Michael Greenberg | 08.19.20
In the brief but devastating Battle of Zelenopillya in July 2014, Russian forces targeted several Ukrainian battalions with rocket artillery, conducting one of the largest artillery barrages on the European continent since World War II. The US Army took note of Russian sensor-to-shooter capabilities and recognized that conditions of the modern battlefield would require its brigade combat teams (BCTs) to find ways to mitigate this type of threat through improvements in mobility and survivability as well as a reduction in the signatures of BCT command posts and tactical assembly areas. If not, Army units risked the same consequences suffered by Ukrainian units at Zelenopillya: in minutes, their vehicles were almost all destroyed, thirty soldiers were killed, and hundred more wounded.
Six years later, it’s time to ask whether enough has been done to prepare Army units for the challenge.
What Has Been Done?
In the past, the acquisitions process often yielded technology and systems in compartmentalized warfighting-function packages rather than holistically. Establishing the Army Futures Command in 2017 unified development and acquisition efforts and represented a substantive first step in identifying and solving interoperability problems across the force. Leaders recognized the shortcomings of legacy systems and openly committed themselves to breaking “stovepipes” of data and technology as the Army shifted away from counterinsurgency and stability operations and prepares increasingly for large-scale combat operations.
Emphasizing the use of analog Military Decision Making Process products enables command posts’ continuity of operations through displacements and simultaneously minimizes the need for onerous PowerPoint slide decks. Army Futures Command and unit-level initiatives to optimize tactical operations center processes continue to permeate unit headquarters across the Army, along with the occasional incorporation of commercial off-the-shelf technology and significant upgrades to communications like Tactical Network Transport On-the-Move. Digital systems certainly have a place in the way forward, but without a solution to the multi-hour system boots and shutdowns needed to establish connectivity, many units opt to fight with a minimalist architecture. In 2019, the Army also awarded a new contract to Palantir to overhaul the Army’s intelligence system of record, the Distributed Common Ground System – Army (DCGS-A). These are all steps in the right direction to resolve gaps in how tactical data is pushed to commanders in austere, resource-constrained environments. The Army’s efforts to modernize also come with the acknowledgement that at times, commanders are being saturated with “too much data,” which can be alleviated with software improvements that allow for targeted data pulls.
What More Can Be Done?
Miniaturize Army Footprints
As the Army shifts back toward preparing for large-scale combat operations, it needs to look hard at the size of maneuver units’ footprints. Some units have experimented by, for example, downsizing sprawling, counterinsurgency-era mission command centers through the optimization and decentralization of legacy systems. The current force is vulnerable to precision fires cued by visual and electromagnetic signatures, which threat forces use to target formations from the top down. The Army should move the small tent cities that are the vestiges of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan onto highly mobile platforms that come equipped with built-in electronics and communications suites. The command centers of the future must be capable of rapid displacement with the ability to maintain scalable mission command. In order to reduce signatures, it is also in the interest of developers to hone communications suites with dedicated bandwidth that can reach back to processing, exploitation, and dissemination cells in the consolidation area.
No tent can replicate the mobility of mission command on wheels. Even the smallest, most mobile tents still take upwards of twenty to thirty minutes to break down and set up, even with practiced crews. Achieving this kind of mounted mobility may compel the Army to sacrifice vehicle armor for expandable capability. Ultimately, this risk must be weighed against the anticipated character of future kinetic fights. The current inability to achieve rapid system displacement is so pervasive that it will require a refashioning of BCT and battalion command posts across the force. The use of expandable vehicles at several BCTs, repurposed from legacy workshop vehicles, has shown that formations can adjust to the new reality. I saw these modifications firsthand as a company commander, and while effective, the Army should look to field these types of systems from the ground up for the next generation.
As legacy intelligence and signals systems are phased out, it is imperative they are not replaced with vehicles at a one-to-one ratio. Acquisitions should look to fashion systems that bring functions under fewer roofs and can displace at a moment’s notice. A smaller physical presence, complete with built-in retractable antennas and dishes, will be key to dispersion and the elimination of antenna farms and other time-consuming displacement items. This will require the elimination of multi-hour system boots and shutdowns or the permanent tasking of these systems to the consolidation area. Footprint reduction must also come with the institutional concession that displacement crew drills cannot fully mitigate the threat of BM-21 multiple launch rocket system salvos. While drills are important and should be trained, commanders should not let proficiency in crew displacement create a false sense of security. Systems modifications to promote mobility will be a huge challenge for the acquisitions community, but American defense innovators are surely capable of developing the next generation of these systems. American engineers and experts have proven their mettle time and again, and with the proper resourcing, this is achievable.
In an article in the Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, Capt. Alex Morrow and Capt. Michael Dompierre offer viable frameworks to get intelligence to “move at the speed of decisive action” while performing key tasks to inform commanders’ decision-making processes. The transition to reduce vulnerable forward footprints with condensed, modular systems will take time and vision. At the core of this shift should be a sustained commitment to the “American way of war,” with maneuver supported by precision fires. The Army will not perpetuate these successful institutional norms without more maneuverable BCT and battalion headquarters and complementary fires development to protect units from long-range artillery. The unmitigated effects of adversaries’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and artillery against the American constellation of ground command posts could lead to overmatch and potential defeat on a future battlefield.
