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Information Overmatch: How Information Dominance Will Win Our Nation’s Wars
Matthew A. Horning
Since its inception, DoD’s Acquisition workforce has been focused on the idea of combat overmatch, particularly in its combat systems. Combat overmatch, simply put, is the concept where my (insert lethality system here) can willfully and without prejudice or luck defeat your (insert your protective system here). Combat overmatch has been the goal in military forces since the first armed forces organized and entered in combat. In prehistory, combat overmatch is achieved by overwhelming numbers. Technology plays a role, such as bronze weaponry, but by in large, the force who overwhelms the other with more forces is victorious. As prehistory turns to ancient history other factors start coming into play. Standoff distance becomes a factor and technologies are integrated into warfare to increase standoff distance: archery, polearms, and early ballistic devices such as catapults and trebuchets. Standoff distance is the notion that if I can reach you but you can’t reach me I have the advantage. Standoff is the reason a boxer’s reach is a measured quantity.
As technology advances through the Middle Ages to the modern area, lethality ranges improved first with advances in archery, then gunpowder, followed by rocketry. Each step in that process was a step to increase standoff range and therefore achieve combat overmatch against a peer force. Theoretically, if your standoff distance the best within the world, you would be nearly unstoppable, and the size of an opposing force required to defeat you would grow exponentially. Standoff distance, i.e. weapon lethality range, has dominated warfare technology development for well over 2,000 years because it directly tied to a combat overmatch achieved by those that had it.
However, standoff distance is slowly losing its influence as the driving force behind warfare technology development. Additionally, combat overmatch, at least the tactical sense of combat overmatch, will follow suit and not necessarily be required to win our nation’s future wars. The advent of the Internet and the global interconnection of data has generated a path to oust combat overmatch as ‘the’ game changer. Instead, information dominance will be the characteristic that will win future wars. The organization that has the most relevant, timely, and actionable information will be victorious in battle, even against a combat overmatch force. Instead of seeking combat overmatch in our future investment strategies, we should be seeking a strategy that gives us Information Overmatch.
What is Information Overmatch?
Information Overmatch is the deliberate collection, analysis, synthesis, and application of data relevant to an operational context, in a manner that is overwhelming to an adversary, to achieve desired strategic, operational, and tactical level effects upon the environment. It is not just knowing more or analyzing more data than an adversary. In fact, we should strike the word “more” from our lexicon when talking about Information Overmatch, because “more” is not necessarily helpful. Certainly, large amounts of data sets are useful, but more data sets do not necessarily equate to an Information Overmatch if it is not actionable. More might lead instead to information overload causing the entire system to slow or freeze, mired in piles of non-relevant data.
Instead, Information Overmatch is about increasing the effectiveness of what data we collect and more importantly, how we use it. Speed is the key here. If data is distilled into useable information and then provided to an actor to action it faster than the adversary, an overmatch can be achieved. With the right sets of data inputs and in a suitable operational context, Information Overmatch trumps Combat Overmatch for supremacy to achieve national objectives.
Our Focus on Combat Overmatch
Since World War II the US has had a preoccupation with achieving overmatch, but perhaps rightfully so. 90% of the U.S. military combat deaths since World War II have come from the infantry squad, which only accounts for 4% of the total uniformed force. This is not necessary a surprising number since the purpose of the infantry squad is to be on the edge of battle with the enemy. What is interesting though is that the US puts so much interest in optimizing 4% of its total force, in this case, looking for combat overmatch.
In a memo dated 8 February 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis established the Close Combat Lethality Task Force (CCLTF), whose purpose was to “serve as the DoD point of coordination and catalyst for close combat initiative across the full range of efforts necessary to achieve close combat overmatch.” On 16 March 2018, he clarified the original memo, stating the CCLTF “will develop, evaluate, recommend, and implement improvements to U.S. squad-level infantry combat formations in order to ensure close combat overmatch against pacing threats.”
Our interest in combat overmatch, particularly in close combat overmatch comes from our ability to understand its first, second, and third order effects very easily. With nearly 10,000 years of practiced warfare at the close combat range we as a human race make very easy, and sometimes obvious, connections between the ability to dominate at the squad level to an understanding of tactical outcomes, collateral damage, and enemy or civilian response action. With such a direct link between an infantry squad and traditional warfare objectives it is easy to point to combat overmatch as the Holy Grail to perpetual winning of wars. That line of thinking is not wrong, especially considering our current situation and technology but what if there is a different way at a future point in time?
