Small Wars Journal

When the Screens Go Dark: Rethinking Our Dependence on Digital Systems

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 4:47pm

When the Screens Go Dark: Rethinking Our Dependence on Digital Systems

Marc Lindemann

Despite its name, the U.S. Army’s Command Post of the Future (“CPOF”) is now more than ten years old.[1]  Since CPOF’s introduction, the U.S. Army has fielded multiple upgrades to it and to the digital systems that have constituted the Army Battle Command System (“ABCS”).[2]  While this succession of improvements has added functionality to the digital systems themselves,[3] the hidden costs of these sophisticated technologies threaten to undermine the very warfighting functions that they were intended to facilitate.  Without proper precautions, the weight of a unit’s digital architecture can crush that unit’s ability to conduct operations.  Likewise, emerging cyber and electromagnetic threats[4] that can degrade networked digital systems make excessive dependence on such systems an acute vulnerability.  Ever-increasing digital-system complexity requires units to allocate more resources to master ABCS intricacies at the expense of other objectives, such as the conduct of traditional – now often characterized as “degraded” – operations.  The less time a unit spends on non-digital training, the more dependent the unit’s operations become on its digital systems.  When these systems fail, however, the drawbacks of an increasingly exclusive focus on digital-systems training – and the associated sacrifice of traditional training – become readily apparent.  Thus, paradoxically, the more advanced the U.S. Army’s digital systems become, the more U.S. Army leaders will need to consciously and continuously emphasize non-digital fundamentals.  The availability of technology is no substitute for the tactical training of Soldiers.

The Costs of Digitization

In 1994, as part of the Force XXI modernization initiative, the U.S. Army designated the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) (“4ID”) as its Experimental Force.  At Fort Hood, Texas, the 4ID trained on the precursors to many of the digital systems that are present in today’s ABCS, and, in 1999, the U.S. Army hailed the 4ID as its “First Digital Division.”[5]  As the 4ID was adapting to these digital systems, the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (“ARI”) simultaneously embarked upon a study entitled, “Managing Force XXI Change: Insights and Lessons Learned in the Army’s First Digital Division,” to chronicle the 4ID’s progress.[6]  The ARI researchers noted that the transition to digital systems was not without its difficulties.  At least one commander within the 4ID went so far as to ban paper maps from his Tactical Operations Center (“TOC”) to force his Soldiers to rely solely on digital versions.[7]  In its March 2002 closing report, the ARI team cited many leaders who gave the digital systems favorable reviews; still, the report featured some prophetic warnings: “Digital leaders and soldiers must be warfighters first.  They need to master warfighting basics before they can harness digital tools.”[8]  Quoting the 4ID’s COL Ted Kostich, the report also noted: “We need to be careful that we don’t make our ABCS operators technicians instead of warfighters.”[9]

Since the 2002 ARI Report, ABCS, in the hands of trained operators and supervisors, has effectively reduced the fog of war.  For example, a commander and his staff no longer have to depend exclusively on subordinate units calling up their positions over the radio; Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below/Blue Force Trackers (“FBCB2s/BFTs”) regularly transmit unit locations, displaying corresponding unit icons that move through the battlespace in the Common Operating Picture (“COP”).[10]  A swarm of blue icons marching across a CPOF screen is an impressive sight.  With the timely influx of situational information, leaders at all levels can integrate and synchronize battlefield activities, making ABCS a significant combat multiplier.[11]  Given the success of its digitization, the U.S. Army has committed itself to the further expansion of its systems and networks.  As the digital environment becomes more complex, however, today’s leaders must take a hard look at the challenges inherent in their current reliance on these systems.

Information demands an audience, and the sheer volume of data available through ABCS can be daunting.[12]  The accessibility of information creates a perceived obligation to observe and process it, resulting in a danger of what GEN Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has termed “paralysis by analysis.”[13]  In a TOC, the stream of near-real-time position and spot reports results in constant monitoring to guarantee responsiveness.  As more information comes in, a unit assigns more resources to observe the information and analyze its meaning.  In addition, though the ABCS provides powerful tools to evaluate, reconfigure, and package data, the crafting of detailed storyboards and CPOF-based update briefs requires time and trained personnel.  With more Soldiers becoming necessary to mind and process the data flow, a unit must devote more assets to handle the incoming information.

Yet digital systems cannot do anything if they are not connected properly.  What the 2002 ARI report recognized is still true: “[t]he signal battalion has become the Achilles heel of digital operations.  Maintaining digital networks and connectivity depends absolutely on signal capabilities.  The impact of digital failures during distributed combat operations could be harsh.”[14]  Today’s ABCS operators – and even senior leaders[15] – often have to stand aside and wait for signal personnel to painstakingly connect all of the digital systems in a command post or TOC.  Many Soldiers defer to signal personnel as the priesthood of the U.S. Army’s digital systems; somehow, after tinkering with wires and pressing various buttons, the signal Soldiers are mysteriously able to elicit functionality.  The prospect of digital failure is so unwelcome that commanders may be tempted to keep their command post location static once the signal personnel have established some degree of connectivity and digital capability.  Typically, the larger its digital footprint, the more immobile a command post will be.  Likewise, the digital logistics and signal support necessary to even push out a tactical command post can seem overwhelming.  Each move involves the transport of a multitude of computer equipment, as well as the reconfiguration of digital systems to establish connectivity.  Sometimes, too, uniformed signal personnel hit a road block in their efforts, and a digital system is out of the fight until a contractor’s field service representative can arrive.  And once the digital systems are functioning, there remains the matter of the proficiency of the people who will be operating them.

