Probing the Fragility of JADC2
The Defense Department’s vision of a totally connected networked force worries some experts.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off on the U.S. Defense Department’s first-ever strategy for Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, giving his imprimatur to an ambitious vision of a fully networked U.S. military.
JADC2 aims to provide rear-echelon commanders with continuous connectivity to front-line sensors, providing real-time data and offering an unassailable decision advantage to U.S. forces.
On the digitally managed battlefield envisaged by JADC2, autonomous vehicles and networked weapons would be remotely controlled via cloud-based AI-enabled software, so that a coordinated attack by land, sea, air and cyber forces can be launched with the swipe of a finger.
But there’s growing unease among outside observers—technology experts and military scholars—who fret that JADC2 relies too heavily on globe-spanning continuous high bandwidth connectivity that may not be there in a real conflict with a peer adversary.
And there’s also concern about the ability of the Pentagon to enforce interoperability and compatibility requirements to ensure that the different military services’ technology can all work together.
“In theory, JADC2 is a great idea,” says Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow in the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security who previously was a strategic adviser at the Defense Department.
“But in practice, once you get out into the field, and once you meet with an adversary that’s got sophisticated cyberspace, counter space and electromagnetic spectrum [EMS] warfare capabilities, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to do.”
“It’s simply unrealistic,” adds Mark Seip, senior principal for strategic initiatives with The MITRE Corporation’s Center for Data-Driven Policy—an internal think tank at the federal research and development nonprofit.
Seip, who was previously a senior analyst in the office of then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, highlights how the Defense Department PowerPoint presentations “illustrate the all-seeing, all-connected design of JADC2” using beams of light or lightning bolts to show data flowing to and from the various sensors, weapons systems and command centers.
“The reality is, they’re fragile,” he says of those connections, vulnerable to attacks via the electromagnetic spectrum, in cyberspace, and crucially in outer space, too.
“Even in the best of times,” like the uncontested EMS and cyber superiority that U.S. forces enjoyed during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was sometimes a “struggle to be linked up and to share information in a timely manner,” adds Seip. “In an environment where your adversary’s actively targeting that connectivity, I think it is going to be very, very challenging.”
Lt. Gen Dennis Crall, USMC, the man who, as J-6 director and chief information officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is responsible for providing the technology that will actually make JADC2 work, recently acknowledged, “Our current network is too fragile to meet the demands of JADC2.”
Moreover, Seip points out, there’s no guarantee yet that those connections will even work across domains. Each service is pursuing its own approach to JADC2, the Army’s Project Convergence; the Navy’s Project Overmatch; and the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System. Each employs its own data standards and taxonomy tailored to its own requirements.
At AFCEA Hawaii’s TechNet Indo-Pacific in March, Gen. Crall declared data standardization—trying to force all the services to follow the same rules—“a fool’s errand.”
“There is going to be diversity [in data formats and quality]; you have got to embrace the diversity,” he said.
Later that month, he explained what that meant. “This is really about a federated data fabric to make this work.” A federated approach involves building some kind of a translation function so that each of the service’s data frameworks can be made usable by the others’.
A federated data fabric, said Tim Grayson, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Strategic Technology Office, means “not waiting for the Big Bang moment where everything can just drop into a single common network.” He said one approach DARPA is piloting, called Dynamo, creates a software-defined virtual network “that layers over the top of ... heterogeneous legacy tactical networks, so it can make a [single] fabric of a whole number of different tactical networks.”
To the warfighter, “it appears almost like they’re using the Internet,” explained Grayson, with the legacy networks being visited like websites.
But governance is the key to the success of federated data approaches, and in the Defense Department governance can be “very, very challenging,” says Seip. “It requires a lot of leadership attention and horsepower” to push through service bureaucracy inertia.
The JADC2 strategy, according to Gen. Crall, identifies two channels for enforcement ensuring new weapons systems and other technology meet governance standards. On the military side, Gen. John Hyten, USAF, deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chairs the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, or JROC. On the civilian end, Kathleen Hicks, deputy defense secretary, convenes the Deputy’s Management Action Group, or DMAG, bringing together key leaders from the service departments.
