guided missile, dropping a precision bomb, or even firing a sniper rifle at an enemy soldier is merely the last of a long sequence of actions that involve reliance on access to the electromagnetic spectrum. U.S. military forces use electro-optical, infrared, and signal sensors to gather information about an enemy's positions, capabilities, and order of battle. It then uses radio transmissions, computer networks, and satellite relays to transmit that information for analysis by intelligence specialists armed with computers. Commanders use their computers and numerous communications networks to transmit their operational orders to warfighters who then rely on radio networks, sensors, and satellites to move against the enemy and into a position to do some kinetic shooting. A military force that can deny its opponent access to the electromagnetic spectrum at critical points along that chain of events will obtain a crucial and possibly decisive advantage.

This is already a well-known feature of modern warfare, but it appears that Dorsett felt it important to restate this reality to his audience. In doing so, he made note of his concerns about China's military strategy. Dorsett implied that China is using its capabilities in electrical and computer engineering and space operations to hold at risk the U.S. military's access to the electromagnetic spectrum at vulnerable points along its intelligence-gathering and command and control processes. By Dorsett's reckoning, Chinese planners have developed a strategy that directs their engineering talent at U.S. vulnerabilities and in a way that both avoids and negates U.S. strengths.

Dorsett is a naval officer with responsibility for preparing the Navy for conflict on the sea, air, and space. Do his views on the need to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum have any relevance for the irregular warfare challenges facing the Army and Marine Corps in Afghanistan?

Coalition forces dominate the electromagnetic spectrum in Afghanistan. But this dominance has yet to win the war. Coalition commanders still don't have enough information about the enemy's locations, order of battle, and current operations. The U.S. is attempting to address this shortfall with more, more human collectors on the ground and more overhead reconnaissance in the form of Reaper drones now increasingly equipped with Gorgon imaging units which produce a tsunami of data. This tidal wave of data now exceeds the ability of human analysts to keep up; commanders now need more computers and more pattern recognition software to make use of the data provided by all of the collectors. It remains to be seen whether the essential data commanders need will be inside the tidal wave or whether intelligence analysts will find a way to cope with the flood. In the meantime, the Taliban may at some point find their best investment to be cyberwarfare worms rather than more ammonium nitrate.

We associate modern war with fiery things that go "boom!" But in Dorsett's next war, much if not all of the skirmishes will be in a non-kinetic electromagnetic realm fought by computer worms, electronic jammers, crashes in outer space, and information deception. It will be a strange war, with the traditional warriors waiting for the non-kinetic prelude to end before they can even travel to the battlefield.


tsweeney (not verified)

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 12:12pm

thinking ahead to the not so distant future when America actually does default on it's interest (not to even mention principal) payments to the rest of the world, what happens then? Obviously the dollar will not be something of any actual value that could be used to buy oil. So unless we end our dependence on foreign oil, they will have us by the short hairs. (as if they don't already). Except for the rather massive oil addiction we have, we don't really need the rest of the world for squat. Unless something changes it would seem to be the wave of the future will be nuclear reactors on a large scale to produce electricity and electric cars. Maybe it would make sense to start planning for this inevitable future. Except for the fact the we don't really plan for much of anything, as long as we can just borrow some more money to ignore the coming storm as long as we can, the problem now is that the era of borrowing is just about to come to a screaching halt.If it hasn't already.

slapout9 (not verified)

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 11:41am

Nice to see somebody thinking about the Electro-Magnetic spectrum. Electro-Magnetism can very kinetic if you want it to. It is also a dual use technology or physical economics for production as well as destruction. That was the basis for some of the plans from 1950's for the USA to go Electric and thus avoid dependency on Oil.

Backwards Observer

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 4:00am

<em>if in a schoolyard fight, someone throws sands in your eyes, and then punches you while blind</em>

What's even more interesting is to watch a guy throw sand in his own eyes and then fall into the monsoon drain...and that was the guy who was hired to teach public safety. I say this affectionately.

X-37B unmanned spacecraft and who knows what else in the black world?

EA-18G/F-22/F-35 EW capabilities and next generation jammer, and EW-capable bomber?

Naval and land-based tactical ballistic missiles?

Capabilities to detect and target threat emitters? It's difficult to jam unless you emit.

We also have many tech-savvy allies that have done things like Stuxnet, attack of a Syrian reactor, and who knows what Europe, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia can do? It's good to have many capable friends if a large bully throws the first punch.