In order to use ABCS systems, a unit must allocate sufficient personnel to serve as operators, and each operator requires extensive initial and regular refresher training to keep his skills current.  In an era of diminished budgets and multiplying training requirements, finding the resources for such training can be difficult.[16]  Moreover, relatively junior operators are not the only ones who need training.  A trained, low-level operator may sit in front of a CPOF console, monitoring reports and icon positions, but when it comes time for a staff principal to check his section’s running estimates or to brief a commander using CPOF, that staff member must also know how to use the device.  If a staff section relies upon a digital system, the operators and the principals must be subject matter experts in that system’s use.  Unfortunately, the turnover in headquarters personnel – especially junior personnel who will move out to line units – ensures that many digital system operators leave their positions just as they are nearing some level of expertise with their assigned devices.[17]

The rapid succession of upgrades, updates, and other ostensible ABCS improvements results in still more challenges.  Military contractors such as General Dynamics and Raytheon repeatedly roll out updates providing additional functionality to the existing digital systems that they produce; sometimes, such as the case with BCS3, the military incorporates entirely new systems into ABCS.  Each update may involve additional training for operators and principals.[18]  These subsequent versions can also bring what is known as “feature creep”: to distinguish a new version from its predecessors, a digital system’s creator adds functionality.  With each version, the “functionalities” of the system multiply, eventually resulting in a system that few Soldiers fully understand and whose primary function is clouded with “gee-whiz” features that are of little practical use. 

The steady procession of digital system versions also brings with it a dependence upon an array of contractors to implement these improvements.[19]  Operators may undergo an initial 40-hour block of instruction regarding a particular digital system, but there are few operator-level fixes possible when there needs to be an update to the device itself.  Operations can slow to a crawl when a digital system goes down and a field service representative has to arrive to install an update.  Sometimes a unit will not know that it needs a necessary update until it boots up its system and discovers that the system does not work or cannot “talk” with another system.  Military contractors provide valuable services, but there is a problem if uniformed operators and their supervisors do not have the ability to troubleshoot and fix the most basic issues with their “primary weapons systems,” other than by turning off and on the power switch and hoping for the best.  Increasing ABCS complexity, the need for communication between digital devices, and a growing emphasis on jointness and interoperability between different services’ systems has resulted in the permanent presence of contractors in waiting.  The constant need for these contractors detracts from a command post’s agility and mobility.  

Whereas contractor field service representatives and signal Soldiers have seen their stock soar in the past 12 years, analog maps have become a casualty of the U.S. Army’s reliance upon digital systems.[20]  Before the advent of ABCS, Soldiers would regularly update a TOC situation map’s acetate overlays.  Now, with no way for an analog situation map to compete with the near-real-time data feed from ABCS, making analog updates takes a back seat to monitoring computers.  In a conclusion that will resonate with today’s battalion and higher headquarters staff members, the 2002 ARI report remarked that “[t]he division is not manned to conduct operations using both digital and analog (map-and-grease-pencil) systems.”[21]  The 4ID’s leaders acknowledged that they had to break with traditional, analog mission command procedures in order to tend the TOC’s digital systems; in the words of one officer, “I don’t have enough people to be inside the TOC working ASAS and then running outside the track and changing the analog stuff on the maps and wingboards.”[22]

Today, training for degraded operations is too often an afterthought.  Units struggle so much with setting up, connecting, and operating the latest digital systems that there is little time left to train on how to operate when these systems are not available.[23]   The tendency is for units to concentrate on digital training at the expense of analog proficiency, as the skills required for the successful use of ABCS are particularly perishable.  As the 2002 ARI report had noted:

Balancing digital training with field craft and tactical training is a challenge unique to the digital division.  Because information management skills atrophy more quickly than other skills, units are likely to devote more time to digital training.[24]

These days, in TOCs full of glowing CPOF screens, analog situation maps – when posted – fall into various stages of neglect and obsolescence.  Likewise, hard copies of current staff running estimates may be hard to find, as well-meaning leaders attempt to enforce a “paperless TOC” model.  The higher the headquarters, the less likely there will be an analog back up of information from subordinate elements.  Granted, analog products are inefficient, time-intensive, and relatively limited in terms of the data they display; they are also vital to have on hand when digital systems are not working.  Without the presence and regular updating of these analog products, mission failure may be just a power outage or a system crash away.

