On the Battlefield, the Network Is the Platform

May 2000
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

Until recently, battlefield information systems were viewed merely as enablers to conventional military operations. Only a decade ago, their buzzwords were “force multiplier.” Since the Gulf War, which demonstrated the value of Western high-technology supremacy, information systems have steadily increased in importance, shedding their supporting roles for leads in the growing variety of military operations.

Now, the Free World’s defense architecture increasingly is defined by information systems and their capabilities. For example, during the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) built its military strength around protecting the territory of Western Europe and ensuring physical access by allied forces flanking the Atlantic Ocean. Today’s newly enlarged alliance is building a security architecture around its networked consultation, command and control (C3) systems. Nations bidding to join NATO are restructuring their militaries around advanced C3 systems that are designed to interoperate with those of their new allies.

This battlefield revolution reaches into virtually every level of military operations. Advanced sensors feed their information to weaponry, analysts, decision makers, command and control systems, databases and even simulation suites. These sensors may be mounted on a number of weapons, platforms or even individuals.

Just as the infantryman has been described as the ultimate weapon, today’s battlefield warfighter is becoming the ultimate information asset. The best information processor on Earth—the human brain—is complemented by high-technology sensors operating in different spectra and linked, either directly or through the human host, to a command center by a variety of communications devices. Far from being a detached foot soldier, the 21st century infantryman is now a node in a network.

Networked battlefield information systems are creating new opportunities for military operations. Throughout an arena of operations, diverse sources can pour voluminous data through existing network infrastructures. The growing technological sophistication of these information collectors now is enabling planners to implement the next logical step in battlefield information systems: linking sources, processors, repositories and warfighters in an overarching network that is greater than the sum of its parts.

A defining U.S. defense project under way is the global information grid, or GIG. This massive effort aims at interconnecting information systems throughout the battlespace. Widely theorized over the past few years of network-centric warfare, GIG will bring about true connectivity among various sources of information. It will treat every computer, sensor, radio, platform, weapon system and warfighter as a node in the ultimate military network. Instead of the conventional concept of massed forces, the goal is massed effects.

The potential repercussions of this global grid are vast. Information, which has been becoming increasingly globalized, would cease to have any geospatial identity. Decision-making cycles would be substantially compressed. The deployed force would become a digital organism of multifaceted segments all moving in concert.

As with all advances, this networked battlefield has its potential pitfalls. Foremost among these is vulnerability to information warfare attack.

Maj. Gen. Robert L. Nabors, USA, the commanding general of the Army’s Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, described in an address to the AFCEA Southern Arizona Chapter how this threat could materialize. Future warfare, he said, is likely to be less conventional than previous warfare. In fact, the information warfare threat will not be limited to the battlefield. It will be more threatening because it may be aimed at destabilizing economic and information infrastructures.

In plain terms, an adversary’s capabilities for information warfare against our forces in theater are similar to those that threaten the civilian infrastructure. So, security and network defense in the tactical arena have ramifications for national security as a whole. This can be illustrated by viewing the upcoming GIG in the same vein as a national information infrastructure.

Addressing this challenge brings us full circle back to the ultimate network node—the individual. The wonders wrought by these technologies are sustainable only if the human element is up to the task. Put in traditional industrial-age terms, the chain of networked infrastructures is only as strong as its weakest link—and the number of links is growing geometrically.

Foremost in importance are security and information assurance. An individual who carelessly moves classified information across an unsecure network environment is fulfilling an adversary’s wishes. Similarly, unremedied gaps in network security can open the way for a foe to inject disinformation that leads allied forces astray. Connectivity can spread this data contamination far and wide. And, above all lurks the threat of a virus crippling vital operations or an enemy hacker actually seizing control of key systems.

Information operations planners must pay as much attention to the individual who is a node in the network as they do to all their enabling technologies. This calls for advanced technology training for all military personnel. The concept of information system knowledge being the domain of a few specialists becomes obsolete in the face of total network participation by the personnel involved in an operation. The human network nodes must be equipped with enabling knowledge as well as technologies.

With these pieces all in place, networked battlefield information systems can fulfill their promise of changing the definition of warfare forever. The revolution in military operations brought by these technologies is now a dominant aspect of national security planning around the globe. Theoretically, this could lead to the ultimate goal: deterring the emergence of future battlefields once and for all.

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