Network-Centric Warfare Offers Warfighting Advantage

May 2003
By John J. Garstka

Datalinks are the new weapon of the information age.

The term network-centric warfare broadly describes the combination of emerging tactics, techniques and procedures that a networked force can employ to create a decisive warfighting advantage. According to John Keegan, author of A History of Warfare, it is similar to the significant warfighting developments of the industrial age and agrarian age in that network-centric warfare seeks to exploit an order of magnitude change in an underlying source of power to increase warfighting advantage dramatically. Paula Kaufman, in an article she wrote for IEEE Spectrum, agrees with this opinion. In the industrial age, power was primarily derived from mass and the sources of power for moving mass. In the information age, power is increasingly derived from information sharing, information access and speed, she says.

The advantages network-centric warfare brings to the battlespace are particularly relevant to the tactical and operational levels of war, but they impact all levels of military activity from the tactical to the strategic. Although the construct of an information advantage may seem somewhat intangible, it can be measured, and its impact on military operations can be evaluated in terms of mission effectiveness, survivability and lethality—coins of the realm used by warfighters across the ages.

Evidence of the power of network-centric warfare accumulated from a wide range of activities, including combat operations, training events, exercises and demonstrations, continues to strengthen and reinforce its existing tenets. A U.S. Defense Department 2001 report to Congress about network-centric warfare enumerates several specific points: A robustly networked force improves information sharing; information sharing and collaboration enhances the quality of information and shared situational awareness; shared situational awareness enables collaboration and self-synchronization and enhances sustainability and speed of command; and these in turn dramatically increase mission effectiveness.

Although the margin of victory has varied across mission areas, the outcome has consistently been decisive in favor of forces that are robustly networked. In some tactical engagements, superior platforms were decisively defeated by less capable platforms that leveraged the order of magnitude improvement in information sharing that networking enables. In other engagements, digitized and networked ground forces with a reduced number of platforms were able to substitute information for mass and outperform units that had fought with a larger number of platforms not similarly digitized and networked. Even more impressive, the combination of networked and digitized ground and air forces was able to defeat an opposition force decisively with unprecedented lethality by creating and leveraging an information advantage.

Most recently, military operations in support of operation Enduring Freedom highlighted the emergence of near-real-time information sharing as a source of warfighting advantage. The source of power was not new platforms, but rather the networking of the legacy platforms with special operations forces (SOF). The extent to which ground-based SOF were able to share precision information with command and control aircraft and fighter, bomber and attack aircraft was unprecedented in military operations. It represented an order of magnitude increase in information sharing over what had been previously demonstrated anywhere in the world in combat operations.

Two of the more noteworthy and documented examples of the power of network-centric warfare are drawn from the air-to-air mission. In this mission area, a major contributor to enhanced survivability and lethality is an increase in shared situational awareness and enhanced situational understanding. With audio-only communications, pilots and controllers must share information generated by onboard sensors about opposing forces as well as their own position and status via voice. Communicating the minimum essential information required to take offensive or defensive actions takes time, and the resulting situational awareness can often differ significantly from reality.

In contrast, when datalinks are employed on fighter aircraft, digital information on blue and red forces is shared instantaneously, enabling all participants to share a common tactical picture. This improved information position constitutes a significant information advantage vis-à-vis an adversary fighting with voice-only communications. This information advantage in turn enables a cognitive advantage in the form of dramatically increased shared situational awareness and enhanced situational understanding. The result is that pilots flying datalink-equipped aircraft can achieve much higher levels of shared situational awareness and understanding on a timeline previously unachievable with voice-only communications. They can translate these advantages into increased survivability and lethality.

One of the best examples of how networking and digitization can be leveraged to create an information advantage took place in a training exercise in the mid-1990s when Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado aircraft from U.K. 29 Squadron with tactical datalinks defeated U.S. Air Force F-15Cs with voice-only communications in a series of air-to-air engagements that took place during a red flag exercise in the airspace over the Nellis Air Force Base range. Historically, the most favorable outcome that the absolute best RAF pilots could manage when flying against F-15Cs was a draw. However, when the RAF introduced a datalink in the form of Link-16, U.K. 29 Squadron pilots, flying with new innovative tactics, were able to increase their kill ratio over the F-15C equipped with voice-only communications to approximately 4-to-1.

The power of information sharing to increase survivability and lethality in the air-to-air mission was substantiated by the Air Force again in the mid-1990s during a joint tactical information distribution system (JTIDS) operational special project. Air Force pilots flying F-15Cs with and without datalinks clearly demonstrated an order of magnitude increase in information sharing enabled by the datalinks. This operational special project consisted of hundreds of tactical engagements, ranging in size from two-versus-two to eight-versus-16 aircraft, which were conducted during day and night conditions. During the more than 12,000 sorties and more than 19,000 flying hours, the average kill ratio for F-15Cs equipped with datalinks increased by more than 150 percent over F-15Cs fighting with voice-only communications, according to a JTIDS operational special project report to Congress.