Regardless of how technologically savvy a commander may be, ABCS provides a sweeping situational awareness that also serves as a tempting opportunity for higher headquarters’ micromanagement, what GEN Dempsey has recognized as “a debilitating inhibitor of trust in the lower echelon of the force.”[25]  The packaging of volumes of data into simple icons creates visibility with the suggestion of manipulability.  Excessive interference with subordinate unit operations becomes a real danger: if a commander can see something on the screen, then it appears deceptively simple to control it.[26]  Some studies have even developed the term “Predator View” for a leader who becomes so caught up with what is on the screen that he fails to see the larger tactical picture.[27]  A senior leader who thus becomes enmeshed in the details of an operation at the lowest tactical level is not doing his job and is not allowing his subordinate leaders to do theirs.  Digital systems’ invitation to micromanagement also manifests itself in the opposite direction.  Although junior leaders do not have to constantly call up to higher headquarters with their positions and give minute-by-minute radio reports of their progress, their FBCB2s/BFTs effectively and automatically provide that stream of information.  Junior leaders know that their movements are being tracked and expect higher headquarters to regularly monitor their position and status.  This umbilical cord to higher headquarters results in an expectation of constant communication and oversight; moreover, additional guidance is only a free-text message away.  This tendency plays out above the small unit level, as well.  Digital networks allow for the easy dissemination of Fragmentary Orders (“FRAGORDs”). Without restraint, a flurry of FRAGORDs bombarding a subordinate headquarters’ in-boxes can lead to the same sort of micromanagement problems and initiative-deadening expectations as described above.

Going Forward

The U.S. Army’s current path, with its emphasis on joint and multinational operations[28], will ultimately require the integration and interoperability of other services’ and various nations’ digital systems.[29]  In the foreseeable future, the digital architecture will become more, not less, complicated, as the U.S. Army attempts to digitally connect headquarters, Soldiers, and vehicles[30] across services and across nations.  Every step closer to this goal involves the investment of additional funds, personnel, and training resources, along with the consequent opportunity cost in traditional tactical training.  Today, facing budget cuts, some military leaders are promoting digital systems as a means of cutting training and personnel.  LTG Susan Lawrence, the U.S. Army’s Chief Information Officer/G-6, announced on 27 June 2013, “I’m convinced that, as we draw down, if we get this network modernized right, it will enable us to be that smaller, better-trained, more capable expeditionary Army.”[31]  When hearing these arguments, it is important to remember that digital systems and networks were a means to an end, not an end unto themselves. 

The U.S. Army cannot pin all of its hopes upon its digital systems; such thinking is dangerously akin to treating the network as the country’s Maginot Line.  The U.S. Army is rightly investing in the creation of cyber warriors to protect against and repel attacks to its digital systems.  Protecting the digital dominance that we have obtained goes hand in hand with the use of these systems.  Merely attempting to harden our digital systems – increasing our defenses – is not enough, however.  The U.S. Army must train for situations in which its digital systems, by accident or design, are not functional. 

In trying to refocus on the operations that digital systems were designed to facilitate, the concept of decentralization provides a useful prism through which leaders can view the demands of current and future digital complexity.  Recent Unified Land Operations and Mission Command doctrine has reaffirmed the significance of decentralization and expanded its applicability.[32]  There is an inherent conflict between networking and decentralization, however.  The more an organization is networked, the more reliant it becomes on the center – the hub or the brain – of the network.  It is important to remember that the U.S. Army originally embarked upon its networking program in order to facilitate point-to-point control between commanders and subordinates.[33]

Disciplined initiative is the key to non-digital operations in a military force that now prioritizes networked, digital operations.  In a threat environment where even the most useful digital system may be knocked out of the fight, there needs to be a back-to-basics approach that will enable units to continue to fight effectively in the absence of their digital systems and digital guidance from higher headquarters.[34]  Every commander should be able to shut off the TOC’s power, slipping the digital leash, and have confidence that his or her unit can continue to function.[35]  Junior leaders and staff sections should be able to anticipate the problems inherent in digital-system failure and know what to do without a major disruption in TOC operations.  ADRP 6-0’s non-digital solutions – “establishing trust, creating shared understanding, or providing a clear intent using mission orders”[36] – are significant.  More significant, however, and more measurable is the degree of Soldiers’ basic proficiency in their warfighting tasks.


Although this paper does not and cannot advocate the abandonment of the U.S. Army’s existing digital systems, the U.S Army’s dependence on digital systems is very much on its leaders’ minds today.[37]  These systems have repeatedly demonstrated the potential to make the U.S. Army a much more efficient and lethal fighting force.[38]  Before his retirement, however, GEN Robert W. Cone, then Commanding General, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, gave digital systems an ultimatum: “Why do we want this piece of technology?  If it does not dramatically improve training efficiency, we need the strength to walk away.”[39]  Right now, the military is poised to increase digital training requirements in pursuit of inter-service operations, multinational activities, and the expansion of the network to include all Soldiers and vehicles.  Leaders at every level must understand their dependence on digital systems, successfully manage their units’ use of these systems, and promote decentralized initiative in support of clearly defined and mutually understood tactical goals.  In the end, Soldiers must have tactical knowledge that transcends anything displayed on a computer monitor.  Soldiers, not our digital systems, are what will win our future conflicts.[40]  When the screens go dark, the mission must go on.

