When Americans think about military power, they often associate our wars with iconic commanders like Grant, Eisenhower, Nimitz and Doolittle. They may also think about the famous weapons that helped win them: the P-51 Mustang fighter, the Essex-class aircraft carriers of World War II, and more recently the Abrams tank, F-117 stealth fighter and GPS-guided smart bombs.
Success against a technologically advanced enemy in the future will require us to think much differently — about both the tools we use in war and, more importantly, how they work together. In fact, the most important element of future combat will not necessarily be warships, combat vehicles, aircraft or satellites. It will be a battle network that connects them to work in unprecedented harmony.
Pentagon leadership and the heads of each of the military service branches have all come to the same conclusion: Data is the principal currency of future warfare. And the military that is able to collect, process and share data faster than opponents will hold a huge advantage.
Today, we can type out a text, forward an email or update a social media post on our phones, and it will appear on any other device via the network. Somehow, magically, the content is translated and shows up simultaneously, regardless of operating system or manufacturer. We need a similar level of connectivity and compatibility for our military at war.
We cannot yet share data in a seamless and simultaneous way between the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps or the Space Force. And the problem is actually worse. Weapons are built by defense contractors who often hold data as proprietary information. Very often the platform made by one contractor won’t communicate or share data with a system made by another. And the same often goes for sharing data with our allies and partners.
In military operations we use massive chat rooms and phone calls to bypass these restrictions. This sufficed in operations against insurgents or technologically inferior militaries — the kind we’ve fought since 9/11. But in the very near future, if confronted by advanced capabilities — the kind developed recently by Russia and China — this arrangement will prove too slow and a recipe for failure. To ensure continued American military superiority, we must build a comprehensive network to connect all of our weapons and troops in real time.
Consequently, the Department of the Air Force — both the Air Force and Space Force — has started cultivating such a battle network under the banner Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2 in military shorthand. Think of it as an ultra-secure combat internet on which the military equivalent of apps like Waze connect.
The network would leverage data, artificial intelligence and machine learning so that we know the location and movement of both friendly and enemy forces at all times. U.S. forces operating on land, sea, air, and in space and cyberspace — the major “domains” of modern warfare — will be able to share information continuously and call on each other when needed.
This is not some idea for the distant future. Working with industry and partners from the other military services, our team has been developing and testing the building blocks of this network over the last year. In a major operational demonstration last December, we linked up fighter aircraft, ground forces, naval vessels and satellites that had incompatible data and communications systems. Every four months, we are rolling out a new series of demonstrations connecting disparate equipment across the military in realistic scenarios.
Taking our cue from the tech startup culture, we accept that some failure is inevitable under an aggressive approach. But we would rather fail fast, learn and move forward. Given the growing capabilities of potential military adversaries, time is not on our side.
The Pentagon will need help from Congress and private industry to see this through. Familiar weapons systems that orbit, fly or sail are an easier “sell” on Capitol Hill and to the traditional defense companies that have long produced them. Networks and infrastructure do not always make compelling storylines, but our military will not be able to shoot, move or communicate across great distances without them. Unlike some of the commercial electronics we’ve mentioned, these highly sophisticated, secure and survivable capabilities don’t come cheap. So the department will need to retire some of our oldest weapons systems, most of which were designed and first fielded many decades ago to prepare for a different adversary and a different way of war.
Our innovation base has insights to show the art of the possible. America’s air and space defense industries, working with government and academia, broke the sound barrier, put a man on the moon, and created satellite communications and navigation. Today, firms like Lyft leverage sophisticated algorithms to operate in crowded cities, locate passengers in near-real time and ferry them with uncanny precision, even enabling each user to become a sensor on the network.
Our battle network team brought on key commercial innovation pioneers, such as one of the leading artificial intelligence designers of Uber to help us understand some of these challenges and opportunities as we build a network architecture much more complex and consequential to the security of our country.
None of this comes without a cost and without some levels of risk. But history suggests dramatic progress is possible. Indeed, the military history of the last century shows that success on the battlefield goes to those willing to make a break from the familiar conventions and invest their resources and reputations in the future.
We are committed to moving forward with our fellow joint chiefs. With help from private industry and Congress, we can do it once again.
Gen. David Goldfein is the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, and Gen. Jay Raymond is the chief of space operations.