Mitigate Bandwidth Issues and Improve Interoperability
Establishing and maintaining sustained communications in remote operational environments is a struggle for even the best-trained organizations. While some units master the tenets of “shoot” and “move,” the last building block, “communicate,” often remains elusive. Many units fail due to overly complicated architectures, lack of support, lack of priority, and user error. Tactical bandwidth requirements continue to outpace system capabilities, with different warfighting functions demanding alternate networks to meet classification needs. The “soda straw” analogy is a popular visualization of this issue, describing how voluminous data can only flow at the rate of available “piping” or bandwidth. The typical BCT pipes several levels of data networks, tactical radio, and satellite-based tracking systems simultaneously, saturating the signal environment. The lapses when moving forward headquarters leaves ample room for shutdown and startup errors.
The Army should seek to condense as many of these tactical data streams and functions as possible. One reliable network that is accessible across the operational environment is a reasonable aim, even if it makes networks slightly more vulnerable to cyber and electronic attack. Some may argue the Army has already taken this step with the tactical SIPR network, but there are numerous systems that do not fall under this umbrella. This goes back to the Army’s culture of security, which is rigid by regulation but often loose in practice to reduce friction. The Department of Defense consistently labels systems and documents “SECRET” when it’s not necessary, slowing down the dissemination and collection of battlefield data. In essence, this creates operational barriers at lower echelons. A thorough review of future systems and documents should emphasize lowering classification when possible, reducing the security burden on commanders and freeing up bandwidth across the BCT for priority communications.
Achieving this kind of network would come with a tradeoff between communications and operational security in exchange for reliability and access. In this area, innovators have already started to step in, providing alternative solutions like soldier-level ATAK (Android Tactical Assault Kit) modules and encrypted communications that use cellular network backbones. Though these might not work well in an austere environment and are more vulnerable to targeting by electronic warfare, the need to simplify user-level systems and encourage interoperability is paramount. Simplification is an area where the Army has made some strides. For example, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, in his previous capacity as the Army G-2, guided the organic overhaul of the legacy DCGS-A software suite to eliminate extraneous functions. His directives condensed essential tools into fewer, and more user-friendly, applications. With regard to mission command, BCTs regularly fail to achieve doctrinal expectations using currently fielded systems. The Army can learn from “self jamming” failures and build on successful simplification efforts to balance the risks between security and reliable mass communications.
Normalize Tailored BCT Acquisitions
Six months into my time as a military intelligence company commander in 2017–18, I still hadn’t delivered on what at first seemed like a basic request from my brigade commander: Why can’t I see all of my intelligence assets on one dynamically updating tracker? Over time, our team came to understand the hardware, software, and contractor resourcing that makes this type of tracker possible. It’s not that the technology didn’t exist; it just didn’t exist in the conventional Army due to the projected costs of acquisition and integration. Our requests for converter kits were consistently denied at higher echelons and the system manufacturer warned us that attempting to convert the legacy system could irreversibly harm its functionality. This was an area where the commander could assume some risk, but from a finance and logistics standpoint, we were at an impasse. In my mind, if this is where the commander wanted to allocate resources, and the technology existed, why was the prioritization of these kits less important to the Army than spending our end-of-year funds on normal classes of supply?
This applies beyond the intelligence warfighting function—it could also inform the acquisition or retrofitting of systems to improve mobility. The Army’s commitment to MTOE (modified table of organization and equipment) uniformity is evident. With slight variants, it is likely that a Stryker BCT in Washington will have essentially the same equipment as a Stryker BCT in Alaska, despite drastic differences in home-station operating conditions. To allow commanders to fill specific equipment gaps, it would be a step forward to leave a larger portion of the BCT budget open to tailored acquisitions. This would require congressional budget authorization and strict oversight, but this type of resourcing proposal could help commanders bridge the gap between the current needs of the force and long-term acquisitions. Right now, the commercial off-the-shelf process is nebulous and restrictive, empowering some units to achieve “shooter’s preference” while hindering others with contractually obligated, decade-old technology. These bureaucratic procedures can and should be modified.
The recommendations made in this piece—reducing footprints, rethinking bandwidth needs and interoperability, and enabling tailored acquisitions—do not represent a significant departure from the original mandate to improve Army headquarters’ mobility and survivability in the transition from counterinsurgency to large-scale combat operations. However, the inability to solve the structural problems arising from the retrofit and replacement of legacy systems is a risk to both the mission and the force. Pairing on-the-move mission command with at-the-halt capabilities hampers commanders’ ability to maintain tempo. Mobility enhancement and dispersion enable commanders to reduce the threat to command posts and keep vulnerable elements out of the range rings of the enemy.
The Army doesn’t get to choose its next conflict or adversary, but it can prepare for the fight through investments in command nodes, communications, and trust in commanders’ equipment requests. A blind brigade will never be able to mass and synchronize effects. On the other hand, a brigade enabled by highly mobile and redundant mission command, bound together by flexibility in tactics and communication, will stand ready to meet and defeat adversaries on a future battlefield.
Capt. Michael Greenberg currently attends New York University in preparation for his assignment to the Department of History at West Point as an instructor. He is a Northwestern University graduate and earned an MA in Terrorism, Security, & Society in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. He most recently served in 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team as a military intelligence company commander and infantry S-2.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. First Class Jeremy D. Crisp, US Army