End Notes

[1]. The 1st Cavalry Division first employed CPOF in Iraq in 2004.  BG Harry Greene, Larry Stotts, Ryan Paterson, and Janet Greenberg, “Command Post of the Future: Successful Transition of a Science and Technology Initiative to a Program of Record,” Defense Acquisition University, January 2010, available at <>‎ (14 May 2014); “Command Post of the Future (CPOF),”, undated, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[2]. The ABCS Version 6.4 is a system of systems consisting of 11 battlefield automated systems: Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (“AFATDS”); Air and Missile Defense Workstation (“AMDWS”); All Source Analysis System (“ASAS”); Battle Command Sustainment Support System (“BCS3”); Digital Topographic Support System (“DTSS”); Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and- Below and Blue Force Tracking (“FBCB2/BFT”); Global Command and Control System – Army (“GCCS-A”); Integrated Meteorological System (“IMETS”); Integrated System Control (“ISYSCON”); Maneuver Control System (“MCS”); and Tactical Airspace Integration System (“TAIS”).  Timothy L. Rider, “‘Digital’ Army Dawns as System Undergoes Testing,” Army Acquisition, Logistics & Technology, September-October 2004, p. 15-18, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[3]. “Information systems – especially when merged into a single, integrated network – enable extensive information sharing.”  Army Doctrine Publication (“ADP”) 6-0, Mission Command, 17 May 2012, 12, available at <> (14 May 2014).

4. “Various weapons and techniques — ranging from conventional munitions and directed-energy weapons to network attacks — can destroy enemy systems that use the electromagnetic spectrum.”  Field Manual (“FM”) 3-36, Electronic Warfare, 9 November 2012, 1-11, available at <‎> (14 May 2014); see also Army Doctrine Reference Publication (“ADRP”) 6-0, Mission Command, 17 May 2012, 3-30, available at <>  (14 May 2014).

[5].  MAJ Mark Newell, “New Division Design Announced,” 4th Infantry Division, Public Affairs Office, undated, available at <> (14 May 2014); Ann Roosevelt, “Army’s First Digital Division Waits for the Call,” Defense Daily, 19 November 2001, available at < > (14 May 2014); Paul Boutin, “The Army’s Desktop Jockeys: Can Information Technology Help the Military Win the War?”, 31 March 2003, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[6].  Bruce C. Leibrecht, John C. Johnston, Barbara A. Black, and Kathleen A. Quinkert, Managing Force XXI Change: Insights and Lessons Learned in the Army's First Digital Division,” United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, March 2002, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[7].  “Forceful steps may be needed to jump-start digitization. For example, a brigade commander in the 4ID banned the use of paper maps in command posts to force leaders and soldiers to use the new digital systems. The commander later credited that step for much of his unit's digitization success.” Ibid., 29.

[8]. Ibid., 32.

[9]. Ibid., (quoting COL Ted Kostich, 13 March 2001).

[10]. “Commanders rely on technical networks to communicate information and control forces.  Technical networks facilitate information flow by connecting information users and information producers and enable effective and efficient information flow.  Technical networks help shape and influence operations by getting information to decisionmakers, with adequate context, enabling them to make better decisions. They also assist commanders in projecting their decisions across the force.”  ADRP 6-0, 3-28.

[11]. “Information becomes a force multiplier when it provides a capability that, when added to and employed by a combat force, significantly increases the combat potential of that force and enhances the probability of successful mission accomplishment.”  AR 25-1, 1-7.

[12]. “Electronic means of communication have increased the access to and speed of finding information. However, they also have increased the volume of information and the potential for misinformation. Successful commanders are mindful of this when they configure their mission command system. Commanders determine information requirements and set information priorities. They avoid requesting too much information, which decreases the staff’s chances of obtaining the right information.” ADRP 6-0, 2-83.

[13]. GEN Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mission Command White Paper, 3 April 2012, 7, available at <> (14 May 2014). “Commanders and staffs must continually work to maintain their situational understanding and work through periods of reduced understanding as the situation evolves.  As commanders develop their situational understanding, they see patterns emerge, dissipate, and reappear in their operational environment.”  COL Clinton J. Ancker, III (Ret.) and LTC Michael Flynn (Ret.), “Field Manual 5-0: Exercising Command and Control in an Era of Persistent Conflict,” Military Review, Mission Command Special Issue 2012, 44 (originally published in Military Review, March-April 2010), available at <> (14 May 2014).

[14]. Leibrecht et al., 40.

[15]. “In the military, concepts such as Information Operations and Network Centric Warfare rely on complex information systems that utilize global computer networks.  Until 2009, most requirements and decisions on network security and capability were made by communications experts, especially in the military.  However, as dependence on this vulnerable network increases, commanders must be directly involved because of the great operational impact of network failure or degradation.  There is concern that many senior leaders are being thrust into an area for which they are poorly equipped due to lack of cyberspace education or experience.”  William Waddell with David Smith, James Shufelt, and COL Jeffrey Caton, “Cyberspace Operations: What Senior Leaders Need to Know About Cyberspace,” Center for Strategic Leadership Study 1-11, March 2011, 1, available at <‎> (14 May 2014).

[16]. “While advances in the science of human learning and training help us train soldiers faster, the truth is that it can barely keep up with the expanding list of training requirements.”  GEN Robert W. Cone, “Building the New Culture of Training,” Military Review, January-February 2013, 14, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[17]. “Soldiers are usually assigned duties using Mission Command systems for a brief time in a given career.”  Kathryn Bailey, “Mission Command in Garrison – ‘Train as You Fight,’” Office of the Project Manager Mission Command, 17 September 2013, available at <> (14 May 2014) (quoting LTC Brian Lyttle, Product Manager, Strategic Mission Command).