The Fall of Combat Overmatch
The enemies of the US are intelligent. All of our enemies, including non-state actors, watch how we operate, know how we fight, and look for ways to exploit our tactics. The US prides itself on transparency and openness to its people and our policies and culture support the willingness to disseminate information about our military, from upcoming development programs, to government spending, to capabilities and upcoming deployments. Also, the military has a desire to erode the civil-military divide where public perception of what the military is and does is far removed from what it really is and does, which ultimately translates to public support (or opposition) to the military’s goals.
As part of our desire to be transparent, the US has made its strengths well known, but we also have not been bashful about our weaknesses. In 2014, then Chief of Staff of the Army General Raymond Odierno made it quite clear that the Army was not prepared to fight in a megacity environment. Technology aside, General Odierno identified three gaps that currently exist within the Army in a megacity scenario:
- Insufficient doctrine to deal with the scope of a megacity
- No emphasis of cities as a unit of analysis for intelligence, academic or operational study.
- A lack of strategic analysis products including DoD/Joint planning scenarios to consider contingencies and test capabilities.
The mere acknowledgement that the US is unprepared to fight and win within a megacity operational context means the adversary will incorporate megacity operations into their defensive or offensive plans. The US’s next major conflict will include a megacity component and assuming razing the city is not an option, combat overmatch is not a major factor for success. This has been shown in recent history multiple times. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the fight against ISIS, the US has a very difficult time achieving operational or strategic successes even though they possess significant overmatch in all combat domains.
In a megacity context, combat overmatch is rendered ineffective, in short, because the standoff distance between threats is too short, there are too many civilians within the given area, the amount of dead space is insurmountable, and it is difficult to tell friend vs. foe vs. neutral. Coupled with any of those problems is the additional issue of the time-space to make decisions and react is significantly reduced due to a continually fluid and evolving battlefield.
Enter Information Overmatch
While a megacity has a significant number or combat risks that impact the US’s desire to operate within it, what it does have a lot of is data. Unfathomable amounts of data are generated by a megacity every day, from data about the power grid and utilities, to traffic and security cameras, to civilians and their smart phones. Data is intrinsically everywhere in a megacity. The force that can transform more data into actionable information and then act upon it faster will be the victor. In other words, achieve Information Overmatch and combat overmatch becomes irrelevant.
There are three lines of effort required to achieve Information Overmatch. The first is to control the narrative to the public. There is an internal and external component to controlling the narrative. The internal piece, control the narrative within the AOR, focuses on winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Particularly in a megacity context, the most dangerous course of action is one where the civilian populace turns upon the US forces or one where the US forces are viewed as invaders in a foreign land. Controlling the internal narrative is vital to keep the civilian population at least neutral or, ideally, cooperative with the US forces. If every civilian can be convinced to be the eyes and ears of the US forces, in the same sense as the “See something, say something” campaign for Homeland Defense, the US would gain millions of sensors on the battlefield at relatively less effort. In addition to the internal narrative, the external narrative to the world needs to be shaped and managed so that it is symbiotic with the internal narrative and reinforces the US’s intentions abroad.
A strong information operation is required to achieve this first goal, coupled with offensive and defensive cyber operations to ensure the proper messages are received and contradictory messages from an aggressor are suppressed. Control, either direct or through networked means, of the region’s key infrastructure is important as well, particularly areas that impact everyday life of the population such as utilities, communication, transportation, and financial. If unable to protect those resources, the ability of an adversary to turn off a resource, power for example, and blame the US’s occupation becomes too great. Alternatively, however, the US could apply the same tactics in the reverse for its own attempt to control the narrative. In the end, the goal of this first line of effort is to win the will of the local population and degrade the will of the aggressors.
The second line of effort is information fusion. Information fusion is the integration of all relevant data sources into a unified source of truth that masters and disseminates information as required by the users. That definition is an abstract concept so perhaps it is better explained through a concrete example. It is important to note, however, that this example is merely a viewpoint of a larger and more abstract concept of information fusion. The implementation of information fusion for any specific environment must be evaluated and optimized to meet the goals and constraints of that environment.
Consider the case where US forces are conducting major combat operations in a megacity. The megacity has its own infrastructure and data systems. It has a utility system that is managed via a system of networked sensors. It has a transportation network which has street cameras, magnetic traffic sensors, and traffic light information. It has a commercial economy that has an internet presence as well as a physical, brick-and-mortar location within the city. Each of these systems, and thousands more, produce digital data, some of which may be relevant to the combat operation. Finding a way to fuse the data together to become actionable information is indeed a challenge, but if that challenge is successfully accomplished, the reliance upon lethality or survivability overmatches as the path to mission success becomes less important. By improving the commander’s ability to make timely decisions with complete and accurate situational awareness, he can use sub-overmatch weapon systems in optimal ways to achieve superior results.