“They each have a hammer to swing,” notes Seip, “and if they swing them in unison, they might be able to make some magic happen. But it’s an uphill battle.”
Another challenge Gen. Crall acknowledges for JADC2 is its reliance on EMS superiority. That’s something, he suggested, that U.S forces have come to take for granted: “We really were too soft, not making the progress we need to understand the reliance not only for ourselves but for our adversary in that [EMS] space.”
“EMS superiority is really a really big deal to China and Russia,” says Dougherty, adding they have spent 30 years watching and learning from U.S. military operations and have developed—and published—concepts of warfare that explicitly rely on disrupting U.S. EMS operations.
“Once you go into combat, and systems start to move and start to maneuver, they start using the electromagnetic spectrum more because you’re not sitting down at a computer terminal,” Dougherty explains. EMS is the “connective tissue” for networked warfare—“you can do cyber attacks in the electromagnetic spectrum; you can attack space through the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Indeed, space is a major source of the fragility of JADC2, its critics charge. “Physics and geography in the Western Pacific … are very demanding,” says Seip, noting that with the huge distances involved, there’s little alternative to space-based communications to keep the rear echelon in the loop.
But “space is still really, really vulnerable to all different sorts of attacks” ranging from jamming or dazzling through directed energy and cyber intrusions all the way up to kinetic attacks like ASAT missiles or orbital colliders, points out Dougherty. “You’re depending on a very, very vulnerable link if you’re trying to connect people across distances in space.”
But paradoxically, space’s growing ubiquity has in some ways added to its resilience.
Fifteen years ago, Dougherty recalled, U.S. red teams emulating the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, in war games would almost invariably begin with a massive all-out assault on U.S. space capabilities—despite the incalculable knock on effects, which might destroy other satellites, even Chinese ones. “They were willing to say, ‘Okay, if we both lose space, that’s way worse for you, American commander, than it is for me,’ and make that move.”
But the balance sheet on space for America’s adversaries has changed over the past decade-and-a-half, he says. China, for example, now has a globalized economy just as dependent on space assets (albeit largely different ones) as the United States. “They really don’t want to just destroy space altogether because it would be so harmful to their own interests,” Dougherty notes.
Both Russia and China would now have to weigh the possible cascading effects of kinetic space strikes, Dougherty points out. “Space architecture is not just a U.S. architecture; it’s a global architecture.” Both Russia and China “want to fight limited regional conflicts over things that are hugely important to their regimes,” like Taiwan or Russia’s “near abroad” sphere of influence and will likely aim to isolate the United States from its allies. Destroying global satellite architecture won’t help that goal. America’s adversaries “understand they are unlikely to prevail in an all-out global conflict … They’re not suicidal,” Dougherty says.
Unfortunately, he adds, peer adversaries can effectively counter U.S. space assets using only limited, reversible or non-debris forming attacks like jamming, dazzling and cyber.
“This is a really, really hard thing to do,” Dogherty says of JADC2. “I think there’s a fair degree of skepticism that’s warranted.”
Seip says the reality of multidomain operations is that for units on the front line, “There will be times when they have absolutely no idea what’s going on” because they lack connectivity up the chain of command. For the rear echelon, there will likely be recurring data “brownouts” as links go down and narrower bandwidth alternatives are temporarily stood up.
Networked concepts like JADC2 can still work for the U.S military in the chaos and fog of war with a peer adversary, says Seip, as long as operational units have the organic capabilities they require to fight through the loss of long-range connectivity. “If you’re a carrier group [you don’t want] your long-range refueling capability or some piece of your SIGINT capability relying on that link back to home base,” which is going to be constantly under attack and unreliable.
“It’s also about providing tactical units the ability to generate the information that they need on their own, process it on their own, and communicate it [locally] on their own,” Seip says.
Units also need to train for the reality, not the dream. Seip frets that training for a denied communications situation is just one of a long checklist of objectives and often gets short shrift. And units from different services—let alone from allied militaries—rarely get to train together.
“Joint units don’t tend to train together until we’re actually on deployment or right ahead of it,” adds Seip. “Joint integrated training must happen at the unit training level much earlier.”