[18]. COL Harold Greene and Robert Mendoza, “Lessons Learned from Developing the ABCS 6.4 Solution,” Defense Acquisition Review Journal, April-July 2005, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[19]. For example: AFATDS, Raytheon; AMDWS, Northrup Grumman; FBCB2, Northrup Grumman; BCS3, Boeing subsidiary Tapestry; CPOF, General Dynamics; and TAIS, General Dynamics.

[20]. Hard copies of field manuals have also fallen victim to digitization.  Too often, though, leaders will put copies of U.S. Army publications on disc and then, when the power goes out, are unable to access the necessary reference material.

[21]. Leibrecht et al., 40.

[22]. Ibid. (quoting COL Bob Cone, 02 March 2001).

[23]. “The current generation of complex digital tools has only added to an already heavy individual and collective training burden.  Accordingly, commanders must make hard choices about the amount of training that soldiers receive and often find the time by sacrificing other training.”  Christopher J. Toomey, “Army Digitization: Making It Ready for Prime Time,” Parameters, Winter 2003-2004, 43, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[24]. Leibrecht et al., 41.

[25]. Dempsey, 7.

[26]. “Just because you can see imagery from miles above the earth doesn’t mean you understand the problem.”  LTG Michael T. Flynn and BG Charles A. Flynn, U.S. Army, “Integrating Intelligence and Information: Ten Points for the Commander,” Military Review, January-February 2012, 7, available at < > (14 May 2014). 

[27]. Christine G. van Burken, “The Non-Neutrality of Technology: Pitfalls of Network-Enabled Operations,” Military Review, May-June 2013, 40, available at <> (14 May 2014).

[28]. “The long-term goal is to integrate these [Mission Command Training Program (‘MCTP’)] corps and division multi-echelon [Warfighter Exercises] with Global Combatant Command exercises.  This will increase the Joint-Interagency-Intergovernmental-Multinational component and provide high-payoff training opportunities for Special Operations Forces, multinational partners, and our Unified Action Joint partners that enable operational level headquarters to tie tactical capabilities to regional or national strategies. . . . Tied to this are plans for NATO partners to participate habitually in future U.S. corps and division WFXs.  Overall, MCTP’s transformed exercise architecture and OCT initiatives will ensure operational level HQs can train in a much more relevant, realistic, and complex environment than previously possible, with all the required enablers to fully train commanders and staffs.”  COL Michael Barbee, “The CTC Program: Leading the March into the Future,” Military Review, July-August 2013, 21 available at <> (14 May 2014).

[29]. “The term ‘network-enabled capabilities’ requires some explanation.  The term means the use of network technologies and information technology assets to facilitate cooperation and information sharing.  This can lead to a build-up of complex and ad hoc multinational environments, referred to as network-enabled capabilities or network enabled operations.  Network enabled capabilities have the potential for increasing military effects through improved use of information technology systems.” van Burken, 40.

[30]. “Network the Dismounts!”  MG Robert B. Brown, “The Infantry Squad: The Infantry Squad: Decisive Force Now and in the Decisive Force Now and in the Future,” Military Review, Mission Command Special Issue 2012, 4 (originally published in Military Review, November-December 2011).

[31]. Joe Gould, “Connecting Soldiers: Army Boosts Network Security by Cutting Access Points,” Army Times, 08 July 2013, 16.

[32]. “Commanders enable adaptive forces through flexibility, collaborative planning, and decentralized execution  They use mission command to achieve maximum flexibility and foster individual initiative.” ADP 3-0, Unified Land Operations, 10 October 2011, 7, available at <> (14 May 2014); ; see also Dempsey, 3-4 (“Smaller, lighter forces operating in an environment of increased uncertainty, complexity and competitiveness will require freedom of action to develop the situation and rapidly exploit opportunities.  Decentralization will occur beyond current comfort levels and habits of practice.”); ADRP 6-0, 2-86.

[33]. COL Harry D. Tunnell IV (Ret.), “Network-Centric Warfare and the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy,” Military Review, May-June 2014, 44-45.

[34]. Recent training simulations, such as that with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in October 2012 at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, have involved “significant communications challenges involving either austere and immature infrastructures or sophisticated area-denial electronic and cyber attack from our adversaries.”  Flynn and Richardson, 40.  In addition, these challenges have forced units undergoing evaluation to “practice the skills needed when communications are degraded, and then navigate through the challenges of establishing digital connectivity across [multiple] battalion task forces—all under free-play enemy action, including electronic jamming and military cyber attack.”  Ibid.

[35]. “Successful commanders understand that networks may be degraded during operations. They develop methods and measures to mitigate the impact of degraded networks. This may be through exploiting the potential of technology or through establishing trust, creating shared understanding, or providing a clear intent using mission orders.”  ADRP 6-0, 3-48.

[36]. Ibid.

[37]. At an 18 June 2013 symposium at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, BG James E. Rainey, director of the Mission Command Center of Excellence, announced the new Army Mission Command Strategy.  Rainey received the question whether “units were relying too much on technology in order to execute Mission Command,” he and replied that “units have to plan on the possibility that the enemy will have the capability of temporarily neutralizing our technological systems.”  In particular, he commented, “Mission Command set us up for success when we temporarily lose those systems.”  Another symposium participant, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Bailey, deputy chief of staff, G-3, U.S. Army Forces Command, indicated that the U.S. Army was “requiring units to operate in degraded technological environments to ensure units are not becoming overly reliant on technology.”  LTC Jeff Allen, “Leaders Discuss Mission Command Strategy,” Combined Arms Center, 27 June 2013, available at <> (14 May 2013).