Instead of developing new technologies aimed to defeat an enemy with brute force, the US should instead be looking toward defeating an enemy with superior knowledge on the strategic/ operational/tactical levels. Additionally, the US should look for creative ways to utilize the infrastructure already in place in novel ways. As one example, nearly every adult in a megacity carries a cellphone. That is millions of digital sensors with a microphone, camera, and data stream placed everywhere in the city. How can US Forces take advantage of that infrastructure? Of course, cyber forces or the intelligence community can certainly stealthy tap into those devices, but that is not the only way. What if the US developed an app for mobile phones that allowed the civilian population to enter credible intelligence reports – literally an open source reporting mechanism that went right to the battle center headquarters for review? The possibility of turning each civilian into a sensor could be much more important to success instead of bringing the biggest gun to the fight.
The final line of effort is needed to make sense of all the incoming data streams that information fusion brings: artificial intelligence and big data processing. Taking all of the incoming data streams and then processing the data into information - rejecting irrelevant data, certifying data quality, then synthesizing data to information – is necessary to make actionable decisions based upon the data streams available. This third line of effort is a supporting effort to the other two and does not necessarily need to exist to be successful, but greatly improves the efficiency by which any collected data becomes used.
Raw data sizes for a megacity scenario could easily be in the terabyte to petabyte range each combat day so a significant amount of computing power would be required to fuse, process, and distribute a megacity-wide data collection effort. Moving that amount of data over global distances networks would be infeasible using current technology and the computing speed would far outpace the transmission speed to and from the computing center. Therefore, the US military should invest into highly capable mobile computing centers and extremely fast transmission mechanisms over relatively short distances (as opposed to global). A portable, survivable data center for high speed computing that could be set up in a matter of weeks instead of months could be prepositioned as part of the Prepositioned Stocks program and installed into a theater of operations immediately upon need. As a survivability measure, multiple mirrored data centers should be deployed to a theater with significant enough geographic separation so they do not become a single weak link in the information fusion and distribution chain.
If each of these three lines are implemented properly, it opens significant trade space for new and novel technologies that could be applied to the ground forces. Augmented Reality (AR) could be implemented at the solider level giving warfighters a level of situational awareness beyond anything possible in a non-networked world. Instead of a Marine company conducting a cordon and search of a 20-floor apartment building to find one or two enemy within the building, an augmented reality overlay, pulling information off the city’s data infrastructure, could beacon the enemy’s location in real time to the exact floor, apartment, and room requiring a much smaller force to complete the capture, leaving the remainder of the Marine company free to conduct other operations.
In a more futuristic scenario, if a megacity had a self-driving vehicle infrastructure that the US had access into, multiple tactical effects could be generated without a shot fired. US forces could clandestinely enter and exit the city using repurposed local autonomous vehicles. Persons of interest could be monitored remotely and even detoured into capture by their own cars. US vehicles could have undeterred freedom of movement throughout foreign cities with extreme traffic jams by routing civilian traffic off military routes. The tactical benefits of information overmatch are only bounded by creatively and ultimately, access into those systems.
It is important to note, however, that the realization of the power of information is not just limited to the US. Foreign actors, including those hostile to the US, are realizing the power of information and are advancing their own technologies in order to generate their own Information Overmatch. The needed US investment toward the principles of Information Overmatch is as much about gaining the strategic hand over the enemy as it is preventing the enemy from doing so themselves.
Necessity is the mother of all innovation and the megacity environment coupled with the advances in networked technology requires everyone to check their current understanding of traditional war doctrine at the door. The digital age, where everyone is a text or instant message away from everyone else in cyberspace, has led to a new and novel way to not only communicate, but to perceive the world. Information Overmatch, which is enabled by the digital backbone of the integrated network is a new way to look at challenging the existing military paradigm. The opportunities to own and control information are readily available. The spoils will go to the persons daring enough to collect and processes it all first.
(i) Roper, Daniel S, COL(Ret), US Army. “Regaining Tactical Overmatch: The Close Combat Lethality Task Force.” The Institute of Land Warfare, April 2018.
(ii) Establishment of the Secretary of Defense Close Combat Lethality Task Force, 8 February 2018. Memo.
(iii) Secretary of Defense, Directive-type Memorandum 18-001, “Establishment of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force (CCLTF),” 16 March 2016. Memo.
(iv) Megacities and the United States Army Preparing for a Complex and Uncertain Future, Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group, June 2014.