Looking at Three Dimensional Situational Awareness

March 28, 2016
By M. Thomas Davis


We’re already there.


I recently was privileged to attend the Global Force Symposium and Exposition hosted by the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) and held at the Von Braun Conference Center in Huntsville, Alabama. As with all such events sponsored by the AUSA, this gathering offered an opportunity to hear from senior Army leaders about the challenges they face in addressing the ongoing budget cuts forced by the 2011 Budget Control Act and the additional pressures created by sequestration—or the threat of it.

This dialogue reinforced the concern of many that the budget-driven reductions and changes to Army force structure, as well as that of the other services, is disturbingly detached from the demands presented by the contemporary strategic environment. As the demands go up and old threats began to re-emerge, U.S. forces decrease along with their readiness levels. These trends certainly are not sustainable over the longer term, and at some point a serious dialogue will be needed about addressing them. In the meantime, however, the symposium demonstrated that the enhanced capabilities U.S. forces have are quite impressive, and in the near term they allow for a substitution of capital for labor that has mitigated the impact of the decline.

This particularly is evident in communications systems that allow greater dispersion on the battlefield as well as the rapid dissemination of tactical intelligence as it becomes available. The combination of these two capabilities, and their existence at the lowest tactical levels, has greatly empowered U.S. forces by providing three-dimensional situational awareness: an accurate awareness of where you are; where your friends are; and, to a great degree, where the enemy is.

The Duke of Wellington, the British victor over Napoleon at Waterloo, once commented that he spent most of his military career wondering “what was happening on the other side of the hill.” A retired German general who had been in the Afrika Korps in World War II once shared with me that on any given day, “A third of the Afrika Korps was sick, and another third was lost.” And an infantry veteran of the Vietnam War once offered to me his view that, “If the artillery lands in the wrong place, that most probably means that you don’t know where you are.”

Three-dimensional situational awareness is a clear combat multiplier. Its first element, knowing precisely where you are, is vital yet often under-appreciated. If your own location is precisely known, then bringing in supporting fires or reinforcements is greatly simplified and their effect is substantially magnified. In the ground campaign of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the arrival of the Global Positioning System (GPS) generally gave U.S. forces the ability to quickly and accurately move from one place to another, often crossing a faceless desert at night, massing quickly and then dispersing as needed. Because of this capability, many units were moved in directions and over distances we never would have even attempted in the past,

The second element, knowing where you friends are, also is a significant force multiplier. It allows units to de-conflict their operations, to combine their efforts and to reduce greatly the potential for fratricide. In addition, it allows units to shift logistical support to other units where an unexpected need might have developed, such as during Desert Storm when the 1st Armored Division shifted fuel over to the 3rd Armored Division when its fuelers became bogged down. Such awareness is especially important during periods of poor weather and limited visibility.

As important as the first two elements are, our recent capability for adding a third—knowing where the enemy is—provides the final piece of the mosaic and answers Wellington’s old concern. Modern intelligence collection systems, and the communications systems that fuse information and then quickly disseminate it, have changed warfare dramatically. As they continue to improve in fidelity, they will change it further in the years to come.

Future units will be able to cover ever-wider zones and sectors; reserves can be smaller and their locations better placed; logistics will have a higher probability of being at the right place at the right time and their vulnerability in getting there greatly reduced. All of this has been made possible by tactical intelligence and communications systems that continue to gather, distribute and then usefully display information that makes a smaller force capable of fighting “above its weight.”

Numerous companies in Huntsville were demonstrating capabilities that, when taken together, make three-dimensional situational awareness a current reality. This is the result of countless efforts made by the defense-industry team to achieve a capability that has moved well beyond its initial intent. It is a magnificent example of the type of innovation that the existing defense industrial base provides and will continue to provide in the future. And if U.S. forces continue to decline in numbers, the demand for such advancements in technological capability certainly will continue to grow. Hopefully, the pace of technological increase will proceed at a rate at least matching that of the numerical decline.

M. Thomas Davis, the Forrestal-Richardson Defense Industry Chair at the Defense Acquisition University, is a former corporate vice president with General Dynamics Corporation and a past assistant professor of economics at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy.

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