[38]. “Information systems — especially when integrated into a coherent, reliable network — enable extensive information sharing, collaborative planning, execution, and assessment that promote shared understanding.”  ADRP 6-0, 3-49.

[39]. Cone, 15.

[40]. “The truth is that the most agile, adaptive, intelligent system on the battlefield or anywhere else in our Army is a human being.  We will spend billions of dollars researching how to improve the network, but it will mean little if we don’t focus our energies on command climates and environments that develop the human foundation—trust, initiative, dialogue and freedom of action within intent—that will allow mission command to thrive throughout our Army and our institutions to become as agile as our operating forces.”  COL Tom Guthrie, “Mission Command: Do We Have the Stomach for What is Really Required?” Army, June 2012, 28.


About the Author(s)

Major Marc Lindemann is currently serving as Battalion Executive Officer for the 1-258th Field Artillery Battalion of the New York Army National Guard, as well as a Principal Assistant District Attorney in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.  He deployed to Central Iraq in 2005-2006 as a platoon leader in the 4th Infantry Division.  Major Lindemann received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at Yale University and holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School.  The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or any U.S. government agency.


Biggs Darklighter

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 8:05pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Everyone would agree technology is great...when it works! My point here is what if it doesn't work? That was also the point of the Technology article and the 3-69 Armor experience with it as well. Fortunately, we were not fully dependent on the new equipment that failed at OBJ Peach to accomplish the mission, but we are creeping that way. You hear more how technology will save us then how we will operate without said technology so I wouldn't put too much faith on our technology or any defensive countermeasures to protect it, or operate without the multiple breaches on our defense computer networks show, and those are the only the ones the government allows us to know. You can bet there is more.

Move Forward

Fri, 03/06/2015 - 7:47am

In reply to by Biggs Darklighter

Nobody disputes your concerns about EMP’s effect on electronic systems which is one reason limited use of tactical nuclear weapons is both scary and dangerous in terms of escalation. It isn’t an acceptable option. However, who knows how much hardening exists or what will still work. Likewise, in terms of satellites, who can predict what potential lies in fighter aircraft launch of temporary stored satellites [already demonstrated and recently reported as an option plus don’t forget mini-shuttles (??) and commercial launchers] to replace satellites lost against a near peer—which again may be mute given the apocalyptic potential of nuke use.

Must disagree concerning some points cited about 3-69 AR actions at Objective Peach. Agree, intelligence forwarding to lower echelon units was poor. That also was 12 years ago and much has changed since then. However, page 295 of “On Point” describes the battle that began at Objective Peach around 0300 on 3 April 2003. The Iraqis approached with a tank company forward and 50 M113s (not BMPs, out of 70-80 total APCs) trailing. After three T-72s were destroyed immediately to include killing an Iraqi Brigade commander, the brigade withdrew but attacked again later and was destroyed. IIRC from both “On Point” and another source, most of the battle involved dismounts. The poor quality of T-72s and M113s in a night attack were no match for sensors, armor, and weapons of 3-69 Abrams and Bradleys plus ample indirect fire and CAS support.

My mention of how the commander of 3-69 used BFT is included in this US Army War College document titled “Network Centric Warfare Case Study” Volume III:

<blockquote>Back at PEACH, LTC Marcone did not know that 2nd BCT had taken an alternate route or that they had gotten bogged down. He observed in his tank-mounted FBCB2-BFT that the 2nd BCT had changed from its planned route following 1st BCT to moving east of Karbala; later he observed that they were now backtracking back towards the Karbala Gap. He concluded that they must have met some kind of obstacle and, making a quick time distance calculation from the information provided by his BFT, LTC Marcone estimated that 2nd BCT would not be passing through until sometime the next morning. Using this information, LTC Marcone decided to change his posture at the bridge from that of providing bridgehead security with a bridgehead line to preparing a hasty defense.</blockquote>

In the same document, both the Division and Corps commander could tell from BFT that COL Perkins’ 2nd BCT has proceeded on into Baghdad on the final Thunder Run and was holding terrain there. Elsewhere on slide 39 of a “Fighting the Networked Force” April 27, 2005 PPT presentation, COL (now General) Perkins was quoted as using BFT to assess where his units were and to estimate time required for movement:

<blockquote>“This would not have been the … course of action that anyone would have selected. Everyone was under contact– 1-61 AR destroyed several motorized rifle companies going through Karballa; 1-15 got into contact at 2100 when it turned into a swamp; and 4-64 turned west and got into a firefight … what I think helped was that we had FBCB2 and BFT; I could track where the brigade was on all the ‘snail trails.’ I could conduct time-distance calculations to determine how long it would take for units to cover their respective routes.” </blockquote>

Other quotes from the same PPT cite potential fratricide averted by situational awareness provided by BFT about friendly force locations. The case study mentions COL Perkins using a Spitfire TACSAT radio from downtown Baghdad during the Thunder Run and don't forget UHF, VHF, HF, Link 16, future data links, and other local and wide area network PACE alternatives, and comms relay accessible through Army and Joint aircraft. I also forgot to mention in my bullets a Marine incident at an-Nasiriyah in which alleged A-10 fratricide of Marine AAV-7s could have been averted if BFT had been checked prior to engagement.