An analysis of the growing body of evidence highlights a very strong relationship between information advantage, cognitive advantage and increased lethality and survivability at the tactical level. It shows that these relationships are not unique to the air-to-air mission but rather that they were demonstrated first in this mission area as a result of the relative maturity of the application of networking technology in this arena.

This same story line of increased warfighting effectiveness enabled by networking has been played out in counter special operations forces mission Fleet Battle Experiment Delta; counter anti-access, Fleet Battle Experiment Foxtrot; multinational rapid reaction forces, Allied Command Europe Mobile Force–Land; and combined arms maneuver warfare, Division Capstone Exercise–Phase I (DCX-I).

During DCX-I, the blue force was digitized and networked to an unprecedented degree. Equally important, these forces were highly trained on this digital equipment and in many cases had developed new tactics, techniques and procedures to leverage their improved capability to operate in the information domain. The digitized and networked ground forces demonstrated significantly improved warfighting capabilities and were able to prevail over the opposing forces in a number of engagements.

For example, during one phase of the exercise, the blue force was in a defensive posture with the opposing force moving to contact under the cover of darkness. A significant column of armor was detected by the joint surveillance target attack radar system and positively identified as hostile by a Hunter unmanned aerial vehicle, Col. Fred Stein, USA (Ret.), explains. An analysis of the real-time blue ground picture indicated that the attacking opposing force column was located approximately 10 miles from the brigade combat team’s defensive positions. The brigade commander, in consultation with the division commander, decided to engage the hostile force, and the fire mission was assigned to close air support. At this point, the engagement departed from the usual script, which had been characterized in the past by some as an exercise in futility, according to an internal correspondence from the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center.

F-16s and A/OA-10s of the Arizona Air National Guard equipped with the situational awareness data link (SADL) performed a close-air-support mission. The networking of these aircraft enabled them to exchange real-time targeting information as well as to receive and display a forward trace of the blue ground picture. The result of this networking was more than an order of magnitude improvement in the ability of ground and air forces to share information.

In addition to being equipped with SADL, the F-16s were equipped with Lightening II targeting pods and a mixed weapons load of GBU-12s and AGM-65D Mavericks. The Forward Air Controller–Airborne (FAC-A) determined that employing the F-16s as a coordinated pair would maximize combat power. In engaging the ground targets, the A/OA-10 FAC-A identified targets of interest and distributed sensor points of interest over SADL to facilitate sensor cueing by the F-16’s Lightening II targeting pod. Employing these tactics enabled each wave of two-ship pairs to engage tanks selectively and avoid dropping ordnance on less significant targets.

The battle damage assessment of the first wave of F-16s was “two battalions rendered combat ineffective.” Follow-on flights of F-16s were equally lethal, according to the Air National Guard correspondence. The net result of this engagement was that this phase of the training exercise had to be recocked to enable ground forces to accomplish their training objectives for hasty defense and counterattack successfully, Col. Stein says. This transformation of close air support at night from an exercise in futility to devastatingly effective combat highlights the efficacy of network-centric warfare.

The impact of digitization and networking on the combined arms fight, specifically the impact of digital close air support, is described in an Army evaluation of DCX-I. “The National Training Center is a playing field that often humbles the visiting team,” it reports. “However, during the U.S. Army’s Division Capstone Exercise–Phase I, the visiting team, in the form of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, supported by elements of the U.S. Air Force, including elements of the Arizona Air National Guard, were able to leverage the power of an order of magnitude increase in information sharing to turn the tables on the opposing forces on at least two occasions. Of particular significance was a devastating defeat of opposing forces at night by F-16 and A/OA-10 aircraft performing the close-air-support mission.”

Worldwide, militaries are crafting their individual responses to the challenges and opportunities of the information age. They are taking actions that demonstrate an increased understanding of the sources of information age warfighting advantage. A new vocabulary has developed that reflects the subtle variations in underlying strategies and core missions of militaries worldwide. To varying degrees, these actions also are reflected in emerging concepts and doctrine, focused investments in key enablers and well-crafted programs of experimentation.

Besides network-centric warfare, currently used by the armed forces of the United States, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, other coined terms include Australia’s network-enabled warfare, the United Kingdom’s network-enabled capability, the Swedish armed forces’ network-based defense and the armed forces of the Republic of Singapore’s knowledge-based command and control. Each of these terms reflects its respective military’s ongoing response to the information age. Clearly, militaries worldwide are continuing to take a close look at network-centric warfare and related concepts for information age warfare. Evidently they like what they see.

John J. Garstka is the assistant director for concepts and operations in the Office of Force Transformation, Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has spoken and written extensively on the topic of warfare in the information age.

Additional information on network-centric warfare is available on the World Wide Web at

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