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President's Commentary: The Evolution From Caveman Combat to JADC2

By Lt. Gen. Susan S. Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

Throughout the history of warfare, one capability has remained central to operational success: the need to decide and act before the enemy does. This was the case when combat was conducted with clubs and stones, and it remains so today.

That act-and-decide process is known as the OODA loop, meaning the observe, orient, decide and act cycle, which U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd first applied to combat operations. The OODA loop illustrates that agility can outmatch raw power.

One might argue that the fundamental capability fostered by Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2)—that ability to get inside the adversary’s OODA loop and decide and act faster—is nothing new. I suspect the first humans instinctively understood the fundamental need to act first.

Some of the earliest computer systems were used for military purposes, and computers could be described as the OODA loop’s missing link. The website for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, offers a timeline of computer usage. In 1941, Alan Turing and Harold Keen conceived the British Bombe, an electro-mechanical means of decrypting Nazi Enigma-based military communications. Then in 1944, the Colossus helped crack the complex Lorenz ciphers, providing clues to Germany’s intent and arguably shortening the war.

Two years later, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers building a Navy flight simulator perfected magnetic core memory, which became the primary form of high-speed, random-access memory until the mid-1970s.

Roughly five decades later, during my own career, the Army released the Digitization Master Plan aimed at transforming into a 21st Century force, Force XXI. Terms such as interoperability, computer network defense and common operating picture spread across the force. The 1990s brought increased emphasis on joint operations and attempts to develop joint systems such as the Joint Tactical Radio System. The 2000s saw the creation of the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet, a massive effort to consolidate about 6,000 networks.

Our early attempts at joint command and control on a digitized battlefield faced many challenges, a great deal of criticism and mixed success at best. But they exemplify the evolution of computer-enabled combat and illustrate the dire need to maintain pace with rapidly evolving technologies. Lessons learned include what not to do.  

Today, our military leaders envision a JADC2 environment in which data from every service enables commanders to decide in hours, minutes or even seconds rather than days. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, cyber weaponry, fifth-generation cellular, sensors, unmanned systems, zero trust and ultimately quantum computing could contribute to OODA loop dominance.

Some question the approach to JADC2. The services have individual budgets, priorities and cultures and pursue separate JADC2 efforts—the Army’s Project Convergence, the Air Force’s Air Battle Management System and the Navy’s Project Overmatch. Questions are fair and necessary, and debate is healthy, but the degree of cooperation and support for JADC2 is unprecedented in my experience.

Officials recognize we are not alone in pursuing OODA loop dominance. China’s vision for multidomain precision warfare is practically a copy-and-paste of our JADC2 plans.

The question is how long that cooperation and support can last. Unlike China’s monolithic, authoritarian government controlling everything within its borders, our own government can be messy. Leadership changes and other factors can dramatically slow this much-needed transformation.

In this age of competition between major powers, it is imperative that we adopt emerging technologies to advance all forms of influence and power across all domains of operation in support of national security needs. The current National Security Strategy recognizes that “U.S. military strength is only as secure as its core technological strength.”

Above all else, we need strong leadership and continuity of vision, effort and teamwork in the years to come. Without it, we risk our adversaries rapidly evolving and gaining OODA loop superiority.