Biggs Darklighter

Thu, 03/05/2015 - 8:06pm

The Joint Force is not ready for this. Lots of talk on the subject but little action. How many units are actually training with ALL of their electronic systems shut down? This is a great article that the Joint Force needs to take note of. What does the pilot of the fighter plane do when the power fails? What does the commander of a carrier task force do when his ships float like drift wood in the water? What do Army and Marine combat units do when their tanks shut down or a airborne infantry battalion is cut off from all communications, GPS etc.? What's the PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency)plan? Marine and Army leaders need to read the Technology Review article on a battalion from the Army's 69th Armor regiment encountered digital issues and our worst enemy was ourselves (our equipment) as the Iraqi army had no CEMA capability. The article link and an extract are below.…

How Technology Failed in Iraq

"The welter of postmortems from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars tell many stories. But one thing is clear: Marcone never knew what was coming at Objective Peach. Advanced sensors and communications – elements of future networked warfare designed for difficult, unconventional battles – failed to tell him about a very conventional massed attack. “It is my belief that the Iraqi Republican Guard did nothing special to conceal their intentions or their movements. They attacked en masse using tactics that are more recognizable with the Soviet army of World War II,” Marcone says."

"And so at a critical juncture in space (a key Euphrates bridge) and time (the morning of the day U.S. forces captured the Baghdad airport), Marcone only learned what he was facing when the shooting began. In the early-morning hours of April 3, it was old-fashioned training, better firepower, superior equipment, air support, and enemy incompetence that led to a lopsided victory for the U.S. troops."

Move Forward

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 12:10pm

<blockquote>Excessive interference with subordinate unit operations becomes a real danger: if a commander can see something on the screen, then it appears deceptively simple to control it. Some studies have even developed the term “Predator View” for a leader who becomes so caught up with what is on the screen that he fails to see the larger tactical picture. <strong>A senior leader who thus becomes enmeshed in the details of an operation at the lowest tactical level is not doing his job and is not allowing his subordinate leaders to do theirs.</strong> Digital systems’ invitation to micromanagement also manifests itself in the opposite direction. Although junior leaders do not have to constantly call up to higher headquarters with their positions and give minute-by-minute radio reports of their progress, their FBCB2s/BFTs effectively and automatically provide that stream of information. Junior leaders know that their movements are being tracked and expect higher headquarters to regularly monitor their position and status. This umbilical cord to higher headquarters results in an expectation of constant communication and oversight; moreover, additional guidance is only a free-text message away. This tendency plays out above the small unit level, as well. </blockquote>

If leaders correctly should avoid becoming “enmeshed in details of an operation” let alone watching it on a full motion video (FMV) screen, shouldn’t subordinate staff officers and NCOs instead periodically review CPOF screens and the COP or Predator/Reaper/Gray Eagle/Shadow FMV feeds? Without such access, control of synchronized maneuver is more difficult, and fratricide risks and airspace conflict increase because combat identification and locations are more uncertain. I’m unsure what downside exists in subordinate leaders assuming higher HQ knows their location. Plus, it allows a measure of self-synchronization with adjacent units because junior leaders also are aware of who is near them and where surfaces and gaps may exist.

The larger downside may lie in the assumption that red COP icons are current, accurate, and did not move. However, even in that instance it allows focused information collection on what is there with less risk of inadvertent fratricide of security, reconnaissance, and SF elements. Desert Storm involved an incident where an Apache mistakenly fired on two security vehicles killing several and wounding others with Hellfires. Systems such as BFT and today’s superior sensors would have reduced that risk. Another Desert Storm fratricide resulted when bypassing friendly armor fired back at bypassed enemies and hit friendlies instead. We used these two examples in our combat ID training for UAS operators.

CPOF may be aging but the alternative of separate stovepiped ABCS systems that cannot be integrated on a common display would make situation understanding more difficult. Yes, the move away from paper maps is problematic but equally troublesome is the related dependency on GPS and BFT that are both satellite based. Map training should not be sacrificed in favor of increased technology training of mission command systems. However, a staff officer and NCO is more likely to have experienced maneuver in combat using maps, both digital and paper. The MOS of the TOC NCO requires a different digital skill set than that of a tank or Bradley commander. I can attest to using paper maps in training for UAS operators and having them experience confusion over the difference between a 1:250,000 map and a 1:50,000.

I’m torn between agreeing with the author and thinking it’s an exaggerated problem. To be sure, our most advanced enemies can bring down satellites, jam our communications, and disrupt our data links. However, a jammer is an emitter that can be targeted. Redundant communications exist as exemplified by the acronym PACE for primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency. Moreover, with the exception of Taiwan and North Korea, it is difficult to envision our Army fighting the PLA directly and that would be perilous due to risk of nuclear escalation. Likewise a ground fight with Russia risks a tactical nuclear exchange that could go further. That is why deterrence and forward presence have been so essential for so long to preclude any such conflict. In the past our forward ground forces made risks too high for communist aggressors and rewards too uncertain.

