WASHINGTON — The United States’ adversaries will likely target the communications abilities vital to multi-domain operations in a future war, and military commanders will have to be ready to operate during such disruptions, experts said Wednesday.
The U.S. military’s ability to fight a network-integrated war, in which it can use vast arrays of sensors, satellites and communications nodes to deliver large amounts of integrated firepower, is one of its key advantages, said Andrew Metrick, a defense fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
But potential adversaries such as China and Russia have zeroed in on that as a key ability they would need to take out or disrupt in a fight against the U.S., Metrick said during a panel for the C4ISRNET Conference.
“We should take it as a given that in places, our communications are going to break and fail,” Metrick said. “When your adversary is as focused and as capable as [China] appears to be, you should not take it as a given that you will have the same degree of comms freedom that you had when that domain was not being tested.”
Adversaries’ advancements in jamming and electronic warfare capabilities have made it necessary for the military to look at a “decentralized” approach to some operations, said Matt Farmer, an analyst for the operational level doctrine division at the Army’s Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate.
The strong networking and communications systems of the American armed forces can provide a significant advantage during war, Farmer said – but the way the military fights can’t always depend on those communication lines remaining up.
“We know that the battlefield, now and in the next five to seven years, we’re going to be experiencing this degraded communications environment,” Farmer said. “We have to be able to operate when you don’t have perfect communications or perfect information.”
If a unit cannot act autonomously, and its effectiveness on the battlefield depends on talking to a command post to get permission to fire weapons or coordinate with other forces, Metrick said, that operational concept will collapse.
“How we think about how those units are able to still maneuver and generate effects in a degraded environment is crucial,” Metrick said.
In addition to developing resilient communications systems that can withstand enemy attacks, Metrick said, the Defense Department needs to create “nodal,” almost self-contained systems. These units need to be able to operate largely on their own across battlefield domains, while only having sporadic, low-quality contact back to command posts, he said, though he acknowledged doing that will be difficult.
Metrick said the war in Ukraine has shown how important it is to have a flexible networking construct, though he cautioned not all lessons would apply in a potential U.S. war in the Indo-Pacific region.
Ukraine has taken advantage of resources such as Starlink satellites and ground terminals to help manage command and control. Kyiv’s forces also have used a variety of small drones to beat back Russia’s invasion, he said.
“It’s very much a bootstrapped approach [in Ukraine], but it’s effective,” Metrick said. “In a lot of ways, you can glean things about the importance of tactical flexibility, about agility, and about the unique combinations of capabilities that produce asymmetric effects from the Ukraine example.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.