Capt. Jesse Sloman, USMCR
Defense future of war entry
The best way to predict the
future of warfare is to look to its past.
Major battles in the 21st century will be confusing and
disorganized affairs more similar to the clashes of a pre-digital age than the
‘network-centric' combat we've become accustomed to. A new generation of
offensive technology targeting the electromagnetic spectrum -- systems such as
cyberweapons, electronic jammers, anti-satellite missiles, and electromagnetic
pulse (EMP) munitions -- will deprive militaries of the sensor and
communications links they rely on. Forget 24-hour streaming video from a
Predator drone. Armies of the future may struggle just to use their radios.
Taken together, these technologies will strip away many of the
capabilities the United States and other first-generation militaries now take
for granted. The Department of Defense has spent decades pursuing
‘full-spectrum dominance' -- an all-seeing, all-knowing vision of battlefield
control that relies on constant bandwidth-intensive communications and
ubiquitous surveillance to give commanders a crystal clear picture of friendly
and enemy forces. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is often cited as the prototypical
example of this method of warfare, a campaign about which it's been said that
U.S. officers knew more about the disposition of the Iraqi army than Saddam himself.
Instead, on a conventional 21st century battlefield, senior
officers will have to re-learn how to conduct operations with communications
and intelligence capabilities reminiscent of wars fought a half-century ago.
Drones will go blind and crash as their satellite links are severed. Aircraft
and ships will get lost when their Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers go
dead (and their crews struggle to remember the map and compass skills they were
briefly exposed to in basic training). Leaders will struggle to communicate
with their subordinate units, leaving perplexed junior officers alone and
exposed, with no links to higher command, facing the enemy the way their
forefathers did at Belleau Wood, Bastogne, or Hagaru-ri.
We've already gotten some isolated previews of what's to come.
In 2007, Syria's air defense system was disabled by an Israeli military
cyberattack long enough to allow warplanes to strike a partially completed
nuclear reactor. The specific details of the incident are still unclear, but there is little doubt that Syrian radar operators had
their scopes disabled by some type of electronic attack.
According to Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, the head of Navy Fleet
Cyber Command, we are also seeing a "great convergence between the [electromagnetic] spectrum and
the cyber world." Thanks to modern microchip technology, old-fashioned
electromagnetic jammers now have the capability to spoof radar receivers with
digitally recorded copies of their own transmissions. They can also insert viruses into a network from a standoff distance, providing a new means
of gaining access for cyberattacks.
The proliferation of anti-satellite weapons, just a few of which
can degrade or destroy space-based communications and navigation networks, also
has the Pentagon worried. China's successful 2007 test of a kinetic kill vehicle provided a wake-up call to the world
that relatively simple rocket technology can be modified to create a satellite
killer for which there is currently no effective countermeasure. The impact of degrading
or destroying the satellite constellations used by a modern military would be
enormous. So many capabilities are critically reliant on these networks, from
phone calls to vehicular navigation, that many militaries would have difficulty
functioning at a basic peacetime level without them. The U.S. Air Force, for
example, no longer trains navigators in celestial sightings, a vitally
important skill for long overwater flights flown without a GPS.
The most potentially catastrophic threat is a high-altitude
electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) generated by a nuclear warhead detonated at or
above 100,000 feet. At such heights, the electromagnetic radiation created by
the nuclear explosion would be capable of disrupting, damaging, or destroying
any solid-state electronic system within its line-of-sight, including on
satellites. Due to its altitude, the effects of a HEMP are non-lethal. The
weapon can be employed without the catastrophic effect of a nuclear explosion
near ground level. Major General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the Marine Corps
representative to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, describes the HEMP
threat as being a "challenge [to] the very heart of our operational doctrine
and national stability," and asserts that "it could change the character of a
theater war from that of a Desert Storm to a Verdun."
There are a few caveats worth mentioning. The first is that the most
debilitating technologies -- HEMPs and anti-satellite weapons -- are also the
most provocative and therefore the least likely to be used. It's one thing to
jam someone's radar or launch a cyberattack, but shooting down a satellite or
detonating a nuclear bomb represent such clear violations of international
norms that no leader will undertake these actions lightly. As a result, the
full scope of the electromagnetic threat may not be realized in any
circumstance short of a major theater war. Secondly, at some point, the
pendulum will swing away from offense and back towards defense as militaries
field countermeasures to the systems described above and claw back the ability
to operate freely within the electromagnetic spectrum.
Today, however, most first-generation armed forces, including
America's, are woefully underprepared for the full array of challenges they
will face in a medium- to high-intensity conflict with a near-peer competitor.
For the U.S. military -- the global force most reliant on networked sensors and
technology -- the good news is that they've fought like this before and they
can do it again. The bad news is that it will entail a long process of
painfully relearning the bloody lessons of the past.
Jesse Sloman is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and a member of
the Truman National Security Project's Defense Council.
Tom note: Send along your thoughts on the Future
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