As far as EW and cyber are concerned, for instance no fewer than four means are available to stream the data link to and from an Army MQ-1C “Predator-like” UAS. FM communications relay means also are embedded in that data link greatly extending its potential range. In contrast, a USAF Predator or Reaper relies solely on satellite data links and has numerous cyber touch points. Upgrades to WIN-T seem destined to improve communications on the move as will Blue Force Tracker 2. Perhaps he has a point that the Network Integration Exercises at Fort Bliss are overly resourced as a priority given the risks and uncertainty of their effectiveness. But the alternative is to throw up our hands and assume in error that in most conflicts we will be unable to communicate—which simply is untrue given the precedent of OIF against a pretty advanced adversary.

There is a secondary issue raised about interference from above and too many eyes on the battlefield. But that accusation of excessive meddling with lower echelon commanders neglects the reality that higher echelon commanders frequently control and authorize indirect fire and airpower enablers that save small units from otherwise certain disaster. Examples:

• In the initial OIF march to Baghdad, a lead tank battalion commander observed on the BFT-created COP that the remainder of COL (now TRADOC General) Perkins‘s BCT was still far behind turning around on a soft dike. This caused that battalion commander to establish a hasty defense after seizing Objective Peach and decimating several enemy regiments the next morning
• The Battle of Sadr City depicted in “American Sniper” involved extensive UAS/RPA overhead coverage that allowed higher HQ eye-on support using a host of enablers
• In “Outlaw Platoon” a hasty platoon defense at the end of the book only survived because of extensive enabler support from above that annihilated a stronger enemy unit heading toward them. Without eyes on and higher HQ intervention, such support may not have been forthcoming
• In “Lions of Kandahar” some 70+ air sorties supported a SF Company en route to and at its Sperwan Ghar defense against upwards of 1000 attackers. Again, without accessible big footprint nearby coordinating and providing air support, that SF unit likely would have been defeated
• At Shok valley, an SF unit was tasked to assault an urban complex atop a ridgeline and got trapped midway up the ridge. Only enablers controlled by “meddling” higher HQ saved the day
• In Operation Strong Eagle, the commander observed the battle from a mission command aircraft and was able to intervene with enablers and reinforcements after the ground advance down a narrow valley was blocked by dug-in Taliban in an orchard in the same valley where Soviet armor had been defeated decades earlier
• At Wanat, the combination of a communication-enabled ground and aerial Apache QRF saved the platoon of American paratroopers and another platoon of ANA
• At COP Keating, numerous aircraft in a CAS stack supported the embattled company COP and nearby OP from a superior enemy force over a 12+ hour battle that could not have been won without higher HQ coordination/communication and CAS/CCA
• At Ganjgal, the <strong>lack</strong> of higher HQ reinforcement and effective support initially led to casualties that ultimately subsided once support was provided and several Medal of Honor winners did their thing
• In Baghdad, an Army CP was attacked by indirect fires most likely because of its compressed location and emitting stationary nature, WIN-T 2 and other networked systems allow greater mission command on the move

The last bullet illustrates the need for greater mission command on the move and smaller TOCs. That aligns with this quote from the Major’s article and is justification for WIN-T increment 2 and other networking and radio systems:
<blockquote>The prospect of digital failure is so unwelcome that commanders may be tempted to keep their command post location static once the signal personnel have established some degree of connectivity and digital capability. Typically, the larger its digital footprint, the more immobile a command post will be.</blockquote>
This point, and the coming A2/AD threat is emphasized by an event during the Thunder Runs of OIF when then COL Perkin’s TOC was hit by a missile or rocket. This quote is from page 355 of the OIF history “On Point.”:

<blockquote>During the thunder run the Iraqis struck back hard at perhaps the best target they could have selected. At 0700 on 7 April, as the task forces penetrated the center of Baghdad, the Iraqis scored a direct hit with either a rocket or missile on the 2nd Brigade’s tactical operations center (TOC). The devastating strike killed three soldiers and two embedded reporters, wounded 17 others, and destroyed or damaged 22 vehicles. The TOC had been coordinating and integrating the field artillery and CAS support for Colonel Perkins, enabling him to focus these efforts. The attack knocked the TOC off the air.</blockquote>Yet despite this event the 2nd BCT TOC was restored, the Thunder Runs and Baghdad presence continued, lines of supply for fuel were secured, and a substitute TOC was established just 300 meters away within about an hour.

In terms of smaller units than a BCT, as movies “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” showed us, there are other PACE means of communicating using different military radios and networks, cell phones, internet chat be it commercial or systems like mIRC, and EPLRS-based alternatives to FBCB2/BFT. Even Outlaw’s great link about the wounded Russian tanker in Ukraine had him communicating home with his mother on a cell phone shortly after being wounded. It’s not OPSEC safe but in a life-or-death emergency it could get results. Recall that even COL Nightingale mentioned the famous case of calling back to Fort Bragg for CAS during Grenada and landing a SOAR helicopter “illegally” on a naval carrier to get call signs and frequencies.

Do our units need more collective and crew training using paper maps, no GPS, and greater non-digital back-ups in the TOC? To be sure, however when I read about the plight of the Russian tanker who was severely burned in a T-72B and see footage of burning Syrian T-72s, our Soldiers can thank their lucky starts that they are in the systems they shoot, move, and communicate with rather than those of potential foes.