As with kinetic conjecture, we might exercise caution trying to paint the Chinese as ten feet tall in non-kinetics. In contrast, we <u>know</u> the Chinese stand tall economically. We also realize the contrast between their economy and ours could suffer by chasing 1% threats of war with China (not in our backyard and lose-lose to both economies) when more realistic threats of Islamic fundamentalism and rogue nations face us 24/7.

Gorgon Stare has great potential, but it only looks at one larger area and sacrifices all its armament and some frame-per-second resolution in the process. If we are concerned about non-kinetic threats, not sure reliance on limited satellite bandwidth, hopes of satellite survival, and scores of stateside analysts is the answer. Communications with theater units, and control of an expensive Reaper and its payload could be disrupted.

Quantity/redundancy of unmanned assets and other manned ISR/RSTA has a quality all its own in an area the size of Texas filled with countless dispersed small units that may experience contact. Placing aircraft operators of armed UAS near tactical units they habitually support enhances coordination, non-space-based data links, communication, and rapid lethal response in a TIC.

Tactical commanders should prioritize collection of information in a manner that changes frequently, isn't overly broad in focus, and does not overload leaders/staff with irrelevant imagery. In a typical brigade AO, areas related to CCIR are unlikely to all be collocated and observable by Gorgon Stare in a single area forecast by a distant CAOC ISR Cell days earlier.

RSTA asset and HUMINT quantity and timely tasking based on the current situation and tactical commander information priorities still matters. It helps to be in multiple places simultaneously able to respond to cueing by other sensors/HUMINT, and the situation of the unit being supported.

Quantity of armed reconnaissance focuses on priorities and potential for time sensitive targeting in specific diverse locations well known to the habitually supporting and collocated UAS operator or ground scout.

That constrasts with hopes of randomly finding something in a single larger area using Gorgon Stare alone, using lots of stateside analysts and bandwidth in the process. If a target is found, Gorgon Stare's lack of weapons means calling for other targeting assets for timely possibly unuseable due to risk of collateral damage and fratricide.

Publius (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 10:22pm

Robert, a great catch and why I value your blog. Those focused on COIN operations in Afghanistan may never note these important comments from a guy who is obviously able to sort wheat from chaff.

The PRC knows it's exceedingly unlikely that it would be able to achieve military technological superiority over the U.S. in the next 20 years. Given their own domestic issues as well as what we believe to be their agenda in the out-years, it's highly unlikely they would even try. What they can do, however, is develop the capability to attack our weak defense C4I infrastructure. Look what you've recently posted about the Army's AKO program. Hilarious, no?

Our experiences in Iraq and in Afghanistan teach us once again the lesson we learned in Vietnam: The smart poor guy can give the big rich guy fits if he goes about in a smart way. Look what we're spending in Afghanistan. And figure what the Taliban spends.

ISTM we've developed a military that's really great at spending large sums of money to achieve tactical victories in the third world. Admiral Dorsett reminds us that we need a military that can do more than that. Admiral Dorsett is also a thinker. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem there are many Dorsetts around these days.

The nightmare for the Dorsetts in our defense establishment and those of us who share their concern is that the money is all going away, frittered away in chasing third world ghosts. We're obviously entering an era of austerity; will there be any money left to harden essential systems and networks?

James (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 9:51pm

What if it was a different kid that punched you? You would never know because the sand effectively defeated any intelligent comprehension of the situation. Then what if you start punching at where you thought you got punched from and you instead hit someone else? Then what if that was a girl whose boyfriend now joins the fight? And he is popular so other join in with him and eventually you get the mess beat out of you all because you didnt know that Tommy was a sand throwing kind of fighter. Tommy never had to do more than throw a handful of sand for you to get beaten up. But if you had known that Tommy was that kind of kid you would have worn sunglasses and the whole day would have turned out different. The sand wouldnt have made you blind and you could have punched Tommy in the face.
That is what is so scary about China's non-kenetic threat.

Rick (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 6:11pm

No, but if in a schoolyard fight, someone throws sands in your eyes, and then punches you while blind, does sand-throwing count as a fighting?

Cannoneer No. 4

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:54pm

If it's 'nonkinetic', is it really combat?

And if it's not really combat, what is it, really?

Are Computer Network Operations combat?

The old Soviet Radio Electronic Combat combined EW with target acquisition for real live meatspace killing of people and breaking of things.

Are people killed when systems fail after being hacked murdered, or just collateral damage?

Who do we sue when our valuable stuff is rendered unserviceable by worms, viruses and malware?

How do we hold the PRC .gov responsible for the actions of Chinese civilian irregular information operators?